“Do you neither fear God nor regard man?”: John Wesley On Social Holiness And The Failures Of Christianity
O that God would enable me once more, before I go hence and am no more seen, to lift up my voice like a trumpet to those who gain and save all they can, but do not give all they can! Ye are the men, some of the chief men, who continually grieve the Holy Spirit of God, and in a great measure stop his gracious influence from descending on our assemblies. Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ, pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, — of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing Do you neither fear God, nor regard man Why do you not deal your bread to the hungry, and cover the naked with a garment Have you laid out in your own costly apparel what would have answered both these intentions Did God command you so to do Does he commend you for so doing. Did he entrust you with his (not your) goods for this end And does he now say, “Servant of God, well done” You well know he does not. This idle expense has no approbation, either from God, or your own conscience. But you say you can afford it! O be ashamed to take such miserable nonsense into your mouths! Never more litter such stupid cant; such palpable absurdity! Can any steward afford to be an arrant knave to waste his Lord’s goods Can any servant afford to lay out his Master’s money, any otherwise than his Master appoints him So far from it, that whoever does this ought to be excluded from a Christian society. – John Wesley, “Causes Of The Inefficacy Of Christianity”, Sermon 116, wesley.nnu.edu, Dublin, July 2, 1789
Preaching on Jeremiah 8:22, Wesley asks a question that, I believe, all of us have asked: Why hasn’t Christianity done more good in the world. After rehearsing all sorts of answers (some of which include what our contemporary sensibilities would consider bigoted comments about our fellow Christians in the southeast of Europe, in Russia, and the Coptic churches in Ethiopia, Egypt, and northeastern Africa), Wesley’s feet land squarely upon English soil.
In fact, he does not just traipse about the counties and shires of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. Rather, he addresses “the people called Methodist”, those he insists know more of “Scriptural Christianity” and “Christian discipline” than any of the other sects in the universal church. Rather than point to some “Other” – Muslims (which he calls “Mohametans”), Heathen (I suppose pretty much anyone else), and Roman Catholics and those he calls “so called” Orthodox Christians in the east – his indictment lands right in the home he is even then creating.
To bring the matter closer still. Is not scriptural Christianity preached and generally known among the people commonly called Methodists Impartial persons allow it is. And have they not Christian discipline too, in all the essential branches of it, regularly and constantly exercised Let those who think any essential part of it is wanting, point it out, and it shall not be wanting long. 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 not we “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” O why do not we, that have all possible helps, “walk as Christ also walked” Hath he not left us an example that we might tread in his steps But do we regard either his example or precept To instance only in one point: Who regards those solemn words, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth” Of the three rules which are laid down on this head, in the sermon on “The Mammon of Unrighteousness,” you may find many that observe the First rule, namely, “Gain all you can.” You may find a few that observe the Second, “Save all you can:”‘ But how many have you found that observe the Third rule, “Give all you can” Have you reason to believe, that five hundred of these are to be found among fifty thousand Methodists And yet nothing can be more plain, than that all who observe the two first rules without the third, will be twofold more the children of hell than ever they were before.
It isn’t a lack of Scriptural understanding that is to blame. It isn’t even a lack of discipline, or the pursuit of personal holiness, the inner sanctification that Wesley and we who follow call Christian perfection, that is to blame. It is, rather, a refusal to regard that which Wesley himself regards as the First Rule among the people called Methodists. He insists they earn all they can and save all they can. It’s that third part – give all you can – that seems to lie at the heart of the failure of the people called Methodist to make any real difference.
But I will not talk of giving to God, or leaving, half your fortune. You might think this to be too high a price for heaven. I will come to lower terms. Are there not a few among you that could give a hundred pounds, perhaps some that could give a thousand, and yet leave your children as much as would help them to work out their own salvation With two thousand pounds, and not much less, we could supply the present wants of all our poor, and put them in a way of supplying their own wants for the time to come. Now, suppose this could be done, are we clear before God while it is not done Is not the neglect of it one cause why so many are still sick and weak among you; and that both in soul and in body that they still grieve the Holy Spirit, by preferring the fashions of the world to the commands of God And I many times doubt whether we Preachers are not, in some measure, partakers of their sin. I am in doubt whether it is not a kind of partiality. I doubt whether it is not a great sin to keep them in our society. May it not hurt their souls, by encouraging them to persevere in walking contrary to the Bible And may it not, in some measure, intercept the salutary influences of the blessed Spirit upon the whole community
Wesley moves on, and his words ring down to our own day, announcing a spiritual sickness rooted not least in a misunderstanding of the nature of the Christian life that is so far abroad that it has even infected us, we United Methodists, who have least excuse to hold erroneous doctrine.
But to return to the main question. Why has Christianity done so little good, even among us among the Methodists, — among them that hear and receive the whole Christian doctrine, and that have Christian discipline added thereto, in the most essential parts of it Plainly, because we have forgot, or at least not duly attended to, those solemn words of our Lord, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” It was the remark of a holy man, several years ago, “Never was there before a people in the Christian Church, who had so much of the power of God among them, with so little self-denial.” Indeed the work of God does go on, and in a surprising manner, notwithstanding this capital defect; but it cannot go on in the same degree as it otherwise would; neither can the word of God have its full effect, unless the hearers of it “deny themselves, and take up their cross daily.”
Far too many of us have heard the notion that “salvation” is something that just “happens”, that we “become Christian” or “are saved” in the blink of an eye. We have heard it taught that if we pray something called “The Sinner’s Prayer” with all sorts of sincerity and openness, then we shall indeed be “saved”. Yet, both Wesley’s example and his teaching, rooted in Scripture, is that “being” a Christian is something we renew each day. It is a prayer we address to God each morning as we rise, that we would serve God best as we can. As Wesley reminds his listeners, we are called to nothing less than to “take up [our crosses] daily.”
More than a lack of charity, a failure to give all we can, we have succumbed to the temptation of the easy road. We have made the story of the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus some kind of model for Christian conversion. A moment when we hear a voice or see a light, or pray a prayer some other has told us is all we need do, and our lives are changed forever. The story of St. Paul in Acts, however, and his version given in brief in his Epistle to the Galatians, is something very different than a moment of light and sudden change. Yes, he encountered the risen crucified Christ; yes, he was baptized in Damascus; but he also stayed in Damascus to study for a long while before seeking permission to go out and preach the Gospel.
There are no instant conversions. There is no short cut to real salvation. The Holy Spirit takes its time to work in us and through us, as we work with other Christians, to weed out those broken, sick parts of us we call sin. It takes time. It takes discipline. Most of all, it takes a daily confession of our need for that salvation that comes to us even as we recognize our need to take up our cross each day.
Our churches fail because we have failed to teach them that to fear God and regard our fellow humanity is something that just happens. For Wesley, all of it, from our Christian duty for social holiness to our duty for personal holiness, demanded discipline, patience, an attention to the Scriptures, and the mutual support of others journeying with us, willing to awaken each morning and, reaching next to the bed, hoisting that cross upon our shoulders. It will feel different each day; lighter one day, nearly impossible to lift the next. It might be the cross becomes so familiar we forget it is even there, so we need to be reminded of what it is to deny ourselves and be ready to carry our own cross to the hill of the skull.
Wesley ends his sermon with a kind of personal plea:
But is there no way to prevent this — to continue Christianity among a people Allowing that diligence and frugality must produce riches, is there no means to hinder riches from destroying the religion of those that possess them I can see only one possible way; find out another who can. Do you gain all you can, and save all you can Then you must, in the nature of things, grow rich. Then if you have any desire to escape the damnation of hell, give all you can; otherwise I can have no more hope of your salvation, than of that of Judas Iscariot.
I call God to record upon my soul, that I advise no more than I practise. I do, blessed be God, gain, and save, and give all I can. And so, I trust in God, I shall do, while the breath of God is in my nostrils. But what then I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus my Lord! Still,
I give up every plea beside, — Lord, I am damn’d! but thou hast died!
Without attention to the specifics of the Scriptural call to what, precisely, personal holiness is, we become bereft of any idea of social holiness. We make excuses as to why giving will not work. Like those in the parable of the wedding banquet, we make excuses as to why we just can’t give all we can right now, our other obligations being what they are. For Wesley, however, the salvation and sanctification offered in Jesus Christ is that pearl of great price, for which he would give up everything, every plea except that he knows his own way is a road to perdition; yet, even still, Jesus Christ has died, even for him. In that, more than any “Sinner’s Prayer” or some instant salvation and change of our lives, lies our hope. It is recognizing that this is something for us, and that our response should be more than mere prayer and waving our hands about during church services on Sunday mornings, that carries the hope that the Christian churches may yet do some good in this world.