In 1790, just one year before his death, John Wesley compiled what he titled A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. While the poetry included in the hymnal is nothing short of a grandiose combination of beauty and rich theology, Wesley saw the collection as having a distinct purpose. He writes in the preface:
The [hymn-book] is large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical; yea, to illustrate them all, and to prove them both by Scripture and reason. … So that this book is in effect a little body of experimental and practical divinity.
In other words, for Wesley, the hymnal was a theology textbook! But unlike Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or Luther’s Small Catechism, Wesley saw theology as not something meant to be kept in the likes of an ivory tower. Rather, the faith of the Church is meant to be lived out, both in corporate worship and in the everyday life of the believer. Perhaps this conviction is why William Willimon writes in his book, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction, “John Wesley praised theology that was “practical,” that is, belief put into practice, belief in motion. Doctrine ought to be performed as a sign of our faith in a Lord who invited and commanded, “Follow me.”
Wesleyan theology in all its various expressions yet in its truest form holds in careful balance its inward and the outward—the internal and the external—components. It holds tremendous value in both the warmed heart and the strong social witness. Yet Wesley consistently feared the fires of the Methodist revival would eventually become cooled. Thus, Methodism would lose its fervor and join the ranks of any and every other institutional religious expression. The flame God’s Spirit ignited was in danger of being extinguished by complacent religiosity. Such sentiments are identified in Wesley’s Sermon 116, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity.” The sermon was delivered in Dublin in 1789. In it, Wesley asks:
Why then are not these altogether Christians, who have both Christian doctrine and Christian discipline, why is not the spiritual health of the people called Methodists recovered? Why is not all that “mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus?” Why have we not learned of him our very first lesson, to be meek and lowly of heart, to say with him, in all circumstances of life, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt. I come not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me?” Why are we not “crucified to the world, and the world crucified to us,” – dead to the “desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, and the pride of life?” Why do not all of us live “the life that is hid with Christ in God?
Undoubtedly, Wesley’s words are timeless. The dangers over which he fretted still loom over those who would call themselves Methodist or Wesleyan today. He was consistent to distinguish between “real” and “formal” religion, or as he was wont to put it, “the power of God” versus the “form of godliness.” While we may say we desire and pray for the real religion of the power of God, our personal lives and our churches often resemble the formalities of godliness yet denying God’s power among us.
The season of Lent is a wonderful liturgical season to reverse these trends both in our individual lives and in our shared lives together. It is a season for Methodists and Wesleyans of all kinds to flex their practical divinity muscles. Lent is, in short, forty days of practical divinity, of putting our beliefs into motion! The practices of fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and study are the traditional Lenten disciplines. But Wesley required these disciplines for those who would call themselves Methodists.
So why then do we engage in these disciplines? The austerity of the season aside, Lent is not merely a season of deprivation. If we are only depriving ourselves of some sort of good for the sake of the season, we have missed the whole point. Giving up chocolate or alcohol will not intrinsically draw us closer to God. We are not talking about fool-proof guarantees! No, Lent is also a season of reception. We fast and pray so that we may receive what God desires to give us. We study so that we may learn from Jesus as we follow him from the wilderness temptation to the cross to the Resurrection. We give of ourselves to others, because what we receive during Lent is not meant for us to keep. Indeed, the words of Jesus are true, “It is more blessed to give, than to receive. (Acts 20:35)”
The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian Church, “Because we have [Christ’s] promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. (2 Corinthians 7:1, NLT)” The invitation Paul gives to the Corinthians is our invitation to the Lenten season. We, too, are called to allow the Holy Spirit to perform the cleansing work, removing all outward and inward sin. Such cleansing frees us to go on to complete holiness in the fear of God.
Wesleyan theology is a great gift to greater Body of Christ, but we Wesleyans are called to make it practical, to put it into practice, and to set our beliefs into motion. Then, the world may very well catch a glimpse of the beauty of the Methodist/Wesleyan movement.
Therefore, the questions stand before us. How will you let the Holy Spirit guide you during this season of Lent? More importantly, how will you let him make your theology practical?
As we walk through another Lent, we do so discerning the will of God, following Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb, and availing ourselves to the presence and power of the Spirit. In doing so, we may see the fires of the Methodist revival be rekindled again.
1. Hildebrandt, Franz and Oliver A. Beckerlegge, eds. A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists. Vol. 7 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983), 73-4.
2. William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), xiv.
3. “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, last modified July 13, 2005. Accessed February 26, 2017 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/sermons.vii.viii.html?highlight=causes,of,the,inefficacy,christianity#highlight.