Don't get me wrong, there is such a thing as a Wesleyan theology and there can even be a Wesleyan denomination. But I was reminded yesterday by John Wright of Point Loma that Wesley didn't set out to start a church but to "reform the nation, particularly the Church, and spread Scriptural holiness over the land."
For some reason I have never applied this insight to the Church today. It has always only been for me a historical reminder that many of those who have started new churches were only originally trying to reform the church they were in. Sure, we know the charismatic movement, which has found its way into just about every Christian tradition there is. I also believe that there are evangelical Catholics, evangelical Anglicans, evangelical Wesleyans, and so forth.
But what struck me yesterday in a way it never has is that you can have Wesleyan Anglicans, Wesleyan Catholics, Wesleyan Baptists, and even Wesleyan Reformed! What would a Wesleyan movement of this sort look like, one that was not so much a church but a revolution within many churches?
1. Transformed Heart
Wesley, like the other "evangelicals" of the 1700s, preached for conversion and life change. He took from the Pietists the idea of assurance--you can know if you are on your way to heaven. He believed God wants to change you through the cross of Christ, to "save" you, and you can know it when he does.
What you believe is significant, but far more important is that God has grabbed hold of you, that you are in a "personal relationship" with him. This is God's doing, although we can put ourselves in the path of his grace by going to the "places" we know he hangs out, places like Scripture, baptism, communion, church, doing good to others. In other words, we can avail ourselves of the means of grace.
Whatever the denomination, a "Wesleyan" is someone who believes God wants to transform our hearts and walk through life in fellowship with us--and we can know he is there with us.
2. A "Generous Orthodoxy"
Someone with the heart of a Wesleyan is more concerned about the state of your heart, than with the specific ideas in your head. It's not that your ideas aren't important. Scripture is of central importance to a Wesleyan and what we believe. Orthodoxy is very important and a key assumption of what is in the head of a transformed heart.
But because of Wesley's focus on the heart, it is not as important that we iron out all our theological differences with each other. Just as a Baptist or a Catholic can speak in tongues, so a Reformed person or an Anglican can have a transformed heart. "If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand."
Whatever the denomination, a "Wesleyan" is someone who is orthodox in faith and looks to Scripture for understanding but who is "generous" toward those whose interpretations and understandings may differ from theirs, especially if they demonstrate a transformed heart.
3. Mature Love
Wesley was optimistic about the power of God to change your life in a concrete, evident way. He did not believe that it was inevitable that you would fail to do the right thing. While he did not deny that a person could accidentally wrong someone else, the "sin" that mattered most to God was when a person intentionally did something you fully knew God didn't want you to do.
What Wesley saw in the New Testament was that God was not primarily interested in whether we measured up to some absolute standard of perfection but whether or not we were allowing the Holy Spirit to empower us to do God's will. He believed God actually wanted to make us holy people in this sense. He believed God wanted to give us a truly mature love for God and others, which he called "perfect love" in his 1700s language. And God has given us the Church to hold us accountable and urge us on to do good.
Whatever the denomination, a "Wesleyan" is someone who is optimistic about God's desire to empower us to do the right thing even here on earth. We do not have to live lives of constant moral defeat but can actually, by the Spirit's power, do the good we know we ought to do.
4. Whole Person, Whole Society, Whole Creation
Wesley did not see God's desire to transform lives as just a matter of our hearts and intentions. Rather, God wants to save everything, "to the uttermost." God is concerned not just with our souls, but with our families and our economics and our society and by extension even the creation. Wesley did not see helping others as something in competition with saving souls. God cares especially for the lost sheep, which biblically includes the poor and the stranger, and so should we.
Wesley was concerned about social justice in England in the 1700s. His heirs were concerned with the plight of slaves and the rights of women. And it is consistent with his spirit to view ourselves today as stewards of God's creation.
Whatever the denomination today, a "Wesleyan" is someone who believes that God wants us to help those who are in need in the most robust way possible. A "Wesleyan" works to see unjust structures in society changed and to make the world a better place.
Let the movement begin!
One reason it has always been difficult to identify a distinctively Wesleyan theology historically is because Wesley really did not aim to create a distinct tradition. What he aimed to do was to see the Church reformed from within!
So if your heart is as my heart, let the revival begin... in whatever church you may call home!