John Wesley: Man of Contradictions

This morning I finished a biography on John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) by Stephen Tomkin. It’s a relatively short book that’s very well written and manages to paint a picture of both Wesley’s strengths and weaknesses. If your paradigm for Christian leaders (or anyone for that matter) is that they are either “good” or “bad,” this book will challenge your categories.

Wesley was a man of great faith with a relentless drive to spread the gospel and yet had significant sins and shortcomings. In that sense he is a perfect example of all of us. One of my church history professors at Trinity told my class that one of the benefits of studying the past is that it helps us understand that the best men are sinners and the worst sinners are still men made in the image of God.

Wesley’s passion to spread the gospel in England drove him to ride on horseback over 250,000 miles, give away 30,000 British Pounds, and preach more than 40,000 sermons. He preached generosity to the poor and adopted that as his own lifestyle. Although he eventually made quite a bit of money off of his theological writings, he died almost penniless not because he had squandered the money but because he quickly gave it all away lest it corrupt him.

He was a man of great courage refusing to stop preaching Christ even in the face of death threats. On more than one occasion he preached while rocks were being hurled at him. To really appreciate Wesley you have to understand that the official state Anglican church had in many ways succumbed to dead orthodoxy. Through Wesley’s ministry and influence people were introduced to “religion of the heart” which is nothing more than a real personal faith in the gospel. By the time of his death there were 72,000 Methodists in England and another 60,000 in America.

And yet Wesley’s weaknesses were as great as his strengths. His marriage to a widow named Molly with four kids was nothing short of a disaster as he abandoned her for long stretches and always kept relationships with other women that made her jealous and uncomfortable. His stubbornness put him at odds with his brother Charles and they spent many years hardly communicating. Theologically he embraced the dangerous and unbiblical doctrine of perfectionism. In relationships with other pastors he was not trustworthy attacking his one time ally George Whitfield over the issue of predestination.

What do you do with John Wesley? I think that you learn that he’s not that much different than anyone you know including yourself. Every person, every Christian leader is a mixed bag. Knowing this keeps us from idolizing any human being and reserving our worship for Jesus alone.

Read Tomkin’s biography to learn much more about John Wesley.

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