Friday, November 12, 2021

Sung Il Lee: The Late John Wesley’s Understanding of Mission

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Sung Il Lee. Rev. Dr. Lee is a missionary of Global Ministries and Missionary Practitioner in Residence at Candler School of Theology.

Having looked at the missiology of the “middle” Wesley, I would like to now examine the “late” John Wesley’s understanding of mission. I see 1767, the year Wesley published “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” as a watershed dividing “middle” Wesley and “late” Wesley. From the point of view of sanctification, the “late” Wesley's understanding of mission in a qualitative sense, including economic perfection, led to a more mature Methodist movement. In this post, I would like to deal with the qualitative characteristics of the Methodist missional movement.

In his journal, Wesley emphasized Christian perfection in "The Character of a Methodist," saying:

These are the same principles and practices of our sect; these are the marks of a true Methodist; that is, a true Christian, as I immediately after explain myself: ‘by these alone do those who are in derision so called desire to be distinguished from other men.’ (P. ii.) ‘By these marks do we labor to distinguish ourselves from those whose minds or lives are not according to the gospel of Christ.’ (p.12). (John Wesley 1951, 186)

The “late” Wesley’s emphasis on Christian perfection deepened his Methodist movement in two ways: One is that the qualitative transformation in domestic missions accelerated, saving Britain from the negative consequences of the French Revolution, a result of the Methodist movement bringing about socio-political and economic changes in Britain.

The other is that on September 4, 1771, John Wesley commissioned 26-year-old Francis Asbury and Richard Wright as American missionaries (Hong-ki Kim 2013, 193), and the era of American missions began. In this regard, the “late” Wesley saw mission as the transformative power to change persons as well as the world.

The nature of mission for Wesley must be understood in terms of how Wesley understood human beings and salvation. Wesley saw the Lord's "death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality" (Wesley, "Salvation by Faith," I.5). Sin caused a loss of relationship with God, but Wesley saw fallen man “as living, not now under a covenant of works, but under a covenant of grace” (Chong-nam Cho 1984, 257). And salvation through “justification by faith through grace” brought restoration of the broken relationship with God. Wesley articulated his concept of salvation in terms of relationship with the Lord by likening the process of salvation to a house. “Prevenient grace serves as the porch, justification as the door, and sanctification or holiness as the room of the house” (Runyon 1998, 27).

Original sin, in Wesley’s view, leads to both the temporal and spiritual death of humanity. “Holy love of God” (Wesley, "Justification by Faith," IV.1) always “‘comes before’(pre-venio) we are conscious that God is seeking us out” (Runyon 1991, 27). That is prevenient grace that reawakens the spiritual senses to let sinners hear the call of God and respond to salvation in terms of supernatural gift of God (Runyon 1998, 31-32). Since humanity inevitably commits sin, prevenient grace must now issue in what Wesley calls convincing grace and a more active role must be taken by the Holy Spirit in convicting men and women of their guilt in the sight of God. Conviction of sin and repentance lead to justification by grace through faith. In this sense, with the manifold operation of the Holy Spirit, Wesley understood mission as participation in the drama of God’s redemption. It purposes not only to “renew our hearts in the image of God” (Wesley, "Original Sin," III.5), but also "to reform the nation, especially the church, and to spread scriptural holiness." (Hong-ki Kim 2013, 153).

Wesley did not understand sin and salvation in solely individualistic terms, though. Wesley stressed that “Christianity is an essentially social religion” that cannot survive in isolation (Wesley, "Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount IV," I.1). It is God’s work to change the lives of men and women. In this sense, Christians are called to live out their Christian testimonies in human society, comprised of good and evil persons (Hynson 1984, 118). Wesley regarded the spiritual relationship of Christians as analogous to the community of the Holy Spirit that “becomes a transforming community in the larger human society” (Ibid, 121).

According to Hynson, Wesley understood the task of the church as, first, “fostering the Christian life of its members through the means of grace it provides,” and second, “to stimulate the practice of love in all the relations of Christians to their neighbors outside the Church” (Hynson 1984, 128). In other words, “the church is marked by love… The moral demand of love is to regard every person as neighbor, to avoid partiality, and to act from the motive of concern.” (Ibid). As Jesus taught us to live out “the Christian lifestyle based upon a new motivation, not the old ‘eye for an eye’” (Ibid), the church as a missionary community cannot withhold the Good News from the world but is “toward conversion or transformation, not accommodation or capitulation. (Ibid, 128). Wesley’s “purpose in the Methodist societies was not to raise up a new church, but to reform the nation and the church and to spread scriptural holiness across the land” (Hynson 1984, 129).

By nature, Christians cannot be remained as isolated individuals. In the close relation between the individual and the society, the church can expect a series of chain reactions, like a domino theory, from the individual Christian. If each Christian applies his/her personal holiness to their social contexts, in which they can demonstrate Christian influence, the world gradually will become the kingdom of God.

Thus, changed individuals transform the world by their Christian influence and actions. As a channel of God’s blessing, “Whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others” (Runyon 1998, 163). The love of God should “flow through us to all the world’s creatures, especially to those in need and distress” (Ibid). In this sense, mission includes not only individual but also social dimensions. Runyon says, “Orthopathic experience expresses itself in orthopraxy as faith is at work in service. True Christianity cannot exist without both the inward experience and outward practice of justice, mercy, and truth” (Ibid, 164).

In "Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount IV," Wesley made it clear that as a lamp cannot light the whole world and a handful of salt cannot prevent the rottenness in the whole world, there is a clear limitation of a Christian's influence in a society. However, a believer or a Christian community who “have need daily to retire from the world, at least morning and evening, to converse with God, to commune more freely with our Father which is in secret” (IV) can only be the “divine favor which is in you, to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself, on every side, to all those among whom you are” (I.7). The reason is that Christianity is "essentially a social religion" (I. 1), when Christians communally "that every holy temper, and word, and work of yours, may have an influence on lo them also" (I.7). The intensity is increased, and the concentration of salty taste is naturally strengthened. It is sure that Wesley proclaimed this sermon with a prophetic conviction that as the collective “we,” the stronger the light of Christians, the saltier the Christian life, the more the corrupt and decayed British society, and even the whole world, will change and be transformed.

It is interesting to note how Wesley measured the degree to which society had been changed into a new social state. According to Jennings, “economics has a central place in Wesley’s project of transforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land” (1990, 15). Whether the enterprise of scriptural Christianity could be said to succeed or fail can be judged only by the transformation of the nation linked to economic issues. In this sermon, Wesley gave “three rules of gaining, saving, and giving ‘all you can’” (Jennings 1990, 165). With these rules, Wesley once lamented that “Methodists have proven all too willing to gain and even save but have failed utterly to give with the same willingness” (Jennings 1990, 165). These three rules certainly serve as one of the ways in which Wesley measures how Methodism transformed the nation.

In the awakening of the Wesleyan tradition, Holy Spirit-filled Christians in the community of the Spirit could transform the evils of society, liberate the oppressed from their bondage, and reform their organization. The revival movement recharged them to continuously work in the world. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, who can transform his/her society? No human beings have the power to change even bad habits by his/her own efforts. In conclusion, true revivals that impact mission fields to be transformed are God’s witness to urge unbelievers repent and believe in Jesus and to transform nominal Christians from selfish, self-centered lives to Christ-centered lives.

Works Cited:
Cho Chong-nam. 1984. “John Wesely’s View of Fallen Man” 248-264. In Theology of John Wesley. Seoul: Korean Christian Publishing House.
Hynson, Leon O. 1984. To Reform the Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press of Zondervan Publishing.
Jackson, Thomas, editor. 1872 Edition. The Sermons of John Wesley.
Jennings, Jr. Theordore W. 1990. Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
Kim Hong-ki. 2013. A Methodist Church History: From John Wesley to Henry Appenzeller. Seoul: KMC.
Runyon, Theodore. 1998. The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today. Nashville: Abingdon.
Wesley, John. 1951. The Journal of John Wesley. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

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