As the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Wesley fell in June 2003, it was to be expected that there would be an upsurge of interest in his life and work. After all, he was very much involved in the founding and organising of what has become the worldwide Methodist movement. A rather surprising contribution to the commemoration of Wesley’s birth is a volume entitled Wesley and Men who Followed, written by Rev Iain H Murray. The author disclaims being an uncritical admirer of John Wesley but suggests that “in the continuing struggle which divides those ‘born after the flesh’ and those ‘born after the Spirit’ (Gal 4:29), and which also divides formal religion from supernatural Christianity, there is much to be learned from the Methodist leader who was born three hundred years ago”. The publisher maintains that this volume “leads to conclusions that are of great relevance for the contemporary church” and “points to the key to the recovery of authentic Christianity today”. Are these claims justified?
After two chapters briefly outlining Wesley’s life and ministry there are chapters entitled “Understanding Wesley’s Thought” and “The Collision with Calvinism”. A chapter on Wesley as “The Leader” concludes the first part of the volume. The second part consists of a chapter each on three men regarded as representative of later periods of Methodism, who have not hitherto been household names in Reformed circles. In the third part Mr Murray deals with two areas where he acknowledges Wesley cannot be followed: (1.) Wesley denied that justification is complete when sinners first believe, that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers, and that consequently believers are permanently accepted and cannot perish; (2.) He also taught that Christian perfection is possible because sin “properly so called” is restricted to “a voluntary transgression of a known law” – teaching which devalues the law, detracts from the sinfulness of sin and deforms the beauty of holiness. The fourth part is an attempt to explain the secret of Methodism at its height in terms of the place given to Scripture and the Holy Spirit and to trace its decline to departure from this commitment. The book is written in Mr Murray’s typical informative and readable style.
Acknowledgement is made of areas in which Wesley deviated from the truth in his doctrine, which was characterised by confusion and contradiction and strongly opposed to Calvinism – he regarded it as “deadly poison” that “Satan threw” in the way. But the overall impression left with the reviewer is that, while the doctrinal differences between Calvinists and Arminians are regarded as significant, Wesley’s errors are considered secondary to his commitment to Scripture, his concern for the saving of souls and his emphasis on personal religion. “All Christians in one degree or another are confused and ignorant”; “Sometimes inconsistencies in Wesley’s statements can, in part, be put down to the hurry in which he commonly wrote”; “In spite of his linguistic ability, John Wesley was not a precise exegete. In this regard, as in others, he was a man of his times.” While Mr Murray does not excuse what he describes as the persistence of John Wesley’s “misconception” of Calvinism, he does try to explain it in terms of his opposition to Hyper-Calvinism and Antinomianism.
Mr Murray is aware that the reason for his book may be questioned. “If Wesley’s theology was confused, why, some might ask, should we value his memory today? The answer is that it is not in his theology that his real legacy lies. Christian leaders are raised up for different purposes. The eighteenth-century evangelicals were primarily men of action, and, in that role, John Wesley did and said much which was to the lasting benefit of thousands. It is to him in that role that we need to turn” (p 79). We do question what appears, we hope at a most charitable reading, to be the thrust of the book: doctrine is important; we by no means jettison our Calvinistic understanding of Scripture and it would have been better if Wesley had been a Calvinist; but “all Christians in one degree or another are confused and ignorant”, and preaching the gospel does not depend on being correct on important matters which separate Calvinists and Arminians.
It is unnecessary to deny the undoubted significance of Wesley in his own time and subsequently. Mr Murray cites Charles Hodge as one of those outside Methodism who have acknowledged the influence of Wesley, though the full passage referred to indicates that Hodge is recognising a fact, and indeed a danger, rather than necessarily commending the man, whose distinctive doctrines he exposes elsewhere as having adverse implications of the highest practical importance: “The power of individual men, who appear in special junctures, over the faith and character of coming generations, is something portentous. Of such ‘world controllers’, at least in modern times, there are none to compare with Martin Luther, Ignatius Loyola, and John Wesley. Though so different from each other, each has left his impress upon millions of men. Our only security from the fallible or perverting influence of man, is in entire, unquestioning submission to the infallible Word of God”. (2)
We need not deny that God in His sovereignty used the truth contained in Wesley’s preaching to gather sinners to the Saviour. It is indeed salutary to question what may be the cause, short of the divine sovereignty, for the frequent lack of divine blessing accompanying the preaching of the whole truth. But it is our conviction that the story of John Wesley – while illustrating the grace of God in those results of his preaching which were permanent, in spite of his errors, and causing us humiliation before God on account of the limited fruit from the preaching of the truth – should be presented as a solemn warning about the fallibility of men and the dangerous consequences of error.
What Wesley was in relation to God and in his conduct and human relationships has gone with himself to the great eternity, but our concern is with the effect upon the Church of the theological legacy which remained when he was gone and the fruit of that theology in the Church today. Does it not significantly affect the preaching of the gospel and the life of the Church whether or not salvation is traced to God’s eternal and sovereign choice, whether or not the atonement wrought out by Christ is particular and efficacious – that is, whether Christ secured redemption or the possibility of it, redemption for some or for all – whether or not grace is given to all and can be successfully resisted, whether or not the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers and their salvation is infallibly secured, whether or not Christian perfection is received instantaneously by faith and can be lost again? Is professed and even self-consciously honest commitment to the Bible sufficient if one’s interpretation of the Bible undermines foundational truth? Are not experience and practice affected by erroneous belief? Is it not by His truth that God sanctifies His people?
In his reply to Wesley’s published sermon against predestination, George Whitefield, whose love and regard for Wesley were undoubted, stated: “The doctrine of universal redemption, as you set it forth, is really the highest reproach upon the dignity of the Son of God and the merit of His blood. . . . Dear Sir, for Jesus Christ’s sake, consider how you dishonour God by denying election. You plainly make salvation depend not on God’s free grace, but on man’s free will.“ (3)
Having been indebted for decades to the republishing work of the Banner of Truth and to many of the earlier writings of Rev Iain Murray, we are disappointed that this book seems to be an apologia for less emphasis on the distinctives of Calvinism and Arminianism and more emphasis on the religion of the heart. More emphasis on the religion of the heart is certainly required but the urgent necessity for the gospel being commended by spirit and life as well as by accurate exposition could surely have been illustrated and enforced without resort to a subject concerning whose public teaching so many caveats have to be entered and who appears to have done little to promote unity of spirit with those whose biblical faith he denounced.
1. A review article on Wesley and Men who Followed, by Iain H Murray, published by the Banner of Truth Trust, hardback, 288 pages, £14.95.
2. Systematic Theology, vol 3, p 485.
3. George Whitefield, vol 2, pp 567,568, Arnold Dallimore, Banner of Truth, 1980.