Branches of Christian Righteousness
A favorite sermon text of John Wesley was Mark 1:15: “The kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Then and now persons might believe Jesus will one day come again to establish the kingdom of God. But how is it that the future kingdom of God is already here, already “at hand”? The answer for Wesley is, the kingdom is at hand through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is the work of the Spirit to set up the kingdom inwardly, in the heart of the believer. In The Way to the Kingdom Wesley says that “true religion” does not consist in outward forms, as good and helpful as these are when they serve as a means to true religion. Nor does it consist of orthodox beliefs, as important as they are, for by themselves they are a matter of our understanding but not our heart. One can have correct practices and correct beliefs yet be “a stranger… to the religion of the heart.” True religion is the religion of the heart and consists of holiness and happiness, or, as Paul put it in Romans 14:17, of “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
The most important characteristic of this inward kingdom is holiness or righteousness. And “the first and great branch of Christian righteousness” is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30). This is not simply a matter of outward obedience but inward disposition. As love for God increasingly governs our desires and motivation, and informs our values and outlook, what is in our hearts will increasingly shape how we live our lives.
The “second great branch of Christian righteousness is closely and inseparably connected” to the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31). This caring, active love is not only for “thy friend, thy kinsman, or thy acquaintance: not only the virtuous, the friendly,” but “every soul which God has made,” not excepting those we have never met or those we do not know, those who are “evil and unthankful,” or even those who despitefully use and persecute us.
This “true religion… implies happiness as well as holiness,” that is, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” There is a peace which only God can give that abides with us in all the circumstances of life and challenges of discipleship. There is a rejoicing in God that is “wrought in the heart by the Holy Ghost” a testimony that nothing in this life can take us from the love of God in Christ.
The world today needs more than ever to know God’s love, and the primary way they will experience it is through those whose hearts have this kingdom within. How can we love like this? Not through trying harder, but through encountering again and again the love of God, trusting in Jesus Christ, and letting the Holy Spirit transform our hearts.