Some Wisdom from Wesley on Zeal

Christians today don’t normally use the word “zeal.”  It is maybe a bit old-fashioned, and I has associations with a kind of fanaticism that most people want to avoid.  I don’t think there are too many today who want be seen as “zealots”, although I suppose there might still be some who are ready to be labelled “zealous” for a certain cause.

We are more likely to talk about “passion.”  Many evangelicals want to be “passionate worshippers,” or will talk about their passion for a certain kind of mission or for evangelism.

Religious passion, or zeal, however, can be a dangerous thing, if it is misdirected.  Many people, following a disordered religious zeal of one kind or another, have done horrible things and inflicted great pain and suffering on others.  Maybe that is part of the reason many would shy away from an overly zealous religion.

John Wesley recognized the potential danger of religious zeal, noting that “nothing has done more disservice to religion, or more mischief  to mankind, than a sort of zeal which has for several ages prevailed, both in pagan, Mahometan (Muslim) and Christian nations.”  And yet he also maintained that “without zeal it is impossible either to make any considerable progress in religion ourselves, or to do any considerable service to our neighbour, whether in temporal or spiritual things” (Sermon 92, “On Zeal,” §1).

How then, can we distinguish the necessary and good type of zeal from the destructive type?   Wesley’s answer was to focus on true zeal as an expression of love.

In an interesting passage of his 1781 sermon “On Zeal” (§§ II.7-11) he outlines how this “zeal for love” ought to rule and direct all other types of religious zeal.

7. Every Christian ought, undoubtedly, to be zealous for the church, bearing a strong affection to it, and earnestly desiring its prosperity and increase. He ought to be thus zealous, as for the church universal, praying for it continually, so especially for that particular church or Christian society whereof he himself is a member. For this he ought to wrestle with God in prayer; meantime using every means in his power to enlarge its borders, and to strengthen his brethren, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour.

8. But he should be more zealous for the ordinances of Christ than for the church itself; for prayer in public and private; for the Lord’s supper, for reading, hearing, and meditating on his word; and for the much-neglected duty of fasting. These he should earnestly recommend; first, by his example; and then by advice, by argument, persuasion, and exhortation, as often as occasion offers.

9. Thus should he show his zeal for works of piety; but much more for works of mercy; seeing “God will have mercy and not sacrifice,” that is, rather than sacrifice. Whenever, therefore, one interferes with the other, works of mercy are to be preferred. Even reading, hearing, prayer are to be omitted, or to be postponed, “at charity’s almighty call;” when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.

10. But as zealous as we are for all good works, we should still be more zealous for holy tempers; for planting and promoting, both in our own souls, and in all we have any intercourse with, lowliness of mind, meekness. gentleness, longsuffering, contentedness, resignation unto the will of God, deadness to the world and the things of the world, as the only means of being truly alive to God. For these proofs and fruits of living faith we cannot be too zealous. We should “talk of them as we sit in our house,” and “when we walk by the way,” and “when we lie down,” and “when we rise up.” We should make them continual matter of prayer; as being far more excellent than any outward works whatever: seeing those will fail when the body drops off; but these will accompany us into eternity.

11. But our choicest zeal should be reserved for love itself, – the end of the commandment, the fulfilling of the law. The church, the ordinances, outward works of every kind, yea, all other holy tempers, are inferior to this, and rise in value only as they approach nearer and nearer to it. Here then is the great object of Christian zeal. Let every true believer in Christ apply, with all fervency of spirit, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that his heart may be more and more enlarged in love to God and to all mankind. This one thing let him do: let him “press on to this prize of our high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

It sounds simple, but how often have people failed to focus their zeal on love of God and neighbour, with the result being various forms of bigotry, oppression, and persecution?  The whole sermon is still worth a read today.

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 4: Christian Perfection

John Wesley’s most distinctive theological theme was his emphasis on Christian perfection.  His ideas were controversial, and volumes upon volumes of books have been published to try to explain, defend, or dismiss Wesley’s position.

In a brief post like this I can’t really get into the details of the debates, but I can put forward my own interpretation of what I think Wesley was trying to say about holiness, and how it ought to shape a theology of the mission of God.

First, we need to make some clarifications about the word “perfection.”  In our culture we assume that perfection implies the complete absence of flaws of any kind.  Since we know that nobody is perfect (in this sense), it seems ridiculous to say speak of Christian perfection.

Wesley did not use the term “perfection” in a way that implied “flawlessness.”  In other words, he did not believe anyone could reach a state of sinless perfection in this life.  He did not teach that we should strive for absolute perfection, but for Christian perfection, a perfection which is fitting for a redeemed but flawed and frail human creature.  This kind of perfection is not static, but dynamic, personal, relational, and made possible by divine grace alone.  It is  a relative perfection, a perfecting perfection which always admits greater degrees.

Wesley was at his best when he defined Christian perfection as “perfect love”:

But what is perfection?  The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.  It is love ‘rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks’ (Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.9).

In other words, Wesley believed it was really possible for Christians to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbours as ourselves.   What this meant in a practical sense was that he believed we could be so filled with the love of God that we would not knowingly sin.  Even someone whose life was characterized by Christian perfection would continue to sin, and would continue to need the atoning blood of Christ at every moment.  But, Wesley believed, a Christian could be so overwhelmed by God’s love that their intentions would always be for the good.

These ideas are still controversial, and much more could be said.   I’ve said a bit more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.

An idea which was so central for Wesley and which continues to be a central aspect of Wesleyan theology today must have missional implications.  I would like to highlight three.

The first connects with my last post about the therapeutic nature of salvation.  Salvation is not simply about gaining a ticket to heaven, but about the healing of the sickness which has corrupted us.  Part of the church’s role in God’s mission is to be a community which cultivates the healing grace of God – that is, a community which moves its members towards Christian perfection.  Even if we disagree with Wesley on the degree to which this is possible in this life, we can still affirm that the Christian life ought to head in the direction of perfection.  Or perhaps it would be less of a stumbling block to say that the Christian life should head in the direction of maturity, or a kind of completeness that is fitting for sinners saved by grace.

Secondly, the church ought therefore, to demonstrate the salvation of God, not only in word, but in the manner of its life together.  The church is called to grow up into the fullness of Christ, personally and corporately.  Wesley was particularly fond of the Gospel of John and the epistles of John, and took quite seriously Jesus words in John 13:35 – “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”  The character of the church’s life together is part of our witness to the world.  Again, we think of Jesus’ great high priestly prayer in John 17 – “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”  Our unity, our love for one another, is intricately connected to God’s mission.  He established the church to be a living demonstration – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God – so that the world might know him.  Sadly, Christians often do a very poor job of this.

Again, this theme highlights the fact that the Church’s community life, including its various edifying and sanctifying practices, are themselves part of God’s mission.  Community life and mission should not be played off against one another.

Love: the greatest gift or something greater?

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known passages of scripture. Because it is often read at weddings, it is even well known to non-Christians.  Because it is often read on its own, I think many of us think of 1 Corinthians 13 as a stand-alone unit within the Bible.  However, in its context, it actually forms an integral part of Paul’s teaching on charisms.

Paul Kariuki Njiru’s book, Charisms and the Holy Spirit’s Activity in the Body of Christ (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2002), does a good job of outlining the Paul’s rhetorical structure throughout 1 Corinthians 12 to 14.  He summarizes the overall structure this way:

A Spiritual gifts in general (1 Cor. 12)

B Love as the most excellent way (1 Cor. 13)

A’ Spiritual gifts in particular: prophecy versus tongues (1 Cor. 14)

A more detailed breakdown of the various concentric rhetorical structures within chapters 12-14 is found on page 68.  The bottom line is that the famous “love chapter” is not a stand alone tribute to love in general, nor is it a later interpolation by an unknown editor (as some have suggested), but it is the focal point and climax of Paul’s discussion of charisms.

Paul’s method of writing is very rhetorical, and, by the use of concentric figures, he achieves the effect of emphasizing the importance of love as a regulatory principle in the use of spiritual gifts in the Church.  For the Apostle it is love that must govern the use of all charisms (49).

I think this exegesis is clear enough.  It also raises an interesting question: is Paul presenting love as the pre-eminent of all divine gifts, or is he specifically contrasting transitory gifts with the eternal love of God?

Njiru suggests that Paul is presenting love as “the gift par excellence” (60).  However, the broader consensus seems to be that Paul is intent on making a contrast here between the charismata of chapter 12 and 14 and love.   This comes out particularly in 13:8

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

Love, then, is not one gift among others, but that without which the gifts are made void, useless, and even divisive.  It may properly be described as a “fruit” of the Spirit (Galatians 5), but not a charism.  This tells us something important about charisms: they are provisional, rather than enduring.   Part of the problem in Corinth was that they were allowing pride regarding particular charisms to divide their fellowship, thereby showing that they valued charisms above the love that they were to have for one another. 

Ecclesially, if we think of particular communions or traditions within the church as having ecclesial charisms, we can see how 1 Corinthians 12-14 could stand as a rebuke for our divisions.  A particular group within the church which separates from others on the basis of a particular gift or set of gifts is, to take up Paul’s image, like the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you!” (12:21).