John Wesley encouraged his followers to seek holy, perfecting love. This was a love that Wesley emphasized by teaching and embodied by example: in the Old Testament, through God the Father, as He attempted time and again to seek relationship with sinful man; in the Gospels, through God the Son, who gave Himself to a world that was, and remains to this day, His enemy; and finally throughout the New Testament with the gift of the Paraclete.
John and Charles were born the sons Samuel and Susanna Wesley of Lincolnshire, England. Father Samuel was a busy priest at Epworth who left the majority of the child rearing to Susanna. Both men were educated first at Westminster then at Christ Church Oxford. John joined Charles and some friends in what became known by mockers as the “Oxford Holy Club” because of their mutual commitment to study scripture daily, live holy lives, be faithful in private devotions and actively visit those in prison. John recalled this time in their lives uniquely:
In 1729, two young men reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it and incited others so to do. In 1737, they saw that holiness comes by faith. They saw likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point. God then thrust them out, utterly against their will to raise up a holy people. (Asbury Journals)
Justo Gonzales wrote: “As a pastor in Georgia, he failed miserably, for he expected parishioners to behave like the ‘holy club’…Charles was disappointed with his own work on this trip and decided to return to England. But John stayed on, not because he had greater success but because he refused to give up.” (p. 266). During these formative years, John Wesley had been the Moravians. Their confidence and assurance in God’s salvation despite life-threatening circumstances caused John to re-examine his own life and find it lacking. History marks May 1738 as a turning point for both John and Charles. Some would term their experiences as conversion, others as a second work of grace in the power of the Holy Spirit. I propose that the distinct terminology of this experience matters not nearly so much as how the Spirit of the Lord broke into their lives to use them to reach their own countrymen and eventually to the corners of the earth.
A fire was sparked in the Wesley brothers in May of 1738 that would turn upside down their own faith and, as I submitted previously, for the faith of a good portion of the English speaking world. Because of the Holy Spirit’s work, John and Charles perceived the Spirit’s leading them to spread the gospel outside of the physical church walls. At the encouragement of their Holy Club colleague, George Whitefield, John warmed to the idea of field preaching. While the Church of England served the middle and upper classes with spiritual training, it effectively closed out the lower castes. Because of this inequity, many of the working class were without any spiritual direction. Whitefield, and eventually the Wesley brothers, preached salvation to this hungry group of people and met great success, a stark contrast to what appeared to be their fruitless outreach to the colony of Georgia.
George Whitefield differed from John and Charles in that he clung closely to preaching merely salvation to the masses. This was momentarily effective, drawing the attention of thousands into saving grace; however, it also left many who wished to change languishing in -- or returning eventually to former lives of sin. This is where the Holy Spirit set John and Charles aflame, effectively utilizing them as kindling to what became the roaring fire of the Methodist Movement. John, aided closely by his brother, Charles, organized those converted into societies, bands and classes of accountability who would together worship and grow in holiness. In these societies, men and women were challenged to turn not only from sin but toward God, through scripture and living the life of grace. John, the elder Wesley, was so attuned to the necessities of public worship that in the 1761 publication of “Select Hymns”, he gives seven very basic directions for singing to the Methodists that are included to this day in United Methodist hymnals:
I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please
II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
IV. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.
V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. (United Methodist Hymnal, vii)
These rules further aided the Wesleys in teaching singing and specifically singing scriptural holiness with their followers. While the Church of England’s order of worship encouraged choirs, soloists and special ensembles, Wesley’s revised orders encouraged the voice of the congregation: “Methodist Singing was decidedly congregational. In corporate worship, efforts were to be made to ensure the greatest level of participation.” (Tucker, 159)
A generous measure of Wesley’s legacy to the Methodist Movement was an emphasis on worship and most especially the encouragement of singing! While John Wesley’s name headlined the Methodist movement, younger brother, Charles, was considered the hymnodic genius. The Center for Studies Wesleyan at Duke University states:
Scholarly study of Charles Wesley has been hampered by the absence of a reliable and accessible standard source for his published verse. The original works published during his lifetime are quite rare, scattered among research libraries. …..This collection gathers the nearly 4,400 distinct poems and hymns published during Charles Wesley’s life that scholarly consensus traces to his pen. (Duke website).
The reference to 4,400 poems and hymns of Charles Wesley encompasses only those texts that were published and directly attributable to him. It is widely agreed that he penned 6,000-9,000 hymns and poetic texts during the course of his life. It is generally accepted that John frequently translated many hymns for the people called Methodist but rarely composed original hymn texts.
John and Charles were successful in utilizing the ever increasing amount of hymnody to teach both scripture and their unique doctrine of Christian Perfection. “Perfection” was the term John Wesley chose to characterize holiness based upon Matthew 5:48, which is reflective of Leviticus 19:2; The idea that Wesley taught through the scriptures: God’s command to be holy or perfect. This is not be confused with the dictionary definition of perfection: completely correct, void of flaws. John Wesley believed that the power of God calls us (prevenient grace), saves us from our sins (justifying grace), and fills us with the love of God (sanctifying grace). Because God is capable of both forgiving and forgetting our sin (Psalm 103:10-14), Wesley saw the potential as outlined in the scriptures to live free from the constraints of sin. “By perfection, I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbor, ruling our tempers and actions….I do not include an impossibility of falling from it, either in part or in whole….and I do not contend for the term sinless.” (Wesley, p. 446)
If[D1] a believer chose to follow Christ and live in the power and forgiveness each day, he could in essence, return to being made in the image of God, lost when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. “The Spirit keeps stirring…. Christians on the wave-length of the Spirit to see their own faults, see needs around them, sense the urge to speak or be still, and grasp truth with spiritual insight. If we listen, He will develop in us a sense of propriety. He gently shows us some area that needs correction, we must obey.” (Taylor, P. 192ff) Living in obedience allows God to reveal sin and to be forgiven and replaced immediately back into relationship with the loving Father.
Wesley taught that genuine faith produces inward and outward holiness. Jesus taught that true Christian discipleship requires loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as self (Matthew 22:34-40). Whereas Luther and Calvin tended to view perfection in the absolute sense (i.e. perfect performance), Wesley understood it in a theological sense as having to do with maturity of character and ever-increasing love for God. The New Testament word “perfection” translates from a Greek term that means maturity or completion: it does not mean flawlessness. (Anderson)
The Wesley brothers did reach people for Christ and discipled them effectively through the means of music.
In order to implant Methodist teaching in the minds and memories of the people, the Wesleys had for many years incorporated hymn-singing into their services….Singing also gave the believers an opportunity to testify to their shared spiritual experience. Wesley warned against “formality” in singing—the complex tunes that are not possible to sing with devotion…the repetition of words that shocks all common sense and ‘has no more religion in it that a Lancashire hornpipe.’ (Heitzenrater, P. 231)
While John and Charles Wesley’s illumination of scripture changed the world in powerful and pure ways through teaching, preaching, hymnody and living holy lives, I wish now to zoom our focus specifically on perfecting love and the implication it brings to the Christian life. “The doctrine of entire sanctification contends the believer can be victorious over sin.” (Robb, p. 50). This is completed, according to John Oswalt, in large part through four steps:
(1) We must remember again that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more than he does at this moment.
(2) Remember that the holy life is not performance, but a new set of attitudes and a new way of responding to God’s love.
(3) Deal with failures real or perceived [by] distinguishing between sin and temptation to sin.
(4) Self-understanding, realizing the potential for godliness that becames our upon accepting Christ can go on without the hindrance of inner rebellion. (Oswalt, p. 195ff)
Indeed, the best known Charles Wesley hymn is “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (UMH #57), written in 1739 to commemorate the first anniversary of his conversion and published in 1740 in the Hymns and Sacred Poems under the title “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion”. The fourth stanza states clearly: He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.
Charles Wesley’s grasp of scripture, coupled with the poet’s gift and the need to teach new converts how to grow in grace, defending themselves against an unseen enemy is clearly seen in “I Want a Principle Within” (UMH#410).
I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear,
a sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire,
to catch the wandering of my will, And quench the kindling fire.
From thee that I no more may stray, no more thy goodness grieve,
grant me the filial awe, I pray, the tender conscience give.
Quick as the apple of an eye, O God, my conscience make;
awake my soul when sin is nigh, and keep it still awake.
Almighty God of truth and love, to me thy power impart;
the mountains of my soul remove, the hardness of my heart.
O may the least omission pain my reawakened soul,
and drive me to that blood again, which makes the wounded whole.
Speaking directly of perfection and consuming, holy love, Charles penned five verses in “O For a Heart to Praise my God” (NNU website), which allude to the social holiness element of perfection that the Wesley brothers saw as an integral part of a holy life:
O for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free!
A heart that always feels thy blood, so freely spilt for me!
A heart resigned, submissive, meek, my dear Redeemer’s throne,
Where only Christ is heard to speak where Jesus reigns alone.
A humble, lowly, contrite heart, believing, true, and clean,
Which neither life nor death can part from him that dwells within.
A heart in every thought renewed and full of Love Divine,
Perfect, and right, and pure and good, a copy, Lord, of Thine.
Thy tender heart is still the same, and melts at human woe;
Jesus, for Thee distrest I am, I want thy love to know.
I must in good conscience admit that Charles and John, like typical brothers, did not always agree on every point. In fact, they often disagreed, including over the issue of perfection. “Charles was also prone to self-depreciation and tended to set his expectations too high, claiming in regard to entire sanctification ‘all the struggle then is over. I wrestle not.’ At times he expressed a morbid view of life. He was influenced throughout his life by the mystical writers.” (Reasoner, p. 65). An example of this thought process is found in “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (UMH#384):
Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling; all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast!
Let us all in thee inherit; let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.
Charles would, at times, personify himself as the character in a Bible story and make it his own, as he did in “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” (UMH#386), which encompasses Genesis 32:24-32 as Jacob struggles with God only to find that as the morning breaks, “thy nature and thy name is (Universal) Love.”
Another hymn speaks of justification, perfection and action to be God’s agents in the current world, “Eternal Son, Eternal Love” (Hymnal ???):
Eternal Son, eternal Love, Take to thyself the mighty power;
Let all earth’s sons thy mercy prove; Let all thy saving grace adore.
The triumphs of thy love display; In every heart reign thou alone,
Til all thy foes confess thy sway, And glory ends what grace begun.
Spirit of grace and health and power, Fountain of light and love below,
Abroad thy healing influence shower, O’er all the nations let it flow.
Inflame our hearts with perfect love; in us the work of faith fulfill,
So not heaven’s host shall swifter move than we on earth, to do thy will.
A little known hymn, “Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose” (UMH #153) takes on both themes, victory over sin and holy love:
Thou hidden source of calm repose, thou all-sufficient love divine,
my help and refuge from my foes, secure I am if thou art mine;
and lo! From sin and grief and shame I hide me, Jesus, in thy name.
Thy mighty name salvation is, and keeps my happy soul above;
comfort it brings, and power and peace, and joy and everlasting love;
to me with thy dear name are given pardon and holiness and heaven.
In want my plentiful supply, in weakness my almighty power,
in bond my perfect liberty, my light in Satan’s darkest hour,
in grief my joy unspeakable, my life in death, my heaven in hell.
John and Charles Wesley espoused the idea that there is no holiness without social holiness. “Holiness itself implies an awareness of and sensitivity to the social implications of the Gospel.
There was great concern for the poor and disadvantaged among early holiness people. They knew nothing of the separation between personal piety and social concern that has marked the evangelical church of the last half-century.” (Purkiser, 5.I) While not nearly as well known, this text of Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Holy God, and True” outlines social holiness in verses 3-5 below:
Be to every sufferer nigh, hearing not in vain,
of the widow in distress, of the poor, the fatherless:
Raiment give to all that need, the cry to the hungry furnish bread,
to the sick now give relief, sooth the hapless prisoners’ grief:
Love, which wills that all should live, Love, which all to all would give,
Love, that over all prevails, Love, that never, never fails.
Refrain: Love immense and unconfined, Love to all of humankind.
John Oswalt aptly states: “So why does God want to make us holy? So that, forgetting ourselves and our comfort and our prerogatives, we can handle the precious lives of those around us with clean hands. Like the manna in the wilderness, if we try to keep our holiness for ourselves, it will grow sour and rancid in us….holiness is not an end in itself so that we can revel in our own purity, but it is for the sake of others. God’s reply, down through the ages, must reply ‘You must be holy, because I am holy’ is not a demand, but a wonderful offer.” (Oswalt, p. 197ff).
The unique doctrine of perfecting, holy, consuming love is captivatingly spoken of in “Jesus, Thine All-Victorious Love” (UMH#422)
Jesus, thine all victorious love shed in my heart abroad;
then shall my feet no longer rove, rooted and fixed in God.
O that in me the sacred fire might now begin to glow;
burn up the dross of base desire and make the mountains flow!
O that it now from heaven might fall and all my sins consume!
Come, Holy Ghost, for thee I call, Spirit of burning, come!
Refining fire, go through my heart, illuminate my soul;
scatter thy life through every part and sanctify the whole.
Through the gift of perfecting love, our eyes are opened to the needs all around us. We are enabled to see the needs of others and especially our great need of a Savior who forgives. Shoe-horned into the middle of Luke, Jesus proclaimed unapologetically: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). This is the Wesleyan perfection--- If we are ruled by love, redeployed by the Holy Spirit to share this holy love, God will use this as an unstoppable force for good.
Routley goes so far as to say that Charles did not write the majority of his texts to be sung in a congregation but primarily by soloists and trained choirs. The popular tunes of the day were from secular operas; while this music literature was attractive, it was largely unsingable by the average lay person. “[Charles] wrote what John wanted: hymns for the devout in class-meetings, and hymns for the heathen in the fields where their open-air preaching was done. He would write very simply: he could write in remote and complex phrases; he could do something as clear and captivating as the text which underlie ' Hark, the Herald Angels sing’, and something next day perhaps, as allusive and contemplative as ‘Come, O Thou Traveler’. But while many of his hymns make first-rate congregational material, they were mainly solos….even when the words are universal and communal, the music was of the kind inspired by Handel and the lesser opera-composers of the 1730s.” (Routley, p. 40) Largely, his hymns written for congregational use were 1-2 verses, so that they could be sung by their followers and particularly easier to learn and memorize doctrine for even the simplest minded saint.
Hardly any of this music is in general use now; It is because hymn singing now is so different from what either (Isaac) Watts or the Wesleys knew that we are not most familiar with the most ‘public’ of Wesley’s hymns At present the Wesley hymns are mostly for reading and meditation and perhaps the occasional solo or choral piece rather than for the congregational singing we are now accustomed to. Meanwhile we can just notice the exquisite sensitiveness and insight which enable him so accurately to portray the silence of heaven, the joys of penitence and the guiltless shame. (Routley, p. 41)