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  • Writer's pictureDarrell Stetler II

THE NATURE OF FANATICISM - John Wesley's Sermon in Todays Language

Editor’s Note: This sermon was originally entitled “The Nature of Enthusiasm.” Because our understanding of the term enthusiasm has changed, the term fanaticism better expresses Wesley’s meaning. 

And Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself.” Acts 26:24.

Fanaticism Falsely Charged

So say all the men who do not know God, regarding those who follow Paul’s example as he followed Christ. There is a kind of religion which may be practiced without any such accusation, which is usually considered to be consistent with common sense. It is a religion of form, a set of outward duties performed in a conventional manner. You may add orthodoxy to it, a system of right opinions, and some amount of heathen morality; and still few will say, “Much religion has made you mad.” But if you speak of the religion of the heart, if you talk of “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit;” then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, “Thou art beside thyself [out of your mind].” 

The men of the world pay you no compliment with this statement. For once, they mean what they say. They actually believe that every man is beside himself, who says “the love of God is shed abroad in” his “heart by the Holy Spirit given unto him;” and that God has enabled him to rejoice in Christ “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” If a man is alive to God and dead to all things below; if he continually sees Him that is invisible, walking by faith and not by sight; then they consider it a clear case: “much religion has made him mad.” 

It is easy to observe the things by which the world recognizes madness: that utter contempt for all earthly things, and the steady pursuit of eternal things; that divine evidence of the unseen; that joy of being in God’s favor; that happy, holy love for God; and that testimony of His Spirit with our spirit that we are the children of God; that is, the whole spirit, and life, and power of the religion of Jesus Christ. 

They will agree that in other things this man acts and talks like he is a reasonable man. It is only in these instances that his head is touched. It is acknowledged then that the madness he has is of a particular kind; so they distinguish it by a particular name: fanaticism. 

Description of Fanaticism

This is a term which is frequently used, yet seldom understood even by those who use it most. It may be helpful, therefore, if I explain the meaning of this term and show what fanaticism is. It may serve as an encouragement to those who are wrongly accused of it; and may help some who are rightly accused of it; and still others who might become guilty, if they are not warned of it. 

As to the nature of fanaticism, it is a disorder of the mind which greatly hinders the exercise of reason. Sometimes it sets reason aside completely. It not only dims but shuts the eyes of the understanding. It may, therefore, be considered a kind of madness rather than foolishness. A fool is one who draws wrong conclusions from true premises; whereas a madman draws right conclusions, but from false premises. So does a fanatic. If his premises were true, his conclusions would be. But here is his mistake: his premises are false. He imagines himself to be what he is not. Therefore, by starting out wrong, the farther he goes, the more he loses his way. 

Every fanatic, then, is truly a madman. But in this case his madness has religion for its object. The fanatic usually speaks of religion, of God, or of the things of God; but in such a way that every reasonable Christian can discern his disorder. Fanaticism, generally speaking, may be defined in this way: a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God; or, at the very least, from expecting something from God which should not be expected from Him. 

Types of Fanaticism

There are countless types of fanaticism. Those which are most common, and therefore most dangerous, I will try to summarize under a few general categories. The first type of fanaticism I will mention is that of those who imagine they have the grace which they do not have. And so, some imagine, even though it is not true, that they have redemption through Christ, “even the forgiveness of sins.” These are usually ones who have no deep repentance or thorough conviction. “They receive the word with joy,” but “because they have no deepness of earth,” no deep work in their heart, the seed “immediately springs up.” There is a sudden superficial change, which, together with that joy, joins with the pride of their unbroken heart and their self-love, easily persuading them they have already “tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come.” 

This is an example of the first type of fanaticism. It is a kind of madness arising from the imagination that they have that grace which they do not have, so that they deceive their own souls. And it may be rightly termed madness, for the conclusions of these men would be right, if their premises were; but since their premises are created by their own imaginations, all that is built on them falls. The foundation of their thinking is this: they imagine themselves to have faith in Christ. If they had this, they would be “kings and priests to God!” possessing “a kingdom which cannot be moved.” But they do not have it; consequently, their behavior is as far from truth and soberness as that of the ordinary madman, who, believing himself to be an earthly king, speaks and acts accordingly. 

There are many other fanatics of this type, such as the fiery zealot for religion; or, more appropriately, for the opinions and modes of worship which he calls religion. This man also imagines himself to be a believer in Jesus, a champion of the holy faith that was given to the saints long ago. Accordingly, his conduct is based on that vain imagination. If his supposition were true, he might have an excuse for his behavior; but now it is too evidently the effect of a fevered brain, as well as a fevered heart. 

These fanatics who imagine themselves to be Christians abound, not only in all parts of our land but in most parts of the earth. It is undeniable that they are not Christians, if we are to believe the oracles of God. Christians are holy; these are unholy: Christians love God; these love the world: Christians are humble; these are proud: Christians are gentle, these are angry: Christians have the mind which was in Christ; these are far from it. Consequently, they are no more Christians than they are archangels. And yet they imagine themselves to be; and they can give several reasons for it: they have been called Christians ever since they can remember; they were christened many years ago; they embrace the Christian opinions that are popularly called the Christian faith; they use the Christian forms of worship as their fathers did before them; they live what is called a good Christian life, as the rest of their neighbors do. And who will dare to say that these men are not Christians? But what is a Christian without one grain of true faith in Christ, or of real, inward holiness; without ever having tasted the love of God or having been “made partakers of the Holy Spirit?” 

Poor self-deceivers! You are not Christians. You are fanatics in a high degree. Your whole life is fanaticism; based on the imagination that you have received that grace of God which you do not have. You blunder on day after day, playing a role that does not belong to you. From this arises that clear inconsistency that fills your entire behavior; which is an awkward mixture of real heathenism and imaginary Christianity. Yet, because you have such an overwhelming majority on your side, you will always shape popular opinion by mere force of numbers, leading the masses to believe that you are the only men in your right minds, and that everyone is a lunatic who is not as you are. But this does not change the nature of things. In the sight of God and His holy angels, and in the eyes of all the children of God here on earth, you are only madmen, merely fanatics! Are you not? Are you not walking in a shadow, a shadow of religion, a shadow of happiness? How long? Perhaps until death brings you back to your senses, to mourn your foolishness forever! 

A second type of fanaticism is that of those who imagine they have gifts from God that they do not have. Some have imagined themselves to have the power to work miracles, to heal the sick by a word or a touch, to restore sight to the blind, or even to raise the dead. Others have begun to prophesy, to foretell things with the greatest accuracy. But time usually convinces these fanatics. When facts run contrary to their predictions, experience shows them what reason could not, and brings them to their senses. 

To the same group belong those who, in preaching or prayer, imagine themselves to be influenced by the Spirit of God in a way that they are not. I realize that without Him we can do nothing, especially in our public ministry. I know that all our preaching is completely useless unless it is accompanied by His power; and our prayer is also, unless His Spirit strengthens our weaknesses. I know that if we do not both preach and pray by the Spirit, it is all wasted effort. But while there is a real influence of the Spirit of God, there is also an imaginary one, and many mistake one for the other. Many suppose themselves to be under that influence when it is far from them. And many others suppose they are more under that influence than they really are. This includes all those who imagine that God dictates the very words they speak; and that, consequently, it is impossible for them to speak anything wrong, either in content or manner. How many fanatics of this type have appeared during this century; some of whom speak in a more authoritative manner than St. Paul or any of the Apostles! 

The same kind of fanaticism is also found in men who are not preachers. They may likewise imagine themselves to be directed by the Spirit when they are not. It is true, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His;” and that if ever we either think, speak, or act rightly, it is through the assistance of that blessed Spirit. But how many expect things from Him without any rational or scriptural basis! These imagine that they receive specific directions from God, and not only in important things, but even in the most trivial circumstances of life. In these instances God has given us our own reason for a guide, though never excluding the unseen assistance of His Spirit.

People usually tend toward this kind of fanaticism if they expect to be directed by God in an extraordinary manner, either in spiritual things or in common life. By this I mean through visions or dreams, or by strong impressions or sudden impulses on the mind. I do not deny that God has, in the past, revealed His will in this manner, or that He can do so now. I believe he does in some very rare instances. But how frequently are men mistaken in this! How they are misled by pride and an active imagination to ascribe impulses or impressions, dreams or visions, to God, which are completely unworthy of Him! This is all pure fanaticism; as far from religion as it is from truth and soberness. 

Perhaps some may ask, “Should we not ask what the will of God is in all things? And should His will not be the rule which guides our practice?” Certainly it should. But how is a reasonable Christian to know the will of God? By waiting for supernatural dreams? By expecting God to reveal it in visions? By looking for any particular impressions or sudden impulses on his mind? No! It is only by consulting the oracles of God. This is the usual method of knowing what is “the holy and acceptable will of God.” 

“But how can I know the will of God in a particular case, when it is not specified in Scripture.” I answer, the Scripture gives you a general rule, which can then be applied to all particular cases: “The will of God is our sanctification.” It is His will that we should be inwardly and outwardly holy; that we should be good, and do good, in every way and to the highest degree that we are able. Here we walk on firm ground. This is as clear as the shining of the sun. In order, therefore, to know the will of God in a particular case, we only need to apply this general rule. 

Suppose, for example, it were proposed to a reasonable man to marry or to enter into a new business. In order to know whether this is the will of God, and being assured, “It is the will of God for me to be as holy and to do as much good as I can,” he needs only to ask, “In which of these states can I be most holy and do the most good?” This is to be determined partly by reason and partly by experience. Experience tells him what advantages he has in his present state, either for being or doing good; and reason will show which ones he will most likely enjoy in the proposed state. By comparing these, he may judge which of the two will most assist his being and doing good; and to the extent that he knows this, he can be certain of the will of God. 

In the meantime, the assistance of God’s Spirit is assumed during this whole process. It is not easy to say just in how many ways that assistance is given. He may remind us of many circumstances; may place some in a clearer light; may open our mind to receive conviction, and establish that conviction in our hearts. And along with the agreement of these circumstances, which confirms what is acceptable to Him, He may add such a peace of mind, and such a measure of His love, that we can have no doubt of His will. 

This is the clear, scriptural, rational way to know the will of God in a particular case. But considering how seldom this way is taken, and what a flood of fanaticism must rush over those who try to know the will of God by unscriptural, irrational means; the expression, “the will of God,” should be used more sparingly. Using it as some do, on the most trivial occasions, is a way of taking the name of God in vain, and shows great irreverence toward Him. Would it not be far better to use expressions that are not liable to such objections? For example, instead of saying, “I want to know what the will of God is;” would it not be better to say, “I want to know what will work for my improvement; and what will make me most useful?” This way of speaking is clear and unobjectionable. It places the matter on a clear, scriptural issue, without any danger of fanaticism. 

A third common type of fanaticism (perhaps like the former) is that of those who expect to attain a goal by the immediate power of God, without using the natural means of attaining it. If those means were unavailable, they would not fall under this accusation. God can, and sometimes does, exert His own immediate power in situations like this. But those who expect this when they have means and will not use them are fanatics. These expect to understand the Holy Scriptures without reading them and meditating on them and without using all available helps. These purposely speak in the public assembly without any forethought. I say purposely, because there may be circumstances that make this unavoidable. But whoever rejects preparation as a means of helping them speak beneficially is, to that extent, a fanatic. 

It may be expected that I should mention what some have considered to be a fourth type of fanaticism; that is, wrongly attributing things to the providence of God. But I do not know what things do not belong to the providence of God. I exclude nothing but sin; and even in the sins of others, I see the providence of God to me. I do not say, “His general providence;” for I consider this an expression that means nothing. And if there is a particular providence, it must extend to all persons and all things. Our Lord understood this, or He never would have said, “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered;” and, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground, without” the will of “your Father” which is in heaven. But if God rules over the whole universe as over every single person and over every single person as over the whole universe; what is it (except our own sins) which we are not to attribute to His providence? I cannot see any room here for the charge of fanaticism. 

If it is objected, “When you attribute this to providence, you imagine you are the favorite of heaven:” I answer, you have forgotten some of the words I have just spoken: “His providence is over all men in the universe, as much as over any single person.” Do you not see that he who believes this, and attributes anything which happens to him to providence, does not make himself any more the favorite of heaven than he supposes every man to be? Therefore you have no basis here to charge him with fanaticism. 

We must guard ourselves diligently against every sort of fanaticism, considering its dreadful effects. Its immediate offspring is pride; which continually increases the source out of which it flows; and so it alienates us more and more from the favor and life of God. It dries up the springs of faith and love, of righteousness and true holiness; seeing that all of these flow from grace: for “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” 

Along with pride there will naturally arise an unteachable spirit. So that into whatever error the fanatic falls, there is little hope for his recovery. Reason will have little weight with him who imagines he is led by a higher guide, the immediate wisdom of God. And as he grows in pride, so he must grow in unteachableness and in stubbornness also. He must be less and less capable of being convinced, less open to persuasion; more attached to his own judgment and his own will, until he is completely immovable.

Being fortified both against the grace of God, and against all advice from men, he is left to the guidance of his own heart, and of the king of the children of pride. It is no wonder, then, that every day he becomes more deeply rooted in his contempt for all mankind, in furious anger, in every unkind disposition, in every earthly and devilish temper. Neither can we wonder at the terrible outward effects which have flowed from such attitudes in every age: all kinds of wickedness, and all the works of darkness, committed by those who call themselves Christians. Such is the nature and the dreadful effects of that many-headed monster, fanaticism! 

Guidelines for Our Own Behavior

First, if fanaticism is a term so seldom understood, take care not to use the word until you understand it. As in all other things, learn to think before you speak. First know the meaning of this word; and then use it, if you must. But if so few understand this dark, ambiguous word, beware of calling any man a fanatic on account of a rumor. This is not a sufficient basis on which to accuse any man. To bring such a serious charge without proof is inconsistent with both justice and mercy. 

But if fanaticism is so great an evil, watch and pray that you do not fall into the temptation. Take care that you do not think of yourself more highly than you should. Do not imagine you have attained that grace of God which you have not attained. Cry out to God that He would not allow you, blind as you are, to lose your way; that you may never think you are a believer in Christ until Christ is revealed in you, and until His Spirit witnesses with your spirit that you are a child of God. 

Concluding Messages

Take care that you do not run with the common herd of fanatics, thinking you are a Christian when you are not. Do not dare to assume that name unless you have a clear, scriptural title to it; unless you have the mind which was in Christ and walk as He walked. 

Take care that you are not a fiery, persecuting fanatic. Do not imagine that God has called you (contrary to the Spirit of Him you call your Master) to destroy men’s lives rather than to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think for yourself, and let others think as well. Use no coercion in matters of religion. Do not force even those who are farthest out of the way to come in by any means other than reason, truth, and love. 

Take care that you do not fall into the second sort of fanaticism, imagining you have those gifts from God which you do not have. Do not trust in visions or dreams; in sudden impressions, or strong impulses of any kind. Remember, it is not by these that you are to know the will of God on any particular occasion. Instead, apply the clear rule of Scripture, with the help of experience and reason, and the ordinary assistance of the Spirit of God. Do not use the name of God carelessly; do not speak of the will of God on any and every occasion; but let your words, as well as your actions, be tempered with reverence and godly fear. 

Finally, take care that you do not try to obtain the end without using the natural means to it. If He so pleases, God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason to think He will. Therefore constantly and carefully use all those means which He has appointed to be the ordinary channels of His grace. Use every means which either reason or Scripture recommends as beneficial (through the free love of God in Christ) either for obtaining or increasing any of the gifts of God. If you do, you can expect a daily growth in that pure and holy religion which the world has always called fanaticism; but which, to all who are saved from real fanaticism, from merely nominal Christianity, is “the wisdom of God, and the power of God;” the glorious image of the Most High; “righteousness and peace;” a “fountain of living water, springing up into everlasting life!”


About the Editor:

dr. steven gibson

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.

To order Dr. Gibson's writings, feel free to contact him through email.

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