Wesley: Mistaking the Means for the End

As part of my devotions each morning, I’ve been reading short meditations from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. As a young man at Oxford, he developed “methods” of discipline for his Christian life. He was sincere. Yet after a failed experience as a missionary to Georgia, he knew his faith was lacking. God had to rework his faith into something that burned in his heart, not as just an outward discipline, as worthy as that discipline might be.

I’m sure it was that reworking of the heart that led him to write what I read a few mornings ago. Wesley acknowledged the chief means of grace: prayer, searching the Scriptures, and receiving communion. He affirmed, “These we believe to be ordained of God as the ordinary channels of conveying His grace to the souls of men and women. So it was in the early church.”

So what is the problem?

But in process of time the love of many grew cold. Some began to mistake the means for the end, and to place religion in doing those outward works rather than in a heart renewed after the image of God.

Now the whole value of the means depends on their actually serving the end of religion. Consequently, all these means—when separate from the end—are less than nothing and vanity.

Wesley knew this from his own life when he had attempted to make outward discipline the whole of his faith. It can be far too easy to switch priorities and focus on the outward at the expense of the inward. He concludes with some direct and bracing words:

If they do not actually lead to the knowledge and love of God, they are not acceptable in His sight. They are rather an abomination before Him, a stink in His nostrils. He is weary of them.

And if they are used to try to fulfill the religion they should only serve, they turn God’s arms against Himself and keep Christianity out of the heart instead of being the means by which it is brought in.

I offer these few thoughts from Wesley today in the realization that some who read them will recognize this problem in themselves. My hope is that God can use these words to help reorient whoever needs that reorientation. I know I have to keep coming back to the proper order: heart first, outward disciplines as a response of the heart.