Wesley's Sermon 22: Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 2

[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 second of Wesley's thirteen sermons on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). In this sermon, he continues working his way through the Beatitudes and focuses on Matthew 5:5-7: "Blessed are the meek... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... [and] Blessed are the merciful..."

Also, in exploring the meaning of these verses, Wesley incorporates very interesting interpretations of Matthew 5:21-26 ("You have heard it said, 'Do not murder,' but I say to you, anyone who is angry with another is subject to judgment...") and 1 Corinthians 13 ("Love is patient, love is kind...").

Continuing the interpretation of the Beatitudes Wesley began in Sermon 21, presenting them as a process that we go through in our lives with God, he begins this sermon without missing a beat from the ending of the previous one, which concluded with "Blessed are those who mourn..." This sermon then begins with explaining that once the mourning passes, and the believer again is comforted by the Holy Spirit, then they will have entered into meekness and will be able to bear witness of its goodness. Wesley characterizes meekness not as being apathetic or without a passion, but as someone who all of their emotions ("affections" or "passions") in check because of their overriding love for God and others.

Wesley says that Jesus illustrates meekness further down in Matthew 5, in verses 21-26, and so he provides an interpretation of this famous passage of the Sermon on the Mount here, rather than in a later discourse in this series. He provides a compelling argument against allowing anger into our hearts, claiming that it is allowable to be angry at sin, but to be angry at sinners can only cause damage to us and to the others.

With anger's antidote (meekness) now being in place, Wesley says that we can begin to truly hunger and thirst for righteousness, which he defines as the image of God in us and our having the mind of Christ. This hunger and thirst is from God, for God, and can only be satisfied by God. Just as physical hunger and thirst will continue to grow until the need is fully met, our hunger and thirst for righteousness will continue to grow, even to the point of our begging God that they never be taken away so that we may continually be filled with more and more of his life.

Wesley continues and claims that as God's life grows in us, so will our concern for others and we will become merciful toward them. He says that the main characteristic of the merciful is that they love their neighbors as themselves, and this leads him to work through part of St. Paul's famous "love chapter," 1 Corinthians 13. Wesley describes the merciful/loving person by examining the characteristics of love that Paul lists in verses 4-7 of that famous chapter: love is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, does not insist on its own way, not irritable, not resentful, does not rejoice in wrongdoing, rejoices in the truth, and covers, believes and hopes all things.

Even if the rest of this sermon were not as valuable as it is, this exploration of what it means to love others is well our time. His explanation of what it means that love "covers all things" is something we should be taught from our first experiences in church. (It provides good, practical guidelines of how to live out my Dad's practice of never speaking badly of others.)

Wesley concludes the sermon with a powerful paragraph which is worth reading even if you don't read any of the rest of the sermon. In it, he concedes that we have ample reason to cry "Woe is me" when we consider what it means to love one another and compare it to what we see in the world around us- particularly the severe lack of love among Christians. But rather than give in to despair, he says that we should continue in hope, because God's work in history is being accomplished and we are currently being given the opportunity to be among the first fruits of God's mission of creating people who have learned how to love.

Options for digging in further to this sermon:

Wesley's Sermon 21: Upon Our Lord's Sermon On The Mount, Discourse 1

Mount of Beatitude Capernaum 200704A view to Capernaum from the Mount of Beatitude, where Jesus may have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Photo by gugganij on Wikimedia [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.]

"Above all, with what amazing love does the Son of God here reveal his Father's will to man!"

This sermon begins Wesley's classic series on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). In the next thirteen sermons, he will move through the passages of this most famous teaching of Jesus. So, basically, we're about to begin a journey into the most influential sermon in history, being led by one of Christianity's most brilliant and influential leaders. It's probably worth seeing what he has to say, right?

Since this is the first sermon in this series on the Sermon, Wesley begins with an extended introduction to the Sermon on the Mount in general, before moving into the meaning of specific passages. He asks (and of course, answers) important questions about the context in which Jesus first gave the Sermon: What had happened to this point in Jesus' life? Who was this teacher? What is it that he's teaching? Whom was Jesus addressing? How does he teach?

Wesley then moves into the content of the Sermon, beginning as Jesus did, with the Beatitudes. He spends the remainder of the message examining the meaning of the first two Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3), and "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:4).

Obviously, with as much as I value Wesley's theology, I think it's a worthy investment of my time to study what he says here, and part of his interpretation of the Beatitudes has already surprised me. He says that they are both a list of characteristics that are true to some degree of all God's children all the time, and that they are a progression that we go through in the Christian life (i.e., we must begin with poverty of spirit, then mourning, etc.). Until this point I've not been familiar with an interpretation of this passage that sees Jesus' Beatitudes as a process. It's interesting to see how he applies that idea to these first two, and will be interesting to see the same in the following passages.

Although that idea is new to me, the interpretation of the Beatitudes as a list of characteristics that we are to aspire to as Christians isn't new. This is the way most of us have been taught to understand this teaching of Jesus. It takes Jesus' description of the "poor in spirit" to mean those that are humble and know their sinfulness, then goes through the rest of the list describing characteristics of Jesus himself and of his true followers.

But, although I certainly want to dig into what Wesley has to say, I've come to disagree with this traditional and widespread interpretation. The reason for this is that Jesus does not say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, because they are poor in spirit," but "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In other words, Jesus does not identify poverty of spirit, mourning, or any of the other conditions as the reason that anyone is blessed. Rather, he was turning on its head his day's understanding of blessedness. His hearers had never before been told that someone spiritually poor, or in a condition that caused them to mourn, could be blessed. But, because of him and the access to his Father's kingdom that was becoming available through him, everyone in the crowd could be blessed regardless of their condition.

My view of the Beatitudes has been shaped most of all by Dallas Willard, particularly in his masterpiece of a book, The Divine Conspiracy. After working through Wesley's remaining sermons on the Sermon, I'll post a comparison summary of his interpretation and Willard's.

Options for digging in further to this sermon by Wesley:

Here is a list of all of Wesley's sermons in the series, and their corresponding passages:

Wesley's Sermon 20: The Lord Our Righteousness

[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):

Justification New Birth
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:

  • Download the pdf outline of the sermon
  • Read the entire sermon on an electronic read with this ePub file
  • Or read the sermon text online here

Wesley's Sermon 19: The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God

[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.]

"Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God." (1 John 3:9, NRSV)

"So shalt thou always believe, and always love, and never commit sin."

You may wonder about the title of this sermon: What is the "great privilege of those that are born of God"? Wesley's answer: You can live without sinning again. Ever.

If you can consider any 18th century sermon interesting, you'll like this one. It's really good stuff, and even if you don't agree with it, it will make you think and ask some important questions. The second quotation above is the last sentence of the sermon, and you can see that Wesley says some big things in this message. Thankfully, he doesn't just through a sentence like that out there without laying a solid foundation first.

Claiming that Christians can live without sin has always been a tricky thing to do. (I tried it on myself earlier this year. See my New Year's Resolution 2011: Quit Sinning.) Part of the reason any of us today still know names like John or Charles Wesley, or words like Methodist, is because John made this claim very adamantly, and this sermon is one of the occasions when he did so.

The sermon has two parts, each really interesting of themselves. First, Wesley gives attention to the first phrase from the 1 John passage quoted above and offers a description of those that have been born of God. Although it is a topic he has covered in previous sermons, he goes about it very differently than he did in The Marks of the New Birth. In this sermon, rather than describing characteristics of someone who has been born of God, he describes the immense difference in their mode of existence between their lives before and after their "new birth." In shaping this description, he draws a great analogy between physical birth and spiritual birth. Although we are alive before physical birth, our senses are extremely limited, and therefore also our knowledge and interaction with the world around us, even though it is so near to us. Wesley says that it is the same with our spiritual birth; before being born of God, we are still alive in some degree, but the change in the nature and quality of our life is just as drastic at the moment of our spiritual birth as it is at our physical birth. Afterward, our senses become awakened, and we can begin knowing and interacting with the real world around us. (Read through Part I of the outline for a short, but fuller, version of his analogy- it's good stuff.)

After answering the question of what life is like for those born of God, he turns his attention to the second phrase of 1 John 3:9, and offers a case for how it can be true that those born of God do not sin. Wesley wasn't naive; he knew that plenty of people, including himself, sinned after having sincere, legitimate faith in God. So, he makes some distinctions here that very important in understanding him: between inward sin vs. outward sin, and between sins committed by notdoing something (omission) and sins committed by doing something (commission). Again, Part II of the outline is worth checking out for a fuller understanding here if you don't want to read the entire sermon, but to summarize: Wesley believed that what John meant by stating that children of God could not sin was that we cannot not commit known outward sin (instances where we know we are breaking God's law and choose to do it anyway), as long as we "keep" ourselves in God. Referring to his analogy of physical birth, we have to continue "breathing" in God, taking in God's grace, then returning all that we can to God through our lives. When we live like this, we cannot choose to go against God's commands. When we do not continue living in God in this way, all kinds of sin again become possible for us. Also in Part II, Wesley gives a very interesting progression "from grace to sin," using David and Peter as examples. Again- see the outline.

My summary is getting too long, but I couldn't help it- this is really good stuff, and Christians everywhere (particularly Methodists!) would be much better off to understand what Wesley says here. If you have any interest in Getting to know John, dig more deeply into this sermon!

Options for how to do so:

  • See my pdf outline of the sermon
  • Read the full text of the sermon electronically with my ePub file
  • Read the entire sermon online here


Wesley's Sermon 18: The Marks of the New Birth

"...So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)

[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.]

Since, in Jesus' famous conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 (the passage where we get "for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son..."), Jesus said to him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again, Wesley asserts in the beginning of this sermon that it's really important for us to know exactly what that phrase means. He also equates being born again with other similar phrases in Scripture: being born of God and being born of the Spirit.

He then goes on to describe the three defining characteristics of those who have been born of God: their lives display faith, hope, and love. Faith is both a belief in things that are true about Christ and a personal conviction of their effects upon each of us as individuals; hope is assurance from the Holy Spirit that we are God's children we have joy now and a joyous future to look forward to; love is the greatest of all, and consists of our love for God and for everyone around us, and results in a life of total obedience to God's commandments and desires.

The sermon concludes with a very straightforward challenge to Wesley's hearers to examine whether or not these characteristics were truly part of their lives, or if they were resting too heavily upon past obedience to God (particularly their baptism).

The content of this sermon is similar to that of his previous sermon, Sermon 17: Circumcision of the Heart. Both sermons offer descriptions of faith, hope, and love as defining characteristics of true Christians. In Circumcision of the Heart, he also included humility in his list.

To dig in further:

  • Read my pdf outline of the sermon
  • Download my ePub file of the entire sermon
  • Or read the entire text of the sermon online here.

Wesley's Sermon 17: Circumcision of the Heart

"Circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God." (Romans 2:29, NIV)

(Notes: I went with a friend on my first-ever backpacking trip last week, so although last week was the 17th week of the year, I'm posting this a little late. In a couple of days, I'll post this week's sermon, Wesley's Sermon 18: The Marks of the New Birth. Also, in searching for an image to use with this post, I had the choice of searching for images about the heart or about circumcision. I hope I made the right choice.)

[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 sermon from Wesley touches on several things that are key to understanding him, without going into too much depth on any of them: the nature of faith, the relation of faith to works, the centrality of love, and Wesley's doctrine of assurance.

This sermon's structure is also pretty simple, as he breaks down the meaning of the circumcision of the heart with four virtues: humility, faith, hope, and love ("charity"). Then, after describing what each of these means, he lists ways that people can know if their hearts have been circumcised... If you have humility, faith, hope, and love, they have been. If not, they haven't.

Wesley also includes a great description of the ultimate characteristic of those with circumcised hearts as "having God as their chief and only end." Other traditions will describe this same characteristic as simplicity, purity of heart, or willing one thing.

If you would like to dig in further:

  • Download my pdf outline of the sermon.
  • Download my ePub file of the sermon's text.
  • Read the entire sermon online here.

Wesley's Sermon 16: The Means of Grace

"Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup."

[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.]

Because the Lord's Supper is so central to Wesleyan and early Methodist spirituality, it's appropriate that posting on this sermon falls today, on Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus' last supper with his disciples and the beginning of the Christian church's sacrament of Holy Communion. If there is any day when we should practice a combination of all three of the means of grace Wesley focuses on in this sermon (prayer, searching the Scriptures, and receiving the Lord's Supper), we should do so today.

This is a great sermon, and it is key to understanding John Wesley and the meaning of Methodism. Practicing the means of grace (or, in his language, "attending upon all the ordinances of God") was one of the three General Rules that made up the lifestyle that the early Methodists agreed to live by. Doing what Wesley describes in this sermon, combined with commitments to do good for others and avoid doing any harm were what it meant to be a Methodist in Wesley's day (as well as participation in Methodist groups), and they still form a reliable framework for how we can shape our lives today.

I wish that the sermon described more of what grace meant for Wesley, but apparently its definition was known well enough by his audience that there was no need to include a description. The need is tremendous in our day, though, because its meaning has been reduced drastically between his time and ours. Today, we often equate God's grace with his willingness to forgive our sins. That certainly is gracious of God, but his grace is much bigger than that. When grace is only forgiveness, the very phrase, "means of grace" makes no sense. How can doing these things be a means of God's forgiveness? That is far from the intended meaning.

Dallas Willard says that grace is God's action in our lives to bring about what we do not deserve and cannot accomplish on our own. That's a much bigger (much more Wesleyan and much more Biblical) understanding of grace. When we understand it in this way, we can see how prayer, "searching the Scripture," and receiving the Lord's Supper are essential ways that we open doors in our lives to God's work in us.

Wesley spends much of the sermon addressing the theologies of his day which questioned whether outward things that we do have any role in the Christian life. Although the questions would be phrased differently today, they're still very applicable. Is doing these things necessary for Christians? Wesley lays the groundwork for an unequivocal "Yes" which is utterly dependent on God's grace.

If you consider yourself a Methodist, or if you may already be one and don't know it, you will do well to dig in to this sermon.

You can download my ePub file of the sermon to read on electronic devices, read the entire text online, or just review my outline of the sermon.

A Wesleyan Hymn for today and for this sermon:

Because Thou Hast Said Charles Wesley, 1748

1. Because thou hast said: "Do this for my sake," the mystical bread we gladly partake; we thirst for the Spirit that flows from above, and long to inherit thy fullness of love.

2. 'Tis here we look up and grasp at thy mind, 'tis here that we hope thine image to find; the means of bestowing thy gifts we embrace; but all things are owing to Jesus' grace.