In his booklet An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, John Wesley tells of a man he once met who had fallen into deep despair and unbelief. Out of the bitterness of his soul, the man said to Wesley, “All is dark; my thought is lost. But I hear you preach to a great number of people every night and morning. Pray, what would you do with them? Whither would you lead them? What religion do you preach? What is it good for?” Wesley’s answer was remarkable:
“You ask what I would do with them: I would make them virtuous and happy, easy in themselves and useful to others. Whither would I lead them? To heaven; to God the Judge, the lover of all, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. What religion do I preach? The religion of love; the law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives; and crying out at their death in calm assurance, ‘O grave, where is thy victory! Thanks be unto God, who giveth me the victory through my Lord Jesus Christ.’”
Religion in its purest form is a fundamental set of beliefs, practices, and traditions through which the Christian faith is promoted and by which it is protected. But far too often, religion has offered a form empty of content and a ritual void of presence. It has, in too many cases, become a cold, sterile, unattractive practice that obscures the beauty of the gospel. Wesley’s answer offers a rare glimpse into a religion that is solidly scriptural, as well as winsome and beautiful. He saw the religion that he preached as one that offered the following:
- Happiness and peace as the fruit of transformed character.
I have never met a person who didn’t want to be happy, just as I have never heard of a religion that didn’t offer some means to happiness. But rarely do either talk about virtuous living as a key component to real happiness and peace. No one can find happiness and peace through his own efforts. Neither happiness nor peace are self-originating, but are the fruits of a redeemed and holy life.
Wesley offered a gospel that so transformed the life and so renewed the mind that the end result was a happy, contented, and useful life! “Oh the bliss of the pure in heart…” (Matt. 5:8).
- Heaven now and heaven to come.
Wesley wanted to get men to heaven, but he also wanted to get heaven into men here and now! Notice his words, “To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives….” Wesley understood that those who find great joy in God also find great delight in others and great strength in themselves—a recipe that allows one to accomplish more in one lifetime than would otherwise be possible. John Piper is right when he says that God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh.8:10).
- To know the one true God through Jesus Christ His Son.
Every human heart has within it the hunger to know and be known by God. Sadly many religions can’t seem to find the right balance. They create a God who is angry and distant or one that is tolerant and casual—neither of which are an adequate understanding of who God really is. Wesley’s view is both balanced and beautiful. He speaks of a “Holy God” that is the “Lover of all!” This is a God who is against sin—a Judge who condemns the transgressor but who also sends His own Son to die for that transgressor and be the mediator of a new covenant that will bring reconciliation and forgiveness to the condemned.
- Love enthroned.
Wesley says he preaches the “religion of love—the law of kindness.” To Wesley true religion was to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.”
This is religion controlled not by the letter of the law but by love—a love that is pure, patient, and kind. It is not a love controlled by passion but by pathos—not of emotion but disposition. There is no greater need in our world than a religion of holy love that flows outward in “kindness to all.”
Most of the religions in the world do not believe that one can be sure of personal salvation. Wesley, however, preached a religion that offered every man the “calm assurance” of eternal life. Wesley’s father, an Anglican priest, left these dying words: “The witness, son, the witness; that is the proof of Christianity.” In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley defines the testimony of the Spirit as “an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me, and that all my sins are blotted out and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” Religion is not often spoken of as something that is beautiful, but the religion that Wesley offered to the poor man drowning in despair is something that I find absolutely winsome. May the religion I preach be so!