By Jason Vickers
In his splendid introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis observed that people often think that older books or primary sources are more difficult to understand than secondary works written by reputable scholars. “This mistaken preference for the modern books,” he said, “is nowhere more rampant than in theology.” Against this preference, Lewis insisted that “firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and delightful to acquire.” Consequently, if people could read “only the new or only the old,” Lewis urged them to “read the old.” In fact, he went so far as to say, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
Over the last half century or so, scholars have written dozens of new books about John Wesley. There is now vast secondary literature on virtually every aspect of the founder of Methodism’s life and thought. And there is no shortage of disagreement over how to interpret Wesley. After all, that’s how we scholars make our living. We critique and challenge prevailing views in the name of complexity and nuance. Intentionally or not, this can give the impression that Wesley himself must be difficult to read. Some people might even be tempted to forego reading Wesley in favor of one of the new scholarly books about Wesley.
An additional factor that can discourage people from reading Wesley for themselves is the simple fact that Wesley wrote a lot, including letters and diaries, occasional treatises, edited volumes, commentaries or “notes” on the Bible, and sermons. With so much material at hand, it can be hard to know where to begin. The good news is that Wesley intended the overwhelming majority of what he wrote for the theological and spiritual edification of the people called Methodists. To be sure, he occasionally had other motives for writing, but his main concern was to develop and publish materials that would help people come to know God more truly and to love God and neighbor more fully each day. He wrote to educate, challenge, encourage, and inspire his readers in their journey with God and with one another. With this in mind, one could almost start reading anywhere.
For those who have never read Wesley for themselves, his sermons are the best place to begin. They are widely available on the internet and in numerous print collections. They contain Wesley’s views on every aspect of the Christian life. They have nurtured the minds and hearts of thousands of believers across the centuries. They can justifiably be described as a classic of Christian theology and spirituality.
In a class that I teach at Asbury Theological Seminary, I regularly assign Wesley’s sermons to students, many of whom are reading Wesley for the first time. Over the years, two reactions have been common. First, when people begin reading the sermons, they almost always comment on Wesley’s writing style. Wesley writes with the King’s English.
For many first timers, his sermons remind them of the King James Bible. Words like “thee” and “thou” and “speaketh” and “heareth” appear on every page. Suffice it to say, this takes a little getting used to. The key is to stick with it. After a few weeks or even a few days, most people get used to Wesley’s vocabulary. But be careful, the King’s English is contagious. You might even find yourself dropping a “thee” or “thou” at your next tea party.
The second reaction common among first time readers of Wesley is the more noteworthy of the two. In one sense, the King’s English notwithstanding, Wesley’s sermons are easy enough to read. There are technical theological terms like justification, regeneration, and sanctification, but Wesley is always careful to define his terms. If anything, reading Wesley’s sermons will help you build a good working theological vocabulary. In another sense, however, those who are new to Wesley often find him quite difficult to read. The difficulty or problem is not with his vocabulary, but with what he has to say to us.
Without fail, first time readers of Wesley’s sermons often find themselves somewhere between perplexed and appalled. They frequently say things like, “He can’t be serious, can he?” Or, “Did he really believe that?” On more than one occasion, I have seen seminary students visibly shaking their heads in disbelief. The real problem isn’t the King’s English; it’s that he says things that strike many people today as outlandish or absurd. As one student candidly remarked, “It’s great to set the bar high and all, but this is ridiculous!”
Part of the challenge with reading Wesley’s sermons is that he isn’t writing to tell us all about his summer vacation or his new horse. In fact, Wesley rarely writes about anything trivial or funny. Rather, he is writing because he wants us to be sanctified. The single motivation behind all that he recommends and all that he opposes is the sanctification of his readers. But before we can make serious headway on the road to sanctification, Wesley believes that he must first clear away the obstacles in our thinking that prevent us from knowing God truly and loving God and neighbor as we ought.
I believe that it is this work of clearing away obstacles in our thinking, or what we might call bad theological habits, that leads Wesley to say things that sound outlandish in our ears. In other words, Wesley doesn’t assume that we are well-formed theologically. If anything, he assumes the opposite, namely, that we are theologically malformed, or at the very least, theologically malnourished. And because he believes this, he sometimes resorts to rhetorical strategies that leave us shaking our heads. So, when you find something in Wesley that sounds absurd, the question you should ask is, what is he trying to do here? And you could do worse when reading Wesley than to keep in mind novelist Flannery O’ Connor’s famous comment in Mystery and Manners:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
In many ways, this really is the right way to read Wesley’s sermons. He writes to us as though we are theologically and spiritually blind and deaf. Or, to use one of his favorite metaphors, he writes to us as though we are theologically and spiritually asleep. And more than anything else, he wants us to wake up! For example, in the sermon, “The Image of God,” he wants to wake us up to the fact that, contrary to what many people think, all human beings are beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s own image. We are not inherently bad or evil by nature. We all reflect the glory of God in all sorts of ways, including our capacity to think, to act, and above all to love. But then, just when we are beginning to think more highly of ourselves, Wesley will pivot, going to the opposite end of the spectrum in order to correct our tendency to think that most people are basically good. For instance, in “Original Sin,” he says that, because of the devastating consequences of sin, we are no longer capable of apprehending the things of God. And that means we are no longer capable of loving God and neighbor.
Elsewhere, Wesley confronts and challenges our tendency to believe that religion is a personal or private affair. In “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse IV,” he says, “Christianity is essentially a social religion … to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.” In other words, Wesley deeply opposes “me and Jesus” theology or “lone ranger” Christianity, insisting on the importance of active participation in the sacramental life of the church. For example, in “The Means of Grace” and “The Duty of Constant Communion,” he stresses that Christians who take their faith seriously will attend to all the means of grace and receive Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion as often as possible. At the same time, he is a stickler for private devotional practices, most notably prayer and fasting. In “The Wilderness State,” he goes so far as to list the neglect of private prayer among the sins of omission to be avoided at all costs.
Wesley also speaks to us rather sharply about things that we often consider very private matters, like money and health care. For instance, in “The Use of Money,” “The Danger of Riches,” and “The Good Steward,” he has very strong things to say to us about stewardship and caring for the poor. Our money and our resources are not our own. They belong to God. Similarly, in “On Visiting the Sick,” he insists that Christians have a duty to visit the sick and the infirmed. We should do so, he says, not merely for their benefit, but also for our own. Visiting the sick is good for us spiritually. But he doesn’t stop there. In sermons like “On Dress,” “On Friendship with the World,” “Self-denial,” and “The Reformation of Manners,” Wesley goes so far as to tell us who we should and shouldn’t be friends with, as well as what clothes and jewelry we should and shouldn’t wear. And on and on it goes.
If all of that is beginning to sound too personal, then Wesley might not be for you. As far as he is concerned, if you are a member of the body of Christ, then you are accountable to your brothers and sisters who belong to that same body, including him. Your business is no longer your own. Suffice it to say, then, if you’re going to read Wesley, you need to be prepared for him to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong.
Wesley isn’t difficult to read because his language is outdated or full of technical theological terms. Wesley is hard to read because he is spiritually demanding. He takes the Christian life very seriously, and he wants us to take it seriously, too. To that end, he isn’t afraid to confront us with all sorts of tough questions. And yes, he sets the bar high. At times, almost ridiculously so. But always remember, in sermons like “Free Grace,” and “Awake, Thou that Sleepest,” Wesley is trying to get the spiritually deaf among us to hear the good news of the Gospel. And in sermons like “Salvation by Faith,” and “The New Birth,” he’s trying to get the spiritually blind among us to see Christ high and lifted up, his body broken and his blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
Above all, Wesley’s trying to wake us up to the astonishing reality that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we do not have to live spiritually defeated lives. Far from it! As he contends in “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” “The Circumcision of the Heart,” and “Christian Perfection,” with the Spirit’s help, we really can flourish as creatures made in the image of God. We really can have the mind that was in Christ Jesus. And we really can exhibit all the fruits of the Spirit. In short, we really can be entirely sanctified in this life.
Entirely sanctified? In this lifetime? Did Wesley really believe that? Don’t take my word for it. Read Wesley for yourself.
Jason Vickers is Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Dr. Vickers is the author or editor of ten books, including A Wesleyan Theology of the Eucharist (2016) and Methodist Christology: From the Wesleys to the 21st Century (2020).
For a discussion of the various major collections of John Wesley’s sermons, including the differences between the so-called “British Forty-four,” and the so-called “American Fifty-two,” see the Introduction in The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, edited by Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013).