John Wesley famously said the following in his preface to the Standard Sermons:
I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.1
However, as a Wesleyan who has a read and studying many of the works of N.T. Wright, there is a stark contrast between Wesley here and Wright in his book Suprised by Hope:
there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’, and not a lot about a post-mortem hell either… But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way. ‘God’s kingdom’ in the preaching of Jesus refers, not to post-mortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but about God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ 2
The distinction between the two is pretty definite. For Wesley, “Heaven” is about the final destination of one’s personal life in “land[ing] safe on that happy shore.” For Wright, the language of heaven relates to the ruling power of God’s realm coming into this world. Both ways of seeing the Bible share a future orientation, but the nature of this future to understand and reach for is of a stark difference. And this stark difference should be considered important, as this central purpose of knowledge impacts the professed nature of his sermons, as Wesley said: “I have accordingly set down in the following sermons what I find in the Bible concerning the way to heaven”3
But something quite interesting happens if you read the first sermon “Salvation by Faith.” When discussing salvation in section II of his sermon, he speaks about salvation in the present tense where people are saved from the guilt of their sin, fear, and the power of sin. Then in Sermon VII, “The Way of the Kingdom” he interprets the common phrase “kingdom of heaven” in a present sense of “heaven opened in the soul”4 as part of the nature of “true religion.”5 Beyond this fact, Wesley’s theology was notably experiential, trying to engage the real-world concrete and particularities of people’s own life of faith. If one were to assess the whole of Wesley’s works, one would say that Wesley was very this-worldly in his focus, rather than focused on heaven as a final resting place after death. His advocacy on political and social issues, such as in the abolition of slavery, reinforce his this-worldly focus. All told, Wesley was uniquely concerned about the shifts and changes in people’s lives, along with societies. Hence, one could say the “way to heaven” was more dynamic, focused on the transitions here and now to that eternal future, as John Stott observes: “In his preface to the Standard Sermons, he wrote, “I want to know one thing—the way to heaven.”17 For Wesley, that “way” was dynamic, moving from sin to glorification.”6
So how then does his desire for knowing about heaven as a final resting place impact his theology, if it does at all? I would suggest there are two interrelated ways that his heaven-focused reading impacted him.
Firstly, his focused on salvation was principally focused on sin, as that which hinders our relation to God. This focus can be demonstrated in contrast Wesley’s notes on Galatians 2:19 with Luther, whose work influenced Wesley. Luther ends his note on Galatians 2:19, “In this masterly fashion Paul draws our attention away from the Law, sin, death, and every evil, and centers it upon Christ.”7 By contrast, Wesley describes the phrase “that I may live to God” as “Not continue in sin. For this very end am I (in this sense) freed from the law, that I may be freed from sin.”8 For Luther, Paul is shifting attention away from sin. For Wesley, Paul is saying one is freed from sin.
This roots in Wesley’s own fear of condemnation and hell prior to his famous Aldersgate experience. In his journal on January 28, 1738, nearly 4 months before Aldersgate, he expressed the following:
This, then, have I learned in the ends of the earth—That I “am fallen short of the glory of God:” That my whole heart is “altogether corrupt and abominable;” and, consequently, my whole life; (seeing it cannot be, that an “evil tree” should “bring forth good fruit:”) That “alienated” as I am from the life of God,” I am “a child of wrath,” an heir of hell: That my own works, my own sufferings, my own righteousness, are so far from reconciling me to an offended God, so far from making any atonement for the least of those sins, which “are more in number than the hairs of my head,” that the most specious of them need an atonement themselves, or they cannot abide his righteous judgment; that “having the sentence of death” in my heart, and having nothing in or of myself to plead, I have no hope, but that of being justified freely, “through the redemption that is in Jesus:” I have no hope, but that if I seek I shall find Christ, and “be found in him not having my own righteousness, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” 9
Hence, for Wesley after Aldersgate, he understands salvation by faith as to essentially be a deliverance of this state of condemnation that comes from sin. Wesley’s focus on sin is rooted in his focus on his final, future destination. His own statement about his experience verifies this focus on sin:
About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.10
Condemnation is what Wesley feared, and so in his new shift in assurance, he still saw religion relating to the same theme of sin and righteousness, but he had an assurance of his status his acceptance and justification before God, to which he then shifted battling sin as a consequence of this acceptance rather the case of this acceptancee. But nevertheless, because Wesley’s concern about heaven and hell caused him to focus on sin. This is in contrast with the Apostle Paul, who saw sin and death as symptoms of the flesh as our untransformed embodied nature awaiting. For Paul, the problem was more anthropological and cosmological, rather than behavioral and psychological; the phenomenology of sin was a consequence a deeper, more important reality that goes to the core of creation itself. Thus, if we are to evaluate Wesley based upon Paul, Wesley puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable in his preoccupation with sin.
Secondly, Wesley’s concern about heaven lead him to construe the significance of Jesus principally in terms of the atonement, which makes acceptance possible. In his journal from Jan. 28, 1738, we see him follow his concern about his status with a discussion on atonement for his sins. In Sermon LXXXV “On Working out Our Own Salvation,” Wesley distinguishes two great doctrines that distinguished the Christian faith from the heathen world: the atonement of Christ and the renewal of humanity by the Holy Spirit. What is really instructive here, however, is the implicit interpretation that Wesley provides of Philippians 2:6-13 that frames Paul in terms of atonement and renewal. Having provided a brief overview of the Christ-hymn in vss. 6-11, Wesley transitions to the main verses of his sermon in vss. 12-13 by making the following connection between the Christ-hymn and working out salvation: ”
Having proposed the example of Christ, the Apostle exhorts them to secure the salvation which Christ hath purchased for them: “Wherefore, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”11
In other words, the relationship between the example of Christ and the going onwards in the work God is doing in us by His Holy Spirit is the doctrine of atonement. Now, Paul doesn’t state this is the logical connection; he simply presents the hymn that valorizes Jesus and exhorts people to continue in that example. If there is a soteriological basis for this, it is expressed in 2:1 by “in Christ” and “Spirit,” which points towards something along the lines of a participation and communion with Christ and the Spirit rather than a propitiative exchange. However, Wesley’s emphasis on the atonement causes him to assume a connection in Paul’s argument that isn’t expressly made.
However, I have found in my own dissertation research on a Trinitarian epistemology that Wesley does not provide much of a role of wider theological knowledge to the person of Christ. He places the main epistemic source of knowledge on Scripture and Scripture’s relationship to the Spirit AND self-knowledge of ourselves in both our sin and our status as God’s children as believers to the Spirit; there seems to be a dearth of reflection of knowledge stemming from Christ in Wesley’s words, although maybe I have not researched enough yet. While Wesley does exhibit a very rudimentary sense of historical revelation of Christ in “On Working out Our Own Salvation,” this sort of reflection seems to be the exception and not the norm. This contrasts with the Reformed tradition, that place a larger epistemic emphasis on the knowledge of God. Calvin writes in his Institutes:
Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us (see Calvin on John 4:10) that in the Lord, and none but he, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness.12
it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.13
Since, then, the Lord first appears, as well in the creation of the world as in the general doctrine of Scripture, simply as a Creator, and afterward as a Redeemer in Christ—a twofold knowledge of him hence arises: of these the former is now to be considered, the latter will afterward follow in its order.14
Given the knowledge of Calvin at the time, Wesley’s lack of a broader epistemic view of Christ is not inherent to his times, but, rather, it does seem to be more peculiar to his heaven-centered way of reading.
So, if I may propose one weakness of Wesley’s theology, it is how his theology maintains the vestiges of a heaven-focused soteriology in his focus on sin and narrow, instrumentalization of Christ to address sin in the atonement; since Wesley’s pre-Aldersgate concern was about death and condemnation that lead to a preoccupation with sin, his post-Aldersgate theology maintain this same concern but simply transformed as to how the problems are dealt with starting from faith. While this is a substantive change and one that is important for us to remember as followers of Christ, the vestiges of his heaven-or-hell concern still controlled how he construed with the Christian faith and the Scriptures later.
This problem is similarly expressed by Jesus in response to the religious leaders in John 5:39-40: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (NRSV) I don’t quote this to say that Wesley is like the Pharisees; clearly, Wesley loved Christ. But Wesley’s own expressed attitude of searching the Scriptures to have eternal life, I would say, hindered him from seeing Christ more in His fullest expression of who He was and is. Wesley came to Jesus as a propitiation for sure, and no doubt if one looks at the contours of Wesley’s life and the rest of his teachers, the life of Christ is exemplified in his ministry. But there is a narrowing, instrumentalization of Christ in Wesley’s works that puts the greater emphasis on attaining a certain status or state that Christ, and even the Spirit, are instruments of realization, such as confidence that one is a child of God or a state or entire sanctification, rather than on the glory of Christ Himself.
To that end, I appreciate a Barthian critique of Wesleyan theology that would place the emphasis more on God’s disclosure of Himself in Jesus (although I would disagree with Barth on what exactly revelation is and the mode(s) of disclosure) rather than on the status of human salvation where Jesus is the primary instrument. Insofar as the Wesleyan tradition is influenced by the vestiges of this heaven-focused reading, it has some weaknesses in fully grasping the fullness of the New Testament message about Christ and can, through an emphasis on personal status, assurance, etc., put a greater emphasis on ourselves that instrumentalizes and somewhat objectifies God for our own legitimations and needs for assurance rather than being humbled by the God who in Christ and in His Spirit speaks to us “Repent and believe in the good news.”
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 5, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 3.
- Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 25.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 5, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 4.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 5, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 81.
- Ibid. 77
- Harper, Steve. The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley (p. 16). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- Luther, Martin. Commentary on Galatians (Luther Classic Commentaries) (p. 57). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.
- John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition. (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 492.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 76–77.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 103.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 6, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 507–508.
- Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion (p. 1). Hendrickson Publishers. Kindle Edition.
- Ibid, 2.
- Ibid. 4.