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  • Writer's pictureDarrell Stetler II

An Introduction to John Wesley's Theology & Impact

INtroduction to John wesley's life, theology, and impact.jpg

John Wesley's Pre-Conversion Education & Ministry

John Wesley was born into the home of an Anglican pastor in 1703, but did not understand the doctrine of justification by faith or find personal assurance of justification until 1738, after he had graduated from Oxford and had preached for several years. He observed that Scripture describes a personal, conscious faith as the basis for personal assurance, but said he would not believe that it is for all Christians unless he could meet living witnesses. He soon met living witnesses among the Moravians, who emphasized that genuine religion is internal and heart-felt.

John Wesley's "Aldersgate experience"

Soon after this meeting, as Wesley was with a group of friends on Aldersgate Street, listening to a reading of Luther’s preface to the book of Romans, he was enabled to put his faith in Christ alone for salvation. He said that his heart was “strangely warmed,” and he was conscious that his sins were forgiven. From that day on, he understood and preached the gospel of justification by faith.

Wesley’s pattern for life expressed his principle of total stewardship: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Wesley's Incredible Ministry Statistics

Besides graduating from Oxford with a Master’s degree, Wesley learned at least seven languages and read approximately 100 books every year. He rode 250,000 miles on horseback, equivalent to riding around the world ten times. It has been estimated that he preached 40,000 times. He often preached outside to crowds of more than 10,000. He frequently preached three times a day, and refused to let weather conditions affect his schedule. At age 72 he wrote in his diary that his health was better than it had been at age 40. He said the improvement was due to always rising at 4:00, preaching at 5:00 (“the best exercise”), and traveling 4,500 miles per year. Among other international trips, Wesley visited Ireland 42 times and Scotland 22 times. 

Controversies in Wesley's Ministry

In the course of his ministry, Wesley was attacked many times by mobs, and was known to have had to swim across a pond to escape. However, he seemed to have a special ability to turn leaders of mobs in his favor and quell the resistance. He wrote that it was his policy "always to look a mob in the face." He described special protection that God gave him at times, when bricks and other objects being thrown fell all around him without striking him.

Criticisms of Christian Perfection

Wesley was often criticized by the religious world for his doctrine of Christian perfection. Much of this criticism was based on misunderstanding. Wesley defined Christian perfection as love for God and man ruling all of one’s motives, words, and actions. If he seemed unconventional in this doctrine, it was simply because he took it further than those who only nominally affirmed it. Wesley expected that the believer could, by grace received through faith, actually meet God’s requirement of Christian perfection.

John Wesley's Lasting Impact

Through Methodist Small Groups

Much of Wesley’s long-term effectiveness was due to his organization of the Methodists into small groups. He first began this practice while he served as a missionary in Georgia, then a British colony. When he returned to Oxford, he joined a group of faculty and students who met regularly to study, cooperate in ministry, and attempt to live scriptural Christianity. Members of this group were the first to be called “Methodists,” when observers used this name to deride their strict methods of self-discipline.

Throughout Wesley’s ministry, every Methodist was a member of a local society. These societies were further divided into classes so that leaders could hold members accountable for their spirituality and behavior. Other special groups called bands were organized to help members who were seeking greater spirituality or more complete spiritual victory. The members of the classes and bands provided accountability and edification for one another that was not available through any other means.

Through Wesley's Prolific Publishing

Wesley has been called “The Father of the Religious Paperback,” because he produced 5,000 various writings for common people. He said his purpose was to provide plain truth for plain people. He published a 50-volume set of writings from Pietists, Puritans, Anglicans, and church fathers, which he edited extensively. He also published a magazine called The Arminian. 

Through Wesley's passionate stewardship and generosity

Wesley used the profits from his writings to relieve poverty. He lived on 28 pounds a year and used all else for ministry. Much of his preaching of plain dress and frugal living was in the context of a country where many were suffering in poverty. His income from his publishing increased to £1,400 per year (over $250,000 per year in today's money!), but he still lived on his original 28 pounds per year. He taught the reasons why in various sermons which will be covered in this series.

Through Methodism's spread to America

At Wesley’s death in 1791, there were 79,000 Methodists in England and 40,000 in America. 

There are modern movements who still hold to the distinctives of Wesley, but they are not necessarily the denominations that have the term Methodist in their name. Many of the actual denominations which have "Methodist" in their name, now have little in common with Wesley. Wesley is represented today by an assortment of denominations, schools, and individual churches that still adhere to his doctrines and apply the same principles to standards of Christian living.

Wesley’s Theological Roots

Like the Reformers, Wesley believed in the supreme authority of Scripture. Like Anglican thinkers such as Hooker, Wesley believed that reason, tradition, and experience together make a balanced approach to interpreting the Bible. 

Like Roman Catholics, Wesley believed that the tradition of the early church fathers was a valuable aid to understanding the Bible. By early Eastern Christian writers, Wesley was influenced to see a process involved in reaching Christian perfection.

John Wesley's view on Calvinism & Pelagianism

Wesley’s theology resolved the Augustinian-Pelagian debate. Like Augustine and Calvin, he believed in the seriousness of inherited depravity and the utter helplessness of man to choose right apart from God's grace; but, in contrast, he believed that God's prevenient grace reaches every person, enabling free will and the desire to obey God. He said that if a person is lost, it is not because he has no grace but because he does not use the grace he has. Like Arminius, Wesley believed that the origin of sin is in the misuse of free will, permitted but not decreed by the sovereignty of God.

John Wesley and Mysticism

Wesley was interested in Christian mystics because of their emphasis on genuine religious experience and inward religion and holiness. However, he was concerned about their tendency to withdraw from the world, their criticism of any means of grace (ways in which believers may prepare themselves to receive God’s grace), and their neglect of works of service to others. He called mysticism the rock on which he almost made shipwreck.

Pietism's influence on Wesley

Pietism influenced Wesley strongly, especially through the Moravians. It was through them that he was led to believe in a divine assurance of personal salvation. He considered Herrnhut a model Christian community. Their influence may also be seen in his tolerance of differences and emphasis on unity arising from the basis of inward, genuine faith and commitment. However, he criticized their underemphasis of the sacraments and their view of completed holiness at justification, which practically excluded all expectation of growth. 

Why Is John Wesley's Theology relevant?

Wesley never tried to be an original theologian. He insisted that anything essentially new in religion is essentially false. He sought always to speak as the Scripture speaks, and to apply his doctrines to real Christian experience. It is because of this carefulness that his work has lasting value, and his voice should be heard again in this generation.

This is a series of posts from the book A Timeless Faith:  John Wesley for the 21st Century by Dr. Stephen Gibson. These writings are used by permission from the author, and may not be reproduced for profit without prior written consent.


About the Author:

Dr. Stephen Gibson is president of Evangelistic Faith Missions and director of Holiness Pilgrim Mission. He is married, with six children and eight grandchildren.

His ministry has included pastoring, foreign mission work, Bible college teaching and administration, Christian school teaching and administration, and writing. He pastored Victory Chapel, a diverse inner-city church in Indianapolis, for five years.  

He lived in Ukraine with his family for five years and served Kiev Wesley Bible College in the roles of professor, academic dean, and president. During that time he also taught classes at other colleges and preached in churches in Ukraine and Russia.

He graduated from Union Bible College with a Th.B., from Wesley Biblical Seminary with an M.A. in Theology, from Louisiana Baptist University with an M.A. in Biblical Studies, and from Grace Theological Seminary with a D. Min.

Books written by Gibson include The Prosperity Prophets; Steps of Grace; The Sincerity of God: A Demonstration of the Wesleyan Promise Hermeneutic; Help from the Little Red Hen: Reversing Poverty with Responsibility; and Cultivate: A Discipleship Lesson Series.

Books edited by Gibson include I Believe: Fundamentals of the Christian Faith and A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century.

Gibson is a board member and writer for Shepherds Global Classroom.  His courses include Christian Beliefs, Faith Traditions of the World, Biblical Evangelism and Discipleship, and Ministry Leadership.

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