By Hal Knight
We have been looking at dangers to the Christian life. This month and next I want to examine what may be for Wesley the greatest danger of all: formalism. In our day this is often called “nominal Christianity” or being Christian in name only.
In his An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (1743) Wesley plainly states the motivating concern of the early Methodist movement:
A “lifeless, formal religion” was what Wesley believed was all too common in his own Church of England. It is having the form of religion without the power; that is, a going through the motions of being a Christian without one’s heart and life transformed by God’s love in Jesus Christ.
In his Journal (Nov. 25, 1739) Wesley descried how many of his contemporaries would describe a religious person:
Such a person then goes to heaven when they die.
Now Wesley is not against honesty or going to church—many of his own Methodists became regular attenders only after becoming one. What he opposes is reducing Christianity to a set of minimal beliefs and practices designed primarily to attain a happy afterlife. This for him is a massive missing of the whole point of salvation: The gift of a new life of love through Jesus Christ, received now, in the present, and enjoyed eternally.
In his Earnest Appeal Wesley says the Methodists see that “lifeless, formal religion.”
Wesley would like to see churches filled with people either seeking this new life of love or growing in it. He and his Methodists went about eagerly sharing the good news that everyone can have this new life. It is a gift, and a gift can only be received. This gift, they said, is received by faith: by knowing and trusting in Jesus Christ.
Formalism is a danger because it gives us the false sense that nothing much can really change in our lives and that nominal Christianity is all that we can expect. It encourages complacency rather than expectant faith; societal respectability instead of love; church attendance without a relationship with God. It deprives us of the very thing Christ came and died and rose to give us.
We will look next month at how we get ensnared into a “lifeless, formal religion.” But here let us close with why Wesley believed this new life of love was so necessary. “This love,” he says in the Earnest Appeal, “we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world ...”