Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love
(Crossway, 2015) by Fred Sanders
Wesley on the Christian Life begins by making two assertions: first that “evangelicals inside of Methodism are well aware that the Methodist movement has become what it was once a reaction against” (p. 15) and second that “Wesley’s kind of stirring” (p. 15) is needed because “his message is medicinal for much that ails us all today” (p. 15). Regarding this latter point, Wesley on the Christian Life states of Wesley:
He perceived the inherent unity of things that we have, to our harm, learned to think of as separate, or even as opposites. He saw that holiness of heart and life was internally and necessarily linked to the free forgiveness of sins. He saw the connection between justification and sanctification, and was able to communicate it powerfully. He was possesses of one central faith, that man is justified by faith and perfected by love. (p. 15)
The task of Wesley on the Christian Life is two-fold: (1) to introduce Wesley’s theology and spirituality and (2) “to recommend (with a few caveats) a generally Wesleyan approach to living a balanced Christian life.” (p. 15). Before delving into these purposes in 10 chapters, the author (a Wesleyan theologian) of Wesley on the Christian Life is fully aware of the following: the wide range of voices and perspectives of who was Wesley and of its accompanying multiple interpretations (So Many Wesleys, So Little Time) and of the following: that many ignore or revise parts of Wesley they do not like and that Wesley was able to cross lines and mixed traditions that are today rarely combined.
The author of Wesley on the Christian Life, one who got saved in a Methodist youth group, presents the warmhearted evangelical Protestant John Wesley. His approach is as follows:
His teaching on the Christian life trades heavily on being born again, on deeply felt heart religion, on justification by faith alone, on awareness of original sin and total dependence on God’s grace, on active cultivation of spiritual disciplines, and on striving for growth in knowledge and grace. His view of the Christian life is fed by the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy and is crowned by an experiential, evangelical Trinitarianism. (p. 18)
Wesley on the Christian Life closes its introduction by acknowledging the role of Charles Wesley as supporting witness and by underscoring that Wesley “was above all a preacher and a pastoral theologian” (p. 21), one whose field of expertise can be called ‘practical divinity’.
Chapter 1 of Wesley on the Christian Life briefly describes John Wesley’s life and character. The aim here is to present John Wesley as a spiritual guide. Chapter 1 of Wesley on the Christian Life narrates his early life, the background of his grandparents (nonconformists or dissenters from the Church of England), his evangelical conversion at Aldersgate, his role in the 1740s revival, the ways he built and organized the Methodist movement and facets of his personal life particularly his marriage (a disaster).
Chapter 2 of Wesley on the Christian Life focuses on John Wesley’s evangelical conversion at Aldersgate. The aim here is to present why John Wesley considered that Anglicans in the 1700s were almost Christians: namely, his theological convictions guiding the doctrine of justification and regeneration. Chapter 2 of Wesley on the Christian Life explains in detail Wesley’s conversion at Aldersgate, his theological convictions regarding salvation by faith and his challenge and call for the church in his time to live and embrace Scriptural Christianity.
Chapter 3 of Wesley on the Christian Life explores John Wesley’s approached to Christianity: heart religion. The aim here is to present John Wesley’s view of Christianity as heart religion and defend it against misunderstandings. Chapter 3 of Wesley on the Christian Life states the reasons for Wesley’s view: a spiritual decline in eighteenth century England that call for a focus on regeneration and justification; the human problem is a heart problem; his indebtedness to George Whitefield and Puritanism; the impact and relationship of heart religion to singing and hymnology; and the transition from holy temper to holy mercy one that causes John Wesley to affirm that “mere knowledge is confessedly too week” (p. 101) and one that causes John Wesley to call (writing to Wilberforce) for the abolition of slavery in England. “It was heart religion that brought down slavery” (p. 100).
Chapter 4 of Wesley on the Christian Life examines in what ways the first epistle of John defined John Wesley as a theologian. The aim here is to present why 1 John was John Wesley’s favorite book. Chapter 4 of Wesley on the Christian Life cautions about the danger of a ‘canon within a canon’; states the fact that 1 John called the attention of John Wesley because in this epistle he found “a portrayal of the Christian life as fellowship with God” (p. 105); help us understand Wesley’s theology by reading it as ‘John first, then Paul’ or ‘John plus Paul’ and Wesley’s drawing from Protestant and Catholic traditions for his Protestant doctrine of holiness.
Chapter 5 of Wesley on the Christian Life delves into John Wesley’s explanation of the role of justification by faith for both conversion and as the basis for sanctification. The aim here is to present how John Wesley sough to affirm article eleventh of the Thirty-Ninth articles of the Church of England while guarding it from or against antinomian understandings. Chapter 5 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes various events that shaped John Wesley: namely, his reading and reaction to James Hervey’s work Theron and Aspasio which was indebted to Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification; his sermon entitled ‘The Lord of Righteousness’ preached as a reflection on the disagreements that led to division in the church and his troubled engagement with the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (due to his intuition that it can led to believers shielding themselves from the demands of the law resulting in antinomianism).
Chapter 6 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes John Wesley’s articulation of the doctrine of grace and it marries aspects of forgiveness and empowerment. The aim here is to describe John Wesley’s holistic doctrine of grace. Chapter 6 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes the following: John Wesley’s doctrine as ‘first grace, then law’; John Wesley’s outline of his nomophilic doctrine of grace as seen in the table of contents of the Standard Sermons and in the principles derived from his exposition of the Sermon of the Mount and that his doctrine of grace permeates his preaching (which led to evangelical awakening in the eighteenth century) and which includes “the power of God for transformation” (p. 170).
Chapter 7 of Wesley on the Christian Life focuses on John Wesley’s articulation of the means of grace. The aim here is to state and explain that John Wesley’s goal for ministry was “to bring the soul into personal contact with the gracious God” (p. 173) by God’s appointed means of grace. Chapter 7 of Wesley on the Christian Life delves into John Wesley’s calls for balance between the Moravians’ theological presuppositions (meaning their underestimation of the means) and others’ overestimation of the means of grace; Charles Wesley’s singing of John Wesley’s means of grace; the danger of lumping together the means of grace and the spiritual disciplines and John Wesley’s exhaustive list of spiritual disciplines which includes: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Prayer, meditating and Christian conference.
Chapter 8 of Wesley on the Christian Life tackles John Wesley’s teaching that Jesus ‘saves to the uttermost’ also called in the following ways; entire sanctification, Christian perfection, and perfect love. The aim here is to present John Wesley’s vision of the perfect life. Chapter 8 of Wesley on the Christian Life acknowledges that this is perhaps the most controversial teaching and the one that separates the Methodist from the Calvinist-Evangelical wings of the Revival and then provides Wesley’s definition of sanctification and whether it can be completed; examines the principle of real change; Wesley’s characterization of the benefits of union with Christ; explains what is Christian perfection; elaborates on the major objections to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection and lays out for the reader a Reformed critique and commendation (J.I. Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit) of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection.
Chapter 9 of Wesley on the Christian Life delves into John Wesley’s articulation of catholicity meaning that “a Christian’s life could not live out in isolation from the universal church” (p. 219). The aim here is to present the catholic spirit of John Wesley. Chapter 9 of Wesley on the Christian Life describes the great tradition of Christian spirituality; Wesley’s admonition against triumphalism and narrowness in his sermons and Wesley’s efforts at an ecumenism that reached “across time, through the great tradition” (p. 235) and Wesley’s cooperation across the Calvinist-Arminian divide. Spurgeon, a Calvinist Baptist, stated that “Wesleyanism wasn’t the main danger of his, or any, age. The main danger is Christians failing to be wide awake, failing to be fully Christian” (p. 239-240).
Finally, chapter 10 of Wesley on the Christian Life briefly explain the Trinitarian character and pattern of John Wesley’s theology and how it undergirds his spirituality. The aim here is to present the Trinitarian theology of John Wesley. Chapter 10 of Wesley on the Christian Life begins with an appreciation Wesley’s trinitarianism; focuses on the gospel-centeredness and experientially-based character of Wesley’s trinitarianism; shortly notes the Trinitarian theology of Methodism in Charles Wesley’s hymns and cites evidence in Wesley’s sermons that “true religion is Trinitarian” (p. 250).
There are two things that I appreciate about Wesley on the Christian Life. One is the potential for learning (and for retrieving the Christian tradition for the renewal of the church) that the theology of John Wesley has for the contemporary American evangelical church. The other thing that I value about this biography is the practical character and identity of John Wesley. We may disagree about particular and core doctrinal issues. But we need to treasure that practical theology and divinity as well as practical concerns of the Anglican minister who is celebrated and esteemed not only by the Christ followers and disciples of Wesleyan, Methodist, Holiness, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches worldwide but also by any Gospel-lover and serious student of the Scriptures and church history who should be wholeheartedly grateful for Wesley’s thinking on what it means to live as a Christian.