By Hal Knight
Why John Wesley? Over two decades ago, while I was teaching in Atlanta, Georgia, a student raised that question. Why, he wondered, was he required to study Wesley’s theology? His faith was not in the words of Wesley, he said; what he believed was the Bible.
What came to me then was an important insight: John Wesley is a teacher. He helps us to understand scripture and points us to the way of salvation. He shows us how to grow in our faith and how to live it out. Wesley has become one of the pre-eminent teachers of the church, because what he teaches has been found to enable multitudes of people to trust in and experience for themselves the promise of the gospel.
Of course Wesley is not the only teacher who continues to have a lasting impact on the church. Past writers such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, among many others, have similar importance. While they do not agree on everything, we treasure their insight and continue to seek their wisdom. But for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, John Wesley has special significance as the one who has given us our understanding of the way of salvation and faithful discipleship. It is Wesley more than anyone else who has shaped our way of being Christian.
Wesley still has much to teach us. Because he sought not to found a new denomination but to renew the church, Wesley offers sound advice for our own renewal today. Because he understood the promises of God to be for this life as well as the life to come, he evokes a present hope. Because his focus was on enabling persons to both become Christians and grow as Christians, he continues to contribute to our current practices of evangelism and Christian formation.
Wesley avoided false dichotomies between faith and works, Christ and Spirit, reason and experience, forgiveness and new life, and piety and social concern. In this way he can help us maintain a holistic faith. Most importantly, Wesley models an expectant faith, helping us to avoid our natural tendency to simply rely on ourselves and our plans rather than turning to God, and letting what we do be shaped, empowered, and guided by the Holy Spirit.
I hope in these columns to reintroduce us to the teaching and practice of John Wesley, along with that of his brother Charles and others in early Methodism. The goal is not to draw us back to the eighteenth century, but to enable us to enter the twenty-first century as a renewed and vibrant church, with faith rooted in Jesus Christ, lives formed in love by the Holy Spirit, and a firm hope in the promises of our ever-faithful God.
Hal Knight is a Missouri Conference Elder and a professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology.