Wesley and Moral Law

Friday, October 19, 2007

Wesley speaks of a “moral law contained in the Ten Commandments and enforced by the prophets” ( Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Sermon 25 , I.2) but differentiated this from both the ceremonial and Mosaic law. It would appear that Wesley's understanding of the moral law entails the eternal principles and will of God that lie at the heart of the Old Testament. But it is deeper than even this. Wesley says that the moral law precedes not only Moses or Enoch but creation itself, humanity itself, being first given to the angels and the expression of God's eternal pre-creation image and will.The moral law is for Wesley a reflection of God's eternal will and image found in Scripture and inscribed on every human heart. Wesley even goes so far as to take the Christological language of the New Testament and applies this directly to this moral law, calling it

An incorruptible picture of the High and Holy One... the express image of His person.”(The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law." (The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law II.3)

This presents a challenge to a Protestant idea of the law because if the law is both eternal, preceding creation, and the perfect reflection of the will and image of God, one is led to ask as one commentator did “Is Christ the only-begotten of the Father?”[1] Victor Shepherd suggests a possible solution, arguing that for Wesley the Son is the substance of the law,

Wesley says that the law is the face of God unveiled. Paul says Jesus Christ is this. For Wesley, Jesus Christ is plainly the substance of the law... the law isn't a message from God or truth of God but is rather God himself disclosing himself.”[2]

However it would be a mistake to assume that for Wesley the law and Christ are simply synonymous, as it would to assume that Wesley means only the moral principles and will of God that can be found in the Old Testament. Identifying precisely what for Wesley the exact content of the moral law is can be difficult as our own Ken Collins points out,

[Wesley] failed to indicate clearly the content of this moral law. Thus, in his sermon "Justification by Faith," for example, Wesley defined the moral law as the 'unchangeable law of love, the holy love of God and of our neighbor,' while elsewhere he described it in terms of the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and the ten commandments”[3]

Wesley outlines three principle uses of the moral law 1) to convince the world of sin, not only before salvation but after 2) to lead us to Christ, again not only initially but continually 3) to “keep us alive”. Wesley writes,

I cannot spare the law one moment, no more than I can spare Christ... each is continually sending me to the other, -- the law to Christ, and Christ to the law... the height and depth of the law constrain me to fly to the love of God in Christ... the love of God in Christ endears the law to me 'above gold or precious stones;'” ( The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law . IV.7).

This seems to indicate that the law is not simply a principle we follow, but needs to be alive and active in us through the indwelling of the Spirit. Shepherd explains,

Earlier Wesley had said that knowing the law of God doesn't suffice. It is evident now that what doesn't suffice is that love of Christ which is pro nobis but not yet in nobis in the absence of faith. As Jesus Christ is embraced in faith the love of Christ takes root in us; as this occurs the law of God comes to be written on the heart.”[4]

Wesley's understanding of the moral law seems to be intentionally opposed to that of Luther. Wesley directly attacks Luther's understanding of the law expressed in his “Commentary on Galatians” when he writes,

Who art thou then, O man, that "judgest the law, and speakest evil of the law?" -- that rankest it with sin, Satan, and death and sendest them all to hell together?... So thou hast set up thyself in the judgement-seat of Christ, and cast down the rule whereby he will judge the world!” ( The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law . IV.8).

Luther's understanding of salvation which is rooted in the idea of finding grace is rooted in Paul's book of Romans and likewise Luther's negative understanding of the law is also Paulinian. Luther and Paul focus on the law as a good thing that - like us - can become fallen and need to be redeemed. In other words, they focus on the law seen from our human perspective and draw attention to the dangers of our misusing it to support self-righteousness and legalism. Scripture cautions against our human sinful misuse of the law. Jesus for example (following in the tradition of Isaiah) sharply criticized the contemporary understanding of the law, and was himself regarded as a blasphemous lawbreaker by the religious authorities of his day. Paul speaks of how the law which was “good and holy” in fact “became death” to him because of his own sinfulness (likely the sin of legalism, Paul being a zealous Pharisee before his conversion). Even with the perfect law before us, we see it “through a dark glass”. Our understanding of this law - like us - is created good, can become fallen, and needs to be redeemed.

Wesley's understanding of salvation went beyond Luther's focus on justification and added to it the idea of regeneration – being born again – and how the indwelling of the Spirit in our lives transforms us and gives a new identity. Wesley's understanding of salvation here is very much influenced by the Gospel of John and similarly his understanding of the moral law has a decidedly johannian flavor too. What is confusing here is Wesley's nomenclature since he refers to “the law” (paulinian language) while John uses the term “truth”. In John's Gospel for example Jesus says "I am the truth" (not "I know the truth" but "I am the truth") so that truth is a Person. Along these same lines, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as "the Spirit of truth". This is a fascinating idea because then truth or law is not based on static principles but on is creative,
active, transforming, and alive. Truth is a Person (“I am the truth” Jesus says). So in Welsey's view truth or law are and alive – God's living word.

[1] John Deschner, Wesley's Christology (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1960), p 107 as quoted in Collins (see note 3 below)

[2] Victor Shepherd, “
The Epistle to the Romans As Wesley's Cure for Antinomian and Moralist Alike ” delivered at the Romans Conference, University of Toronto, May 2002

[3] Kenneth J. Collins, “
John Wesley's Platonic Conception of the Moral Law ” in Wesleyan Theological Journal 21 Spr-Fall 1986, p 116-128

[4] Shepherd, Op Sit. The terms “pro nobis” and “in nobis” are Latin and mean “for us” and “in us”.

Labels: ,


At 9:05 PM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Wesley's uses of the law sound much like Luther's "3 uses of the law", though there are differences. Luther's recognizes uses of the law were to curb wrongdoing, to convict us of sin and lead us to Christ, and to instruct us in God's will.

Take care & God bless

At 1:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi WF!

Sort of. I think though that Luther and Wesley mean fundamentally different things with the term "law". Luther means the more conventional sense of the word as an abstract moral principles, secular laws, etc. Wesley means the illuminated word and will of God. It is a sense of law tied up into an active relationship with God, and so it is only something that a person can walk in who is reconciled with God. So it does not just curb wrongdoing, it sanctifies because it involves out following the will of God by abiding in God.

"Moral law" is really a bad choice of terms with Wesley that makes things confusing because what he means really is something more like "the Way".

At 9:39 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

And "curbing wrongdoing" (use #1 in Luther's list) was the use of the law that Luther found most appropriate to the unsaved. The "guide to God's will" (use #3 in Luther's list) was only really applicable to those who cared what God's will might be ...

Luther probably saw sanctification much differently than Wesley did. For Luther, sanctification is about death and resurrection: letting the law condemn us to death and letting its death sentence kill us in our old natures, while through the cross and the empty tomb of Christ raising the new nature to life.

At 8:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your description of Luther's take on sanctification is interesting to me because I am reading Karl Barth's section on sanctification in his Dogmatics right now and he takes pretty much exactly this line of thought, so it sounds like he picked it up from Luther. Do you recall where exactly Luther talks about this? It might be interesting to cross reference.

At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Arty Nash said...

I think fundamentally for Luther breaking God's Law did not depend on being aware of it. In a Foresnic (objective?) sense we sin daily in thought, word, and deed by those things we have done (commission) and left undone (ommission)-whether conscious or not then. I think Wesley is more subjective with sin (those conscious acts against what I sense God's will as....).

Thus where the Wesleyan/Holiness churches seem to measure 'sanctification' or Christian maturity in terms of how many fewer acts of (known) sin I commit, for Luther Christian maturity would rather be measured in how much MORE I realize I have a (daily) need of Christ due to my continual growing awareness of sin/falling short.

(Personally, in practical Christian Living I have come to believe Luther had it best as his view is more likely to keep our eyes on Christ/the Cross than the Wesleyan where the focus is more on ourselves in attempts to measure sanctification...)

As I understand it, for Luther, we humans (Christian or Pagan) sin BECAUSE/as a result of being sinners by nature.

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Arty I think you make an excellent point, fully agree with your focus. The only thing I woud add is that Luther does have a perspective on sanctification which I think augments what you say. Recent research has shown that salvation for Luther was not a merely legal matter of declared righteousness – as the doctrine of justification is commonly understood – rather justification entails real transformation that Luther says affects our minds, our perceptions, and even our flesh,

"This is not a sham or merely a new outward appearance, but something really happens. A new attitude and a new judgment, namely, a spiritual one, actually come into being… a new creation … this is then followed by an outward change in the flesh, in the parts of the body, and in the senses. ... These changes are, so to speak, not verbal; they are real. They produce a new mind, a new will, new senses, and even new actions by the flesh." (LW vol. 27 Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6 , pp. 139-140 on Gal 6:15).


Post a Comment

<< Home

This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.