Other participants in this project have told their stories about how they came to participate in the tradition they represent in these conversations. My own story is quite straightforward. My father was a Methodist preacher, and my mother had been a Methodist missionary in India before she married my father. I was baptized as an infant in the Methodist Church (before a merger made it The United Methodist Church), so I have been in this tradition my entire life.
Of course this tradition contains the same varieties of thought (conservative or progressive, evangelical or liberal) that are found in many other traditions. There have been divisions over various matters, such as race and slavery, lay rights, women’s ordination, etc. (and we face division now over LGBTQ+ issues), but none of these “various views” are distinctive to Wesleyans. British and American Methodism have taken slightly different form in their different contexts, and as “foreign” mission activity was carried out separately by both British and North American Methodists, those differences were to some extent transported globally. All of us acknowledge our start in John Wesley’s evangelical revival, so I will start with the history we hold in common before noting further various views.
When John and Charles Wesley led the Methodist movement during the 18th century English Evangelical Revival, they were operating as priests within the Church of England. They did not intend to form a church, but rather they followed the model of organizing religious societies to call people already in church to follow Jesus more faithfully. For Wesley, Methodists were people who pursued “holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God” imitating Jesus “more particularly in justice, mercy, and truth, or universal love filling the heart and governing the life” (Advice to the People Called Methodists). Wesley believed God raised up Methodists “To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (“Large Minutes” of Methodist Conference). In this brief account of what it means to follow Jesus in the Wesleyan tradition, I will explore the idea of scriptural holiness at the heart of the Wesleyan tradition.
Excursus: In my younger years, few in my orbit knew much about John Wesley’s life and less about his theology. Wesley saw his primary task as conveying important theological ideas to ordinary people rather than to scholars. Because he produced no systematic theology, but rather did his theological reflection in sermon form to address specific practical matters, he was not often regarded even by those in his tradition as a theologian of consequence. Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been an effort to recognize his theological work and share it more broadly with people for their daily living. We are in a time of recovery and education. As a result, consciousness of the ideas I express in this essay may not yet be high among congregants, for instance few people I know would ordinarily use the words holiness or perfection, but as I teach Wesleyan ideas in various settings, the general reaction by people who have never heard them before is, “Oh, now I understand why I am Methodist,” so I think people have been formed in certain ways of thinking even if not explicitly taught.
John Wesley’s understanding of holiness can only be understood against the background of his understanding of human nature. For Wesley, Adam was created in the moral image of God, with love filling his soul and directing his actions. Adam had full liberty to remain in this state or to lose it. While he remained in the state God intended, he was happy. Adam’s state changed, though, and with the fall, the nature God had given to Adam was marred, opening him to be ruled by other affections besides love (for instance fear and anger), and crippling the love he was made for. The “one thing needful” for human beings is for Christ to renew our fallen nature, to restore us to wholeness so that we may again love God above all else and love everything else as God loves it. This renewal in holiness brings with it the happiness for which we were made.
This restoration happens as we follow Jesus. Wesley speaks of “salvation” in such a way that it includes not only what happens after death but also what happens in this life. If there is any “doctrinally distinct” center to Methodism, it is the way of salvation. Wesley’s nuanced understanding of salvation includes serious attention to both justification and sanctification. Everything he describes in the “way of salvation” is initiated and empowered by grace (understood as the power and presence of God). In justification we truly and deeply learn through Jesus Christ that God loves us as dear children, we know we are forgiven, and we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness. Because new birth (used alongside the image of adoption, this metaphor stresses a real change in us and not just a change in status) accompanies justification, we may begin to model our lives after the one we follow, learning from Jesus how to love properly. Sanctification consists of growing in holiness–understood as perfect love, namely “love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul” (“The Scripture Way of Salvation” §I.9). As we follow Jesus and imitate Jesus’ love, we learn again to love as God loves, thereby becoming more who God created us to be. We are really changed by following Jesus.
Even though Methodists worked for individual hearts to be changed, Wesley understood Christianity to be “social” (not solitary) religion and therefore even growth in holiness is “social.” Being a child of God (justified) meant living as a child of God (sanctified). The movement was organized in small groups for members to talk openly with each other about the state of their souls, to encourage and if necessary admonish one another to follow Jesus more faithfully. We grow in God’s love as we open ourselves to one another. Following Jesus to grow in holiness, then, was not finally individualistic and private, but rather took place in community.
Methodist societies were governed by three General Rules: Do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God (in public worship and private devotion). These three rules guide us in expressing holy love. They direct attention to loving relationship with God and to those around us, and to the consequences of our behavior for society. Later generations have adopted the language of “social holiness” to refer to the way we show love of neighbor, especially the poor and the vulnerable. Even in the 18thcentury, Wesley had incipient understanding that systems and structures could do harm. He opposed the practice of slavery and he connected the production of spirituous liquor to the grain shortage that deprived the poor of bread.
Over time, as the movement within a church has become itself ecclesial, this pattern of mutual confession in small groups has diminished although there are sometimes attempts to revive them. Even so, there can be communal confession on a large scale. The “Wesleyan” tradition includes churches that began by breaking off from the original Methodist Episcopal Church because of racism (African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, and later from the MEC South the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). In 2000, following our tradition of repentance in community, The United Methodist Church General Conference (a representative legislative body) held a liturgical Act of Repentance to acknowledge the racism of the past and commit to healing division between our churches. In 2004, The United Methodist Church held a similar service to repent for racism against those African Americans who remained in this church and to commit to a more inclusive future. In 2012, The United Methodist General Conference held another service to repent of harm done by the church to indigenous people in North America. Because the Acts took place in a representative body, members in local congregations may not have been entirely aware and involved, so the impact has not been as widespread as one would hope. Nevertheless, I value the way our heritage can be a resource to remind us that seeking holiness involves accountability before God.
Some of Wesley’s complex theology has been stressed differently in different churches. I think it would be commonly held that holiness is love but expressing love may take different forms. Some will seek holiness through counter-cultural behaviors, others will recognize it in struggle against oppression, others look for a powerful internal experience of God. This means that people in the same tradition may commit themselves to following Jesus somewhat differently—for instance in abstaining from alcohol, in protesting injustice, in seeking emotional experiences of God in prayer and worship.
John Wesley was so confident in God’s ability to heal us that he taught a doctrine of “perfection” or entire sanctification (perfect love in this life). He acknowledged that perfection might happen gradually or instantaneously, but he urged people to expect it in this life. Expecting to be made more loving opens us to God’s work to make us more loving. John’s brother Charles was less sure we could receive perfect love before the point of death. John did not insist that everyone must or would be entirely sanctified before death, but he did encourage everyone to expect it. Expectation of perfect love should lead us to follow Jesus more closely as we seek this gift. The tradition that has followed him has had various ways of thinking about perfection: sometimes to ignore or dismiss it (no one can be perfect, not even in love), and at other times insisting upon it (in an instantaneous cleansing).
All these expressions of holiness may exist in a single church, but they may also characterize different churches in the tradition. For instance, there are “holiness” churches that stress entire sanctification and encourage lifestyles that avoid common cultural behaviors that are either considered sinful or could lead to sin (for instance smoking, drinking, some forms of dancing), while predominantly African American churches stress justice and liberation and more evangelical churches call people to conversion experiences.
In the Wesleyan tradition, following Jesus means being a child of God and living appropriately in that relationship. However differently holiness may be conceived, it is a common conviction that God empowers us to live in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may work with God in God’s intention to restore the world to what God created us to be.