The term “evangelism” did not come into common use until the nineteenth century. But while Wesley and his Methodists did not use the term, they certainly practiced evangelism. This comes as no surprise to those who know even a little about Wesley. What may be surprising is the message he and his Methodists proclaimed.
What is the gospel message? My late father served a number of years as a United Methodist local pastor (this was after I was an adult) and related this story. Preaching his first sermon at his new appointment, he decided to speak on the love of God. Some of the people said they liked the sermon but would prefer a bit more gospel in it. So next Sunday he really emphasized the love of God, only to be told the same thing. When he asked them what they meant by “gospel,” one said, “Saying more about sinners burning in the fires of hell — you know, a gospel message.”
The gospel is actually good news. But even a focus on the benefits of the gospel can go theologically awry. One prevalent misunderstanding of the gospel has to do with the cross. Because Jesus bore our sins, it is said, God the Father turned away from him in disgust, pouring the fullness of divine wrath — wrath that we deserved — on Jesus instead. Having poured that wrath on Jesus, God can now offer forgiveness to us.
What both of these portrayals of the gospel have in common is a focus God’s wrath for sinners. Jesus is then the means to escape that wrath and the eternal destiny it portends.
Now Wesley certainly did not ignore God’s judgment or wrath. He said the only requirement to become a Methodist was “a desire to flee the wrath to come” (using the words of John the Baptist). Thus sinners awakened to their condition and seeking to receive the promise of forgiveness and new birth were enrolled in Methodist class meetings.
Yet while Wesley took wrath seriously it was not central to his theology or message. For Wesley God’s love was always at the center, and everything else concerning God, including wrath, was a function of that love.
Wesley urges his preachers to proclaim the gospel and law, both of which he saw as aspects of God’s grace. With regard to the first, he said, “I mean by preaching the gospel, preaching the love of God to sinners, preaching the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ, with all the blessings which in consequence thereof are freely given to the believers” (“Letter on Preaching Christ,” 1751). By “preaching the law” he means “explaining and enforcing the commands of Christ, briefly comprised in the Sermon on the Mount.” Both law and gospel should be mixed, he advises, if not in every sermon, certainly “in every place.”
Let us take these in reverse order. With its focus on the Sermon on the Mount, preaching the law invites self-examination, not only with regard to our actions but the dispositions of our hearts. Such preaching awakens sinners to their condition and need for grace, and believers to their need for further growth. To the Christian the commands of Christ are received as a promise that the Holy Spirit will make those commands the desires of their hearts.
Yet even when focusing on the law, a sermon should begin with “a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved….” The love of God frames every sermon because it is the ground of our redemption.
“Preaching the gospel” is radically focused on that love. The message of the cross for John Wesley is not fundamentally wrath but love. He describes the cross as “that amazing display of the Son of God’s love” to humanity (“God’s Love to Fallen Man,” I.1]. Charles Wesley expresses it this way: “O Love divine, what hast thou done! The immortal God hath died for me!” [The United Methodist Hymnal, 287].
“If God so loved us,” John Wesley writes, even to the point of the Father giving up the Son for our salvation, and the Son emptying himself of his divinity and dying for us on a cross, then “how ought we to love one another!” (“God’s Love to Fallen Man, I.5). And that is the heart of the gospel message: God so loved us in Christ. And as a result we can be reconciled to God, and be enabled to love God and others as we have been loved.