Wesley Sermon Content

by Chris Ritter

Like most pastors, I find myself asking at least once a week, “What to preach?”  Usually this is asked with eager expectation (preaching can be fun).  At other times, the question is posed under the weight of a thousand competing demands.  During seminary, I used the Revised Common Lectionary as the basis for my preaching as a student pastor.  These days, I am much more likely to craft sermons as part of a larger series of messages stretching across several weeks. Sermons are exegetical and topical; pastoral and prophetic. Regardless of style, preachers are left with the weekly decisions of what to say, when it say it, and how it should be said.  As I read the history of the Methodist movement, I notice that John Wesley had some things to say about all this.

Wesley viewed the Methodist preachers who were in connexion with him as extraordinary messengers sent by God to accomplish what was being neglected by the established church.  His army of (mostly) lay preachers would “provoke the regular clergy to jealousy” and spread a life-changing message of scriptural holiness throughout the land.  As preaching was a primary feature of the movement, Wesley offered practical instructions to his preachers with regards to both style and content.  What follows are seven instructions for sermon content that were ensconced in the “Large Minutes”, a sort of proto-discipline of the movement.

1) LET THE FUNCTION SHAPE THE CONTENT.

Wesley admonished preachers to preach with Gospel purpose.  In 1784 the elderly John Wesley stood on a shore near Bristol to send off three men he had ordained to organize the world’s first Methodist Church in post-revolutionary America.  His final instructions as the men set sail: “Offer them Christ.”  These words would have been very familiar to the missionaries as to “offer Christ” was one of the four key tasks each Methodist preacher had long been admonished to accomplish in every sermon, along with “inviting, convincing, and building up.”

Sermons were to do something.  While preachers were certainly to choose a text and faithfully preach its message, they were not to be coy about the fact that they did so with predetermined goals.  This agenda was defined by the movement and had a strong evangelistic bent.  The invitational function was not as simple as tacking an “altar call” to the end of the message. (The early Methodist movement seems to have been devoid of altar calls.) The entire message was a vehicle for the Spirit to impact people who might be found on various points of the salvation journey.  Unless we remain clear in our purposes for preaching, our motivations may gradually drift.  Later is his life, Wesley was concerned that too many of his preachers were preaching to please rather than preaching to awaken.  Wesley told his preachers to shape the content of the message according to what they wanted to message to do, and to make sure that purpose did not stray from the four-fold task of offering Christ, inviting, convincing, and building up. 

2) MAKE THE WHOLE CONTENT THE WHOLE CHRIST.

“Preach Christ in all his offices.”  There is every indication that Wesley was referencing here the three-fold offices of Prophet, Priest, and King described in Christian antiquity and found as a common theme among the Reformers.  It is a distorted preaching that elevates one of these offices at the expense of the others.  As supreme Prophet Jesus spoke and taught the Word of God.  As supreme Priest he offered himself as a sacrifice to reconcile us to God.  As King he is exalted in Resurrection power and will extend his reign from the Church to all of creation.

Serving on a Board of Ordained Ministry, I once interviewed a candidate who had recently graduated $100,000 in debt with a Master of Divinity degree from a Methodist institution.  When asked to articulate the significance of the cross, he was silent.  Finally, he said,  “We didn’t really talk much about the cross in my seminary.  We skipped right to Easter.”  I wanted to ask him if he could request a tuition refund from his alma mater.   Jesus as King without Jesus as Priest is an incomplete view of Christ and, therefore, a distortion.  Wesley expected the Christ proclaimed by his preachers to be big enough to hold all his offices simultaneously.  A holistic Christology protects against error.

3) AVOID PREACHING GRACE WITHOUT LAW.

“Preach the Law as well as the Gospel, to both believers and unbelievers.”  Wesley saw one of the greatest threats to the movement in the rise of antinomianism, the idea that salvation by faith somehow does away the requirement to obey God’s law.  (See his sermons on the topic here and here.)  Grace, for Wesley, was not only pardon from sin, but the power to live a new life. The contours of that new life was defined by the moral content of the Law.  Preaching the Law of God to sinners would help them see their need for salvation.  Preaching the Law of God to believers would urge them to seek greater measures of grace for progress in holiness.  For Wesley, the sacrifice of Christ fulfilled the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, but the moral laws were still very much in effect.  Preaching the Old Testament law as a precursor to the perfect law of Christ (as compiled in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) made the doctrine of grace both weighty and urgent.    

4) KEEP HOLINESS WHOLE.

“Insist on inward and outward holiness.”  Just as partial truths were to be avoided in the offices of Christ and the duet of Law and Grace, inward and outward holiness must likewise never be separated.  When Wesley proclaimed that “there is no holiness but social holiness” he meant that holiness of heart must be expressed in how we live with and relate to others.  This holiness proceeds, however, only from a transformed heart.  His very definition of a Christian was one who had “the love of God shed abroad in their heart by the Holy Spirit.”  Without this inner transformation, God’s expectations for our outward behavior would never be met.  Methodist preaching was to be aimed at the heart and conversion was to be evidenced in renewed living and relating.  Outward holiness for Wesley included abstinence from evil as well as participation in acts of mercy and charity.

5) PREACH THE FULL SCOPE OF SALVATION.

“Set forth Christ as evidently crucified before their eyes; Christ in all the riches of his grace, justifying us by his blood, and sanctifying us by his Spirit.”  The reality of the crucifixion and atonement through the blood of Christ were to feature prominently in Methodist preaching.  The drama of salvation, however, does not close with the chapter on justification.  Grace has many riches to deliver to the soul.  Wesley admonished his preachers to lift up the cross as the sole doorway into a treasure trove of subsequent graces equipping us for the rest of the journey.  Grace leads us toward entire sanctification in this life, a goal each Methodist preacher must claim before being admitted to the conference (still today!).

6) SUIT YOUR SUBJECT TO YOUR AUDIENCE.

“Always suit your subject to the state of your audience.”  Wesley, here, might have agreed with the late Homiletics professor Fred Craddock who taught preachers to “exegete the congregation.”  The spiritual and sociological characteristics of the listeners would determine how the content of the sermon would be shaped and delivered.  Effective preaching is always contextual.  Assumptions about our hearers must be checked by many personal spiritual conversations.  Wesley once remarked that a great mistake he made as a young preacher was assuming the people who were listening to him were already Christians. Knowing people and preaching to people must go hand in hand.

7) TAKE ADVANTAGE OF OPPORTUNITIES THE CULTURE PROVIDES TO CONNECT PEOPLE TO CHRIST.

“Everywhere avail yourself of the great festivals, by preaching on the occasion.”  The vestiges of the Christian faith were present in the larger culture of Wesley’s day and he admonished his preachers to use this fact to their advantage.  In the context of outdoor preaching (an expectation placed upon every Methodist preacher), people were perhaps more likely to slow down and listen if the preacher was saying something relevant to the season.    Secular “festivals” are also fair game.  It is a wise preacher that realizes, in January, that people are thinking about new beginnings and fresh starts.  Sermon content should be planned accordingly.  Rather than compete with the culture for the attention of our listeners, we can become masters of homiletical ju-jitsu and use whatever the culture is throwing at us for the benefit of the Gospel.

Wesley contended that preaching is not the main job of preachers any more than pastoring was the main work of pastors:  “Observe : It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care merely of this or that Society ; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and, with all your power, to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.”  Sermons, with their necessary form and content, were merely a tool of God’s evangelistic love in the greater enterprise of salvation.

There you have it:

  1. Don’t separate the content from the purpose.
  2. Don’t separate the offices of Christ.
  3. Don’t separate law and grace.
  4. Don’t separate inner holiness from outward holiness.
  5. Don’t separate one part of redemption from the larger saga of salvation.
  6. Don’t separate the content of the message from the lives of the people.
  7. Don’t separate the culture of the sermon from the larger culture.

Wesley also had some things to say about sermon delivery.  I’ll save these for another post.

Note:  The actual content of Wesley’s instruction to preachers in the “Large Minutes” is as follows:

WHAT is the best general method of preaching?

To invite, to convince, to offer Christ, to build up; and to do this in some measure in every sermon. The most effectual way of preaching Christ is to preach him in all his offices; and to declare his law as well as his Gospel, both to believers and unbelievers. Let us strongly insist upon inward and outward holiness; and, with this view, set forth Christ as evidently crucified before their eyes; Christ in all the riches of his grace, justifying us by his blood, and sanctifying us by his Spirit. Always suit your subject to the state of your audience. Choose the plainest texts you can. Take care not to ramble, but keep to your text, and make out what you take in hand. Be sparing in spiritualizing or allegorizing. Let your whole deportment before the congregation be serious, weighty, and solemn. Take care of anything awkward or affected; either in your gesture, phrase, or pronunciation. Do not usually pray above eight or ten minutes, before or after the sermon. Be sure never to disappoint a congregation, unless in case of life or death; and begin and exactly at the time. The evening preaching should *never begin later than seven o’clock, unless in time of harvest. Young Preachers might often exhort without taking a text. Everywhere avail yourself of the great festivals, by preaching on the occasion, and singing our hymns, which you should take care to have in readiness.

Chris Ritter is the Directing Pastor of Geneseo First United Methodist Church and leads a multisite ministry impacting Geneseo, Cambridge and Rock Island, Illinois.  He holds a doctorate in evangelism from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University where he graduated with distinction.  He also holds a Master of Divinity Degree (magna cum laude) from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  Chris is an elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of The United Methodist Church and was recently elected to represent his conference at the 2016 General Conference of the UMC.  He is a 1999 inductee into World Methodist Evangelism’s Order of the FLAME.  He and his wife of twenty-six years, Becky, are the parents of four young adults.

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