John Wesley lived from 1703 to 1791, and spent nearly all his life in England, as an Anglican (Episcopal) priest. He is said to have traveled over 250,000 miles back and forth across England, and preached over 40,000 sermons. He has rightly been called the last of the great Protestant Reformers.
Although no slouch as a scholar (he translated the New Testament into English from Greek, and wrote extensive commentaries on the Scriptures), Wesley was at heart a pastor. He understood that it is not what believers profess with our lips (doctrine), but what we show forth in our lives (Christian charity) that matters. For Wesley, all Christians are ministers, and all are called to at work in preparing Christ's coming kingdom. This is the work of "practical Christianity"; being actively engaged in doing as our Lord taught.
While at college, the young John Wesley, his brother Charles, and several of his friends gathered together regularly for prayer, Scripture reading, and mutual encouragement in good works. The group's routine meetings and religious zeal drew the scorn of their fellow students, who mockingly referred to them as "Bible moths," and "methodists." Rather than finding the term insulting, John and Charles adopted it as an apt description of their practice, and Methodism was born.
Wesley sought to reclaim the practices of personal spiritual discipline, personal holiness, and incarnated expressions of faith. He recognized that the Good News of Jesus went beyond salvation of the individual believer, calling for the building of caring communities and changing destructive social conditions as well. He advocated for prison and education reform, and vehemently denounced slavery.
Passionately committed to bringing the Gospel to the unchurched and the disenfranchised (and those the Church hierarchy considered unimportant), and barred from spreading his "uncouth doctrine" from pulpits, Wesley took to open air preaching. He spent his entire life carrying the joyful Message of God's love across the countryside — from village greens to city squares to rural farms: the world became his parish.
Methodism, when it is true to its name, is about a method of daily life that cultivates growing awareness of God's active grace, sees the possibility of increasing personal holiness within daily life, and is fully committed to Jesus' teachings and life.
Wesley formulated two essential questions to be asked of each new convert to his societies: 1. Has Jesus the Nazarene become the Christ for you? and 2. Does your daily life reflect that the Christ is at work in you?
As for theological disputes (of which there were many in his time, as in ours), Wesley made a distinction between opinion — which he called the non-essential beliefs; and faith — which for Wesley was complete trust and absolute reliance on Christ Jesus' work in one's life. In The Character of a Methodist, he wrote:
The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of Religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever therefore imagines, that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally. We believe indeed, that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, .... We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule, both of Christian faith and practice; .... We believe Christ to be the eternal, supreme God;.... But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.
Wesley taught that all of Creation is surrounded by God's grace and love from which we are never apart. This love inspires us to yearn for a new life in Christ ("prevenient grace"). This love works in us to relieve the weight of our sins, revealing the power and joy of forgiveness through Christ ("justifying grace"). As we begin to live as a grateful, forgiven people, God's love steadily leads our souls toward perfection: as we grow into the image of our Savior in all we do and say and believe ("sanctifying grace").
Wesley sought to restore scriptural Christianity: a familiarity with and reliance on the Bible as an inspired — and inspiring — source of wisdom and comfort to believers. Rather than see it as a dry recitation of past events, he looked to the scriptures as a source of hope, and a living revelation of how God was at work in his life at that very time.
Wesley knew that numerous versions of the Scriptures existed from the early church and understood the challenges (and temptations) of translation, aware that the "final" text had been subjected to a great deal of editing (which Bible scholars call "redaction"). He also recognized that there were places in which the text was faulty — where the hand of man had obscured the Word of God; as in his vehement refutation of slavery ("that execrable sum of all villanies, commonly called the Slave-trade").
The NMC seeks to combine Wesley's passion for Biblical literacy with the best of modern scholarship as well as the teachings of our faith ancestors — we truly do "stand on the shoulders of giants." From this perspective we develop a fuller understanding of how to live as faithful witnesses of the holy Gospel and our hearts grow every day more grateful to God.
Like Wesley, we value the life of learning, but know that unless it finds roots in the heart and a life of service, it is hollow. He wrote: "An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge."
John Wesley gives us a persuasive, powerful model for Christian life: prayer and practice, Scripture study and social action. Each of these supports and encourages the others, and together they guide us along the Way of the Lord.