John Wesley's Evangelistic Vision
- ISBN: 9781501814228
- Published By: Abingdon Press
- Published: June 2017
The United Methodist Church has long established itself as an important contributor of scholars to the academic study of evangelism. Guided by the soteriology of John Wesley, these scholars have argued for a more holistic understanding of the practice and outcome of evangelism in contrast to Reformed scholars that often focus on evangelism only as a means of securing conversion. With his Offering Christ: John Wesley’s Evangelistic Vision, Jack Jackson takes his place in this stream of Methodist scholarship.
Jackson’s book is a history of John Wesley’s evangelistic ministry. Rather than presenting this history chronologically, Jackson presents it according to a “matrix” that he develops to describe (1) the practices Wesley used to evangelize; (2) the structures in which he carried out those practices; and (3) the salvific outcomes he hoped would come as a result (xx-xxi). Central to this matrix is the proclamation of the gospel. According to Jackson, Wesley’s evangelistic vision was that the Holy Spirit drew people into a process leading to spiritual maturity through faithful Christians proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. This proclamation took different forms and facilitated the Spirit’s movement in different ways depending on the structure in which the gospel was presented. Still, proclamation was the central activity that held it all together.
Jackson’s thesis is that this matrix, with its emphasis on proclamation and spiritual maturity, corrects faulty Methodist views of evangelism that arose following Wesley’s death. By pointing to Wesley’s insistence on sanctification being part of spiritual maturity, Jackson rejects the 19th-century revivalism which, in conjunction with Reformed soteriology, reduced evangelism to a call to conversion. It likewise rejects the present-day effort by some Methodist scholars to expand the understanding of evangelism to include more than the proclamation of the gospel, such as engaging in social justice activities. In these cases, Jackson suggests that the ends need to be separated from the means. The sole means of evangelism is verbal proclamation in its varied forms. The end of evangelism is living a holy life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. As disciples, we can participate in social engagement, but this is a result of our being evangelized and led into discipleship. It is not itself a practice of evangelism.
Offering Christ is structured around Jackson’s matrix for Wesley’s thought, with chapters 1 and 2 focusing on Wesley’s practice of proclamation, chapter 3 focusing on the outcomes Wesley hoped his proclamation would prompt, and chapters 4 through 7 each describing one of the structures of the Wesleyan Revival in which proclamation occurred (field preaching, society meetings, class meetings, and house-to-house visitation).
Jackson is not the first person to schematize Wesley’s approach to evangelism. The late James C. Logan created a very similar matrix in the short, but excellent How Great a Flame (Discipleship Resources, 2005), which showed how different structures of the Wesleyan Revival synced with Wesley’s understanding of salvation. Jackson distinguishes himself with his emphasis on proclamation and a more nuanced approach to the idea of spiritual maturity. Almost studiously avoiding the Methodist mantra of prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace, Jackson allows the primary documents to speak for themselves as to the multivalent way recipients and practitioners of Methodist evangelism saw their lives changed by the Holy Spirit without forcing these experiences to fit into specific soteriological categories.
There will be some Wesleyan scholars who challenge Jackson’s emphasis on proclamation alone as the means by which Wesley normatively practiced evangelism. The longstanding recognition that Wesley had both evangelical and sacramental commitments will undoubtedly give rise to the question of whether Jackson wants to suggest that Wesley subsumed especially receiving Holy Communion to proclamation as a means of grace for drawing people into spiritual maturity. Since the sacraments are not featured in any substantial way in the book, this question is left unaddressed.
Likewise, Jackson’s heavy emphasis on the structures of the revival as the sites in which proclamation occurred could lead readers to conclude that moving people through these structures was the real practice of evangelism. This is especially so because the structures were developed to correspond with different levels of spiritual maturity so that people could move from one structure to the next as they matured. Following Russ Richey’s argument that Methodist polity is essentially an embodied practical theology, Jackson could be pressed on whether the gospel was simply the consistent content of evangelism, but the practice was in encouraging people to continue stepping up to structures that would support them in making a deeper commitment to Christ. Jackson especially leaves himself open to this question because of how he allows the term “proclamation” to slip in his usage of it, sometimes meaning preaching, sometimes referring to personal conversations people have about faith.
Notwithstanding these intramural disagreements, Jackson has done a fine job. While students would do well to read a chronological history of Wesley and his ministry first, such as Richard Heitzenrater’s Wesley and the People Called Methodist (Abingdon Press, 1995), Jackson’s book would make an excellent follow-up text to give students a sense for what the revival looked like in the lives of average people who were a part of it. Jackson also has excellent citations throughout his text, so it will be an enormous help to students who want to track down the primary sources he uses.
The one thing Jackson’s text is not meant to do is prescribe how to engage in evangelism today. He makes no effort to recast Wesley’s evangelistic vision for the 21st century (e.g., can the practice of visitation that Jackson recovers be applied to social media engagement?). This is not a criticism, but an acknowledgement that what Jackson desired to do, and accomplished, was to provide a fresh historical treatment of John Wesley’s understanding and practice of evangelism. His work will provide excellent grist for the mill of practical theologians as they seek to adapt it for use in the present.
Mark R. Teasdale is E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelicalism at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL.Mark TeasdaleDate Of Review:September 12, 2018