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Facing a Faceless World

Seeing the Person and the Rise of the Wesleyan-Methodist Movement

Deliverance and the Face of God

The Holy One who called Israel to Himself began by preparing a deliverer. It was after the engagement at the burning bush that Moses was to be confronted with the main reason for that sacred encounter. It was the ‘sighing’ of the bound, their cries for release from bondage, incessant and intense groanings which caused Yahweh to ‘take notice’ of them (Ex. 2:23-24). We are right to talk about sanctification as the goal of God’s consuming fire-like love but note that the immediate result of that personal and transformative experience is the recitation of the essence of this uniquely seeing, faithful God (3:6). Holiness is always the expression of the highest conceptions of reality applied to the deepest needs of the oppressed. There is no other holiness. It always confronts economic, social and political evils.

The formation of the nation of Israel is grounded on a redemption from despotic cruelty. At base, obedience to God’s laws is always about setting and keeping others free. The biblical pattern is: transformed hearts which are called within cultures in order to confront all personal and cultural sin, to offer a full-orbed deliverance which includes stepping into the miasma of economic and political machinations in order to provide the outline of a new community.

Of the 39 encounters of Jesus with individuals in various levels of need, His compassion is evident at every turn. I have often blanched at His matter-of-fact assessment of economic injustice where He says, “The poor you will always have with you” (Jn 12:8). Couldn’t Jesus have outlined the structures necessary to eliminate poverty and oppression? Everything He offered came out of face-to-face intimacy with the Father in the power of the Spirit. He thus always saw and met the deepest of human desires. He satisfied each longing while modeling for those who truly followed Him how to minister in the same way. Incarnate holy love disallows the division of being and doing. Redemptive ‘doing’ is never forced, it is the natural outflow of divine life. Doing the ‘most good’ derives from the ‘highest Good.”

The ”Reason” for the Wesleyan Reformation of Society

For decades I began a class on the theology of John Wesley with the graphic woodcuts by William Hogarth of 18th century English cultural vices. Though hyperbolic, his Gin Lane and Beer Alley depict a fairly accurate picture of cultural pollution. That remarkable mix of revival and cultural reformation are not unique to Wesleyans but no other group was as systematic in incorporating social ministry into the warp and woof of every facet of their spiritual life. Perhaps none of the snapshots are more indicative of the spirit of Methodism than the one which was a part of Hogarth’s satire on the effects of industry versus laziness. In the last scene, the figure of idle apprentice is condemned. I find it fascinating that Hogarth places a Methodist evangelist in the cart with the ghost-like figure about to be hung. Even in macabre mockery, it is clear that these people called Methodists, are at the very gates of Hell where the faceless were being crushed, offering life and hope.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has given us a classic paradigm to assess the Church’s response to the world. At times we have chosen to be ‘against’ what surrounds us. At other points we have been ‘of’ the culture in syncretistic agreement with its values, or we have chosen to simply attempt to remain ‘above’ culture in a super-spiritual duality. I have always been intrigued that the premier example of the Church in ‘transforming’ relationship with culture, for Niebuhr is the Wesleyan Revival.[1]

Howard Snyder’s assessment of renewal movements over the centuries also confirms the important awareness that the Spirit of God always turns the Church outside itself. The list he produces most would agree with: 1) A rediscovery of the Gospel, 2) proper interpretation and application of the Word, 3) emphasis on pneumatology, 4) the sense of being the church within the larger church, 5) small-group structure, and 6) commitment to the vitality of the larger church. But the list does not end there. Any truly ‘renewing’ movement which is resourced by the Spirit’s indwelling is always mission focused. Deep interpersonal commitments with a view to the unique ministry of every person brings visions of new forms of ministry. But if the Spirit is only pointing to who Jesus is and how He always ministers through his church as Snyder points out it is intriguing how he qualifies his last ‘sign’ of renewal. He records that every movement he discerned had, “daily contact with society, especially those who are on the margins, like the poor or the needy.”[2]

Even before Wesley was converted at Aldersgate in 1738 as a student of divinity and as a missionary, he knew that faith without works was dead. The Holy Club questions for spiritual well-being are still challenging but what is not included in them was the insistence that every member of that small group be in some sort of outreach. And as the Class Meetings began to explode it is fascinating to note that one of the implications of revival fire was the requirement of at least a penny being given by each participant and that an assigned steward of that small group would offer assistance to the neediest person within a block of the meeting.[3] Wesley is famous for many pithy distillations of Christian belief turned to action. Perhaps none is so expressive of his holistic vision of salvation than where he summarized full its implications as, “faith, holiness and good works as the root, the tree, and the fruit, which God has joined, and man ought not to put asunder.”[4] For the Wesleyan tradition there is no holiness without intentional missional outreach. That other-orientation revolved around a profound notion of person. To see God’s face is to turn one’s face to the “faceless” in society.

In his sermon, “Visiting the Sick” Wesley wrote, “One great reason the rich in general, have so little sympathy for the poor is that they so seldom visit them. Many of them they do not know, because they do not care to know.”[5] He knew, and witnessed, that giving money is never enough, true change comes out of personal engagement, knowing another. Bready’s ground-breaking social assessment of 18th century England reveals of John that, “He was more familiar with the life of the poor than any man of his age; he knew that many of them dwelt in cellars and attics, amongst verminous surroundings, lacking warmth, raiment and decent victuals.”[6] He strongly advocated daily face-to-face contact with those who were in need.

The oft-quoted calling of Methodist preachers reads, “to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”[7] Wesley never intended for there to be an over-emphasis on any part of this mission. What is not often enough emphasized is the larger reconstruction of society that is the initial goal of the revival movement that birthed us. But, ministry which did not incorporate the ‘face’ of the needy was anathema to Wesley.

The Revolution of Society in the Wesleyan Tradition and the Salvation Army

Roger Green’s incisive study of the relationship between social ministry and the theological growth of William Booth has helped us confront the normal presupposition that early on our forebears automatically connected spiritual being with transformative doing. The evidence we have shows that there was an increasing application of ministry as fuller perceptions of theology met actual life in Booth’s experience. This growing perception of need followed the lines of: initial emphasis – win the lost, a broadening of deliverance – sanctification, and a strong eschatological influence – the kingdom of God. As Green discusses this trajectory Booth did not at first either see the needs or attempt to meet them. Once he began to apply the full gospel to human life there was an immediate and sustained openness to the least and the lost and hope for the restoration of both hearts and society.[8] Booth’s Darkest England and the Way Out was a bombshell publication. No one had assessed both the problems and the solutions like Booth (and a few very helpful researchers of like-mind). To read that book is to see a paradigm for social change unfold. He used the best statistics available, sociology, envisioning best practices, dreaming radically new approaches to addiction, homelessness, as well as hopelessness.

I remember sitting down and reading the entire journal of Wesley for 1738 after Aldersgate. I found at least 14 new ministries that had never been formed in English history, like public free clinics and loans for entrepreneurs without means to invest. Someday I hope to do the same with our early history. Booth’s vision for offering life to the lost includes a remarkably comprehensive overview of culture-altering service. The list of creative culture-shaking ministries is astounding and it never ceases growing throughout Catherine’s and William’s life. But what is most challenging is the consistent relationship of evangelism and meeting human need. The godly, but “idiosyncratic rebel,” George Railton, wisely prophesied that it would be easy to lose the original mission of the Army. He warned of that deadly separation (of evangelism and social outreach) often.[9] History has shown that any renewal movement which calcified into institutionalism soon becomes a dead sect, a mere monument. Bramwell Booth saw the possibility of becoming a mere social agency all too well. Looking back over his ministry he wrote that there is a kind of charity which is “without one spark of God’s life and grace. These forty years…I have seen the great need is not the religion of humanity but the humanity of religion in Jesus Christ.”

The ’war on two fronts’ made personal redemption only possible if the flow of delivering grace touched other persons facing social demise. Ontology always precedes function. All function must have a foundation. When the goals of any portion of the Wesleyan tradition are in line with God’s holy nature then it becomes personal and vibrant. The symbiosis of personal transformation (sanctification) and cultural renewal at any level is immediately destroyed if impersonal understandings of reality are allowed in. The impersonal always result in depersonalization.


Only the heart transformed by sanctifying love can truly offer their faces to the faceless. Picking up on metaphor that others had used before him, William Booth wrote to Bramwell, “Wesley made Methodists not only by converting sinners but by making well instructed saints. We must follow that track or we are a rope of sand.” Saints are only those who are transformed by the Spirit of Jesus. The dead are brought to life and the living are “renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (Col 3:10). The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition has weakened; some say it has died. Whatever the diagnosis it is historically defensible to note that a truncated view of personal transformation in Christ directly affects any outreach that proposed to offer redemption from social evil. Holiness of heart and life is the only source of unfettered intimacy with the Face of God. When that occurs in a life there is a remarkable change in the face. The proof of that purifying reality is always another turn: to the face of another. And that bears fruit because it is the conduit through which the whole ministry, the Face, of the Triune God can be known.

Dr. Bill Ury is National Ambassador for Holiness for the Salvation Army and a scholar on Wesleyan holiness and systematic theology. Listen to him on the Hour of Holiness podcast.


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (Harper Torchbooks, New York: 1951 rep. 1975), see summary 39-45, [2] Howard Snyder, Signs of the Spirit (Zondervan: Grand Rapids,1989), 276-280. [3] One of the first references to this ‘ministry’ from those who attended the Society is found on February 15, 1742 Works of John Wesley ed. Jackson Vol 1: 357. [4]John Wesley, Works of John Wesley ed. Jackson (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1958) Vol. 1: 221. [5] John Wesley, “On Visiting the Sick” in Works of John Wesley ed. Jackson (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1958) Vol 7:119. [6] J. Wesley Bready, England Before and After Wesley (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1939). [7][7] 1744 “Minutes of Several Conversations” Q. 3, in the Works of John Wesley (Vol. 8; ed. T. Jackson, Baker: 1978), 299. [8] Roger Green, War on Two Fronts: William Booth’s Theology of Redemption (Crest Books: Alexandria, VA. 2017). [9] Bernard Watson, Soldier Saint: George Scott Railton – William Booth’s First Lieutenant (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1970), 239, 126 and passim.

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