People who read John Wesley and study early Methodism know quite well that the only criterion for joining a Methodist society was “the desire to flee the wrath to come.” Sometimes this statement is used as an argument against doctrinal debate, i.e. Methodists shouldn’t argue about doctrinal differences because the ground of our unity lies elsewhere. I’ve been mulling over what “the desire to flee the wrath to come” actually entails and it is stirring the waters of my soul.
Immediately, I notice that Wesley is using the language of John the Baptist: “Who warned you [brood of vipers] to flee the wrath to come?” (See, e.g. Matthew 3:7.) In the biblical context, it has an eschatological tone. It points to the ultimate purposes of God loosed in the world and to a particularly definitive moment in history – the appearance of the Messiah. In other words, we’re not just talking “revival” in the bland, presumptive sense we often use the word. John the Baptist isn’t leading a “revival.” He is evidence of the day of the Lord. The more I read Wesley’s journal, the more I think he felt similarly about the Methodist movement. In one sense, I just stated the obvious, but I think we’re not paying sufficient attention to this particular feature.
Next, I notice the word “desire.” “Desire” suggests a positive pull of the heart toward an object that produces intentional action in order to realize the desire. People did not get into Methodist society without actually desiring to do so. Compare this thought with the tradition of “joining the church” so common to us now. I’ve heard it said – and I’m inclined to agree more and more – that it should be a lot harder to join the church than it is. It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that today’s version of church membership in generally meaningless. I know some glorious exceptions, of course. But not many.
Finally, the desire is “to flee the wrath…” Admittedly, Wesley’s journal is biased. It’s aimed toward presenting certain features of Methodism, partly to disprove the charges leveled against Methodism and to make a defense of their legitimacy, and partly to instruct Methodists on how to perceive and feel their Christian experience. But, even with these biases shaping the journal, we still read what people actually thought and felt. They had a sense of God’s holiness that has almost totally vanished in our day and time. Oh, we can pick up a stray reference to “justice” in various circles or to “morality” in others, particularly when someone is advocating a cause. I’m talking about the awful, aching personal, heartfelt awareness of God’s purity and power. We think too much of God as “our ever present help in time of need” and not nearly enough of God as “a consuming fire.”
And the words we use repeatedly; the concepts that dominate our thinking about God will shape our emotional lives. “Desire” has emotional tonality. In other words, the words that we use to describe our spiritual lives shape our hearts.
Those early Methodists wanted to flee the wrath to come. What do we want?