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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:
We see—and who does not?—the numberless follies and miseries of our fellow creatures. We see on every side either men of no religion at all or men of a lifeless, formal religion.

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:
... by a religious man is commonly meant, one that is honest, just and fair in his dealings; that is constantly at church and sacrament; and that gives much alms, or (as it is usually termed) does much good.

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.”
We are grieved at the sight, and should greatly rejoice if, by any means, we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it. And this we conceive to be no other than love: the love of God and all mankind; the loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made ... as our own soul.

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 ...”
This religion we long to see established in the world: a religion of love and joy and peace, having its seat in the inmost soul, by every showing itself by its fruits ... spreading virtue and happiness all around it.