Wesley on Moral Character

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

Photo by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash

In his recent book, On Paradise Drive (Simon & Schuster, 2004), D. Brooks makes an important observation about American higher education. Contemporary society encourages commitment to high achievement, and at its best produces young people who “are industrious, energetic, bright, flexible, responsible, tolerant, broad-minded, nice, compassionate, considerate, and lively” (179). Yet, apart from these virtues, there is no longer any sense that colleges should attempt to form character. Professors see “passing along knowledge, not building character, as their primary task;” students are “hesitant to say anything definitive” about character for fear of seeming intolerant (174-75). It is not that students do not want to be good people, it is that they lack an idea of how that might be achieved.

Wesley lived in an age with different assumptions. His frustration with Oxford was based on the assumption that education had something to do with building Christian character. The Holy Club which he and his brother began was an attempt to provide the Christian formation they found missing at Oxford, much as the later Methodist movement was an attempt to do the same for the Church of England.

Discussions of moral character in our day tend to break down whenever it is suggested that there is a character that is normative for all people, or even for all Christians. Whoever dares to make such a suggestion is seen as imposing his or her view of morality on everyone else. Moreover, the suggested norm is frequently experienced as an external law demanding obedience. People are quick to reject legalisms as unwarranted restrictions on personal freedom.

It is here that Wesley has much to offer, for he had a clear sense of the moral character God wishes us to have. We were created in God’s image, the heart of which is love. While we have fallen from that image and cannot on our own regain it, God desires to give it to us as a gift. We receive and grow in this new life through faith.

In one sense this moral character runs afoul of modern sensibilities. Wesley believes it is for all people, and certainly for all Christians. Nor is it whatever we want it to be—it is rooted in our thankful and loving response to God’s love for us in Christ, and results in our becoming more like Christ (and hence more like God) as we grow in love. Yet Wesley does not seek to impose a rigid morality, for part of growing in grace is our continual discovery of just what it means for us to love God and our neighbor as God has loved us in Christ. The Christian life cannot mean anything we want, but it is much more than we can say or imagine. To grow as a Christian requires both a givenness in revelation and a freedom in action.

Wesley’s Methodists certainly had rules, but their purpose was not legalistic morality but spiritual discipline. To regularly participate in works of piety such as prayer, searching the Scriptures, and the Lord’s Supper not only enabled them to maintain a relationship with God and an expectant faith, but also to encounter again and again the redemptive history of God’s love. They were thus able to grow in the knowledge and love of God through experiencing that love in these means of grace. Likewise, to participate in works of mercy toward the neighbor enabled love to be expressed as well as continually shaped through the concrete experience of loving others.

Wesley does not leave us at sea in the quest for moral character, but neither does he impose a rigid code of ethics. Instead he provides the ethos and practices in which we can grow in moral character through an ongoing encounter with God and the neighbor. This is a spirituality that does not take away our freedom. Instead, it restores our freedom to be all that God created us to be.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on March 01, 2005 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).

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