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John Wesley on the "grand stumbling-block" to the Church's Global Mission

john wesley

If you've never read John Wesley's sermon, "The General Spread of the Gospel," you should. You'll better understand how Wesley saw Methodism in relation to thelarger mission of the whole Church, and you'll gain insight into Wesley's vision of the future. You'll also find out what Wesley believed to be the greatest hindrance to the success of the Church's global mission, or, as he put it, the "grand stumbling-block."

How the Gospel Spreads

The sermon sets forth what is basically a postmillenial view of the history. Wesley reasons that God will work in the future largely in the same way he's worked in the past. That is to say, the gospel goes forward, spreading from one person to another, with the preaching of justification by faith alone and the holiness that is the gracious work of God in us. Wesley expected the gospel to spread in nations where it is already present, and that, he believed, would effect widespread conversion with the result that the converted would consistently honor God with the whole over their lives. That would then lead to the gospel's spread to nations where it has not yet taken significant hold (Wesley termed them heathen nations), but only after the "grand stumbling-block" has been removed. What is that stumbling-block? Here's how Wesley put it:

The grand stumbling-block being thus happily removed out of the way, namely, the lives of the Christians, the Mahometans will look upon them with other eyes, and begin to give attention to their words. And as their words will be clothed with divine energy, attended with the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, those of them that fear God will soon take knowledge of the Spirit whereby the Christians speak. They will "receive with meekness the engrafted word," and will bring forth fruit with patience. From them the leaven will soon spread to those who till then, had no fear of God before their eyes. Observing the Christian dogs, as they used to term them, to have changed their nature; to be sober, temperate, just, benevolent; and that, in spite of all provocations to the contrary; from admiring their lives, they will surely be led to consider and embrace their doctrine.

In short, for Wesley, the biggest hindrance to the advancement of the gospel is the lack of holiness in the lives of Christians. He believed that if believers consistently embodied Christian virtue expressed in love for God and neighbor, then those among the nations who reviled Christianity would ultimately be persuaded by the evidence on display in the holy lives of Christians. That would then lead the nations to be persuaded of Christian doctrine. For Wesley, this will continue until the world is largely converted and the Great Commission fulfilled. We shouldn't think of this as a quick process. Wesley draws on the image of leaven which moves slowly through a batch of dough. Nevertheless, the gospel moves forward and does its work of conversion and sanctification. That's the general spread of the gospel.

Missional Holiness

The thing to see is that, for Wesley, the mission of the Church does not consist in converting the nations. Rather, Wesley envisions the sanctification of the nations as the outcome of the Church's mission. The point for him is not merely that all should hear the gospel, but that all should consistently honor Christ with their the whole of their lives. This, of course, resonates with the Great Commission itself, which calls upon the church to teach all the nations to obey all the commands of Christ (Matthew (28:18-20). It also accords with way the Church's mission is framed in Ezekiel 36:23:

...the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes (NRSV).

I call this missional holiness. The idea is that the effectiveness of the Church's mission is dependent on the sanctification of the people of God. How will the nations know that our God is is the one true God? When his people embody his character before the eyes of the nations. The failure to do that is the "grand stumbling-block" to the salvation of the world.

God is most glorified when we are entirely sanctified.

This way of framing things should help us see that holiness isn't just a step on the individual order of salvation. It's a means to missional effectiveness. It's also the goal for which God created the world, because God is most glorified when we are entirely sanctified.


Dr. Matt O’Reilly (Ph.D., Gloucestershire) is Lead Pastor of Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. A two-time recipient of the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement, he is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at and follow @mporeilly.

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