Wednesday with Wesley: A Look at His Favorite Book of the Bible

John_WesleyDo you have a favorite book of the Bible? The one you think is the most important and stands out to you in some special way. For Luther it was Romans (see his preface), for Calvin it was the book of Ephesians (see this TGC article), and for Wesley it was 1 John.

I began expounding the deepest part of the Holy Scripture, namely, the first Epistle of St. John; by which above all other, even inspired writings, I advise every young preacher to form his style. Here are sublimity and simplicity together, the strongest sense and the plainest language! (Journal dated July 18, 1765)

I imagine if we were to be able to identify the book of the Bible that each of us finds to be ‘above all’ others that it would reveal a lot about our theological outlook and may help us identify the theological presuppositions we take to other texts when we read the Bible. It is clear that Wesley’s theology and ministry was heavily influenced by his preference for First John.

Wesley, a preeminent Arminian theologian, is probably best know for his intense focus on holiness in the life of those who would follow Christ. In sermon #62 – The End of Christ’s Coming – John Wesley defines Christianity based on his examination of the victory that Christ achieved over the devil (1 John 3:8). Using this text he poses 3 questions:

  1. What are the works of the devil?
  2. How was Christ manifested to destroy them?
  3. How did Christ destroy them?

In answering these questions Wesley concludes that when we exercise saving faith in Christ we are transformed and it is this work in our hearts that defeats the works of the devil.

And it is by thus manifesting himself in our hearts that he [the Son of God] effectually “destroys the works of the devil.”

Using 1 John 3:5-9, Wesley concludes (rightly) that:

From the whole of this it appears, that “the works of the devil,” here spoken of, are sin, and the fruits of sin.

Although Christ has secured victory over the devil and his works, Wesley reminds us, this victory is not complete and will not be until his return.

And death itself, “the last enemy” of man, shall be destroyed at the resurrection …  [when] the Son of God, manifested in the clouds of heaven, shall destroy this last work of the devil!

In this sermon Wesley’s concludes by defining Christianity based on his understanding of Johaninne theology. For Wesley the defining mark of Christian religion is the restoration of a person inwardly more than it is about what we know or even what we do.

As Satan turned the heart of man from the Creator to the creature; so the Son of God turns his heart back again from the creature to the Creator.

This turning of the heart accomplishes a restoring of ‘the sinner in whom dwelleth no good thing, to love and holiness‘. It is this inward transformation that enables John to write “whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” (1 John 3:9) and for Wesley to conclude that Christian perfection was ‘loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.’ (Sermon 76). For both Wesley and the Apostle John the assurance that we possess eternal life is based on the evidence that this life giving restoration has occurred (1 John 5:13).

… Beware of taking any thing else, or anything less than this, for religion! Not any thing else: Do not imagine an outward form, a round of duties, both in public and private, is religion! Do not suppose that honesty, justice, and whatever is called morality, (though excellent in its place) is religion! And least of all dream that orthodoxy, right opinion, (vulgarly called faith) is religion. Of all religious dreams, this is the vainest; which takes hay and stubble for gold tried in the fire!

… Take no less for his religion, than the “faith that worketh by love;” all inward and outward holiness.

Certainly if one has read any of Wesley’s works it would be clear that he is orthodox and did not accept the notion that believing anything is acceptable (and certainly neither did the Apostle John). But one sees just as clearly that, for both of these men, a faith that does not result in an inward transformation, a love for God, and for others is not a genuine, saving faith.

And for Wesley and the Apostle John a claim to know God while persisting in a life of sin is proof that the person does not know God. In sermon 13, Wesley writes:

I do not suppose any man who is justified is a slave to sin: Yet I do suppose sin remains (at least for a time) in all that are justified.

The key for both theologians is whether the person is pursuing sin (walking in darkness) or fighting against it with all his might.

Christ indeed cannot reign, where sin reigns; neither will he dwell where any sin is allowed. But he is and dwells in the heart of every believer, who is fighting against all sin;

Continuing on in sermon #62, Wesley writes that the Christian religion rests on Jesus’ victory over sin that results in forgiveness of all sins and a life of holiness:

Be not content with any religion which does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil; that is, of all sin.

We know, weakness of understanding, and a thousand infirmities, will remain, while this corruptible body remains; but sin need not remain: This is that work of the devil, eminently so called, which the Son of God was manifested to destroy in this present life. He is able, he is willing, to destroy it now, in all that believe in him.

Wesley urges us to “walk in light” and to resist with all our might our corruptible body that would lead us into sin. And while Wesley never claimed to attain the level of perfection described in John he understood it to be possible.

What is your favorite book of the Bible? Leave a comment and let us know.

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