The Goal of the Christian Life

Illustration of John Wesley by Andrew Chandler for Seedbed.

The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way is a 12-session study packed with dynamic illustrations and compelling analogies that explore the key elements of the Wesleyan movement. The lessons work through three primary sections: John Wesley’s life, his core theological message, and the legacy of Wesley’s leadership on the Methodist church. Like its predecessor, The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith, this book can be studied individually, but is designed for group use. The accompanying videos are perfect for new member or confirmation classes, and for small-group or youth group settings.

Rich in both history and faith-building, this study walks readers of all ages through a fundamental understanding of the value of scripture, prayer, communion, spiritual relationships, and the power of salvation, as evidenced in the life and teachings of John Wesley. As readers grow in their personal knowledge and understanding of God’s truths, this book gives them the perfect tools to carry their faith into the future.

What follows is an excerpt from the book.

“Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be:
let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
’til in heav’n we take our place,
’til we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

—Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”

John Wesley’s preaching and movement drew in thousands and thousands of people almost immediately. But what was Wesley preaching that attracted so many? We can sum it up in two words: go further. God wants you to go further. God has been working since the beginning of time so that you can go further.

But if you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before you need a reliable guide. You want someone who has made the journey and knows the way. Let’s say you want to get to Alaska. You go to the bus station and you ask the driver, “Is this bus headed to Alaska?” The driver answers, “Maybe so. Who knows?” Would you get on the bus or would you look for another bus with a better driver? If you are wise, you would grab your bags and look for another bus.

Big goals require guides. This is as true for traveling as it is for learning to play the piano. If you showed up for piano lessons, and your teacher handed you a basketball to dribble, you would probably ask what that has to do with learning the piano. If the teacher responded, “Well, how should I know? Perhaps it will!” you would be wise to put the ball down and find another piano teacher.

Every important goal needs good guidance. Want to go to Alaska? You need a driver who doesn’t need to ask for directions. Want to play piano? You need a teacher who knows the difference between the melody line and a free-throw line. Want to climb Mount Everest? You need a sherpa. Want to be like Jesus? You need wise, mature Christians.

What makes a reliable guide? First of all, they need to know the destination. Second, they need to know how to get there.

John Wesley’s preaching worked because he knew the goal. John Wesley’s movement grew because he knew how to get there. What was the goal?

Christians often talk about getting saved. “Saved,” as you may recognize, is in the past tense. “Saved” names a thing that happened in the past. Before, you were not saved. Then something happened and you were saved. We often associate being saved with a moment of prayer, like when you asked Jesus to come into your heart. This is true enough, as far as it goes. But it isn’t the whole story.

In Acts 9, a sinner named Saul was traveling down the road, just after holding coats while his friends stoned a Christian to death. He was as far from being Christian as you could imagine. Then he encountered Christ and the goal of his life was totally changed. He stopped persecuting Christians. He became a Christian. He even started calling himself by a different name, Paul, and telling other people about Jesus. He was saved from his old life. But God wasn’t done with Paul. God kept working in Paul to make him more and more like Jesus. God wanted him to go further.

That same Paul prays in the letter to the Ephesians “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). You see, when you ask Jesus to come into your heart, he does. He changes the goal of your life. But then he really gets to work – he starts rooting and grounding you in love.

In another letter, Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Through faith we are saved (Ephesians 2:8–9). God begins a good work in us. He gives us a new goal, but Christ continues to work in us until we reach that goal. He’s not content until our sin is completely defeated.

Salvation is that whole work of Christ, from start to finish. Christ wants to set you free from sin. He wants you to go further.

Most of the time, when Wesley thought about salvation, he thought about the whole of that work – the critical moment when Christ enters the heart, and also the work he continues to do once he gets there.

For Wesley, salvation names the beginning, whether in a moment of prayer or in our baptism as infants. It names the continued work of setting us free from sin; and, it turns out, being set free from sin takes a lot of work. But being set free from sin isn’t the end of the story. God still wants us to go further. Christ wants to set us free from sin, but he also wants to set us free for something.

Anyone who has been in time-out, or in detention, or in jail, knows how hard it is, even for a few minutes, to be stuck where you don’t want to be. When you’re a kid in time-out, you can’t wait to be free. When you’re a student in detention, the minutes drag; the clock seems to move slower than usual. Prisoners count the days until their release. All of us long to be free. But when you get out of detention you’ll wind up there again if you don’t know what the purpose of school really is. Unless you understand that school is for learning, you won’t do your homework, you won’t pay attention in class, and you won’t listen to the teachers – these are precisely the sorts of things that get you into trouble. Unless you learn what freedom is for, you’ll just abuse your freedom again. You might try harder not to get caught, but you’ll probably end up back in detention before long.

What does Christ want to set us free for? Wesley summed it up in a word: holiness. What is holiness? When we say a thing is holy, we sometimes think of it like it’s something too special to touch or get close to. But holiness, most basically, is the character of God. We talk about the Holy Spirit. When we say some things are holy, this is not because they need to be kept away from us, but because they have come close to God. God likes to come close to things. Jesus shows us this. When God comes close to things, the holiness of God rubs off on them. They become like God. Being holy, then, is becoming like God.

Freedom from sin for holiness – this is the whole work of God. That’s how far God wants to take us. This is our final goal.

Wesley kept that goal at the center of all his work. He studied, carefully, how God moves the Christian toward the goal of freedom from sin for holiness. Wesley loved to have spiritual conversations with holy people, those whose lives looked like Christ’s. He interviewed them. He studied their faith and habits. He thought hard about the ways Christ works in the hearts where he has made his home. And, over time, Wesley became a reliable guide.

As a guide, he developed a clear sequence of steps for those of us on the path to freedom from sin for holiness. That sequence of steps is the heart of Methodism. Methodists are the ones who follow that Wesleyan way. They follow the method handed down to us from John Wesley.

Methodists sometimes talk about the Wesleyan way of salvation. We sometimes make it sound fancy with Latin, calling it the via salutis, “way of salvation.” This is just the sequence of steps we take in our journey to freedom from sin for holiness.

This article is excerpted from The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way by Phil Tallon and Justus Hunter (Seedbed 2020). Phil Tallon (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. He’s the author of The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2012) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).

Justus Hunter (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Church History at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of If Adam Had Not Sinned: The Reason for the Incarnation from Anselm to Scotus. You can find him on Twitter: @JustusHunter.

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