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This day in church history: March 2, 1791

On this day, 223 years ago, John Wesley—one of the most renowned Christian preachers in history—passed away in London at age 88. Wesley left behind a legacy that is still influencing the church today. How have Christians in Mississippi been affected by this 18th century man from England? Let’s explore.

1. Wesley and the birth of Methodism

Wesley’s most enduring legacy is the formation of the Methodist movement. Never intending it to be a separate denomination, Wesley’s Methodist revival began as a renewal movement within the Church of England. A lifelong Anglican, both John and his brother Charles were ordained in Christ Church College at Oxford University as priests within England’s official state church.

The first Methodists, so named for their methodical approach to Christian holiness, believed strongly that even if the Church of England didn’t need a doctrinal revival, per se, it needed a revival of the heart, a reawakening to the importance of holy living.

The church of Wesley’s day in England has sometimes been described as a church of “dead orthodoxy”. The Scriptural teaching, heralded by the Reformation, was still present within England’s church, but there was a disconnect between believing the gospel and seeing the gospel make a tangible difference in one’s life. One need only read Charles Dickens to get a sense of how destitute England’s poorest citizens were in the 18th and 19th century. Wesley believed the church ought to do something about this, and that to not do something was a denial of the faith. Hence Wesley’s famous motto: “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.”

Wesley’s own conversion story has become famous. He was already ordained and had already served a brief stint as a missionary in the American colonies before he experienced what he would later regard as his own personal conversion. While listening to Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans read, Wesley said he felt his heart “strangely warmed” and came to the conviction that Christ had died for him personally and that his sins were forgiven. The immediate effect of this experience, Wesley said, was that he was filled with love for God and his neighbor.

2. Wesley’s distinctive theology

John Wesley didn’t see himself a doctrinal innovator. He described himself first and foremost as a preacher of the gospel—the good news that Christ died for the sins of the world and that anyone, through faith in Christ, could have his or her sins forgiven. If one reads the 25 Methodist Articles, drafted by Wesley in 1784 for the Methodists in America, one notices how much restraint Wesley showed in not trying to impose his own theological views on the young Methodist church. One hardly sees anything in the articles that isn’t “mere” Christianity—basic Christian doctrine that all churches would agree on.

That said, Wesley did have some distinctive theological views. Three of the most important were:

A. Entire sanctification

Wesley believed that though Christian may still be capable of sinning, they do not have to sin. Wesley believed it was possible to experience a degree of sanctification in this life to where a person’s heart could be purified, enabling him or her to love God with “perfect” (i.e. complete) love. Wesleyan theology has historically reacted against the assertion in the Westminster Confession that people, Christians included, sin daily in thought, word, and deed. Wesley believed that sanctified Christians should be people that, to put it simply, have stopped sinning.

B. The 2nd work of grace

Many churches describe sanctification as a gradual process—something God does in a person from the time of his or her conversion to the time of death. For Wesley, though, sanctification, like justification, was a moment in which God did a decisive work in a person. Wesley described it as a second work of grace through which a person’s heart could be purified. That’s not to say that Wesley disbelieved that there is a gradual growth that is experienced in the Christian life. Wesley believed that even the most sanctified Christian alive still had room to grow. Still, Wesley believed that sanctification was a pivotal moment that every Christian needed to experience.

In Pentecostal circles, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (usually believed to be characterized by speaking in tongues) is described in language very similar to Wesley’s description of the 2nd work of grace. This could be partly explained by the fact that the earliest Pentecostals had Wesleyan backgrounds.

C. Arminian theology

Wesley believed that the views of James Arminius, which were condemned by the Synod of Dort in 1619 by the Dutch Reformed Church, were true to the Bible. There had been Arminian preachers before Wesley, but it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that he did as much as any other preacher to legitimize Arminian theology. Wesley showed that it was possible to be both solidly evangelical and Arminian.

Wesley believed that even true Christians could fall away from Christ and be lost if they fell into habitual sin. Consequently, for Wesley living holy lives was not optional or peripheral for believers; it was vitally important and to fail to do so could make the difference between heaven and hell. Wesley believed that people being predestined to salvation means simply that God foresees who will and won’t believe and that, on the basis of their faith, he predestines to life those he foresees believing.

Wesley believed that Christ died for all (as opposed to a limited number, as Calvinists teach), and that salvation is freely offered and available to all. Wesley didn’t deny the role of the Holy Spirit in changing a heart’s disposition to make it able to believe the gospel, but he denied that God’s intention was only to draw a select number. Wesley believed the Bible taught that the Holy Spirit’s desire is to draw all people to Christ. It is up to people and their free will whether they will accept or reject Christ.

3. Conclusion

Though Calvinists are sometimes quick to criticize Wesleyan theology, one almost never hears Wesley himself criticized. The life he lived is hard to tear down; even his “opponents” are forced to concede that he loved Jesus and led his life accordingly. Wesley traveled thousands of miles on horseback, preaching to all who would listen, that Jesus was the Savior, that he had died for the sins of the world, and that salvation, full and free, was offered to all who were willing to come.

Thank God for the life and legacy of John Wesley.