Evangelism today is often described as done in obedience to the Great Commission of Matt 28:16–20. This passage is widely appealed to as our motivation for evangelism, and analyzed in depth for clues regarding the content and method of evangelism. It is arguably one key influence on the United Methodist mission statement in the Book of Discipline.
Given its enormous impact on the language of evangelism today, it is remarkable that there is virtually no mention of the Great Commission in the writings of John Wesley and his Methodists. Indeed, there is almost nothing said about it by the Calvinists or Moravians of his day either. How is it that there was a great religious awakening in the eighteenth century fueled by widespread evangelistic preaching and personal testimony without any reference to the Great Commission as it foundation? If not the Great Commission, what was their motivation?
Although Wesley makes little reference to the Great Commission, his writings are filled with references and allusions to the two Great Commandments. Loving God and one’s neighbor were at the heart of his theology and practice. To put it simply, Wesley and his people called Methodists were not motivated by obedience to a command but by love in their hearts for God and their neighbor. It was not obligation that drove their evangelism, but a yearning to share the good news of God’s life-transforming love with others.
In An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion John Wesley offers this account of what motivates his Methodists:
We see — and who does not? — the numberless follies and miseries of our fellow creatures. 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. (¶ 2)
There is a gift they have received, freely given through Jesus Christ, which they long to share with others. And what is this gift, this religion worthy of God?
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 all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made … as our own soul. (¶ 2)
How, then, did they go about convincing others of this “better religion” which is “no other than love”? They did not, by and large, rely on rational arguments to persuade the intellect. The credibility of their preaching and testimony rested in the visible effects of the gospel in their own lives, community, and service to others.
When Wesley does comment on the Great Commission in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament he completely ignores Jesus’s words, “Go therefore” to all the nations, which might seem odd for someone who saw the whole world as his parish. His focus instead was on the words “disciple all nations.” The goal of salvation was to make disciples, but as Wesley makes clear throughout his writings, salvation produces not just persons who are obedient to external commands but whose motivations, desires and dispositions are rooted in and governed by love.
In his sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” Wesley paints a breathtakingly radical picture of a global Christian church — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — renewed in holiness, or love. He models this on the church portrayed at the end of Acts 2. With the church renewed in holiness, he then describes the spread of the gospel to non-Christians in this way: “The grand stumbling-block being thus happily removed out of the way, namely, the lives of Christians,” non-Christians “will look upon them with other eyes, and begin to give attention to their words” (¶ 21).
Wesley is not proposing a moratorium on sharing the gospel with non-Christians until the entire church is renewed in holiness. What he is saying is that the primary argument for the gospel is lives and churches who in their relationships, their life together, and their outreach to others is motivated and characterized by love. It is both the reason for and the result of evangelism.