John Wesley's rule of life

September 8th, 2014
Photo: Adam Davenport

John Wesley is a saint. He wasn't sinless, though I think he is now. He lived life in the throes of God's grace to a degree and with a level of zeal that let him accomplish amazing things. Consequently, and due to many other coincidences supervened by divine providence, I am, and many of you reading this post are, Methodists.

In Rev. Adam Hamilton's new book, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It, we see a picture (in chapter 2) of Wesley the Oxford man, full of zeal with his Holy Club.

At Oxford, the small band of Christians Wesley was mentoring shared his longing for holiness. For Wesley and his friends, holiness included a complete yielding of one’s life to God, a desire to become like Christ in heart and actions, acts of compassion for others, and a resolution to live one’s life for God’s glory. Among the ways Wesley pursued this quest for holiness was rising at four or five o’clock in the morning for private prayer; fasting two days a week until mid-afternoon; and meeting with others to study the Bible and other Christian writings; and to hold each other accountable. Wesley and his friends attended public worship and received the Eucharist weekly. They read and meditated upon Scripture daily. They actively pursued acts of compassion and mercy for the poor, the prisoners, and the elderly, and they sought to achieve lives of simplicity (49-50).

Wesley wanted not just to believe the Christian faith, nor only to understand it intellectually. Wesley wanted holiness. He wanted God. He wanted "to become like Christ in heart and actions."

Rev. Hamilton's paragraph above is packed with practices that have the spiritual dynamite to revive us. He lists at least 9 distinct pieces of Wesley's pursuit of holiness:

1. an intention to yield one's life to God completely, for God's glory, and become like Jesus Christ
2. rising at 4 or 5 a.m. to pray
3. fasting two days a week until 3 p.m. 
4. meeting regularly to discuss Scripture and other Christian texts
5. accountability at those regular meetings
6. weekly reception of the Eucharist
7. reading and meditating on Scripture daily
8. acting in compassion for the poor, prisoners, and the elderly
9. pursuing simple living

This is a radical list. Wesley was a radical. Elaine Heath of Perkins School of Theology has suggested that the early Methodists lived a quasi-monastic spirituality. We can see this in Wesley's own routine. He had what emergents and new (and old) monastics call a "rule of life."

Often when Wesley's story is told, we stake everything on the Aldersgate experience. But in directing our attention to the Holy Club, Rev. Hamilton shows us that Wesley was training to receive the further grace of Aldersgate for a long time. He was already living in the flow and rhythms of grace. Wesley was one of those who hunger and thirst for justice — and Jesus Christ promises that such will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).

Do we dare to live like Wesley? Do you dare embrace such a radical rule of life, involving both plentiful time for devotion and prayer and relationship with the poor and hurting? What could be more important than these?

Does Wesley's life seem constrained or constraining to us? Holiness is freedom not constraint. It makes your heart, soul, mind, and strength bigger not smaller. Holiness is horizon expanding. In a holy rule of life, we are bound in order that the grace we so receive may make us free.

We discover freedom that is not only freedom from sin, but a freedom that is positive fulfillment in God.

A Eucharistic way of life

St. Paul writes: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:1-2, RSV).

Wesley shows us how to do this as we witness his rule of life. This is probably the most important thing about Wesley for Methodists. It is why I call Wesley a saint — he shows us how to offer ourselves utterly to God.

Our self-offering, like Wesley's self-offering, follows the pattern of Christ's self-offering. Our self-offering is joined to Christ's self-offering in every act of the Christian life, from prayers throughout our days, to our attitude when we read Scripture, to the ways we are in relationship to the poor. Paradigmatically this takes place in the Eucharist, as our lives and self-offerings are woven into Christ's self-offering while we pray:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to the world, until Christ comes again...

Dare we, Wesley-like, give ourselves to God until Christ comes again?

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