Fred Sanders. Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. $14.79 (Amazon). 262 pp.
When I was first introduced to Reformed theology, I quickly labeled John Wesley as a no-zone for developing my beliefs. This was due mostly to the waywardness of many Wesleyan and Methodist churches today. Associating Wesley with his followers was unnecessary and unfortunate. After reading Wesley on the Christian LIfe, the newest book by Fred Sanders in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series, I have since repented of my theological bigotry. If you stop reading this review now, know this: this book will “strangely warm your heart” (as Wesley was famous for saying), no matter your theological persuasion.
On the whole, this book is flat-out good. Sanders does a wonderful job of presenting Wesley to us. In each of the ten chapters, he walks through one focus of Wesley’s teaching. Sanders resists theologizing and exegetes Wesley on Wesley’s terms, not his own or what he would like Wesley to say. What’s even better is that Sanders provides an accessible (read: non-academic) introduction to Wesley’s life and writings, primarily his sermons. Kudos to Sanders, and Crossway, for giving the church an even-handed account of this giant in church history.
With this on the table, here’s three elements that make this book worthwhile.
Heart Religion or Bust
Wesley may be thought of by some as a preacher who was sub-theological and merely focused on pragmatism (he is the founder of “Method-ism” after all). However, Wesley’s preaching was not sub-theological, but rather “something more immediate than a systematic theology” (44). It was theology that made you sing—what all good theology should do.
Wesley was saved from being a self-righteous church boy. He was devoted to external, religious forms that never went more than skin deep, but after his conversion to real Christianity, Wesley knew that to be a Christian meant more than behavior modification. It meant “heart religion.” This means, among other things, that the Christian recognizes sin is rampant and pervasive, but God’s grace is sufficient and complete (84).
Most of Wesley’s teaching in general and on heart religion in particular flowed from his understanding of the new birth (77). Wesley hammered home justification by faith (see ch. 5), but the new birth makes justification experiential. Justification is something God does for us; the new birth—regeneration—is something God does in us (78). Justification brings us to God; regeneration makes us want God. And this new birth is not just to holiness; it is also to happiness. True joy for the believer is only found when we worship God from the heart.
Gospel-Centered Before It Was Cool
It’s pretty popular to be “gospel-centered” nowadays. Wesley was gospel centered before there were conferences for it. He held firm the truth that we need the perfect righteousness of Christ if we have any hope of standing before God (133). He valued the sheer grace and favor of God in the salvation of sinners (148). Wesley knew that personal holiness could not be the ground of one’s relationship with God (108). At the same time, he knew that the gospel demanded a response of nothing less than full surrender and devotion. Grace cannot be earned, but it can be cultivated by means. Here, Wesley is solid on the traditional “means of grace” that both Reformed theologians and Catholic mystics love to talk about (ch. 7).
Chapter 6 is called “Grace First, Then Law.” For Wesley, the law makes us see our need for Christ. Then, Christ, in the gospel, leads us to radical obedience to the law. Sanders writes, “He was always on guard against a certain kind of evangelical preacher who never preached anything but free forgiveness, and who never brought the word of the law to his hearers” (157). In this, Wesley would be welcomed by even the most faithful Lutheran theologians.
Wesley took sanctification seriously. Period. Wesley is firm on grace, but he teaches that grace leads to transformation, and whatever transformation happens is owed to God (169-170). Because this is true, no one should be “content with any religion which does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil” (203). Wesley simply preached what he practiced—even those from other traditions commending him for his holiness.
Of course, Wesley muddied the waters with his doctrine of Christian perfection. What is it? Perfection is being perfected in love, yet it is not infallible, nor is it sinless, and it is improvable (208). It is capable of being lost (Wesley also believed one could fall from grace), and it is a progressive work (208-209). It is never self-sufficient and always dependent on grace (210-212). While I am thankful for Wesley and his ruthless commitment to holiness and “growth in grace” (196), I am confused by this doctrine. It’s too simple to find fault with Sanders for not explaining this doctrine well enough. While at times I think Sanders could be more critical of Wesley, the fault really lies with Wesley. Wesley tries to do justice to the biblical word “perfect” (e.g. 1 John 4:17), and I commend him for this. But it seems like sloppy exegesis and a poor biblical theology of sin to me.
In the end, Wesley calls for a complete and full deliverance from sin (217). That’s not a bad thing. While this doctrine may not scratch where I’m itching, Wesley himself is still a prime motivator for holiness in light of God’s grace. And for that, I’m thankful.