24 April 2024

Image - John Wesley: Dignity in simplicity

John Wesley: Dignity in simplicity

Ian Maddock

“Given the choice, I’d much rather be a philosophical sluggard, or a wanderer in the academic groves.”

That’s how John Wesley, one of the founding fathers of evangelicalism, described himself!

Wesley’s natural habitats were the libraries and the lecture halls of Oxford, not the English coal mining towns of Bristol and Newcastle where he spent so much of his life ministering to the marginalised within British society. God gave Wesley a heart for the spiritually and economically impoverished of his day—but in order to reach them, he first needed to reinvent himself.

In practice, this meant reinventing both the way he preached and where he preached. It meant risking the shame of field-preaching so he could speak the gospel to a largely illiterate and unchurched segment of society in a way they could understand. Wesley was the furthest thing from a natural born field-preacher, but he committed himself to becoming one.

“What a marvel the devil doesn’t love field-preaching,” he once said. “Neither do I! I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit. But where is my zeal, if I do not trample all these underfoot in order to save one more soul.”

"It meant risking the shame of field-preaching so he could speak the gospel to a largely illiterate and unchurched segment of society in a way they could understand."

It also meant changing the way he communicated. Wesley’s aim was to preach “plain truth to plain people.” If that involved cutting out all the long sentences and multi-syllabic words he normally used, then so be it! On one occasion a friend from his Oxford days came to Wesley for advice about how best to follow in his ministry footsteps. This is what Wesley had to say:

“Clearness, in particular, is necessary for you and me, because we are to instruct people of the lowest understanding. Therefore we, above all, if we think with the wise, yet must speak with the vulgar. We should constantly use the most common, little, easy words which our language affords.”

Wesley had learned this lesson the hard way! He went on…

“When I had been a member of the University about ten years, I wrote and talked much as you do now. But when I talked to plain people in the Castle or the town, they gaped and stared. This quickly obliged me to alter my style and adopt the language of those I spoke to. And yet there is dignity in this simplicity, which is not disagreeable to those of the highest rank… You are a Christian minister, speaking and writing to save souls. Have this end always in your eye, and you will never designedly use a hard word. Use all the sense, learning and fire you have, forgetting yourself, and remembering only that these are the souls for whom Christ died.”

John Wesley embraced the Apostle Paul’s vision and was willing to become all things to all people in order to win some, even if that meant letting go of prestige, status and comfort. God gave him eyes to see that there’s a mission field right on his own doorstep and that as disciples of Jesus we can cross cultures without leaving our own postcode—and as one of evangelicalism’s founding fathers, he’s an encouragement for us to go and do likewise.

"John Wesley embraced the Apostle Paul’s vision and was willing to become all things to all people in order to win some, even if that meant letting go of prestige, status and comfort."

10 Dead Guys You Should Know

John Wesley is but one of the Christians who feature in '10 Dead Guys You Should Know', a book emerging out of the SMBC Christianity in History Department and edited by myself, Ian Maddock. Together these figures span almost the entire scope of the church’s existence and a variety of geographic locations: from Athanasius in fourth century northern Africa to Bonhoeffer in twentieth century Germany.

They held a range of different opinions about how Christians ought to organize themselves and practice the sacraments; from the Anglican Thomas Cranmer to the Baptist Charles Spurgeon. They held differing positions regarding the divine-human relationship in salvation; some, like Wesley, had a life-long allergic reaction to the idea of unconditional predestination, while others like Augustine found great comfort and assurance in this doctrine. Some, like Hudson Taylor, left his home and took the gospel to a place where it had never been heard before; others, like Martin Luther—armed with no less missionary zeal – stayed at home and proclaimed the gospel in a place where it had long been forgotten. Some, like Anselm, occupied positions of significant formal authority and influence; others, like Luther, spoke truth to ecclesiastical power despite the very real threat of censure and even death.

But for all of their differences, these dead guys shared one thing in common: not simply a passion for the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, but a passionate zeal for preaching that gospel, even when it meant risking their personal reputations and safety. None were arm-chair theologians. Indeed, all of them suffered in various ways throughout their public ministries, whether the persecution took the form of multiple exiles (Athanasius), being ejected from one’s church and being imprisoned (Richard Baxter), or ultimately, martyrdom (Cranmer).

Appreciating the past doesn’t always come naturally for us living in the twenty-first century. The world we live in often equates newer with better and older with obsolete. If the young are our future, then the old are ‘over the hill.’ In an environment such as this that (wittingly or otherwise) encourages historical amnesia, we aren’t conditioned to intuitively see value in the past.

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past,” suggests C.S. Lewis. “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.” His conclusion? “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction."

We think Lewis was on to something profoundly insightful. And if it’s indeed true that two heads are better than one, then how much more ten!

Ian Maddock
SMBC Head of Christian Thought

Next Step image

This collection of ten short biographies will introduce you to Christians from a variety of places and times, who all boldly preached the gospel, despite the risk to personal reputations and safety. How short–sighted it would be not to glean insights from our ancestors, whether that entails learning how to walk in their steps – or else avoiding their missteps!

Learn more about '10 Dead Guys You Should Know'

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Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) is an Affiliated College of the Australian College of Theology, CRICOS: 02650E
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