David Brooks, in On Paradise Drive (Simon and Schuster, 2004), describes Americans as driven toward achieving a wide range of future goals in education, hobbies, and work. They exert enormous energy and self-discipline to attain their goals. But all too often, the goals that elicit all this effort are penultimate if not trivial. “What would be wrong,” he asks, “with imagining something truly big?”—not retiring at fifty and sailing the world, but a great mission, such as ending hunger, curing cancer, or spreading democracy. “The paradox of modern life,” Brooks says, “is that while it seems driven by ambition, its citizens are not ambitious enough” (185).
Wesley presents us with the greatest mission of all, because it is God’s mission. It is a vision of the renewal of creation in God’s love. This is what God is doing in the world, and we are invited to participate.
On the personal level, God is at work renewing each of our lives. Wesley grieves that so many in the church settle for “a lifeless, formal religion.” He sought to convince them “that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it. And this we conceived to be no other than love: the love of God and of all mankind; the loving of God with all our heart and soul and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made… as our own soul” (J. Wesley, in F. Baker, ed., Works 11:45). This new life not only has love as its governing attribute, but it enables us to look upon the world with eyes of compassion and transforms all our relationships and activities.
Wesley’s term for this goal is Christian perfection, and the process of moving toward it is sanctification. In comes as a gift from God, but we participate in this work of God through prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, Christian conversation, fasting, and serving our neighbor. We engage in these practices not to earn salvation but to maintain our relationship with God, and to receive the gift of new life God graciously offers.
This goal of personal renewal is both an element of and a motivation to participate in God’s larger goal of renewing creation in love. On the level of human society the mission was to renew the church and spread scriptural holiness across the land. Here was a mission big enough to stir the imagination and elicit sacrifice. The vision of a church marked by vibrant worship, a community that shares and heals and cares, and an outreach driven by compassion and working for peace, health, and justice, evoked the commitment of thousands. Such a church, Wesley believed, would give the gospel promises credibility with non-Christians, and ultimately bring multitudes to Christ and lead to a world without hunger or war.
Then will arise a “state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise…. There will be no more death, and no more pain or sickness… no more grieving for or parting with friends; so there will be no more sorrow or crying. Nay, but there will be a greater deliverance than all this; for there will be no more sin. And to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, and uninterrupted union with God…” (J. Wesley, “The New Creation,” §18).
God will in the end bring about such a world. But even now, the Holy Spirit is doing a work of transformation, in human lives, in the church, and in human society. Wesley says we are neither passive observers nor passive recipients, but called and empowered to participate in this wonderful work of God. There is, he believes, no greater mission or higher privilege than this.