Book Review – Wesley on the Christian Life: A Heart Renewed in Love by Fred Sanders

Trust me I am not one of those reformed guys. I’m young, I’m reformed, but I’m not restless. I love other Christian traditions, I’m not a reformed or nothing kind of guy but at times I have been tempted to have a superior attitude towards Methodism and the other Wesleyan traditions. Let me explain why, I think I have a good reason for it.

Back in 2012 I took a summer class with a visiting systematic theology professor from Asbury (a seminary rooted in the Methodist tradition). As we were making our way through Soteriology and a Wesleyan ordo salutis our Methodist professor explained that Wesley believed that you could lose your salvation. I think that is a very harmful doctrine but I certainly will not break communion with somebody who holds that sort of belief. What this professor said next about Wesley permanently gave me a bad impression of Wesley.  This professor said that Wesley believed that one is saved by faith (so good so far) but that one stays saved by one’s works (oh heck no). In essence Wesley was a 18th century covenantal nomist. Staying saved by one’s good works! In that moment I started turning my nose towards the Methodist/Wesleyan traditions. Thankfully Fred Sanders came along with Wesley on the Christian Life and readjusted my impression of Wesley and his theology.

Summary

The Theologians of the Christian Life series attempts to provide introductions to major teachers/theologians/pastors within the Protestant tradition all the while keeping an eye towards practical living. Wesley on the Christian Life: A Heart Renewed in Love is Fred Sanders contribution to this series. Towards the beginning of the book Sanders lays out two tasks he will attempt to complete in this book: 1) introduce Wesley’s theology and spirituality and 2) recommend a generally Wesleyan  approach to living a balanced Christian life.Wesley on the Christian Life

In this volume Sanders gives the reader a brief spiritual biography, an in depth understanding of Wesley’s “heart religion,” and a look at the role 1 John had on Wesley’s theology (he was a practical theologian who began with John and moved to Paul). Sanders then moves to what Sanders does best, systematic theology. He takes us on a journey into the confusing, strange, and often misinterpreted land of Wesley’s Soteriology. Often accused of being a crypto-catholic or denying imputed righteousness, Sanders shows that Wesley is far from being those two things. Wesley was a preacher of justification by faith alone. Also Wesley loved the law but the law stood upon a foundation of Grace. We are then treated to a brief chapter on the Means of Grace (once again we find that for Wesley Grace comes first, not our human efforts). Then we are taken back into the realm of Soteriology proper; Sanders unpacks Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Sanders concludes with two “ecumenical chapters” he shows that Wesley was concerned with maintain unity and fellowship with the catholic (not Roman) church and that Wesley is a resource for doing Trinitarian theology across ecumenical lines.

All in all, by taking us on a tour of Wesley’s theology, Sanders shows us that Wesley was a very practical theologian always concerned with guarding fellow Christians from the Scylla and Charybdis of formalism and antinomianism all the while cultivating true religion in the hearts of his fellow Christians

Pros

There are many things that I enjoyed about this book but I will only mention four:

  1. Sanders knows his audience well. This book is published under Crossway, a reformed-evangelical publisher which means that its primary audience will be reformed readers. If you know anything about Crossway you know that they are one of the biggest “gospel-centered” publishers, Sanders is very aware of this and constantly writes with an eye towards this particular audience. Thought the book Sanders makes an effort to relate Wesley’s theology to the Reformed and Calvinian traditions. For instance we find this quote by Wesley pop up around the book many times, “I do not differ from Calvin a hair’s breadth.” We also find a vast number of quotes by Calvinist heroes like Ryle, Spurgeon, and Whitefield giving their stamp of approval on Wesley. We also see that the appreciation runs both ways, Wesley is often portrayed as being a big fan of a lot of Calvinist authors, like Edwards and Goodwin.
  2. The book is filled with wisdom for “gospel centered” readers. I won’t elaborate upon this much but I found it delightful that Wesley offers so much wisdom for people who are gospel centered. Like any other way of thinking “gospel-centeredness” as a theological system often lacks in certain areas, it has it weaknesses. It tends to be nomophobic (it “fears” the Law) but Wesley offers a wise corrective. It tends to be divisive but Wesley makes a case for staying within one’s own communion. It tends to call into question the seriousness of other people’s conversion, Wesley suffered from this fault early on even to the point of calling into question whether he was saved before his Aldersgate experience, but Wesley eventually grew out of this way of thinking.
  3. Sanders presents Wesley as a great resource for doing evangelical theology. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Wesley’s Trinitarian theology. One particular line really caught my eye: “Wesley’s Trinitarianism was also uniquely experiential” (245). There are two things I know (as generalizations) about evangelicals: 1) They have anemic theologies of the Trinity and 2) They are into having experiences. According to Sanders (he doesn’t really unpack the implications) Wesley’s Trinitarian theology is a resource the evangelical church really needs.
  4. A (sort of) clear explanation of Wesley’s “Christian Perfection.” This doctrine is utterly confusing (maybe Wesley shouldn’t have used the word “perfection”) and I must admit that I still don’t get it. Nevertheless Sanders presents a clear (as clear as I think you can get) explanation of this doctrine. After reading Sanders explanation I still don’t buy it, but at the very least I can now see Wesley’s motivation behind it.

Cons

I will only mention one thing that I found lacking in this book, part of the problem might be due to the intended audience though. Above I mentioned that, Sanders is very aware of his audience and constantly writes with an eye towards this particular reformed group. I am concerned that this particular slant might have caused Sanders to sugarcoat some things in Wesley that reformed people might have a hard time swallowing. In other words I think that Sanders might have made Wesley look more reformed than he really was. As one reviewer on The Gospel Coalition said, some of the similarities that Sanders draws between reformed theology and Wesley’s theology might not actually be similarities but “wishful thinking” on Sanders part. I don’t think Sanders is hoping that Wesley is more reformed than some of his interpreters have made him look, but I do think he is trying to make a case to his reformed/gospel-centered readers that Wesley isn’t all that bad and that we need to learn from him. I agree with the fact that we need to learn from Wesley but there would be things to learn from him even if he radically disagreed with reformed theology. In other words I don’t need a Wesley who is a crypto-Calvinist.

Conclusion

I love the heart behind the series and I love the heart behind this book (there I go, I guess I am a believer in Wesley’s “heart religion”). There is much to learn from Wesley whether or not you agree with his theology, Sanders makes a strong case for that. So should you buy this book and read it? Yes absolutely. There is something in here for everybody whether you are a lay person, a pastor, a theological student, “Young Restless and Reformed” or “Old  Relaxed and Wesleyan.”

(Note: I received this book from Crossway in exchange for an unbiased review.)

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