John Wesley was passionate about doctrine. In fact, his love of doctrine is one of the more underappreciated (and sometimes even unknown) parts of his leadership of the Methodist movement.
Wesley was such a believer in the importance of doctrine that it was—ironically—one of the things that caused him to get in trouble with his own Church of England. We see an example of that in a sermon from 1789 called “Prophets and Priests.” In answering critics who claimed that his actions amounted to separation from the church, Wesley responded: “I hold all the doctrines of the Church of England. I love her Liturgy. I approve her plan of discipline, and only wish it could be put in execution.”
His appreciation for the way that the church’s doctrine and discipline were laid out on paper led Wesley to want to see them truly put into action. In fact, he believed that’s what the Methodist movement was attempting to do. When people would criticize him for planning Methodist services in the city of Dublin at the same time as regular church services, one of the reasons Wesley gave for why he did such a thing was to ensure that the people would have a chance to hear “that sound doctrine which is able to save their souls.”
Nowadays there are all kinds of misconceptions about the nature of the message that Wesley preached and wrote about. Sometimes he is depicted as an excitable evangelist that just wanted to get people pumped up about their faith. Other times you’ll hear people make comments like, “I just really appreciate Wesley’s message about grace.”
Both of these points of view miss the fact that there was actually a lot of concrete content to what Wesley was trying to get across. It wasn’t just about being energetic for Jesus (though that is certainly a good thing!). And it wasn’t just a generalized message about grace or love. Wesley’s understanding of the Christian gospel had fundamental doctrinal content—and he believed that content was of paramount importance for people to hear.
When pressed to summarize the Christian doctrine he thought most central to the Bible, Wesley typically spoke in terms of a three-part scheme: the doctrine of sin and the need for repentance; the doctrine of justification by faith and new birth; and the doctrine of sanctification or holiness. He imagines these three doctrinal heads as the porch, door and house of religion in a famous example from the Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained in 1746.
Wesley writes, “Our main doctrines… are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.”
Wesley’s intense commitment to core Christian doctrine can be explained by the fact that he really believed people’s salvation was at stake in what was being preached by Methodist preachers. The pulpit was not a place to go off into flights of theological fancy, nor was it the proper arena for the preacher to test out his own pet theories about the Bible. It was a place solely meant for the preaching of the meat-and-potatoes gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of the last retrospective essays Wesley wrote about the Methodist movement was a short 1786 piece called “Thoughts upon Methodism.” It is there that he shared his thoughts about the prospects for the Methodist movement in the years to come. And since Wesley was not a man to mince words, he stated exactly what he thought the dangers were to the revival that he had led, by that point, for over 45 years.
He writes, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Our present age is one in which all three of those points Wesley makes are being tested in the extreme—doctrine, spirit and discipline. The Methodist movement may go one of any number of directions in the years to come. If it is to go in a Wesleyan direction, the Methodists themselves must surely take heed of Wesley’s advice and embrace the biblical doctrine that Wesley himself embraced in the movement’s first flourishing.
This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s April 7, 2017 edition. You can read it in the online version of the AUM newspaper here.