Essay / Theology

How to Read John Wesley's Sermons

John Wesley is an author we go out of our way to read In the Torrey Honors Institute’s great books sequence. In most great books curricula, you wouldn’t likely find Wesley’s name ranked alongside Homer, Plato, Augustine, and Dante, but because of our evangelical identity at Biola, it is crucial that we interact with the classic evangelical voices. And John Wesley stands out as a major influence on evangelical Protestant thought and life. So we read him (among a select few post-Reformation evangelicals, including his contemporary Jonathan Edwards and our namesake R.A. Torrey).

There’s no problem deciding what we should read, either: Wesley’s sermons. Though he wrote and edited voluminously in a variety of genres, it’s the sermons that made history and deserve to be heard today. Wesley even specified a few dozen sermons that he considered to be standards, which makes our selection easier. In fact, back in the year 2000 I consulted with Wesley scholar Kenneth Collins of Asbury Theological Seminary and asked him what primary text he would assign to a captive audience of undergraduates. He said, as I expected, the 52 Standard Sermons, and he even recommended a representative sub-set within them.

But we’ve had trouble getting the old 19th-century edition of the Standard Sermons into the hands of students, and have limped along, making do with internet versions (they’re in the public domain, after all). For years we’ve had these practical challenges when answering the question, “what primary source should one read to grasp the thought of John Wesley?”

So I’m delighted that Abingdon has just released a volume that solves our problems: The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey.

At about 650 pages, this collection of 60 of Wesley’s sermons is pretty likely to serve this generation as the definitive anthology for reading Wesley firsthand. It is published by a Methodist press and edited by two respected Methodist scholars. One of those two editors is the aforementioned Ken Collins, and the other is Jason Vickers, Associate Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies and United Theological Seminary.

Vickers is author, most recently, of Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal (Baylor UP, 2011) and is one of the leaders in the program known as Canonical Theism. As for his credentials to edit the sermons of Wesley, he is author of Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed , and co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to John Wesley.

I asked Vickers a few questions about this new collection of Wesley sermons. Here are his responses.

FS: Jason, this collection is sub-titled “for the Christian journey.” In the introduction you situate sermons in the context of the church’s “significant resources for the theological and spiritual formation of believers.” If these sermons are instruments of spiritual formation for the people of God, can you describe how you hope the collection will be used?

JV: Fred, my hope is that the volume will be used in Christian colleges and seminaries and by clergy and laity to help initiate theological reflection on the Christian life and especially on the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the most straightforward approach is to use the work as a textbook in a course. However, there is lots of room for creativity here. At my seminary, for example, I will be leading a group of students and interested faculty and staff through the collection one sermon at a time on Tuesday mornings. It will take us a little more than a year to work through all sixty sermons, but we will do so in a spirit of prayer and open conversation about everything from the idea that we are made the image of God to sin and grace, salvation through Christ, assurance, sanctification, and the like. But the spirit of this exercise will be devotional and confessional, not theoretical. Indeed, I think everything hinges on how you approach the sermons themselves. We will be reading the sermons, but there is also a sense in which we will be allowing the sermons to read us, or at least to put questions to us.

FS: In addition to its value as a resource for spiritual formation, students will use the collection to get an understanding of John Wesley’s theology. I want to ask you a question about the structure of Wesley’s thought. Tom Oden has edited a three-volume collection of John Wesley’s Teachings, and in a recent review of that project Nazarene theologian Tom Noble wondered if “both the strength and weakness of Wesleyan theology” are found in “its focus on repentance, faith, and holiness, in order to awaken nominal Christians… but on the other hand, its tendency to take almost for granted the central proclamation of ‘Christ crucified’?”

Does Wesley’s theology rush past the great, objective truths of Christian doctrine and devote too much attention to Christian experience?

JV: It depends on how you read Wesley. I find the heart of his theology to be his pneumatology. If you read Wesley with one eye constantly on what he has to say about the Holy Spirit, then what you end up with is a rather robust form of economic Trinitarianism. And within the arc of God’s movement toward us and God’s gathering up our lives into God’s own life, I find that, for Wesley, the Holy Spirit makes manifest the presence of the Lord. So, contrary to stereotypes of Wesley and of Pietism, mediation and manifestation is all over the place. He is almost hyper-sacramental at times.

FS: This collection is inclusive: it omits none of Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons, plus it adds eight more. So it runs to 650 pages, which is a hefty dose of preaching. Were you tempted to leave out some of the standard sermons, either to shrink the volume or make room for other things?

JV: Not once.

FS: I’m thrilled to see all of Wesley’s sermons “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount” included here. But their sequence is rather chopped up and they are distributed throughout the book. Why is this a better organization of that sermon series thanWesley’s own, straightforward ordering? What is it about Wesleyan ethics, for example, that we can glean here?

JV: I tend to agree with you here. This is one place where using the order (ordo) or way (via) of salvation results in the collection’s organization feeling a bit forced. Of course, readers and instructors of courses should feel free to re-arrange the order, and I certainly wouldn’t object if someone wanted to read the Sermon on the Mount series in its original order. As for Wesleyan ethics, let me simply say that I can think of no better resource than the Sermon on the Mount series.

FS: Readers often pick up on Wesley’s optimistic, maximal view of the transformation that the Holy Spirit can bring about in believers through grace. But then they feel threatened by that very “optimism of grace,” because sometimes Wesley gives the impression that there is no room for doubt, struggle, or even slow growth in a Christian life. This collection has a series of ten sermons that you categorize as dealing with “Challenges to the Christian Life.” What are you saying, editorially, about Wesley’s view of the Christian life?

JV: Fred, this is a very astute observation. I think we are trying to call attention to the fact that Wesley does recognize ongoing challenges and struggles within the Christian life and to life in general. For example, he has some very interesting things to say about aging and the decay of the body. Wesley believed that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, Christians could be liberated from sin and from sinning, but he did not believe that Christians ceased to be human in every sense of the word. We go on wrestling with fear and anxiety and all sorts of other things.

Thus, while Wesley speaks often of joy and happiness in Christ, he also readily acknowledges that joy and happiness are the sorts of things that wax and wane. I actually find him to be refreshingly honest in that way, especially in his later years.

FS: One striking thing about this collection is that Wesley presents a definite anti-Calvinist profile here. When Wesley organized his own sermons for publication as guidelines for the Methodist movement, he did not include the controversial, anti-Calvinist sermon from 1739,  “Free Grace.” But in this collection, you’ve given it the pole position, right up front after two sermons on the human condition and before any of the revival preaching on awakening, repentance, and justification. Wesley only preached this anti-Calvinist sermon twice, as you note in the introduction, and it caused a rift with Whitefield and the Calvinistic Methodists. In this collection, you’ve made the “Free Grace” sermon the gateway to Wesleyan theology. Also, I notice that Wesley’s eulogy on George Whitefield, which he included in his own 1770-1771 collection of 53 sermons, is conspicuously absent.

I probably have a tendency to downplay Wesley’s anti-Calvinist elements, because I see him as doing likewise in his authoritative publications. By promoting the “Free Grace” sermon and omitting the Whitefield eulogy, you’ve made the decision to make sure Wesley’s anti-Calvinist profile cannot be overlooked. Why is that important?

JV: This is another great question, Fred. I suspect that this is one of those moments where something looks one way to an outsider and an entirely different way to an insider. Within Wesleyanism, there is sometimes a hyper-sensitivity to the accusation (less frequent in these days of growing theological illiteracy) that Wesleyans and Methodists are Pelagian in their view of salvation. Over the years, our favorite way of countering this accusation is to say that we believe in free grace rather than free will.

But there is another dimension. Even in the absence of accusations of Pelagianism by non-Wesleyans (again, something that is less and less frequent these days), we Wesleyans inherited from Wesley a certain tendency to try to earn our grace. So free grace is also a way in which we remind ourselves that God is always moving freely towards us and that before we begin moving towards God. And in this broader sense of “prevenient grace,” the theme is everywhere in Wesley. For example, you can see it in his emphasis on the Spirit’s work of rehabilitating the spiritual senses.

None of this is to downplay the explicitly anti-Calvinist dimension of the sermon “Free Grace.” It is rather to say that there are broader intra-Wesleyan dynamics here that probably influenced our thinking on the placement of this sermon.

Having said this, I do think that the doctrine of the unlimited atonement has dogmatic status for Wesleyans. In other words, it is a litmus test of sorts. And both Wesley and Wesleyans therefore frequently go out of our way to reject the doctrine of predestination in its usual or popular form (though often failing to see its function within the arc of Calvin’s theology, namely, to cohere with and support the doctrine of divine sovereignty and freedom).

Circling back to my earlier point, I think what really appalled Wesley was his perception that predestination precludes striving after God, which is to say, that it leads to spiritual apathy. But if you are going to oppose apathy and promote striving (something this collection wants to do), then you are invariably going to open the door to works righteousness, so you put a sermon on free grace near the front.

FS: Why no Charles Wesley in this collection? Can the sermons of John stand without the hymns of Charles? Especially if we’re considering the Wesleyan resources for spiritual formation?

JV: Fred, you ask such wonderful questions. Few Wesleyans read John Wesley’s sermons these days, and fewer still read (or sing!) Charles’ hymns. I personally believe that Charles was probably the better theologian, and I find his hymns an incredibly rich resource for theological reflection and spiritual formation. Fortunately, Charles’ hymn collections are mostly available through the Charles Wesley society. I would personally encourage those who use this collection for spiritual formation to pair it up with Charles’ hymns whenever possible! And I especially want to encourage people to explore the following four collections: Hymns on the Trinity, Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, and Hymns for Our Lord’s Resurrection!

Sounds like Charles Wesley is another story altogether, and another 650 pages. For now, this big, definitive book of John Wesley’s sermons meets a real need.

My thanks to Jason Vickers for this interview. Did I mention that he also wrote a good book on the Trinity?  

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