In “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” John Wesley remarks:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist in either Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. (in Works [vol. 13; Jackson edition, 1879], 258)
This fear of John Wesley was unfortunately not misplaced. Although there remains much that is vibrant in the Wesleyan family, there is at least in America a perceived decline that fits Wesley’s description. But Wesley’s comment contains much more than a fear that has been realized. It provides both a diagnosis of the problem and a path to renewal.
The problem is “having the form of religion without the power.” At its best, this is a dutiful and vigorous involvement in doing good works. At its worst, it is simply going to church and conforming to what the surrounding culture considers to be good and normal. Either way, it is basically going through the motions of being a Christian.
For Methodism to develop this affliction would be ironic, because it was precisely this problem that Methodism sought to cure. Again, Wesley remarks:
We see on every side either men of no religion at all or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are grieved at the sight, and should greatly rejoice if, by any means, we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it. And this we conceive to be no other than love: the love of God and of all mankind; the loving 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, every man on earth, as our own soul. (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” ¶I.2, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 11; Nashville: Abingdon, 1987], 45)
To have this love govern both our hearts and lives was the promise of God, made possible by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and effected by what God does in us through the Holy Spirit. This gift of salvation consists not only of forgiveness but new life, and involves not only our knowing about God, but actually knowing God. Its goal is to restore us to the image of God who is love.
Methodism existed to proclaim this promise of salvation and enable persons to attain it through grace. That is why holding fast to both doctrine and discipline was crucial. Doctrine was a “practical divinity,” a map that showed the way of salvation. The purpose of doctrine was not so much to delineate propositions for our assent as it was to direct us to the God who promises new life, tell us how to receive and grow in that life, and guide us in living it out faithfully.
The discipline was the means to receive all that the doctrine promised. For Wesley’s Methodists it consisted of three rules: (1) do no harm, (2) do good to the bodies and souls of your neighbor, and (3) attend to the ordinances of God (means of grace such as prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conversation). Methodists were held accountable to observing these rules at their weekly class meeting, in which they discussed together what it means to follow Christ in daily life.
The discipline, in other words, had to do with lifestyle, caring for the neighbor, and being in relationship with God. The accountability of the class meeting countered the inevitable tendency of life to gradually draw us away from God and neighbor, and to insensibly conform to cultural rather than divine norms. It was the discipline, then, that enabled these early Methodists to remain open and receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Could the seeds of our renewal today be found in our holding fast to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline found in the Methodism of Wesley’s day?