What Religion Do You Preach?

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:

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

5. Assurance.

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!

God Goes Where He’s Wanted

In his most recent book, What Good is God, Phillip Yancey makes a remarkable observation about God’s work in the world. He says, “I am struck by the phenomenon of God ‘moving’– not in some mystical sense but geographically moving from one part of the world to another.” He goes on to note that the Apostle Paul addressed his epistles to churches that were in the Middle East; yet today, to find them one would need an archaeologist as a guide. The Christian faith spread westward across Europe into Britain and Ireland, reigning there for over 1000 years. But today, though much of the architecture still stands, less than 3 percent of the population goes to church. In time, the Christian faith spread to the Americas where a lively, yet dimming, presence remains. In recent years the greatest advance has been in Africa and parts of Asia. So much so that now less than a third of Christians come from Europe and North America. However, today the explosive growth of Christianity is in China! There are some 20,000 conversions a day happening behind the bamboo curtain.

Yancey asks the rhetorical questions, “Why are there so many formerly Christian countries? Why does it appear that Christianity has hop scotched around the globe”? His answer is amazing. He says, “I’ve concluded that God goes where he’s wanted. And when a society feels less need for faith, God quietly moves on, to a place that senses more need.”

Not only do I believe that Yancey is right, I believe the Biblical record supports that assertion. The Bible repeatedly reveals a God that always makes Himself available without ever pushing His way into our lives. He patiently waits to be invited. Why? He wants to be wanted! Mark 6 tells the story of the disciples at sea in the midst of a storm, “and Jesus saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by” but they cried out to Him in their distress and He came to their rescue. Luke 24 recounts the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and says that when “they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: he made as though he would have gone further, but they constrained him, saying, Abide with us . . . and he went in to tarry with them.”   One of the final pictures we see of Jesus is Him standing at a door knocking, saying, “if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

Conversely it is true that when God is no longer needed or wanted He moves on. The Old Testament narratives of the nation of Israel make this very clear. Israel had suffered in Egypt under the yoke of slavery for almost 400 years. Their life was so bitter that they, “sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage”. God miraculously delivered them from Pharaoh’s hand and started them on an amazing journey through the desert to a land of “milk and honey.” During the years of wilderness wandering they were forced to depend on God. He fed them, clothed them and planned their daily itinerary. He hovered over them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They went on to conquer the land and build lasting cities. They grew strong, prosperous and plump—and promptly forgot all about God! And the short step from not needing Him to not wanting Him was finally taken. So an unwanted God withdraws. In His absence Israel is overrun by her enemies, disgraced by foreign gods, taken into captivity and finally scattered to the ends of the earth. This is the story of individuals and nations that no longer want God.

The good news is that God is willing to come back! I Samuel chapter 7 tells the story of a defeated Israel languishing under the heavy hand of the Philistines and suffering the indignities of their heathen worship. Verse two describes the mood of the nation, “. . . the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” During these bitter years there began to develop a better mind in the children of Israel. Their conscience began to stir; their soul began to be weary; and there arose a long and sorrowful cry after the Lord. They wanted God once again! And the God who wants to be wanted responded to their cry with revival and renewal!

If we are enjoying His presence in our lives it’s because we want Him in our lives. If He seems far away then remember the words of Jeremiah, “. . . You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD”. God goes where He is wanted!