This article was originally published in the 2022 issue of the Beeson magazine.
John Wesley (1703-1791), spiritual father of Methodism, believed preaching is generated by the Father’s sending of the Son, through whom the Spirit breathes the beauty of holy love into hearers in particular times, places and circumstances. The message of the gospel creates its medium as the character of messengers whose manner of speaking and living renders tangible witness to the Spirit’s wisdom and power manifested in the self-giving of Christ.
Methodist preachers were therefore called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, whose beauty reverberates through one’s whole being—the heart, soul, mind and strength—in love with God and the neighbors to whom we speak. John Wesley spoke of God’s “design” in raising up the preachers called “Methodists,” which was “to reform the nation and in particular, the Church: to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” There is an aesthetic dimension, an attractiveness, to the design of scriptural holiness as a form of life which embodies the simple beauty of loving devotion to God and sacrificial service to neighbors, especially the poor.Evangelization was, for Wesley, the fruit of a larger purpose: the faithful proclamation and visible enactment of the gospel within the trinitarian economy of justifying and sanctifying grace. Sermons were homiletic expressions of prayerful attentiveness to the canon of Scripture, the Christian tradition and the lives of the saints. Preaching was a public acclamation of praise for the extravagant love of the Father who, by sending the Son in the power of the Spirit, creates and builds up a holy people who worship and serve a holy God in the world. Personal conversion and social ministry, therefore, were not the end or goal. Rather, these were celebrated as Christian witness to God’s mercy which was demonstrated in self-giving love and generated by the Spirit—signs of devotion to God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven by participation in the life and ministry of Christ.
The hymns of Charles Wesley (1707- 1788), younger brother of John Wesley, are often overlooked as significant means of “poetic proclamation” that both informed and inspired the people called Methodists. It is estimated that Charles Wesley’s poems and hymns number around 9,000, as the singing of hymns was a major distinctive to the early Methodist movement of the 18th century. In fact, it is widely believed that Charles’ hymns surpassed John’s sermons in popularizing Methodist doctrine, life and mission. For this reason, Methodist hymnody has been regarded as a primary source of “practical divinity,” a shared way of life that was an expression of the gospel through love for God and love for neighbor, particularly with the poor as proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In praising God, Methodist people sang the union of theology and ethics, which ordered their lives toward the “beauty of holiness.” Debra Dean Murphy’s comments are illuminating:
Christ draws us into the beauty of the triune God and summons from us outward expressions of what we already are: sharers in the divine nature. For Wesley, love of God and neighbor is the centerpiece of Christian perfection which he clarifies in the following manner, ‘By perfection, I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions.’
Because the church has no outward beauty in itself, it is important to remember the means of grace, particularly the intimate connection of the works of piety and mercy, which participate in the humility and holiness of Christ. Wesley saw these as necessary to sanctification, the working out of full salvation which is a form of spiritual and moral beauty. For example, as a work of mercy, ministering to the poor is not merely a matter of moral obligation, economic problem solving or social activism. God has so made this ministry to have a unifying, even “beautiful,” effect among those who experience the joy of mutual giving and receiving that partakes of Christ’s goodness. A hymn by Charles Wesley conveys the significance of welcoming the poor as Christ’s beloved:
The poor, as Jesus’ bosom - friends, The poor he makes his latest care, To all his successors commends, And wills us on our hands to bear: The poor our dearest care we make, Aspiring to superior bliss, And cherish for their Saviour’s sake, And love them with a love like his.
The poor are intimately connected to Christ and therefore central to the gospel and the fruit of holy living. Moreover, for early Methodists, the gospel was a message spoken and heard by quite humble people. They understood Christ’s ministry to both physical and spiritual needs as integral to his mission as the incarnate Son of God. Randy Maddox clarifies the relation between the means of grace and holy living: “The integral connection the Wesleys made between works of mercy and the sanctified life reflects deep disagreement with any such merely instrumental valuation of works of mercy and with the spiritualized view of salvation that underlies it.” Works of piety, such as prayer, reading Scripture, worship and the sacraments, are joined with works of mercy, such as visiting the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and ministering to widows and orphans. Wesley viewed works of mercy as means of grace that contribute to nurturing virtue and piety through encounters of mutual love and service. Loving the poor and needy, then, has a formative rather than merely functional effect—as a means of meeting Christ by participating in his love that both gives and receives with others.
Charles Wesley gives beautiful expression to this in poetic form:
Thus fit us, Savior, for heav’n, as with gladness we restore all that God has freely giv’n to his deputies, the poor. God has chosen the simple poor as the followers of his Son, rich in faith, of glory sure, they shall win the heav’nly crown.
Selfless love for God and the poor directs our attention to the image of God in Christ, which is central for proclaiming and living the gospel. Because the poor are recipients and images of Christ’s humble love, they occupy a central place in the sanctification of our minds and the knowledge of the God whom we confess in him. Therefore, Christians trust and serve God by following the pattern of Christ’s humility and holiness. It is important to remember that self-denial for the sake of recognizing and serving the poor as objects of God’s perfect love was central for Jesus in his ministry of proclaiming and enacting God’s reign. A hymn by Charles Wesley calls upon God to pour out an abundance of the Spirit’s transforming love which is received in the giving of one’s self to others.
Come, thou holy God and true! Come, and my whole heart renew; take me now and possess me whole, form the Savior in my soul: In my heart thy name reveal. Stamp me with the Spirit’s seal, change my nature into thine, in me thy whole image shine. Love immense, and unconfined, Love to all of humankind.
The hymns of Charles Wesley make clear that Christian faith entails glad receptivity to the immensity and humility of God’s self-giving love in Christ. The Holy Spirit conforms us to Christ’s moral excellence with his gifts, virtues and fruit by which we mature in faith, advance in hope and radiate “a beauty, a love, a, holiness.” Wesley hymns the truth of God’s Spirit, who illumines Christian people with the mind of Christ.
Jesus, your church inspire with apostolic love infuse the one desire to store our wealth above, with earthly goods freely to part and joyfully sell all in heart. With your pure Spirit filled, and loving you alone, we shall our substance yield, call nothing here our own, whate’er we have or are submit and lie, as beggars, at your feet.
MichaelPasquarello III is Methodist Chair of Divinity, director ofthe Doctor of Ministry program and director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute at Beeson Divinity School. He is the author of Dietrich: Bonhoeffer and theTheology of a Preaching Life.
John Wesley, “An Address to the Clergy,” The Works of John Wesley 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 485, 499.
See the informative account in David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 53-85.
See the extensive treatment of the Christian plain style of speaking and spiritual beauty in Peter Auski, Christian Plain Style: The Evolution of a Spiritual Ideal (Montreal & Kingston: McGill – Queen’s University Press, 1995), 309-10.
Debra Dean Murphy, Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms, With Questions for Consideration by Andrew Kinsey (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 84.
Cited in Campbell, “The Image ofChrist in the Poor: On theMedieval Roots of the Wesleys’Ministry with the Poor,” 51.
Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, 85.
Randy Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’:John Wesley, the Poor, and theSanctification of Believers,” The Poor and the People Called Methodists 1729-1999 ed. Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 68.
Maddox, “’Visiting the Poor’: John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” 69-76.
Charles Wesley, “Ambitious, covetous, vain,” Help Us to Help Each Other: Hymns for Life and Ministry with the Poor, ed. ST Kimbrough, Jr. Music Editor, Carlton R. Young (Madison, NJ: The Charles Wesley Society, 2010), 22-3.
Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (GrandRapids: Eerdmans/Gracewing, 1992), 21. “Which of the Christians now” in Help Us to Help Each Other, 31.