“Set yourself on fire with passion & people will come for miles to watch you burn. -John Wesley.” You may have seen a quote like this floating around the twittersphere. The only problem with this quote is that there is no evidence that John Wesley actually said any such thing. Why then is this quote so often attributed to Wesley? I think the reason the quote keeps getting attributed to Wesley is that it seems to be a good summary of his life. As a graduate student at Nazarene Theological Seminary, I was asked to study the life and thought of John Wesley including his sermons and journal entries. I was immediately struck with the passion with which Wesley pursued God. If there is one thing that I think the Church of the Nazarene could stand to recapture from Wesley’s legacy, it would be this passionate pursuit of God.
When Wesley was at Oxford, he joined a group his brother Charles had formed called “the holy club.” Although the main focus of this group was studying the scriptures, the members of the holy club were determined to live out their understanding of the text in daily life. John Wesley had little use for theological thoughts that were not lived out in a believer’s life. A simple quote illustrates the passion with which this group pursued their Savior:
At first the friends met every Sunday evening; then two evenings in every week were passed together, and at last every evening from six to nine. They began their meetings with prayer, studied the Greek Testament and the classics, reviewed the work of the past day, and talked over their plans for the morrow, closing all with a frugal supper. They received the Lord’s Supper weekly, fasted twice a week, and instituted a searching system of self-examination, aiming in all things to do the will of God and be zealous of good works.
There seems to be a natural pushback in the Church today against this kind of discipline. After all, any kind of spiritual practice that requires discipline has the potential to lead to putrid self-righteousness. Even Wesley, as he reflected on his Aldersgate experience, may have later considered his “holy club” days to be a type of self-righteous striving. His journal seems to imply that Aldersgate was the place where he first genuinely trusted the Love of God. However, it seems that this passionate pursuit of God was a quality in Wesley that made events like Aldersgate possible. By allowing himself to be constantly shaped by scripture, fasting, communion and the like, Wesley was making space in his life for grace. In other words, he was able to seek and find God as he sought God with all his heart.
A quick look into Wesley’s journal reveals that he continued to live with this same passion after leaving Oxford. Wesley’s daily routine during his trip across the Atlantic illustrates his dedication to the pursuit of Christ and to ministry. Beginning with prayer at 4 AM, Wesley’s days at sea were inundated with personal spiritual formation as well as ministry to others. After that initial hour of prayer, Wesley and his companions spent two hours in the bible together, reading the scripture in community. They also read the early church fathers’ comments on the passages and compared the two understandings. Wesley then set aside an hour for breakfast. After breakfast was an hour for public prayer, followed by a three-hour study of German. This was to enable John to minister to the German immigrants onboard. At noon, the Wesley brothers and their companions gathered for accountability and then ate lunch together. After lunch, the group spent time reading to other passengers on the ship that were in their care. The early evenings consisted of a public prayers and catechism, private prayers, and reading to men who were in their cabin. The Germans hosted a public service at 7 PM, which Wesley attended. The Wesley brothers and their companions then met together one more time to “exhort and teach one another” about an hour before they went to bed. In looking at Wesley’s daily schedule, it becomes painfully obvious that the driving force in Wesley’s life was to “Love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. And to love his neighbor as himself.” His passion to know God permeated every hour of his days at sea.
Although Wesley’s daily pursuit of God demonstrates the passion with which he approached his faith, it may be in his lack of faith that we see this characteristic most distinctly. On his voyage to America, Wesley had a “near death” experience. It bothered Wesley that in the midst of the storm, he lacked a sense of assurance about his faith. What was even more troubling was the fact that a group of German Christians known as Moravians seemed to have a peace when faced with their own mortality that Wesley did not possess. They literally continued to worship by singing the evening’s Psalm as the storm raged on. When Wesley realized his faith to be lacking assurance, he began to seek this assurance with his usual vigor. He was introduced to a Moravian named Peter Bohler. Bohler continued to converse with Wesley about the “assurance of faith” and encouraged Wesley to continue to preach, even as he sought the assurance of salvation. On May 24th, 1738, Wesley received the assurance of salvation he had been seeking:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Even though Wesley admits that he went “unwillingly” to the meeting at Aldersgate Street, that evening was a culmination of a Wesley’s search for the assurance of salvation. The search began on a boat in the Atlantic where Wesley realized his faith to be lacking. It was this lack that led him to “actively wait” for the assurance that he witnessed in the Moravians. Wesley’s friendship with Peter Bohler was another form of this “active waiting.” In short, Wesley made himself available to God so that he was willing and able to recognize the grace of God at Aldersgate.
It seems that Wesley’s life was characterized by this “active waiting” upon God. Wesley’s life was saturated with prayer, scripture, and participation in Christian community, which was characterized by receiving communion together. Wesley called these activities the “means of grace.” He instructed those who desired the grace of God to wait for it, not passively, but by actively pursuing the means of grace.
The Church desperately needs to recapture the passion that led John Wesley to actively pursue God. We are victims of the dreaded pendulum swing. We have seen discipline turn into legalism, and therefore, our natural reaction has been to forego discipline altogether. Grace is free. It seems to us to be something we passively receive. Wesley’s daily schedule is almost laughable to us. Even the pastors among us can hardly imagine having every hour of the day accounted for in study, prayer, or ministry. We enjoy our lazy boys and Netflix binges. It is difficult for us to get our people to commit to an hour-long service every week. Wesley’s words from his sermon entitled “On Grieving the Holy Spirit”, sound all too familiar to us:
Men are generally lost in the hurry of life, in the business or pleasures of it, and seem to think that their regeneration, their new nature, will spring and grow up within them, with as little care and thought of their own as their bodies were conceived and have attained their full strength and stature; whereas, there is nothing more certain than that the Holy Spirit will not purify our nature, unless we carefully attend to his motions, which are lost upon us while, in the Prophet’s language, we “scatter away our time,” — while we squander away our thoughts upon unnecessary things, and leave our spiritual improvement, the one thing needful, quite unthought of and neglected.
Once again, we see that Wesley refutes the understanding that holiness somehow happens to us. Rather, Wesley affirms that our response to the sanctifying grace of God is to “attend to His motions.” With the advent of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like, we are given a multitude of opportunities to “scatter away our time.” We are easily distracted by the myriad of choices placed in front of us each day. We cart our children to soccer practice, vocal lessons, and swim team. Could it be that we have been guilty of grieving the Holy Spirit by allowing our lives to become so disjointed and distracted?
Over the years, we have had lots of theological conversations about holiness. We have talked about two trips to an altar. We have talked about growth in grace. We have argued over which is correct. Some of us have said, “This is a both/and thing, not an either/or.” Although Wesley understood sanctification to be a crisis event, he acknowledged that scripture is somewhat ambiguous on the subject. Perhaps it’s time to stop having discussions on the mechanisms of sanctification and to, instead, begin passionately pursuing a Holy God, trusting God to give us all the experiences we need. It seems that Wesley’s pursuit was a pursuit of God that led him to experiences, rather than a pursuit of experiences that led him to God.
Recapturing this passion from Wesley will mean that we will have to say “no’ to some things. Many of those things will be “good” things, but not necessarily “the best” thing. It means that we will have to learn to make space in our lives for grace. It might mean that we turn off the Netflix marathon. It might mean that our churches say “no” to traditional weekly events to create new environments for hearing scripture in community. Some of us might be able to leverage the power of our technology by listening to scripture on our morning walk. Others of us may want to put the technology away for large portions of our day. We might give up sleep, or food, or even sex. We might have to learn to say “no” to some things to make ourselves available to receive the grace that God desires to pour into our lives.
If we are to take our cues from Wesley, a passionate pursuit of God will most certainly include attending to the means of grace. Rather than living by one verse bible promises, (which may or may not be completely ripped out of context) we will have to become a people who devour scripture. We will need to learn to hear scripture in community, both with the people in our local congregation and in the historical voices of the church. We will need to be a people of prayer who call on God both individually and as a congregation all throughout the week. Finally, we will need to be a people of communion, a living embodiment of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. I pray that the people called Nazarenes would once again learn what it means to “actively wait” on the grace and mercy of God by attending to the means of grace. I believe that, as we are willing to attend to the means of grace, we will be set on fire, and the world will come to watch us burn!
. “John Wesley the Methodist”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesley-the-methodist/ accessed October 16, 2014; Chapter V.
. John Wesley, “The Journal of John Wesley”, Christian Classics Ethereal Library Internet, available from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.html, accessed October 16, 2014; 16.
. Ibid, 34-35.
. Ibid, 36.
. John Wesley, “The Means of Grace”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-16-the-means-of-grace/, accessed October 16, 2014; Section V.1.
. John Wesley, “On Grieving the Holy Spirit”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-138-on-grieving-the-holy-spirit/, accessed October 16, 2014; Section II.