During October I will be paying attention to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, and three rules that guided the work of the small groups that emerged to support each other in the journey of faith. The rules from Mr. Wesley are summarized in his words this way:
By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as …
By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men …
By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are …
These rules were prepared for the United Societies and organized the regular interaction of the class leader and the class. Let’s take a moment to note several things:
1. The class interaction focused more on demonstrating a change in behavior than in the acquisition of knowledge, e.g. that class leader was to see each person weekly to inquire about the state of their souls.
2. The requirement for joining the societies was not a profession of faith, but it was a “desire to flee from the wrath to come!” The requirement was an acknowledgment that my life is messed up and I need help to get it together. By no means did this mean that the confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” was unimportant to Mr. Wesley, but in order to see this one must begin by saying something like “my lordship of my life is failing. I am ready to try something (or someone else).
3. Mr. Wesley highlighted the doctrine of grace in his essay “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained” (1746). Here he stated plainly: “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three: that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.” Wesley’s simple summation of the order of salvation is that God’s prevenient grace calls us up on the porch of repentance, God’s justifying grace leads us to enter through the door of faith, and God’s sanctifying grace helps us inhabit a house of holiness. Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us where God has been beckoning us to come and join him on the front porch. God’s justifying grace sets us free from our past and points us to new life with Jesus. God’s sanctifying grace takes us from where we are to where God wants us to be.
4. The three simple rules may sound like works, but they were meant to be suggestions for our response to the grace that God offered us through Jesus Christ. We do well to read them then at several different levels.
As a pastor I taught our youth these rules with this simple slogan: Avoid Evil, Do Good, and Pay Attention to God! In 2007 Bishop Reuben Job prepared an excellent teaching resource called Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. His summary of Wesley’s three rules is “Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God” seems to have now become the shorthand statement of Wesley’s rules (my daughter reminds me that occasionally I say avoid evil instead of do no harm).
We would do well to remember that these simple rules are echoes of scriptural teaching:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).
In the coming weeks we will pay attention to Doing No Harm, Doing Good, and Staying in Love with God.