One of the predilections of moderns like us—our habit of mind, if you will—is to put asunder the things that belong together and should be conjoined. A striking example is the modern tendency to drive a wedge between faith and good works, and between evangelism and social action.
This divorce is seen acutely in some expressions of liberal Christianity that emphasise social activism at the expense of the preaching of the Gospel. It is also evident in some forms of evangelicalism that are long on personal piety and rather short on social engagement.
However, when we turn to John Wesley and the movement he brought to life in 18th century England, we find a refreshingly different paradigm altogether—one that reflects more vividly the Christianity portrayed in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles.
For Wesley, the Gospel is the good news that in Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God has come into our midst. God’s Kingdom is both earthly and heavenly, inward and outward, present and eschatological. To proclaim this Gospel, therefore, is to wed the liberating word to the witnessing deed.
It is perhaps commonplace to find scholars and historians advancing the view that Methodism was originally a revival or a mission movement before it became a church. As a revival movement, its primary concern was of course the salvation of souls.
John Wesley exemplified this in his life and ministry. In a journal entry dated 28 July 1757, Wesley declared solemnly: “I do indeed live by preaching.” And he tirelessly exhorted his lay preachers and class leaders to regard the salvation of souls as the main goal of their ministries.
“You have nothing to do but save souls,” Wesley famously said. “Therefore, spend and be spent in this work… it is your business… to save as many souls as you can.”
But Wesley’s holistic vision of Christian ministry meant that the material welfare of human beings—not just their eternal salvation—must also be the business of the church. Thus Wesley and the people called Methodists persistently and indefatigably reached out to the disenfranchised and forgotten people in their society—the poor, the sick and those in prison.
In his ministry to the poor, Wesley sought to disabuse the public of certain false beliefs that had proven to be toxic. For example, Wesley denounced as “wickedly and devilishly false” the view—held by many in his day—that the poor were poor because they were lazy.
But apart from demolishing false beliefs that led to prejudice and discrimination, Wesley also devised concrete schemes to rescue people from the quicksand of poverty. For example, he created a loan fund from his meagre capital to save those in debt from predatory and unscrupulous loan sharks.
The modern scholars who accuse Wesley of promoting a form of pietistic individualism surely must have missed what he had to say about “social sin”. Although Wesley did not use this modern expression, the idea that it articulates was not alien to him.
In his sermon entitled, “On Divine Providence”, Wesley described the phenomenon of social sin or structural evil as a “complicated wickedness” and a “complicated misery”. He lamented the social deadness, the greed and the utter disrespect for human life that were all too evident in his beloved England.
But beyond speaking against injustices, Wesley also tried to alleviate the suffering of the poor by providing them a means to escape from the vicious cycle in which they were imprisoned. He did this by creating employment to return to the poor their dignity and autonomy, initiating cottage industries in activities such as cotton processing and knitting.
In all of these, Wesley showed us what it means to be a Christian—and what it means to be the church, that community of believers redeemed by grace. For Wesley, the Christian life is simply but irreducibly encapsulated in the phrase “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
True faith compels the believer to love his neighbour in concrete and humanising ways. Wesley would therefore agree wholeheartedly with the Reformer Martin Luther, who wrote:
When it comes to faith, what a living, creative, active, powerful thing it is! It cannot do other than good at all times… A man who is not active in this way is a man without faith.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.