I was born into a Christian family and baptized in an Anglican church. I went to church on Sunday, sang during worship, attended Sunday School and was confirmed in the UCC church. But although I learned the basics of the walk of people of faith, I didn’t really walk as a person of faith until my freshman year in college. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I was truly ‘baptized in the Spirit’ and turned my life toward the Christian faith.
John Wesley’s teachings around how we move into a faithful life are fairly in line with my own experiences. Although at 18 I gave myself to the call of Christ, I had absolutely no idea how to proceed after that. I had a vague sense that I needed to be ‘good’—sometimes I even achieved that a little bit. But certainly, I felt the sure, steady, and unrelenting tug within me, that no matter which ways I turned—and I turned a lot—always, tiny step by tiny step, I drew closer to God.
Wesley would say these tiny steps were steps along the path of growing more and more holy—even with the backsliding. And it is certain that with every measure of Grace God poured out, I grew in love. I have a long way to go, still. But already I am so deeply grateful. I could never, ever repay or explain how deeply this walk of mine has mattered to me.
For Wesley, ‘holiness’ is not some goody-two-shoes effort to be holier-than-thou. It is not a ceremonial show of righteousness. For Wesley, holiness is the inward welcome the human offers to the divine. Holiness is what happens when within us we put our willfulness aside and trust our brokenness fully and completely to the transformative work of God.
Whatever I do on the outside of me—prayers, service, the work of social justice—these external outcomes come out from within the holiness that God nurtures at the center of who I am. Our ‘righteousness’ (meaning our behaviors that reflect the good love and justice and will of God) come not by simply behaving according to some rule about how we are ‘supposed to’ behave. Our righteousness is a direct outflowing from the holiness within us. Its source is the Spirit within us, not the World outside us.
As a result, the ‘rules’ of righteousness change. Any missionary can give you practical examples of how this works. What is considered right, correct, and fair in one culture, is not necessarily going to be considered right, correct, and fair everywhere. Love expresses itself in the material and human world according to what is loving to God. God’s love is not material at its source but is made into the material of the world when we act on it. A hug becomes an act of comfort because we offer it from a place of love.
Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of every ‘rule’ that existed in his world because the love within him was fully God’s. Therefore everything he did was ‘right’ even when he broke all the rules. From the perspective of the rule-makers of his time, Jesus was a scandal! The sermons and stories and miraculous actions he undertook were such a surprise to the rule-based religious folks around him that they plotted against him. They plotted to take down the very son of the very God they claimed to worship!
Jesus had a lot to say about the right way to behave, and our Gospels are a remarkable testament to that. Jesus often directly chastised those who tried to use rules and borders to harm instead of heal others. Jesus called out the ‘rulers’ of his day who would not heal on the Sabbath and love their neighbor. He decried those who would not help and welcome strangers. And he explained that the oppressive and harmful laws imposed during his day and used against the poor and others, reflected not the love of God at all, but the hard heartedness of the people who enforced them.
Does that mean there are no rules? Hardly. There are real consequences—harm, shame, brokenness, and destruction—when we do not act according to the loving will of God.
Jesus called us to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus calls us to ‘heal the sick, release the prisoner, welcome the stranger, and love your enemy.’ Jesus decried the violence of nation states. Jesus’s actions demonstrated a radical welcome. He shared the love of God with sinners, tax collectors, assassins, high priests, foreigners, children, women, the spiritually possessed and mentally ill, those disfigured by disease, the beggar, the blind, the elderly, the soldier, the merchant…
Wesley taught us that holiness on the inside is what leads us to do the right thing in the world. Perfect love drives out fear. The apostles taught this and Jesus showed us this with his own life. In Jesus we see how inward holiness becomes the outward expression of faithfulness to God. In Jesus and those that followed him, we see that all that we do arises first from a ‘holiness of heart.’