Why Wesley matters to the non-Wesleyan: a book review

John Wesley is one of the great Evangelical voices of Christian history. But when a self-consciously Reformed publishing company (Crossway Books) published a book surveying Wesley’s theology, I was somewhat suspicious.  If an Arminian press (or even a Lutheran press) published a book on John Calvin, I would have similar suspicions. Thankfully the author, Fred Sanders, is an able and sympathetic interpreter of Wesley’s theology.  Wesley’s Arminianism is not the focus of Wesley on the Christian Life.  Sanders spends little time discussing Wesley’s views on predestination, but turns his focus towards Wesley’s practical, pastoral theology. This does justice to Wesley’s theological output. Wesley was not a systematician. Instead he wrote in response to occasional issues. His Standard Sermons are where he did his best and most important theology (and these sermons were bolstered by his brother Charles hymns).

There are ten chapters, each delving into an aspect of Wesley’s legacy. Sanders begins his survey of  with a brief biography which illustrates the importance of Wesley and the influences upon his theology.  In chapter two and three, Sanders than turns attention to Wesley’s theology of New Birth and the significance of ‘heart religion.’ Wesley’s theology of new birth, shows his continuity with the wider evangelical movement.   Against the cold orthodoxy of his age, Wesley’s ‘heart religion’   demanded real affection and personal faith. Orthodoxy should never be cold, it should fill the heart with joy at all God has done on our behalf in Christ! Chapter four  examines the place of pride 1 John had in Wesley’s theology (Luther’s go to book was Galatians, Calvin Ephesians and everyone read Romans), but he does show how Wesley makes use of Paul’s theology as well (there is no canon within a Canon here).  In chapter six, Sanders discusses Wesley’s reaction to the language of ‘imputed righteousness,’ what he ultimately affirms about it and where he finds the language dangerous (Wesley feared anti-nomianism).  Chapter seven discusses Wesley’s ‘means of Grace.’  Wesley was against mysticism that denied the centrality of Christ and his work and quietism which caused people to withdraw from community. He commended regular spiritual disciplines and participation in the Eucharist as a way that the Grace of God meets and refreshes the soul.

The most controversial aspect of  Wesley’s theology is his language of ‘perfection.’ In chapter eight, Sanders describes what Wesley means (and doesn’t mean) by perfection and uncovers popular misunderstandings. He distinguishes Wesley’s theology from many of the movements which have enshrined their own understanding of this. Chapter nine discusses Wesley’s catholic spirit, his willingness to work alongside and affirm other Christians with whom he disagreed with doctrinally. However there are limits to Wesley’s ecumenism. Chapter ten describes the Trinitarian aspects of Wesley’s theology. Wesley did not extend the right hand of fellowship to Arians, Deists and Socinians.

Sanders has done a masterful job of re-introducing Wesley to those outside the Methodist/Wesleyan universe.  Wesley was once read by Reformed and Arminian alike. The young, restless and reformed just might need a shot of holiness from the English speaking world’s most famous Arminian. What Sanders does here, is make Wesley tenable to them. While Calvinists will continue to balk at Wesley’s  views on predestination and sanctification, there is much in Wesley that all Christians would and should agree on. Sanders demonstrates that much of Wesley’s piety was a recovery of Puritan spirituality. The difference is that Wesley did not dissent, but ensconced his theology within the Anglican church.

I think there are limitations to Sanders’s account. I think he assumes a largely Reformed audience and so makes an effort to build bridges between the eighteenth century arch Arminian and contemporary Calvinism. However, I think Pietism played a larger role in shaping Wesley’s theology than Sanders describes. When Sanders describes the Moravians, their chief importance seems to be their pointing Wesley to Luther. However, the pietists were the great purveyors of heart religion, and I think that this needs to be drawn a little more firm. Also, I think this book only goes part way towards recovering Wesely’s sacramental theology. I agree with Sanders’s placement of the Lord’s Supper as ‘a means of Grace.’ Yet the high sacramentalism of Wesley is sometimes forgotten by his followers (the way Calvinists seldom read what Calvin said about the table).

But with this, I am more stating the limits of this text, than I am criticising Sanders. Books, even good books, can’t say everything, and if they did no one would read them. This is a book which gave me a greater understanding of Wesley’s theology and ongoing importance. It made me want to read some Wesley for myself, and it gave me a hunger for a deeper faith and a more generous spirit. This is truly a win for a book on historical theology. I give it five stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy in exchange for my review.

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