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Wesley's Faith-Journey: A Life Long Battle with Legalism
photo credit: Vu Bui via photopin cc

The following is a book review I wrote on the book "John Wesley, A Biography" by Stephen Tomkins.

John Wesley, A Biography, written by Stephen Tomkins, is an excellent biography of John Wesley, one of the fathers of evangelicalism. Tomkins, though negatively biased toward Wesley's theology, brings an authentic flavor to the telling of his story. Rather than presenting him as a hero without warts, Tomkins pours through Wesley's journals and stories in an attempt to paint the man as realistically as possible. The end result is a picture of a man far from perfect-though he preached perfection-and far from confident in his walk with God-though he preached faith. And yet, we also see a man so committed to Christ that few have ever matched his sacrifice and zeal for the work of the gospel.

John Wesley, A Biography is a chronological retelling of the life of Wesley. Tomkins looks not only at Wesley's teachings and adventures as a Methodist preacher, but also his childhood, love life, emotional life, spiritual journey, and family relationships. Due to lack of space I will focus on that which is of most interest to me: his faith journey and his lifelong battle with legalism.

John Wesley was born into an Anglican family that was, for lack of a better word, dysfunctional. According to Tomkins, Wesley's father, Samuel Wesley, once separated from his wife, without intending to return, because she did not support the new king of England and would not pray for him. "You and I must part," said Samuel, "for if we have two kings, we must have two beds" (10). But after his house nearly burned down during a visit Samuel decided to stay and take care of his family. "Less than a year later, on 28 June 1703, John Wesley was born" (11).

Wesley's childhood was loving, but stringent. According to Tomkins, his upbringing was exceedingly strict even by the standard of his day. Susanna, Wesley's mother, believed that children were naturally wicked and rebellious. As a result, Susanna sought to do a type of behavior modification by forcing her children's wills to incline toward good. Her parenting philosophy is summarized in her own words: "Break the will, if you will not damn the child" (13). Tomkins writes:

Susanna... [Wesley's mother] allowed 'no such thing as loud talking or playing'... When turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly... to be still at family prayers, and to ask a blessing immediately after meals, which they used to do by signs before they could kneel or speak... By the time they were grown, they all knew vast tracts of the Bible, some of them whole books, by heart. At meals times the children sat at a small separate table... They were allowed nothing to eat or drink between meals and were beaten if they asked... (12-13).

The strictness of his childhood did not end with adolescence or even adulthood. As a young man, before his conversion, Wesley dedicated himself, while studying at Oxford, to living a holy life. With holiness as his ultimate goal in life Wesley became quite fanatical. Of this time Tomkins writes, "he grew ever stricter on himself, writing a new self-catechism to review not only his daily deeds but also if his motives were sufficiently directed to the glory of God. He discouraged visitors to his room who might waste his time, and abandoned such frivolities as cards and dancing" (32). And yet this was only the beginning. Tomkins describes the evolution of Wesley's fanaticism stating, "As his goals were elevated, his self-analysis and self-discipline were turning into obsessions... He now updated his spiritual audit on an hourly basis and not only noted his successes and failures, but gave himself a score out of nine" (38).

This severe approach to Christianity continued for many years. However, events in Wesley's life began to change his theology and reveal to him a more joyful religion. It all began with Wesley's missionary voyage to America. During the journey Wesley's ship was caught in a fearful storm. Wesley feared for his life but he noticed a company whom didn't seem frightened at all. Wesley inquired as to the source of their super-natural peace and discovered them to be Moravians; followers of Luther, whose religion placed an "emphasis on justification by faith that the English church [to which Wesley belonged] had lost" (46). It was this confidence in salvation that gave them peace in the face of death. However, it was not until much later, in the midst of another spiritual crisis, that light shone for Wesley as he heard a Moravian "reading from Luther's Preface to Romans" (61). The experience was to be a life changing one. Wesley writes:

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (61).

However, and here is where I appreciate Tomkins genuine portrayal of Wesley, this experience was not the end of Wesley's struggle with legalism. Unlike those who would like to romanticize Wesley's conversion, Tomkins has no quarrels with diminishing its grand impression upon Wesley's story by admitting that he continued, for the rest of his life, to bounce back and forth between grace alone and grace and works.

Some assume that Wesley was simply a legalist. According to Tomkins, "The traditional evangelical understanding of [Wesley]... is that he was attempting salvation by works" (43). This is said to be the case even after his conversion and is admittedly Tomkins bias. I however have a different theory. Having been raised in a similar fashion to Wesley I also have found it a great struggle to overcome my natural legalistic inclinations and trust in Christ alone for salvation even under the light of gospel freedom. Therefore, in my point of view, it is as a result of his upbringing that Wesley struggled with legalism most of his life. In short, I believe his struggle with legalism was due to psychological factors, not theological failure. The overbearing discipline instilled in his mind as a child formed a lifelong habit of fanatical austerity that he never, even under the light of gospel freedom, seemed to escape for long.

But how is it that the gospel was never able to set Wesley completely free from the Pharisee within? Apart from his natural tendency toward legal religion instilled into his childhood psyche by his legalistic mother, there is another factor that I believe to be the main culprit: Wesley never seemed to learn that faith and feeling are complementary, not synonymous. All of his life Wesley seems to have been dependent on his emotions to reveal to him the state of his soul rather than to depend fully and totally on the promise of God despite what his emotions told him. It is my theory that Wesley was inclined toward grace when he felt close to God, but whenever he felt far from God he would default to the rigid lifestyle of his earlier years as a way of feeling close to God again. The tragedy of this deceptive flaw is that even after years of enduring hardship, persecution, and deadly mobs for the cause of Christ, Wesley poured out his heart to his brother Charles saying:

I do not feel the wrath of God abiding in me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery) I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word... I never had any other evidence of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all... And yet I dare not preach otherwise than I do... I want all the world to come to what I do not know (168).

Tomkins is therefore right when he says, "What a desolate spectacle... It is pitiful to see his faith, even after all these years, still so dependent on the vicissitudes of his emotions" (169). This was Wesley's downfall. He never realized, at least in an experiential manner, that feelings are never to be the grounds of our walk with God. They can come and go as easily as the wind shifts. We must learn to trust God's promises even when we cannot feel them to be true.

Even in the midst of this Wesley remained faithful to the Lord until his dying day. On Tuesday 1 March 1791 Wesley approached the end of his life. Weak, ill, and worn from a life of service he found himself unable even to write. "'After a last 'Farewell'', he died on Wednesday morning" (194).

While I have, up to this point, expressed my appreciation for Tomkins biography I do have one major point of contention with him: the way in which he dealt with Wesley's doctrine of perfection. Tomkins anti-perfection bias, in my opinion, prevented him from honestly assessing Wesley's true understanding of perfection. In his book A Plain Account of Christian Perfection Wesley clearly asserts that perfection is not the grounds for salvation and he distances himself, sometimes more and sometimes less, from the heresy of sinless perfectionism. Wesley's understanding of biblical perfection is "perfection in love". Wesley believed that Gods children can be perfected in love and have, what he refers to as "a purity of intention" and be free from "willful rebellion." Perfection in love, versus sinless perfectionism or absolute perfection which Wesley denied, is a concept easily found in scripture starting with Jesus who, after describing Gods love for his enemies said, "Be therefore perfect as your father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). When Luke quoted the same discourse he substituted the word "merciful" for "perfect" indicating that perfection is not a state of flawless obedience to every minute command but having a heart that loves like Jesus loves. Tomkins seems to skip over these facts and instead focuses on the more fanatical concepts inherent in Wesley's perfection doctrine such as instantaneous perfection and the self-awareness of having attained perfection. He, therefore, gives the impression that he is eager to discredit the doctrine of perfection and fails to give it a fair hearing.

In conclusion, I found John Wesley, A Biography to be an excellent resource on the life of the father of the Methodist movement. Of all the aspects of his religious life I found his spiritual journey to be the most interesting. While I believe Tomkins analysis contains a slight anti-Wesley bias, especially when it came to Wesley's understanding of salvation and perfection, I nevertheless consider this work to be exceptionally done and worth reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the man, John Wesley.

This book review was completed in partial fulfillment of the course Church History II at Southern Adventist University. Originally published in Ezine Articles: Article Source: