For John Wesley, to faithfully follow Christ is to be dissatisfied with things as they are, especially one’s own heart and life. This dissatisfaction is fueled not only by the commands of God that we find difficult to obey but also by the promise of God that, through grace, we can be renewed. Indeed, for Wesley, a command of God is at the same time a promise that God will enable us to fulfill the command: “…every command in holy writ,” says Wesley, “is only a covered promise…. Does he command us then to ‘pray with ceasing?’ to ‘rejoice evermore?’ to ‘be holy as He is holy? It is enough: He will work in us this very thing” (“Sermon on the Mount, Discourse V,” II.3).
The sense that things are not as they should be is universal. The world is marked by death, violence, suffering, and injustice, and lives by tragedy, hurt, and pain. There is also the vague but real unease that we are not as we should be. Even though our visions of a perfect world or a moral person may be flawed, we nonetheless have them.
The gospel message brings with it both a diagnosis of the problem and a promised cure. We find that what we took to be normal life is instead finding ourselves to be in the grip of a disease called sin. The remedy is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. “This love is the great medicine of life; the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world…” (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” II.1).
The entire path from being dead in sin to the fullness of new life in Christ is marked by this hope in Christ. Are you an awakened sinner for whom your earnest attempts to obey God only reveal the hold of sin on your life? God has promised forgiveness of sins and a new birth centered in love. Do you now begin to love God and your neighbor, but find that the sin whose hold over your life has been broken still remains? God has promised that sanctification will replace that inward sin with love. Do you long for that love to fill your heart, governing all you say or do? God has promised Christian perfection. Do you find that even then you fail to live out that love through lack of knowledge or mistakes in judgment? God has promised growth in perfection.
As Clarence Bence observed, for Wesley every attainment in the Christian life does not lead to a sense of arrival but instead produces an expectation for more growth (“John Wesley’s Teleological Hermeneutic,” PhD diss., Emory University, 1981). So “even when ye have attained a measure of perfect love,” Wesley urges, “think not of resting there.” No, “the voice of God…to the children of God is, ‘Go Forward’” (“On Faith” (Heb. 11:6), II.5).
Wesley’s Methodists soon began to extend this optimism of grace beyond personal salvation to the physical needs of others. Love of neighbor led to a wide range of ministries to meet the needs of the impoverished, sick, and suffering. In both England and America, Wesleyans continued this work in the nineteenth century, extending it to efforts at social reform, including the elimination of slavery, altering conditions that produced poverty, and equality for women. There was hope that God could transform society in this age such that it more closely resembled that of the age to come.
Wesley believed that, in the end, there would be a new heaven and a new earth, superior to the original, in which the love revealed in Jesus Christ would govern and infuse all things. That ultimate hope was coupled with a present hope: even now, the Holy Spirit is at work, bringing the reality of that new creation to birth in hearts and lives, and in the world at large.