Through Head To Heart

If you can’t think it, don’t believe it. Though Wesley emphasized personal experience, he never separated what he believed from what he thought. A tough-minded Oxford don, he read the classics while traveling on horseback, and relished what he called the “honest art of intellectual debate.”

Behind the tight logic of his sermons is his premise that the way to the heart is through the head. His converts were convinced of the truth of the gospel before they were converted to personal faith in Christ. Wesley would be the first to agree with Paul that we should “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, NIV).

But today, thinking and believing are severed in Christian thought. Many liberals are guilty of thinking without believing, and many conservatives are guilty of believing without thinking. Kierkegaard warns against detached heads or detached hearts in his book Purity of Heart. The head, he says, is the source of critical thinking, and the heart is the center of conscious convictions. A detached head holds no absolutes and advances no convictions. The result is a secular subjectivism with its theological blur of pluralistic gods. A detached heart, on the other hand, embraces a blind belief exempt from critical thinking. The result permits the parishioner to unscrew his head whenever belief encounters thought.

Neither mistake is worthy of Wesley’s view of the mind, one that acknowledges God as the source of all truth, and his Word as the inspired and infallible revelation. Head and heart cohere in the adventures of critical thinking and in the affirmations of settled convictions. Wesley would join his brother Charles in the eighteenth-century hymn that becomes a prayer for the twentieth century, “Let us unite these two, so long divided, knowledge and vital piety.”

From Preaching To Singing

If you can’t sing it, don’t preach it. John Wesley is best known as the preacher for England’s Methodist revival; his brother Charles was its poet. They believed that “faith working through love” had to be sung as well as preached. When John and Charles climbed the steps of the market cross to preach the gospel in such cities as Bristol and Liverpool, they saw people in despair. A narrowed Puritan theology had led many to believe they were damned, and a false deistic philosophy convinced them that God did not care. Then, cutting through the gloom and rising above the curses, came the pure sound of Charles singing the hymn he wrote to celebrate the first anniversary of the Wesleys’ conversion to Christ, “O, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” With the message of this melody, even the street people turned rapt attention to John Wesley as he preached.

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Today, what we sing is not always what we preach. Great hymns are cancelled by pulpit platitudes of cheap grace, or strong biblical preaching is made ludicrous by musical love ditties. Our singing and our preaching must strike the same chord. As a consultant concluded after visiting an evangelical college in the Wesleyan tradition, “If you are what you say you are, this campus will be characterized by a note of joy.” Through the Spirit of God, this outside observer discovered the grace note of the gospel that Charles sang, John preached, and the people gladly heard.

Genuine Spirituality And Social Concern

If you can’t live it, don’t push it. Wesley connected the biblical truth of “being” and “doing” in the doctrine of personal and social holiness. To him, personal holiness meant the perfection of love for every conscious motive in the believer’s life. Wesley saw the extension of this as “social holiness.” After nonbelievers were convinced by Wesley’s preaching, they were invited to a class meeting where they could learn more about the gospel and also see if Methodists practiced the faith and love they professed. Once converted, then, even the poorest were expected to give a penny a week to help those who were poorer still. Commensurate with growth in grace, social holiness had two dimensions: increasing spiritual accountability to the body of Christ, and greater social responsibility to the needs of the poor. Maturing class members were expected to reach out in ministries to prisoners, widows, the aged, the sick, the hungry, and especially to oppressed children.

However, personal holiness has been separated from social holiness among Christians in our century. An unbiblical dichotomy identifies evangelical Christians with the personal aspect of holiness, and liberal Christians with its social dimension.

John Wesley would be dismayed by the division. He would warn those who lock arms with unregenerate protestors in a march for justice under the banner of social holiness. He would be equally dismayed by those who remain isolated from the problems of the poor in the name of personal holiness.

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A special word, however, would be reserved for evangelical Christians who are venturing back into the arena of political action and social reform. Recalling his own experience in the eighteenth century, Wesley would remind us that he vigorously resisted public pressure to make him a social reformer as he gained prominence on the high tide of spiritual revival. Not until the movement of Methodism proved its credibility as a genuine spiritual force for personal redemption and social renewal in the culture did Wesley raise his voice to speak against slavery in eighteenth-century England. Then, when he spoke, his voice was heard.

In the middle 1970s the syndicated columnist James Reston asked, “What difference will the born-again movement make in the moral pigsty of our secular culture?” Only the verdict of history can answer his question. Is it possible that the current reaction against evangelical Christianity stems from our efforts at social reform without first providing adequate evidence of our redeeming influence? John Wesley would remind us of the inseparable link between personal and social holiness. Just as he made personal holiness the motive for social holiness, he made spiritual credibility the prerequisite for leadership in social reform. He would be quick to agree with Elton Trueblood, “One cannot give what one does not have.” Conversely, Wesley would add, “One cannot have what one does not give.”

After tracing the megatrends turning our twentieth-century world upside-down, John Naisbitt might have closed his book on a note of gloom and doom. Instead, he saw our time of parenthesis as the dawning of an age of opportunity. His final word is an exclamation of prophetic optimism, “My God, what a time to be alive!”

John Wesley and the people called Methodists faced their megatrends, too. And they led the way to spiritual revival and social reform in their nation with a reasonable faith, a joyous message, and a credible witness. Today, as heirs of that movement in the twentieth century, evangelical Christians need to bring the same message to an upside-down world with the jubilant shout, “Thank God, what a time to be alive!”

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