Like many then and now, John Wesley was convinced that the world was not the way it was intended to be, and more particularly our lives are not as they were meant to be. The fundamental problem is sin, a spiritual disease that afflicts our motives and desires; distorts our relationships with God, our neighbor, and the world; and leads us away from God, both now and for eternity. But Wesley was also convinced that God has promised us a new life through Christ that not only cures the disease of sin but replaces it with love.
We are, then, not without hope. This hope is not a kind of wishful thinking, but a firm confidence grounded in the promise of God. “For the promises of God,” Wesley maintained, “are the only sure foundation of our hope” (“On Perfection,” II.l).
Christianity, Wesley argued, understood as a “system of doctrine,” describes the character of this new life, “promises it shall be mine (provided I will not rest till I attain it),” and “tells me … how I may attain the promise, namely, by faith” (“A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity,” II.1, 5). That we can attain this character “is promised both in the Old Testament and the New. Indeed the New is, in effect, all a promise, seeing every description of the servants of God has the nature of a command” since we are called to imitate them and follow Christ. “And every command has the force of a promise: “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,’ is not only a direction what I shall do, but a promise of what God will do in me …” (“A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity,” II.3). Thus “a promise is implied in every commandment of God” (“On Perfection,” II.11).
One implication of this is that for Wesley there is no contradiction between law and gospel; indeed “the very same words … are parts both of the law and of the gospel.” When “considered as commandments, they are parts of the law; if as promises, of the gospel.” The gospel, in fact, is “no other than the commands of the law proposed by way of promises” (“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, V,” II.2).
Hope in the promises of God is the antidote to despair. It counters the fear that this life cannot get better, that nothing really changes, and that if there is any hope, it is only in a future life to come. Rather our lives, relationships, and communities do not have to remain as they are. Through what God has done in Christ and will do through the power of the Spirit we can be renewed in love.
But hope as Wesley understands it is also an antidote to presumption. Some have understood God’s promises as automatically received once we fulfill certain conditions. Of course, they believe these conditions have been themselves established by God. Yet to claim, for instance, that once we perform a certain action and/or exercise faith we automatically and immediately receive a given promise is for Wesley to undercut God’s freedom. Certainly God is always faithful to God’s promises, but for Wesley God is also free as to the timing and manner in which these promises are fulfilled. Hope for Wesley is a reliance on a faithful God who has loved us even unto death on a cross, and a continual openness to receive through the Holy Spirit all the life God has promised.