The Heart Religion of John Wesley, by Dennis Bratcher
One of John Wesley’s greatest contributions to the Christian faith was his recovery of “heart religion.” . For centuries the focus seemed to be more on getting people to believe the right thing rather than to call them to discipleship in Christ.
John Wesley came to realize that a religion that does not impact how people live their lives in the nitty-gritty of day to day experience is not much of a religion. When a person allows the transforming presence of God into their life, He will begin re-creating the person from the inside out.
Growth is a vital part of the ongoing Christian life. That growth is not only personal and internal.
Genuine heart religion will always result in a turning outward.
Martin Luther defined sin as “a person turned in on themselves” (Phil 2). In modern terms, we call this self-centeredness or selfishness.
Sanctification and a life of holiness could well be described as “a person turned outward to others.”
John Wesley wrote, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” That is, vital, growing religion of the heart will always seep out into every area of a person’s life as they respond to the call to love one another as God has loved them.
—-The dynamic of the Wesleyan holiness tradition lies in this balance between personal devotion emphasizing growth in grace, and the living out of that vital devotion in the day to day arena of public life. England never experienced the violent social revolution that swept other European countries. Some historians see the Wesleyan revival that swept England in the middle of the 18th century as a factor. In that revival and the spiritual awakening that followed Christianity impacted people where they lived. They not only had a heart “strangely warmed, as Wesley described it, they also lived it.
What does the Lord require of us?
Some of the same tendencies that faced Wesley in eighteenth-century England face us today. Many people of our society don’t claim to be Christian, so they feel no obligation to live a Christian lifestyle. Many others claim to be Christian but show no evidence of it in their lifestyles. For these people, there seems to be no external guideline for how to live life. The only standard of decision-making is: what’s in it for me? Even some people in the church have been so influenced by the self-centeredness of our prevailing culture that everyday decisions of ethics and lifestyle are largely unrelated to any idea of God or morality, let alone to any understanding of a self-emptying Christ-like model.
Many people have been inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to make them immune to the call for purity of heart and life of a servant, both of which lie at the core of the Gospel.
On the other extreme, the emphasis on correct belief as the standard by which righteousness is measured has seen a new upsurge among some Protestant groups. It is especially evident among conservative evangelical groups. Lifestyle and ethical decisions are based on conformity to a set of doctrinal beliefs or to a rigidly legalistic view of Scripture. How those beliefs are put into practice sometimes leads to a violation of the most essential elements of the Christian faith. This was illustrated in a graphic way a few years ago as someone protesting abortions in the name of God and the Church shot and killed a doctor who provided abortions.
So, as the theologian Frances Shaeffer asked in the 1970s, “How, then, shall we live?” Or in the words of the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of us?” (Micah 6:8).
Of course, the simple answer is that because of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ we are to love one another. This love, modeled for us by the One who died on a cross that we might have life, flows from a transformed life.
Loving others is not the cause of our relationship with God nor a requirement for it, but is the result.
Morality and Ethics
As soon as the subject of morality or ethics comes up, many people immediately think of rules and prohibitions. This negative response is partly the result of the fact that we humans simply do not like rules. It is also partly from the misperception that church and religion are primarily about prohibitions, as if church membership would prevent them from doing anything that they would enjoy.
However, to understand vital and dynamic Christian living in terms of rules and prohibitions is drastically to misunderstand the nature of the Christian Gospel.
Christian lifestyle is not simply or even primarily conformity to rules. It is a living out in positive ways the transforming power of the gospel.
—Married couples who care for each other deeply do not get up every morning and moan about the fact that they cannot commit adultery that day. Their marriage vows are not rules. They are expressions of the love that they share. Faithfulness to each other in the marriage does not come because of rules; it is a positive outworking of the relationship. Growing Christians do not simply obey rules; they live out the results of being a new creation in Christ.
So how do transformed people, new creations in Christ, make decisions and live life differently than they used to? Here, we need to make a distinction between morals and ethics. Morals are those abiding principles that are basic and universal. These principles do not change with circumstances and are the baseline from which all of life must be lived. For some people, everything is a moral issue. In reality, however, there are only a few moral principles that provide the basis for ethical decisions. For Christians, as well as for Jews, the Ten Commandments provide that solid moral base. The New Testament “royal law of love” is also a governing moral principle (John Wesley’s phrase from James 2:8: “Love your neighbor as yourself”; see Mark 12:30-31 and parallels). Even these, however, should not be seen as simply rules. They are the positive expression of relationship with God lived out in a real world. They are love of God enacted in life.
Unless we live like a hermit, most of what we do on a daily basis involves making ethical decisions. Ethics can be described as the way in which we order our attitudes toward issues and situations that involve other people. It can also refer to the actions that arise out of those attitudes. Ethics is how we apply the unchanging moral principles to the changing and sometimes ambiguous circumstances of day to day living.
Ethical living involves making decisions about attitudes and conduct in particular situations based on moral principle. The Ten Commandments and the royal law of love are the moral basis for ethical decisions.
For people in the Wesleyan holiness tradition, ethics are the highest expression of a heart in tune with God, because it is in the interaction with other people that heart holiness can be best expressed. For holiness people, ethics is just another way of saying “holy living.”
A clear understanding of the moral principles and how we let them affect our daily lives is crucial for Christians who want to grow in their faith. It is also important to speak of them as principles rather than laws or rules. Life is too complex and fluid to be able to cover everything with rules even if we wanted to. The Pharisees were notorious for trying to add law upon law to cover every circumstance in life. Their efforts were futile and had destructive effects. Sadly, the same tendency to reduce relationship with God to conformity to rules is common in some Christian circles. We cannot make enough rules fast enough to cover all aspects of being Christian in a rapidly changing world. So we must be able to apply the principles that guide our Christian existence to the changing circumstances of life.
The question is, how do we make these ethical decisions as Christians? First, we can consider some common ways of making ethical decisions that are inadequate expressions of a Christian lifestyle.
For some people, emotion or feeling is a major gauge in relating to others. This is the idea of “If it feels good, do it.” The basis for the decision is what a person wants or needs to make them feel good at the moment. This a totally self-centered approach that allows us to use others to meet our own physical or emotional needs.
Some people are more pragmatically oriented than others. They make ethical decisions based on “what works” and say, “The end justifies the means.” They are willing to do whatever is necessary to reach a goal or accomplish a task, regardless of the impact on other people.
A common attitude among children, or even among adults who are emotionally immature, is to avoid negative consequences. This approach makes ethical decisions based on whether it results in pleasure or avoids pain. This can have two aspects. One attitude is that an action is acceptable “as long as I don’t get caught.” The other perspective is to avoid anything that might bring pain or discomfort, or require extra effort or cost.
Some people want the Bible or some other authority, like a book of church disciple or a person in authority, to spell out in black and white every rule that would govern every conceivable action before they can make ethical discussions. While both the Bible and church documents do provide guidelines for ethical actions, they do not and cannot cover every circumstance. Too often, people then assume that since there is no specific rule governing a certain situation, then there is no restriction on what can be done in that situation. Unfortunately, people then either follow their own often selfish instincts or they allow their prejudices to govern their behavior rather than seeking an authentically Christian course of action. People who need a rule for every possible situation have not yet learned to apply biblical principles to their lives and are immature decision makers.
All ethics involves making decisions in particular circumstances. However, to have no guidelines beyond the immediate situation is to have no reference point at all. It is a total relativism that says things like, “I know what’s best for me,” or “You don’t understand my situation.” The decision depends totally on what a person thinks is best to meet the immediate situation.
How to make holy decisions
So, if those are the inadequate ways to make decisions, what are the adequate ones? First, let’s consider some larger issues, some boundaries within which we live in relationship to God, that will help shape our decision-making process.
Since moral principles are unchanging and universal, morality is not restricted to Christians. There are people who make no claim to be Christian who live decent, moral lives. However, our concern is how we live as Christians. Here there must be a genuine commitment to allow our faith and belief in God, the transforming presence of God in our life, and the regeneration of our whole being through Christ to work itself out into everything we do. How we handle circumstances or relate to people should reflect our commitment to Christ and should reflect who we are as Christians.
Ethics of the Kingdom.
Paul said, “Walk in a manner worthy of your calling.” (Phil 1:27). In other words, “Live a lifestyle that reflects who you are.” Since we live out relationships with others as an expression of our relationship with God, that lifestyle should reflect the model that we have in Christ, living by a different value system and a different standard of behavior than is dominant in our culture.
(see The Poured-Out Life). The ethics of the kingdom calls us to look out for the needs of others ahead of our own needs (Phil 2:4), to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27), and even to lay down our own life for another (John 15:13).
For Protestants, the Bible is the primary source of our beliefs and actions as Christians. It cannot be a rule book for our actions, but does provide guides and helps to holy living. As such, Scripture repeatedly and often calls us to practice justice toward the helpless and weak, to demonstrate selfless love for others, and to live life prudently before God (Micah 6:8). As noted earlier, the Ten Commandments give us some moral absolutes, examples of what this kind of living would do in real life. The Bible does not have all the answers in intimate detail of every ethical question that could ever be asked. That would make it simply a rule book. But the moral principles are there, as well as numerous examples of that kind of love in action. It is up to use to learn how to use them to live a transformed life in Christ.
The real question, then, is “How?” How do we make ethical decision in particular situations as Christians? There are no easy answers here. But there are some guidelines that may be helpful. These all have their roots in Scripture.
Will this compromise faith and commitment to God? This is the standard of righteousness and loyalty, which must always be a primary consideration. If we are going to act like Christians, then no attitude we hold or anything we do can compromise that commitment to God. This does not simply mean obedience to anything that we might think is God’s rule. The idea here is that our attitudes and resulting actions cannot interfere with loyalty to God on any level.
What would Christ do?
This is the standard of the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). A good test of any action is to allow the light of Christ’s example to shine on it. The potential problem here is that we sometimes have a very narrow view of Jesus. We sometimes see him as a somber, monk-like figure who avoids all pleasure, and so we conclude that “good” ethics steers us away from any enjoyment of life. Yet, in the Gospels we see Jesus attending parties, laughing with children, and enjoying the company of others. He comments about beautiful flowers and buildings, and enjoys music. It is mainly in his positive response to people who have desperate needs, or in his negative response to religious hypocrisy, that we see Jesus modeling a different lifestyle. Sometimes it is much easier to have a high standard of ethics that relate to things than it is to have an equally high standard that reflects how Jesus treated people.
How will this affect others?
This is the standard of community and attitudes toward others. We live in a society dominated by individualistic ways of thinking. This makes it difficult for many people to consider the implications of their attitudes and actions for a larger group. However, what is good or acceptable for the individual may not always be good for the larger group.
This does not mean that we have to be slaves to majority opinion. It does mean that we cannot have an attitude that demands personal “rights” at the expense of the well-being of others. The heart of a servant does not look inward to personal rights; it looks outward to the needs of others.
Is it fair to everyone involved?
This is the standard of justice and love of others. Justice is more than people getting what they deserve. More often in biblical usage justice refers to fairness and equity in treatment of those who are powerless to defend themselves against injustice. A college student reported that he quit a badly needed summer sales job because he was trained to use high pressure tactics to sell a product to people who did not need it and who could not really afford it. People of God are often called to accountability for how they have treated the powerless and marginalized people around them.
How will it affect who I am?
This is the standard of integrity. This may be a difficult question to answer. We cannot always directly tell how our actions affect us. Yet, it is still an important question to keep in mind, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves constantly that how we think and who we are comes out in what we do. And what we do also shapes how we think. The person who, for example, cheats ever so slightly on their income tax has undermined their own character. If a crack in a wall is not repaired, more pressure simply widens the crack.
Is it reasonable?
This is the standard of reason and responsibility. Scripture often calls us to be wise in making decisions. Since God has created our mind and intellect, he expects us to use it to evaluate circumstances, situations, people, and the impact of particular actions. God has entrusted us to make ethical decisions using biblical moral principles and solid ethical guidelines, all submitted under His Lordship in our lives. This is at the heart of Wesleyan holiness theology. God expects us to use the freedom that His grace has allowed us to live a lifestyle that reflects His nature and His heart. This is the essence of the call for His people to be holy, as He is holy (Lev 11:45).
The Second Mile
Much of what we have been considering relates to developing ethical attitudes and making decisions in response to circumstances of life. This is important for Christian holy living. However,
much biblical teaching concerns not just the avoidance of evil or the meeting of circumstances. God’s people are called to go beyond avoiding the bad things to the point of actively engaging the world as servants of God. We are called to go the second mile (Matt. 5:38-42),
to live out the implications of being redeemed and transformed people of God in positive ways. If we listen carefully to Jesus’ teachings and watch his actions in the gospels, we will quickly conclude that this goes far beyond witnessing to people.
In John’s Gospel, one of the last instructions Jesus gave his disciples was that they should love one another (John 13:34f). Jesus had just washed the disciples’ feet. He had modeled for them the servant attitude they were to live out as his followers (13:5-17). They were to reflect the servant lifestyle that not only talked about serving others, but actually did it. The other Gospels also call for followers of Jesus to “go the second mile.” Matthew talks of visiting people who are sick and in prison, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked (Matt 25:31-46). He also reports Jesus’ teaching of tolerance and forgiveness, calling us to be more than just and fair with people who have been less than fair with us (Matt 5:38-48). Mark and Luke both tell us that Jesus went out of his way to contact and to help people who were not respectable in normal society: lepers, immoral women, members of other ethnic groups, people with physical disabilities, the poor.
All through both Testaments, God’s people are called to practice “justice.” For our modern western culture, justice often means judging and condemning, making sure people pay for wrongs done, usually for wrongs done to us. The biblical idea, however, is nearly the opposite. We are called to make sure that we, as God’s people, go out of our way to treat other people well, even if it means that we may not be treated fairly. In many cases, “justice” comes close to what we mean by compassion. That is why when Micah answers the question, “What does the Lord require of us?” his answer combines “practice justice” with “love mercy” (Mic 6:8). To paraphrase a famous quotation: ask not what others can do for you; ask what you can do for others.
The truth is that a Christian lifestyle reflects a heart warmed by the love of God that turns outward to love others.
Christians are not required to live by rules and regulations. The Apostle Paul talks of freedom from such stifling laws (Gal 2-3; see The Role of the Law in Galatians 3:19-25). Living as recreated and transformed people of God, however, means that we are constrained by love. That is far more liberating, and at the same time far more demanding, than any set of rules could ever be. God does not demand that we love. That is a contradiction in terms. In Jesus, He has modeled for us what true love will do, and how far it will go. He has then called us to follow His example. There is risk in that. We become vulnerable when we risk living such a lifestyle. That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of costly discipleship. But as Wesley rediscovered, there is really no other way to live out being authentically Christian.
When we have the heart of Christ, the world will recognize it. And people will not be surprised when we tell them we are Christians. They will say that we “act like it.”
Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2015
Christian Resource Institute