John Wesley remains one of the most influential individuals in the history and development of the Methodist Church because his leadership ultimately steered Methodist principles to exact a stronger focus upon personal holiness and church community.
In The Works of John Wesley, it is interesting to note that before Wesley encourages people towards personal holiness, he indicates that sanctity is an impossible and vain pursuit without an initial, personal intervention from God in the person’s life. Indeed, Wesley says, “faith and love are wrought in us by the Spirit of God” and that “there cannot be in any man one good temper or desire, or so much as one good thought, unless it is produced by the almighty power of God, by the inspiration or influence of the Holy Ghost” (1). This is a significant notion because it highlights the edges of John Calvin’s doctrine regarding the total depravity of mankind. In addition, Wesley’s ideas concerning personal holiness also stray away from the Catholic notion that personal works merit God’s acceptance of the individual. However, in this case, it seems that God gives unmerited acceptance and grace to an individual first; and because of that encounter, the individual is empowered to live a holy life. In fact, Wesley maintains that people gain the favor of God, not by their personal works, but because of “merits of Christ” (1). Thus, he strongly urges the church to behave accordingly in light of the fact that they have been given unmerited grace and reconciliation in Christ’s merits for them. Indeed, Wesley’s unique approach seems like it would inspire people to perform good deeds for God not out of obligation or fear, but out of joy because of what has been given to them in grace. In fact, Wesley seems to best articulate this theology when he says,
“Above all, stand fast in obedient faith, faith in the God of pardoning mercy, in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath loved you, and given himself for you. Ascribe to Him all the good you find in yourself; all your peace, and joy, and love; all your power to do and suffer his will, through the Spirit of the living God” (4).
Therefore, Wesley’s strong focus on personal holiness was not as much about the goal itself as it was the significance behind the goal, which was about God’s unmerited grace given to them in Christ.
Furthermore, Wesley also emphasized the importance of church community as well. He advocated that Methodist fellowship was essential to not only complementing one’s efforts at personal holiness, but also to advancing the mission of Christ in society as well. Wesley encouraged the church people to share close affiliation with one another, but not at the expense of being separated from the community at large. Indeed, Wesley said, “Whereas every other religious set of people, as soon as they were joined to each other, separated themselves from their former societies or congregations; you, on the contrary, do not; nay, you absolutely disavow all desire of separating from them” (2). Wesley, thus, encouraged strong interactions between the churched and the unchurched since he believed it would make the greatest difference in terms of expanding the kingdom of God in every city and town. Moreover, Wesley also suggested that a distinct community with shared morals, beliefs, and mission would appear strikingly convincing and peculiar to those observing. In this way, the community’s ideas will render a greater effect upon their city or town (3). In addition, Wesley’s strong focus upon the importance of church community actually contributed into the establishing of the United Society, which first took root in Europe and then in America. In fact, “such a society is no other than ‘a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation’” (6). Wesley greatly stressed the spiritual potential embedded within the confines of the local Methodist community.
John Wesley is particularly known for how he emphasized the ideas and lifestyles that should be representative of the term ‘Methodist’. His theological contributions concerning personal holiness, in addition to his strong advocacy regarding church community, profoundly transformed the dynamic of the Methodist tradition. Indeed, Wesley’s force of impact was so great in his time that the Methodist church today is still functioning and thriving within the wake of his influence.