We began looking at Wesley’s views on primitive Christianity a few days ago, and there is more to look into, even using only one primary source for this particular exploration in sermon 132. Again, while Wesley’s link to and love of primitive Christianity is well known and accepted, the purpose here is to attempt to delve into some of the reasons why he felt this way.
So we have discussed how Wesley believed that this was indeed the religion of the Bible, but there are reasons beyond this that he had such a love for primitive Christianity. “This old religion, (as I observed in the “Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,”) is “no other than love, the love of God and of all mankind; the loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as having first loved us, — as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made, every man on earth as our own soul.” While virtually everyone would agree that this is one of the foundations of faith, to understand Wesley is to understand the primitive church and what the primitive church had said about the love of God and man. Thoughts about this are found in more detail here, but for the purposes of this exploration, the primary thing that we need to understand is that, to the primitive church, this love was not simply a feeling, but was rather utter devotion. This was not a nice and sweet affection as we to often imagine, but rather a duty and dedication to living a life devoted to God, His commands, and His instructions. The ideas of personal and corporate holiness that (should) permeate Methodism can likely be traced back to the two great commandments, and even before Christ spoke them to the Old Testament where they are to originally found. (Remember that this was a question of Christ designed to trap Him and test His understanding of the scriptures (the OT in that time), so His response was not only enlightening to us as Christians, but was perfect and confounding to those who sought to trap Him.) This idea is echoed in one of Wesley’s most famous tracts, “Character of a Methodist”. In this tract he comments “And the tree is known by its fruits. For as he loves God, so he keeps his commandments; not only some, or most of them, but all, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to “keep the whole law, and offend in one point;” but has, in all points, “a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man.” Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God hath enjoined, he doeth; and that whether it be little or great, hard or easy, joyous or grievous to the flesh. He “runs the way of God’s commandments,” now he hath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory so to do; it is his daily crown of rejoicing, “to do the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven;” knowing it is the highest privilege of “the angels of God, of those that excel in strength, to fulfil his commandments, and hearken to the voice of his word. All the commandments of God he accordingly keeps, and that with all his might. For his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows. And therefore, loving God with all his heart, he serves him with all his strength. He continually presents his soul and body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God; entirely and without reserve devoting himself, all he has, and all he is, to his glory. All the talents he has received, he constantly employs according to his Master’s will; every power and faculty of his soul, every member of his body. Once he “yielded” them “unto sin” and the devil, “as instruments of unrighteousness;” but now, “being alive from the dead, he yields” them all “as instruments of righteousness unto God.” It seems rather clear here that the love of God is far more than a feeling toward God, but also is our response to God, and His commands, by our actions. Indeed, primitive Christianity is where Wesley came across the notion that our love of God was proportionate to our obedience to Him.
We should not forget however that we are also commanded by Christ to love neighbor, yet this too is distorted all to often to mean something different than it did to the primitive Christians. Much like the love of God is proportionate to our obedience to His commands, so too is our love of people proportionate to our obedience to the commands of God in how we are to treat them. Primitive Christianity, and thus Wesley, understood that our human frailties all to often get in the way of proper expressions of love, so we then rely on the revealed instructions of God to guide us in love. We need not ask how it is that we should love God best, we know how to, because He has revealed it to us through the scriptures. The moral law contained in the Bible is our primary guide in this (see Article VI of the Articles of Religion) and as such is included in the Methodist standards of faith. There has been a great misunderstanding that those seeking to follow the commands of God are somehow pharisees and such because they are seeking to follow said commands, but nothing could be further from the truth in primitive Christianity or in Wesley’s understandings. It is in following these commands that we best express our love for God and people. It is not the action of a pharisee, but the actions of the faithful. This means then that when we act outside of these commands, we are acting outside of love, and that means that we are acting outside of one of the primary understandings of Methodism. There can be little doubt that one of the primary reasons that Wesley was drawn to primitive Christianity because it was a religion based in love of God and of people. The problem is that all to often we have redefined what that love means and how that love should be expressed rather than relying on primitive Christianity to show us as Wesley did. Yes, Methodism is a religion of the heart, but that meant something very different to Wesley and to the primitive church.