John Wesley: Theologian of Love
Love reigns as John Wesley’s supreme theological and ethical category. It enjoys pride of place, he says, because love reigns supreme in the biblical witness. Admirers rightly call Wesley a theologian of love par excellence.
Wesley appeals to the supremacy of love more often and more insightfully than most theologians. He considers love God’s reigning attribute, and he understands divine power in light of love. Wesley often engages the Christian practices with issues of love front and center. He laces his moral and ethical directives with love language, because love is the heart of true religion.
The Language of Love
Despite the supremecy of love, Wesley never defines love clearly. He considers love the heart of true faith: “Religion is the love of God and our neighbour, that is, every man under heaven.” This means “love ruling the whole life, animating all our tempers and passions, directing all our thoughts, words, and actions.”
Thankfully, Wesley uses the typical love language of the Bible. In the majority of his writings and sermons, he simply used the word “love” without qualification.
But occasionally Wesley prefaces love with “perfect” or “cold,” qualifications that occur rarely in the Bible. And he sometimes uses the phrase “holy love,” a qualification not found in Scripture. Some Wesleyan scholars today speak of “holy love,” however, to counter a popular view that love as sentimental and soft. I do not advocate this linguistic practice, because I think all love is holy, in the sense that God is love’s source and inspiration.
Like most biblical writers, Wesley typically understands love as action that promotes well-being. Love is “benevolence,” he says, “tender good-will to all the souls that God has made.” Other times he says love is “goodwill.” The person who loves is one who blesses others, benefits others, enjoys mutual benefit, or overcomes evil with good. These are all acts of love, understood as promoting well-being.
Doing good is the “nature” of love, says Wesley, but love takes various forms and produces diverse fruit. For instance, we often express love by choosing humility, gentleness, patience, self-control, etc. We express love by helping the poor, being kind to strangers, encouraging those in the community of faith, forgiving one another, etc. While the essence of love is singular, expressions of love are plural.
Hermeneutic of Love
Although Wesley read and recommended the best scientific and philosophical resources of his day, he drew primarily from the Bible when constructing his practical and formal theology. He was a biblical theologian, and the Bible was his primary resource for matters pertaining to salvation. This practice of appealing the Scripture first influenced his view of love and God as love’s source.
A survey of Wesley’s works reveals that he drew more from some Bible books and passages than others. He prized the Apostle John’s first epistle more than other books in the Bible. It offers the profound and central Christian claim, “God is love” (4:8, 16).
Those who believe some biblical passages oppose love, says Wesley, interpret the Bible wrongly: “No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works.” He used this hermeneutic of love in various arguments, sermons, letters, and hymns.
The apostle John’s first epistle also provides what Wesley thought was the sum of the gospel: we love, because God first loved us (4:19). God is the source of love creatures express. Wesley says “love of our neighbour springs from the love of God.”
The Apostle John also emphasizes that God can transform lives so that sin need no longer reign. Based on this passage and others, Wesley believed that love excludes sin. To put it another way, to sin is to fail to respond appropriately to God’s call to love.
God is the Source of All Love
Wesley believed that our love emerges from our awareness – explicit or implicit – of God’s love. “It is in consequence of our knowing God loves us,” says Wesley, “that we love him and love our neighbour as ourselves.
Gratitude towards our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow creatures.” The love we find in Christ “constrains us not only to be harmless, to do no ill to our neighbour,” Wesley argues, “but to be useful, to be ‘zealous of good works;’ ‘as we have time, to do good unto all men.’”
God is not only the source of our love, God also enables or empowers us to love. But to express this love, says Wesley, we must cooperate with God. We must be “workers together with him,” he says, citing the Apostle Paul. God “will not save us,” Wesley says, “unless we ‘save ourselves from this untoward generation;’ unless we ourselves ‘fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life;’ unless we ‘agonize to enter in at the strait gate,’ ‘deny ourselves, and take up our cross daily,’ and labour, by every possible means, to ‘make our own calling and election sure.’”
Because of God’s empowering grace, we can work out our own salvation and continue “the work of faith, in the patience of hope, and in the labour of love.” Wesleyan scholar, Randy L. Maddox, calls Wesley’s belief that a loving God invites our cooperating response “responsible grace.” God empowers the possibility of creaturely cooperation in love. This emphasis upon a necessary creaturely contribution distinguishes Wesleyan theologies of love from theologies in other Christian and nonChristian traditions.
The previous is material I am writing for a commissioned Journal of Christian Psychology article. As I have read and reread Wesley’s writings, I have a renewed appreciation for his love-permeated theology!