Today I am beginning a series of posts on aspects of Wesley’s theology as they relate to the theology of the mission of God. In recent years, evangelical theology has thoroughly embraced the missio dei concept as a way of re-framing the question of Christian mission. By beginning the discussion of mission with the mission of God, we make it clear that Christian mission is not primarily the Church’s mission, but God’s mission, which includes the church.
John Wesley’s theology is rich with themes that could be developed into a theology of the mission of God. Howard Snyder has written an excellent essay on this topic in his recent book Yes In Christ: Welseyan Reflections on Gospel, Mission, and Culture (Clements Academic, 2011). My series takes its inspiration from Howard’s essay in that volume, entitled “Toward a Wesleyan Theology of Mission” (pp. 69-98), though I’ll be discussing some themes he doesn’t address.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Wesley does theology primarily from a salvation history perspective, rather than a “systematic” perspective. So it is fitting to begin this series by discussing the topic that Wesley often begins his sermons with – the image of God.
The following quote, from Wesley’s 1760 sermon, “The New Birth,” represents the heart of Wesley’s perspective on the image of God:
“And God,” the three-one God, “said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him:” (Gen. 1:26, 27:) — Not barely in his natural image, a picture of his own immortality; a spiritual being, endued with understanding, freedom of will, and various affections; — nor merely in his political image, the governor of this lower world, having “dominion over the fishes of the sea, and over all the earth;” — but chiefly in his moral image; which, according to the Apostle, is “righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. 4:24.) in this image of God was man made. “God is love:” Accordingly, man at his creation was full of love; which was the sole principle of all his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions. God is full of justice, mercy, and truth; so was man as he came from the hands of his Creator. God is spotless purity; and so man was in the beginning pure from every sinful blot; otherwise God could not have pronounced him, as well as all the other work of his hands, “very good” (Gen. 1:31.) (Sermon 45, “The New Birth,” §I.1)
Notice that Wesley speaks of the image of God as threefold
1. The NATURAL IMAGE consists of those endowments given to the creature which make us capable of entering into conscious relation with God (notably, understanding, will, and freedom). The natural image has been lost in part after the fall, such that all of these faculties have been impaired. Our understanding does not function properly, so we make mistakes. Our will does not function properly, because we have lost our freedom and are now in bondage to sin. But God intervenes by his prevenient grace to restore a measure of freedom to fallen humanity (more on this in the next post).
2. The POLITICAL IMAGE consists of God’s endowment of the creature with faculties of leadership and management, making us stewards of creation. Though this is expressed as “dominion” over creation, note that because this is an aspect of the image of God, human dominion over creation is to reflect God’s love. In other words, we image God politically insofar as God’s benevolence is reflected in our stewardship of creation.
3. The MORAL IMAGE is not a capacity or a function but a relationship, marked by love. In other words, the moral image is not, in the first instance, about a kind of legal status. It is about being filled with love, as God is filled with love, and having our capacities and functions directed by love. Because God is love, we are to reflect God’s love, continually receiving it and reflecting it back to him in love, obedience, prayer, praise, works of mercy, and so on.
What does all of this have to do with mission?
It means, first of all, that the story of God’s mission begins with good news. All people are created in God’s image, and were therefore created “capable of God.” Though the image has been compromised by sin, the fact remains that all people were created to bear God’s image, and therefore all are called to experience God’s restoring grace.
If you read Wesley’s sermons, you will notice that he often begins his sermons with a description of the image of God before the fall. That is, he does not begin with the problem of sin, but with God’s intention for all of humanity, and the dignity that all human beings bear by virtue of their original creation in the image of God.
Secondly, we see that, from the very beginning, then, the mission of God is universal in scope, not for an elect few. All people were created in God’s image, therefore God’s love extends to all, and his redemption is open to all. God’s intention, after the fall, continues to be that all human beings should be filled with love, and that this love should direct all their thoughts, words, and deeds.