[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.] This is the fifth of Wesley's thirteen sermons on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). This sermon focuses on Matthew 5:17-20:
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Wesley makes some brilliant points in this message, which are important to understanding him, his theology, and his ministry.Although Wesley organizes this sermon verse-by-verse (which is unusual for him), the key themes that emerge include the relationship of the law to the gospel, and what inward and outward holiness have to do with one another.
In examining Jesus' words in this passage about the law, Wesley makes a strong case for an idea that would be just as controversial among Christians in our day as it was in his: there is no conflict between the law and the gospel. A view which many hold today, and apparently did in Wesley's day also, is that the law was only in place until the coming of Jesus, and is now no longer necessary because of Jesus' gospel. Wesley, and apparently in this passage- Jesus himself, would have none of that.
Rather than the law and gospel being at odds with one another, or at least one doing away with the other, Wesley makes the case that they both do the same thing in different ways. The law, he says, points us toward life through commands, while the gospel does so through promises. The law makes way for and points us toward the gospel, and the gospel makes it possible for us to fulfill the law.
Let's try to put some skin around this by looking at the great commandments, which both come from Old Testament law, to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. The law says, "you must do this," and the gospel says, "you are able to do this." In other words, God will work in us (gospel) that which God commands of us (law). Neither of these can be set aside in the way of Jesus.
Another part of the sermon that stands out is Wesley's comments on the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and what it means that our righteousness should surpass theirs. Again, his comments aren't what many of us would be expecting to hear.
Rather than only claiming that the Scribes and Pharisees' righteousness was outward, and ours can exceed those by not trusting in outward things, but in an inward faith, Wesley again holds on to both sides of the spectrum. He gives the Scribes and Pharisees credit for how outwardly devoted they were and makes the case that our righteousness can't exceed theirs if it can't even catch up to theirs. Using Luke 18:9-14 to illustrate, Wesley points out how devoted the Scribes and Pharisees were in their practices of being different from others for what they thought were God's purposes, their practices of fasting, prayer, sacrifices, and studying the Scriptures, and how they gave of what they had to help others. So, rather than advising us to set aside the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, Wesley says that if we are to exceed them, we must first catch up to them.
In other words, we need those outward things that we normally chastise the Scribes and Pharisees for having trusted in. The main difference, and how our righteousness is to exceed theirs, is that in the way of Jesus, we are pursuing inward and outward holiness. To propose that either could exist without the other is unthinkable for Wesley.
To dig in further to this sermon: