Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Saga of John Wesley: The Originator of Holiness Theology

John Wesley
Few leaders can match the zeal, passion, and commitment of the great John Wesley. He was a man of whom God worked through in mighty ways. He was a dreamer of dreams, and a visionary who dared to believe he could be “a real Christian.” John Wesley though coming a bit after the Reformation is as Hugh T. Kerr put it, “Standing majestically alone, towering head and shoulders above his contemporaries, John Wesley also belongs, theologically, within the Reformation movement, broadly defined” (Kerr, 1966, p. 190). John Wesley brought forward incredibly important doctrines within the church movement of his time, including grace, repentance, sanctification, and Christian perfection. He set his heart and mind to bring about a revival in his time in England and achieved just that. He started the famed holy club, which gathered believers together to discuss in deep ways how to practice their faith. He and his brother Charles developed deep discipleship and accountability in these groups. John Wesley championed the cause of Arminian theology in his time, bringing this theology to millions, helping it to become a common understanding of the Bible, as common as reformed theology. Overall, John Wesley massively shaped the world he lived in and indeed, the world we live in today.

John Wesley was born in 1703 to his parents Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Samuel was a minister and part of the non-conformist movement, a movement that had broken away from the Anglican church of England. John was the second of 19 siblings. Susanna raised the children in a vigorously Christian fashion, teaching doctrine and theology to her children, and engaging in regular prayer with them. As a child John Wesley’s house once caught fire and he was trapped inside and nearly killed, but jumped from the second floor to escape the flames and survived. Later he would refer to himself and this incident as him, “being a brand plucked from the fire.”

John attended Charterhouse school in London and later attended Christ Church at Oxford University. This was in 1720. He graduated Oxford in 1724 and he was later given the title of bishop, and was elected as a fellow at Lincoln college. He assisted his father for a time, and was finally ordained as a priest in 1728.

It was in October of 1729 that John Wesley would join his brother Charles at Oxford, and join Charles “holy club” or what was referred to as “methodism” by detractors of the group. John took charge of the group from his brother and the group grew rapidly. The holy club would practice regularly taking communion, study of the word, daily prayer, and committed to fast twice a week. The holy club members met three hours a day, studying the Bible and other devotional literature. The holy club also would practice social work, such as visiting prisoners and providing food and clothing to those in need.

Following John Wesley’s experiences with leading the holy club, he decided he would travel with his brother Charles to Georgia in the new world, in 1735. Wesley left with high hopes, but unfortunately, he found his visit to Georgia to be largely unfruitful.

Upon returning to England, John was struggling with his faith. He felt he had never been truly converted. But then one night to he went to a meeting at Aldergate street where he had a powerful experience. He recounts it this way in his journal:

"In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Later after this experience John Wesley would join George Whitefield, another previous member of the holy clubs at Oxford university, and they began preaching outdoors to crowds of many poor working-class people of the time. This led to many dramatic conversions. John Wesley took the reigns of the movement but found himself increasingly at odds with George Whitefield who was a firm Calvinist. John Wesley himself was an Arminian and found himself at odds with the Calvinist idea of predestination and the concept that all believers must remain mired in sin in this life. Eventually the two preachers parted company.

As many began joining the movement that centered around Wesley, they at first met in homes, but once these groups became too large, Wesley organized them into band and class groups. Class groups had a total of eleven members with one leader. They would meet once a week to engage in prayer, the study of the word, to gather money to help the needy, and to conduct various social work.

Though John Wesley was always a member of the Anglican church, and an ordained priest of the Anglican church, the Methodist movement began to take on a character of it’s own over time. The movement grew and grew because of John’s constant itinerant preaching, often preaching to massive crowds in open fields. John Wesley in his life traveled over four thousand miles on horseback and preached over 40,000 sermons. Wesley was an astute record keeper, so we know at his death exactly how many pastors, missionaries, and church members existed in England and the United States. According to Christianity Today (2008), “An indication of his organizational genius, we know exactly how many followers Wesley had when he died: 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries (5 in mission stations), and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers. Today Methodists number about 30 million worldwide.”

John Wesley’s life and thought was extremely important to the reformation because he built and developed the lane of theology through which Arminians would walk into the coming centuries. Without Wesley continuing the work and thought of Jacobus Arminius, there might’ve only been a Lutheran and Calvinist reformation, but there would’ve been no remaining continued lane for Arminian theology to prosper and flourish. Wesley also brought forward the incredibly important doctrine of entire sanctification and Christian perfection. Can one fully imagine a world without these core truths? Wesley changed the face of English Christianity forever, and indeed he also changed the face of American Christianity forever. Today there are over thirty million Methodists in the world. His theology influenced what would become Wesleyan churches, Methodist churches, and The Salvation Army. Anglican churches as well were deeply influenced by Wesley. Wesley was an Arminian, but championed holiness theology, the concept that believers can live lives of victory over sin and could live holy in Christ. These truths are so incredibly foundational to Christianity in the Protestant vein that one can hardly consider what Christianity might be like today without them. Truly, John Wesley changed the world through the holy clubs, the Methodist movement, his many sermons, his organizational skills and his firm desire to be “a Real Christian.”

References

Collins, K. J., & Vickers, J. E. (2013). The Sermons of John Wesley: A collection for the Christian journey. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Green, J. B., & Willimon, W. H. (2009). The Wesley Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

John Wesley. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wesley

Person. (2008, August 08). John Wesley. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/john-wesley.html

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