By Hal Knight
In his Preface to his Standard Sermons, Wesley says he published them to share with others the way of salvation. But he recognizes that “some may say, I have mistaken the way myself, although I take upon me to teach it to others. It is probable many will think this, and it is very possible that I have.”
“But I trust,” Wesley continues, “whereinsoever I have mistaken, my mind is open to conviction. I sincerely desire to be better informed. I say to God and man, ‘what I know not, teach thou me!’” Wesley expects we will have confidence in what we believe, but insists that it be accompanied not by arrogance but humility.
How then should the conversation proceed? “Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me?” he asks. “Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of scripture.” But “if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear.”
He also calls for mutual respect: “But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all.” He further requests “not to give me hard names in order to being me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and to get more and more out of the way.”
What we see so often in public controversies, especially on social media, are “hard names”—demeaning adjectives and nouns applied to an opponent’s motives, intelligence, or faith. This does not engage their argument but labels them so as to dismiss their argument. It prevents understanding by denying respect.
This leads to Wesley’s most important concern. “Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth.” “For God’s sake,” Wesley pleads, “if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love!”
"We may die,” Wesley says, “without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But, if we die without love, what will knowledge avail?”
Thus Wesley’s closing prayer: “The God of love forbid we should ever make the trial. May he prepare us for the knowledge of all truth, by filling our hearts with all his love, and with all joy and peace in believing!