Wesley on Preaching Law & Gospel

Fools TalkOne of the books I’m reading is Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness. It’s a good book for those involved in the work of apologetics. I want to be a little picky, however. He says at one point, ‘As John Wesley advised his young preachers in his day… “Preach the Law until they are convicted, then preach Grace until they are converted.”’

Methodists who know anything about Methodism will know Wesley preached grace. Methodists who have actually read Wesley know that he also valued preaching the law. This “quotation,” however, doesn’t reflect Wesley’s actual practice or teaching (sounds more like Luther to me). Here are some statements where Wesley brings the two together:

I think, the right method of preaching is this: At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law, in the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel, in order to “beget faith,” to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconvinced; but because otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel. (Works of John Wesley [Jackson Edition], 11:486-6)

He continues a couple of pages later in the same volume:

Not that I would advise to preach the law without the gospel, any more than the gospel without the law. Undoubtedly, both should be preached in their turns; yea, both at once, or both in one: All the conditional promises are instances of this. They are law and gospel mixed together.

According to this model, I should advise every Preacher continually to preach the law; the law grafted upon, tempered by, and animated with, the spirit of the gospel. I advise him to declare, explain, and enforce every command of God; but, meantime, to declare, in every sermon, (and the more explicitly the better,) that the first and great command to a Christian is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ;” that Christ is all in all, our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption;” that all life, love, strength, are from him alone, and all freely given to us through faith.

The “preach the law and THEN only AFTER they’re convicted, preach grace,” is NOT the John Wesley methodology. It is that form of preaching that inclines us to read the New Testament and frame the doctrine of soteriology in terms of “plight to solution” reasoning. I’m not enough of a Wesley scholar to have investigated his analysis of plight and solution in salvation, but his theory of always combining law and gospel/grace in preaching shows that at least as far as communication strategy goes, the two are not best understood simply sequentially, as if we can truly grasp our plight without simultaneously hearing the solution.

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