John Wesley had an optimism of grace. He witnessed in thousands of lives what the power of God could do. When he thought of all God had done in the awakening, it was easy for Wesley to envision the entire church, and then the world, renewed in holiness, as he did in his 1783 sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel.”
But Wesley was also a close observer of human beings, especially within Methodism. What he saw as he neared the end of his life was disturbing. This somewhat gloomier outlook pervades his sermons “On God’s Vineyard” (1787) and “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” (1789).
In both sermons, Wesley celebrates that God has provided the Methodists with both doctrine and “spiritual helps,” including discipline. Hence Methodists knew the promises of God for both justification and sanctification. They also had conferencing, spiritual disciplines, classes, and bands to keep them open to God’s work in their lives. So given these advantages, why were Methodists still falling short of lives marked by holy and humble love?
In “On God’s Vineyard” Wesley says that instead of “the most excellent grapes”—“the fruit of the Spirit”—the vineyard has produced wild grapes of erroneous teaching, “imaginary inspiration,” pride, censoriousness and condemnation, “anger, hatred, malice, revenge, and every evil word and work-all direful fruits, not of the Spirit, but of the bottomless pit” (§V.1–2)
In addition to this severe indictment, Wesley adds that it has brought forth, especially in “those that are increased in goods,” “that grand poison of souls, the love of the world” (§V.3). This is clearly not the renewal in holiness for which Wesley had devoted his life.
In “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” Wesley offers a more considered diagnosis of the problem. At its heart was the failure of many Methodists to obey the command of Jesus to take up one’s cross and follow him. The “Methodists in general,” he wrote,” “are deplorably wanting in the practice of Christian self-denial” (§14). In this sermon, self-denial is lifted up as essential to Christian growth as doctrine and discipline.
Earlier, in 1760, Wesley had devoted an entire sermon to “self-denial.” While there are many hindrances to the spiritual life, Wesley finds they “are all resolvable into these general ones,—either we do not deny ourselves, or we do not take up our cross” (§4).
The reason for this is simple. “The Will of God is a path leading straight to God. The will of man, which once ran parallel to it, is now another path, not only different from it, but in our present state, directly contrary to it. It leads from God. If, therefore, we walk in one, we must necessarily quit the other” (§I.4).
Let’s look closely at how Wesley defines self-denial. It is, he said, “the denying or refusing to follow our own will, from a conviction that the will of God is the only rule of action to us” (§I.2). Likewise, talking up our cross is “anything that is contrary to our will, anything displeasing to our nature,” but which we must do if we are to follow Christ (§I.7).
Notice that Wesley sees this as a denial of our will. In good Enlightenment fashion we tend to see our will as free, a neutral capacity enabling us to choose whatever we want. Wesley understands the will as captive to sin, and apart from grace consists of unholy tempers that govern our dispositions, motives, and desires. So yes, we choose what we want, but what we want is always compromised by these unholy tempers. So, to follow Jesus we must deny our sinful will and its accompanying desires in order to take up our cross.
The promise of salvation is that God will replace those unholy tempers with holy tempers, enabling our hearts and lives to be governed by love and other fruit of the Spirit. This is what sanctification accomplishes. But that work is not completed until we attain Christian perfection, and even then, temptations remain.
Christian perfection, in which love fully governs the heart and life, is the goal of salvation. But given that God’s grace is not irresistible, to grow in knowledge and love of God requires our grace-enabled response. Along with doctrine (the promise of holiness) and discipline, the practice of self-denial was essential for Wesley’s Methodists to respond to their call to follow Jesus. It remains just as essential today.