John Wesley on the "Character of a Methodist"
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
I’m currently enrolled in a seminary class at Wesley Biblical Seminary, on the Theology of John Wesley. The class has brought me back to some writings of Wesley that I am thrilled to revisit. Specifically, this week, I read Wesley’s essay on “The Character of a Methodist.” You can follow the link to read the essay in full.
“The Character of a Methodist” is representative of at least 3 of the dozen reasons that I love John Wesley’s writings.
Reason #1: Wesley is claiming for Methodists a high standard of holy behavior.
It seems as though in today’s cynical culture, most religious groups tend to dampen expectations that the culture may place on the representatives of their group. The prevailing attitude seems to be “well, we’re all just human, so don’t expect too much — we’re just fellow strugglers trying to learn to live better.”
Yet Wesley seems to run as hard as he can from this sort of celebration of low expectations. Reading his list of claims about Methodist character is nothing short of remarkable! Are not his claim of a Methodist who measures up to this many admonitions and commands of Scripture shockingly counter-culture in our day?
There is room to debate why this resonated culturally, and whether the same attitude and claims would be well-received in our day of well-publicized evangelical failures.
But it is most remarkable, and refreshing.
Reason #2: Wesley is calling Methodists to a high standard of behavior.
While “The Character of a Methodist” certainly contains elements of promotion and polemic, it should not be missed that it was probably first purchased and read by Methodists. Thus, Wesley is first and foremost calling his own people to a standard of holy behavior!
Wesley’s writings were not primarily for theological argument, but for making disciples. Many of his published writings should be viewed primarily as New Christian discipleship tools.
When I was growing up, my dad would frequently reference some element of my behavior that was lacking, and then say, “You were born in the wrong family to do that.” Like a firm dad who deeply wishes to be proud, Wesley communicates his expectations of his people by speaking affirmatively about the character he wishes to see.
It is popular in the self-help literature of our day to create a list of “affirmations” to read (usually in the present tense), such as “I am enjoying writing 1,000 words per day.” These serve as reminders of aspirational values – character traits or disciplined actions we wish to see in ourselves. We may affirmatively state these things about ourselves as means of creating subconscious agreement on this preferred picture of our future.
I cannot help but notice that Wesley describes in
the kind of holy character he wishes to see in his people. I expect that he is writing affirmatively that which he desires – and expects! – to see when next he visits the Methodist Societies that are reading this tract.
Reason #3: Wesley is calling the entire church to aspire to be biblical Christians.
Far from attempting to create subcultural signals or uncommon behavioral mores, Wesley takes pains in the first few paragraphs to disclaim any of these things. He rejects special speech, or doctrinal uniqueness, or even social/ethical practices as the basis for Methodist character.
Then, in the final paragraphs, he specifically disclaims any sectarian spirit, but invites all God’s people to join hands together around the work of Christ in the sincere and purified heart. This view of reproducing the holiness of God in us as the “end” (goal) of religion is crucial for understanding Wesley’s theology.
I read it and say, “Here’s a man who cares very little about building an organization, but cares mightily about building a holy people.”
“Here’s a man who cares very little about building an organization, but cares mightily about building a holy people.”
Ultimately, Wesley’s “catholic spirit” that comes through in this piece (and others) is not a careless ecumenicism, but a robust call to the basics that ought to unite all God’s people in a whole-hearted pursuit of holiness.
Obviously, this description is “aspirational” in the sense that Wesley did not always find the societies in this good of a condition when he visited (as his journal attests). But he certainly intended to paint a picture of a person who demonstrated the fullness of the Holy Spirit!
If the evangelical church is to gather today in unity, there’s got to be a change of “gathering principles.”
I think that American Evangelicalism is badly in need of a new rallying point. I’d argue that we in the American evangelical movement have made our rallying point some mashup of “cultural conservatism” and “American exceptionalism” — while a desire for actual holiness has been relegated to the “someday/maybe” list.
What if American evangelical leaders publicly turned from this old way of creating unity, and started saying “here’s the character of a true evangelical — they care about being people of holiness“?
(This post reprinted from Darrell Stetler II's blog for small church pastors.)