When Jesus was asked what was God's most important requirement of us, He said that it was to love God with one's whole being. He added that loving other people in the same way as one loved one's own life was equally important (Mark 12:28-34). Today, the idea of people loving in this way seems like an idealistic dream, practically unattainable, in a world of terror, injustice, prejudice, war, and hate.
We Wesleyans, however, adopt a resolute posture of hope. Our hope comes from our confidence in Scripture. We believe the Holy Spirit helps us understand the Bible through four lenses:
1. Church history
2. Thoughtful human reason
3. People's real life experiences
4. Bible/Scriptural truths declaring our ability to receive and give true love
This four-fold perspective is known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral.
The Bible reveals that God's essential character is love.
Freely, God has expressed His exhaustive love for people in giving them His one-of-a-kind Son so that they may share God's very life. We Wesleyans believe that God's grace enables us to be aware of, be sorry for, and turn from our sin in repentance.
Consequently we receive God's forgiveness, or pardon, which is lovingly offered to us when we accept God's Son who paid the penalty for our sins when he died for us. Being forgiven, our relationship with God changes and God sees us as righteous, justified.
Wesleyans believe that beyond a relationship change, God's gracious action further effects a real character change in us. We participate in God's own life due to the presence of God's Spirit in us. We are more than declared to be righteous (justified), we are actually being made righteous (sanctified).
John Wesley, in a famous sermon entitled "The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God" (Sermon XIX) says:
God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again, he does the work in us. The former changes our outward relation to God, so that of enemies we become children; by the latter our inmost souls are changed, so that of sinners we become saints. The one restores us to the favour, the other to the image of God. The one is the taking away the guilt, the other the taking away the power of sin.
In this sermon, Wesley makes the link between the life giving Spirit and life sustaining breath. He states:
The Spirit or breath of God is immediately inspired, breathed into the newborn soul; and the same breath which comes from, returns to, God: As it is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving; love and praise, and prayer being the breath of every soul which is truly born of God.
We, who were spiritually dead, come alive! We begin to "breathe," a sign of the new life in us. Wesley explains, "By a kind of spiritual reaction he (the 'sinner' that becomes a 'saint') returns the grace he receives in unceasing love in praise and prayer." We breathe out "love, prayer, and praise" to God, and breathe in more grace as a result of his continued love.
As this breath cycle continues, Wesley says, the new believer's transformation is taken a step further.
"By this kind of spiritual respiration, spiritual life is not only sustained, but increased day by day."
In other words, we become more and more like God. Since God's essential nature is love, our transformation causes us to be living reflections of his love. Wesleyans are convinced that if we dynamically engage the life of God in this way, acts of sin are necessarily and consistently avoided. Sin is not therefore expected or experienced as part of a Christian's daily life.
True love is not abstract but concrete. Wesleyans therefore live out God's love in Christian community. We foster deeply connected relationships of mutual care and accountability as models of grace before a watching world. We are no longer ruled by sinful self-serving habits and desires, but by this generous love that originates with God and flows through us into loving service to others.
As we share the loving heart of God, we are moved by the challenges and pain in the world around us, and passionately work to provide practical solutions for these challenges. No wonder Wesleyans were on the forefront of the historic movement to abolish the diabolic trans-Atlantic slave trade and also the abolition of the slavery of Africans in the New World.
In today's world, being Wesleyan means engagement in everything from the eradication of hunger and the provision of clean drinking water to the engagement with the reality of the AIDS pandemic, the rescue of persons victimized by the scourge of human trafficking, and the alleviation of the plight of refugees and displaced persons.
Wesleyans are really sensitive to God's preferential option for the poor and his concern for the marginalized. Like him, they are allies to the widows, orphans, and foreigners. It also means engagement with the overwhelmed mom across the street coping with the uncertainties of life because her husband is terminally ill and with the older neighbor who is grieving a recently deceased spouse. It means truly loving our neighbors near and far, as custodians of God's love.
In summary, what does it mean to be Wesleyan? It means to exemplify God's transformed, hope-filled, and loving people who are responding passionately and unreservedly to God's initiative of love. And consequently, they are reflecting God's holy character before a watching world that so desperately needs that love.
Sam Vassel is senior pastor of Bronx, New York, Bethany Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2013