If you have spent any time speaking with a United Methodist about theology, this has come up. Often it is used as a defense of having ideas outside the stated doctrine of the UMC, outside of orthodoxy (orthodoxy here is contained in the Nicaean Creed so that we have a working definition from the start), outside of scripture, or some combination of those and others. Like most things in our sound bite world, this is taken well out of context, and upon reading all that was written, you may find yourself surprised at what Wesley went on to say. You can find the entire writing here.
I am going to pull out a few surprising (to some) quotes out of here and briefly comment on them. Also, while not related to scripture, it is related to posts here and here in that they show an ongoing trend to pick and choose what we want to listen to and quote, rather than taking the time to understand the larger whole of what is being said. Because of that ongoing trend, we not only have a poor understanding of scripture, but also of the one whose theology we purport to follow. I encourage you to read the entire “Character of a Methodist” by Wesley, but here are some choice phrases.
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 fulfill his commandments, and hearken to the voice of his word.”
Yep, that same guy who said think and let think, said the above about the character of a Methodist. One would rightly infer that Wesley considered all of God’s (notice here that Wesley uses God’s rather than Christ’s. While Christ’s commands are included as He and the Father are one, he takes care to ensure that we understand this is more than only the commands of Jesus) commands as worthy of following. A casual familiarity with the rest of Wesley’s writings and theology reveals that he refers to the moral law, not the ceremonial. (Yes, the character of a Methodist may properly be expressed in eating bacon.)
“4. Nor, lastly, is he distinguished by laying the whole stress of religion on any single part of it. If you say, “Yes, he is; for he thinks ‘we are saved by faith alone:'” I answer, You do not understand the terms. By salvation he means holiness of heart and life. And this he affirms to spring from true faith alone. Can even a nominal Christian deny it? Is this placing a part of religion for the whole? “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.” We do not place the whole of religion (as too many do, God knoweth) either in doing no harm, or in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. No, not in all of them together; wherein we know by experience a man may labour many years, and at the end have no religion at all, no more than he had at the beginning. Much less in any one of these; or, it may be, in a scrap of one of them: Like her who fancies herself a virtuous woman, only because she is not a prostitute; or him who dreams he is an honest man, merely because he does not rob or steal. May the Lord God of my fathers preserve me from such a poor, starved religion as this! Were this the mark of a Methodist, I would sooner choose to be a sincere Jew, Turk, or Pagan.”
Sorry, again, God’s moral law is not made void through faith. Notice Wesley reminds us it is more than the popular sound bite ‘do no harm’ or ‘good works’ or even by keeping the ordinances of God. More than any of these things alone. Wesley reminds us it is not just the holiness of our actions, it is not even just the holiness of our heart, or the holiness of our beliefs, but a combination of all.
“1. THE distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally. We believe, indeed, that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;” and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and Infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish Church. We believe Christ to be the eternal, supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.”
Even in the very paragraph that the quote is cherry picked from, we find a treasury of interesting observations from Wesley. We find that all scripture is inspired by God and is the only…let that sink in…ONLY and sufficient rule for Christian faith and practice. Christ is eternal (note that eternal is without end, but also without beginning). Sorry, but anything that denies the eternal nature of Christ is not in The Character of a Methodist, at least to Wesley. Those are just a few of the things Wesley believed were at the root of Christianity.
There is a lot more there and it is a phenomenal read that can help a great deal in understanding our character, origin and history. This does include updated language to aid in understanding, I am sure that you can find the original online or for a reasonable price. While not officially a part of Sermons on Several Occasions and therefore not official UMC doctrine, you will find those ideas outlined in several of Wesley’s sermons and also in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of the EUB. (All these can be found here) Take some time. Read a little. Find out where we came from and who this people called Methodist actually are and what they actually claim to believe, and how steeped in doctrine and theology (good theology even) they actually are. Read it all, don’t pick and choose quotes, and understand the full richness and meaning of our beliefs. They might just surprise you.