In “Thoughts upon Methodism,” John Wesley wrote:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. (Wesley, Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527)
This post is the third in a series that explores the basics of Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent, especially focusing on the doctrine, spirit, and discipline that Wesley believed made Methodism a powerful movement of God. My first post emphasized that Wesleyans are more passionate about being Christian than about being Wesley, but that they do proclaim Christ with a recognizable accent. The second post discussed the doctrines that are at the heart of a Wesleyan proclamation of the gospel. This post considers the spirit that was essential to early Methodism.
So, what did Wesley mean when he urged Methodists to “hold fast” to the spirit with which they first set out?
Though it may seem to be the most difficult to define of the three, Wesley insists on including spirit with doctrine and discipline because right doctrine (belief) and right discipline (practice) are not enough in themselves. The key passage in “Thoughts upon Methodism” that gives insight into what Wesley meant by the spirit of Methodism is where he discusses the way that religion leads to increased productivity and frugalness, which leads to riches. He then turns from religion in general to Methodism in particular:
“How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, the religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay-tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionably increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away” (530).
In the last years of his life, Wesley was deeply concerned by the upward mobility of many Methodists, because he witnessed an increase in wealth leading to a transfer of loyalty from loving God and neighbor to riches.
But Methodists were people who were zealous, above all else, even to the exclusion of all else, for “holiness of heart and life” (529). Wesley worried about Methodists becoming rich because experience taught him that it was very rare that someone who became rich continued growing in love of God and neighbor. Instead, as people became rich, they tended to become more selfish and increasingly concerned with providing for themselves, instead of for others.
In “The Character of a Methodist”, Wesley described Methodism in a way that provides a nice description of his hopes for the spirit of a Methodist:
A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him’; one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength’. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is constantly crying out, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee!’ My God and my all! Thou are the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever! (BE, 9:35)
Christians who live and proclaim the gospel in a Wesleyan accent will do so in a way that evidences a deep and abiding love for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And we will do all that we can to help all people come to know and love the God who first loved them.
For Wesleyans, love of God instinctively leads to love of neighbor. And so, in the above essay, Wesley immediately moves from love of God to love of neighbor, “while he thus always exercises his love to God… he who loveth God, loves his brother also. And he accordingly ‘loves his neighbour as himself’; and loves every man as his own soul” (BE, 9:37).
Wesleyans not only believe in a God who wants to save us “to the uttermost,” we are desperate to know this God as fully and intimately as we can. Methodism is a “religion of the heart,” because it is not only beliefs and practices, but beliefs that are put into practice with the expectation that the living God can be known and experienced in our lives.
A Wesley spirit is an approach to Christianity that is enlivened moment by moment by the living God. Wesley described this in a moving passage in his sermon “The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God.” He described the “continual inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit,” where “God breathes into the soul, and the soul breathes back what it first receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, the re-action of the soul upon God; and unceasing presence of God.” (BE, 1:442)
Just as our physical lives are dependent on constantly breathing in oxygen, may the Holy Spirit breathe life into our souls each moment. And may this Spirit-breathed life enable us to respond with praise, thanksgiving, and faithful living.