I am not half legalistic enough – John Wesley

Never talk against ‘legalism’: call it tenderness of conscience

Rev. John Wesley portrait
John Wesley

Legality [Legalism], with most who use that term, really means tenderness of conscience. There is no propriety in the word if one would take it for seeking justification by works. Considering, therefore, how hard it is to fix the meaning of that odd term, and how dreadfully it has been abused, I think it highly advisable for all the Methodists to lay it quite aside.

John Wesley, 16 Feb. 1771, Letter to Mary Bishop.

No such sin as ‘legalism’

O beware of all that talk or write in that unscriptural manner, or they will perplex, if not destroy, you! I cannot find in my Bible any such sin as legality [legalism]. Truly, we have been often afraid where no fear was. I am not half legal [legalistic] enough, not enough under the law of love. Sometimes there is painful conviction of sin preparatory to full sanctification; sometimes a conviction that has far more pleasure than pain, being mixed with joyful expectation. Always there should be a gradual growth in grace; which need never be intermitted from the time we are justified. Do not wait, therefore, for pain or anything else, but simply for all-conquering faith.

John Wesley, 27 Nov. 1770, Letter to Mary Bishop.

Defy all liberty, but liberty to love & serve God; Fear no bondage, but bondage to sin.

I find no such sin as legality [legalism] in the Bible; the very use of the term speaks an Antinomian. I defy all liberty, but liberty to love and serve God [2 Pet. 2:19]; and fear no bondage, but bondage to sin. [Rom. 6:13] Sift that text to the bottom, and it will do the business of poor H—and all his disciples: ‘God sent His own Son in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us.’ [Rom. 8:4] Justitia legis, justitia legalis! [‘The righteousness of the law is legalistic righteousness.’] Here is legality [legalism] indeed!

John Wesley, 30 Nov. 1770, Letter to Joseph Benson.

‘Legalism’: a silly & meaningless word

[7.] What evasion now? What way could Satan take to make all this Light of none effect? What could be done when that grand truth, “By grace ye are saved through faith,” was more and more generally received? What, indeed, but to persuade the very men who had received it, to “turn the grace of God into lasciviousness [licentiousness]?” [Jude 1:4] To this end Simon Magus appeared again, and taught, “that Christ had done, as well as suffered all: that his righteousness being imputed to us, we need none of our own: That seeing there was so much righteousness and holiness in Him, there needs no more in us: That to think we have any, or to desire or seek any, is to renounce Christ; That from the beginning to the end of salvation, all is in Christ, nothing in man; and that those who teach otherwise are legal [legalistic] preachers, and know nothing of the gospel.”

[8.] This is indeed “A Blow at the Root,” the root of all holiness, all true religion. Hereby Christ is “Stabbed in the House of his Friends,” of those who make the largest professions of loving and honouring Him; the whole design of his death, namely, “to destroy the works of the devil,” [1 John 3:8] being overthrown at a stroke. For wherever this doctrine is cordially received, it leaves no place for holiness. It demolishes it from top to bottom; it destroys both root and branch. It effectually tears up all desire of it, all endeavour after it.

It forbids all such exhortations as might excite those desires, or awaken those endeavours. Nay, it makes men afraid of personal holiness, afraid of cherishing any thought of it, or motion toward it, lest they should deny the faith, and reject Christ and his righteousness. So that, instead of being “zealous of good works,” [Titus 2:14] they are a stink in their nostrils. And they are infinitely more afraid of the works of God, than of the works of the devil.

[10.] … Be no longer afraid of the strongest exhortations either to inward or outward holiness. Hereby God the Father is glorified, and God the Son truly exalted. Do not stupidly and senselessly call this legal [legalism], – a silly, unmeaning word. Be not afraid of being “under the law of God,” [1 Cor. 9:21] but of being under “the law of sin.” [Rom. 8:2] Love the strictest preaching best, that which most searches the heart, and shews you wherein you are unlike Christ; and that which presses you most to love Him with all your heart, and serve Him with all your strength.

John Wesley, A Blow at the Root, or Christ Stabbed in the House of His Friends.

Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord’?

‘For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit …why do you call Me “Lord, Lord,” and do not do the things which I say?’

Luke 6:43,46.

Exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees

‘Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven … unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Matthew 5:19,20.

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