The Wesleys’ renewal movement within the Anglican Church was an audacious, if imperfect effort to proclaim, to embody, and to advance what is truly good. Starting with Jesus Christ, himself, and his righteousness, those Methodists went on to change individual lives by the hundreds of thousands on multiple continents, along with everything they could manage to do to reform the societies on those continents. The Wesleys and the early Methodist movement can be seen as a colossal effort by “the people called Methodists” to fulfill this Pauline injunction: “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” This bold, double directive, located in Rom 12:21, is exceedingly difficult to obey, which makes it all the more remarkable that early Methodists behaved as if they could actually do so.
What was it about those early Methodists that made them think they could and should stand apart from the everyday practices of others, critique the radical shortcomings of their own denominational body, and try prayerfully to reform it from within, while also transforming the world around them? Take, for instance, John Wesley’s announcement, and his associated behavior, to the effect that his calling was to serve a world parish, rather than merely a local one prescribed by his bishop. What caused him to think it was his proper role, not only to preach Jesus near and far, but also to combat the evils of slavery and the excesses of the liquor trade, launch schools and clinics to fight illiteracy and disease, and help to fund business start-ups among the poor?
The ultimate good, the Wesleys believed, was the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior and Light of the World, who broke the power of sin and evil through his intervening incarnation, death and resurrection. The Wesleys believed God was busy working in the world in the power of the Holy Spirit through those human beings who were being called, sanctified, and empowered to take salvific healing, hope, new life to a broken world. This was not some kind of timid, naïve, token do-goodism designed to help people feel better about themselves and the world. Rather, for the Apostle Paul in the Roman Empire, and for the Wesleys in the British Isles, this was a call to a radically loving mission to lost and suffering humanity. The mission assumed a foundation-shaking, iconoclastic, and therefore inherently provocative approach to life, ministry, and citizenship that offended power brokers of the day and prompted dynamic face-offs with personified evil both within and outside established religious institutions. Evil met these Methodists, often face to face, but most often they were not overcome with evil. Instead, time after time as their life stories go, God helping them, they overcame evil with good.
With this heritage, twenty-first-century Christians should not be surprised when evil again and again rears its ugly head, especially in opposition to the good God is doing in and through Spirit-led followers of Jesus Christ. In Paul’s injunction, evil is a given. It’s there. Just look around. Injustice. Murder. Genocide. Racism. Human trafficking. Corruption. Greed. Etcetera. In his earthly ending, Paul was only one of a long line of faithful Christians cruelly murdered for their faith by the Roman Empire. Reformers Martin Luther and John Wesley recognized the same pervasive presence of evil. In a powerful and theologically astute hymn that assured “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Luther wrote of “our ancient foe [who] doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” We would be losing, hands down, against this enemy if God in Christ were not on our side, intervening for us, Luther concluded. John Wesley attributed the evil all around and within the human community to the work of the devil and original sin, the effect of humans giving in to the power and treachery of the devil. So pervasive is this evil that it can be traced throughout the world and its history. So determined is evil to fly in the face of what is good, that we would be wise to expect it to fly in our faces any time we are privileged to do God’s good and holy work, unless God chooses to intervene and prevent or overpower it.
As persistent, pervasive and mean as evil may be, Paul’s directive to “overcome evil with good” implies this is not only possible, but already fundamentally accomplished in and through Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Wesley encompassed this reality in his theology of preventing, justifying, sanctifying, and glorifying grace that works in and through God’s people. For this reason “with God all things are possible” is not just a cute phrase of idealistic encouragement. Instead, it is a powerful, dynamic, God-spoken ultimatum that takes down strongholds and literally changes lives and the world.
Evil abounds like it always has, destroying and discouraging many. The good news in a Wesleyan and Pauline perspective is that we live and work as if we could overcome evil with good. This is because and only because, with God, we can.