[This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.] John Wesley's career in ministry wasn't easy. He ended up being incredibly successful, as his followers (the early Methodists) changed the course of history in England, but he had to fight a lot of battles along the way. He was thrown out of about as many churches as I've ever been in, and mostly over problems that people had with his theological teachings.
Some of these problems were legitimate differences, but most of them were not. Being clergy within the Church of England, Wesley never thought that he taught anything different than the historic, accepted doctrines of his church. Yet many of his problems arose from his insistence on pointing out to his fellow members of the Church of England areas of those doctrines that had been forgotten or neglected. This made many of those who heard him who had power to be very uncomfortable, which spelled problems for John. We see one such situation being played out in this week's sermon.Apparently Wesley was being heavily criticized by many as denying the traditional doctrine of justification by faith, or more specifically in language we rarely use anymore, the doctrine of imputed righteousness (something that God does for us). What this means is that believers in Christ are justified before God only because of Christ's sacrifice for them and because of nothing that they can do for themselves. Wesley goes to great pains in this sermon to establish that he believes and teaches exactly this.
Yet the Methodist movement was largely successful because of his emphasis on Christ's imparted righteousness (something that God does in us, with our cooperation). Wesley must have pushed some buttons here, because he is certainly in the hot seat when he wrote this sermon to defend himself.
Much of this sermon, even more than most of Wesley's, feels like digging through some deep 17th century theological weeds, but if you've got the courage to dig, there is some really good stuff in it. The difference between imputed and imparted righteousness was also part of the subject matter of last week's sermon, one of my favorites, The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God, only in that context Wesley was distinguishing between what happens for us in our justification before God and what happens in us as we are also born of God. These are some of the distinctions he made in that sermon, and they're also helpful in getting a grasp on what this sermon is about (this is from the outline for The Great Privilege):
|Relative Change||Real Change|
|What God does for us||What God does in us|
|Outward change from God’s enemies to God’s children||Inward change from sinners to saints|
|Restores us to God’s favor||Restores us to God’s image|
|Removes the guilt of sin||Removes the power of sin|
All of this was contained in a short but powerful section of The Great Privilege, but this sermon helps us to delve in deeper.
Another very valuable part of this sermon is Wesley's teaching on how Christians should be unified amidst our differences. He says that although we often use different expressions, we are actually pointing to the same realities about our lives with God, and yet we attack each other, compete against each other, and tear one another apart simply for a lack of trying to understand each other. Also, he repeatedly emphasizes the bankruptcy of having correct theology but still having a corrupt heart. He says that even if those in other groups are misguided, it is certain that many of them have a genuine and full trust in Christ, which matters above all.
Options for digging in deeper: