By Henry “Hal” Knight III
In John Wesley’s sermon, “The General Spread of the Gospel,” he describes his vision of a Christian world. His depiction is not of a world in which everyone is a member of a church, much less one that has legislated Christian morality. It is instead a world in which “The loving knowledge of God, producing uniform, uninterrupted holiness and happiness, shall cover the earth, shall fill every soul of man” (§8). “Violence shall no more be heard in thy land,” and “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nation” (§26).
That it is God’s intention to renew creation in this way Wesley does not doubt. Yet he finds a considerable obstacle standing in the way of world evangelization, namely, the state of the church itself.
As he surveys the world, he sees both Christian and non-Christian to be strangers to true religion. While many in England would expect western Christians, especially Protestants, to be exemplars of their faith, Wesley is far from impressed. “Put Papists and Protestants, French and English together, the bulk of one and of the other nation; and what manner of Christians are they? Are they ‘holy, as he that hath called them is holy’? Is there ‘that mind in them which was also in Christ Jesus’? And do they ‘walk as Christ also walked’? Nay, they are as far from it as hell is from heaven” (§7).
Wesley believes God is presently working to renew the church as a prelude to an even greater global evangelization. As a prime example, Wesley cites his own movement. As this could be seen as a bit of triumphalism, it is important to note that Wesley continually informed his Methodists of other renewing movements of God around the world. But it is also true that the centerpiece of his theology, holiness of heart and life, made his movement distinct from much of the rest of the trans-Atlantic awakening with its focus on justification. In Wesley’s vision of renewal, it is holiness that makes the difference.
In fact, Wesley hoped this renewal in holiness was “the dawn of ‘the latter day glory’” (§16). His depiction of a renewed church is striking. With the coming of this “grand Pentecost” all will know God, have the law of God written in their hearts, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Their life together will manifest the same practices of the church in Acts 2: “they will ‘continue steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine and in the fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.’” The “natural, necessary consequence” of a church renewed in holiness “will be the same as it was in the beginning of the Christian church.” No one will claim possessions as his or her own, “but they will have all things in common.” There will be no want, for people will sell their lands and houses and then distribute the proceeds to everyone according to their need. Their desires and tempers shall be holy, and all will do “the will of God on earth as it is in heaven,” and their conversation will be gracious to hearers.
Such a vision of a church renewed in holiness, with its faithful practice, abundant love for God, and sacrificial love for neighbor seems wildly utopian. Yet given Wesley’s profound confidence in the power of God and deep conviction that God’s mission is to transform our lives and communities so that we might manifest God’s love in the world, it is theologically realistic.
In Wesley’s mind this is the key to the credibility of the gospel to non-Christians. With the renewal of the church in holiness, and “The grand stumbling-block…thus happily removed out of the way, namely, the lives of the Christians” (§21), others will see us differently, and as a result listen to us with new ears. “The holy lives of the Christians will be an argument they will not know how to resist” (§22); it will be a kind of embodied apologetic for the gospel.
Even if one does not fully accept Wesley’s vision of a holy church, his central point is hard to deny: only a church that manifests love for God in its worship, love for one another within the community, and reaches out in love to others, will be able to share the good news of Jesus Christ with credibility and integrity. Indeed, in the end, a passion for evangelism necessarily rests on the renewal of the church.
This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on Apr 01, 2002 at CatalystResources.org
Dr. Henry H. Knight III is Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology. His books include From Aldersgate to Azusa Street: Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Visions of the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2010) and A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Abingdon, 1997).