Wednesday with Wesley: On the Reformation

John_Wesley Tomorrow is Reformation Day (aka Halloween). It is the day when Martin Luther published the 95 Theses and ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

John Wesley was a Reformer in his own right who worked to revitalize the Anglican church and to keep the Methodism movement he started from splintering off into its own church.  He lived near the mid point between the start of the Reformation and our current day and thus provides us with an interesting “midterm report”.

John Wesley wrote several treatises on Catholicism, including The Advantage of the Members of the Church of England over those of the Church of Rome (Advantage) in 1753 and Popery Calmly Considered (Popery) in 1779. In these works Wesley articulated some of the major differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants.

The key difference then as now was how an article of faith (doctrinal issue) would be defined and defended. On this Wesley contrasted the Church of England with the Church of Rome in Advantage as follows:

Now, it is a known principle of the Church of England, that nothing is to be received as an article of faith, which is not read in the Holy Scripture, or to be inferred therefrom by just and plain consequence. Hence it follows, that every Christian has a right to know and read the Scripture, that he may be sure what he hears from his teachers agrees with the revealed word of God.

On the contrary, at the very beginning of the Reformation, the Church of Rome began to oppose this principle, that all articles of faith must be provable from Scripture, (till then received throughout the whole Christian world,) and to add, if not prefer, to Holy Scripture, tradition, or the doctrine of Fathers and Councils, with the decrees of Popes. …

How plain is it that this remedy was found out because they themselves observed that many doctrines, practices, and ceremonies of their Church, not only could not be proved by Scripture, but were flatly contradictory thereto.

Since the Reformation ignited over the selling of indulgences, I thought it fitting to post Wesley’s views on that topic, which is found in Popery:

That a man may truly and properly merit hell, we grant ; although he never can merit heaven. But if he does merit hell, yet, according to the doctrine of the Church of Rome, he need never go there. For “the Church has power to grant him an indulgence, which remits both the fault and the punishment.”

…These indulgences are to be obtained by going pilgrimages, by reciting certain prayers, or (which is abundantly the most common way) by paying the stated price of it.

  • Now, can any thing under heaven be imagined more horrid, more execrable than this?
  • Is not this a manifest prostitution of religion to the basest purposes?
  • Can any possible method be contrived, to make sin more cheap and easy ?

Even the Popish Council of Trent acknowledged this abuse, and condemned it in strong terms ; but they did not in any degree remove the abuse which they acknowledged.

This miserable doctrine of indulgences is founded upon another bad doctrine, that of works of supererogation ; for the Church of Rome teaches, that there is “an overplus of merit in the saints ; and that this is a treasure committed to the Church’s custody, to be disposed as she sees meet.” …

But suppose there were a superabundance of merits in the saints, yet we have no need of them, seeing there is such an infinite value in what Christ hath done and suffered for us ; seeing he alone hath ” by one offering perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).

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