Preaching Wesleyan Theology & Biblical Truth

Classic Sermons of C. K. Barrett

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Ben Witherington
  • Nashville, TN: 
    United Methodist Board of Higher Education
    , September
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


C. K. Barrett did not “preach” in his biblical commentaries that have become standard sources for all who are doing exegetical work on the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s epistles. Now we know from this collection of seventy-five standard sermon texts from which he preached for over seventy years that he did not burden his sermons with academic footnotes. He, in good Methodist fashion, preached plain words to plain folks.

Born Charles Kingsley Barrett in 1917, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Methodist minister assigned to a circuit in the Darlington district of England. Ultimately, he became a professor at Durham University, but he never forgot his Wesleyan roots in the chapels of an area defined by its working-class weaving, coal mining, and farming industries. This collection reveals his ability to be intellectually solid, theologically astute, and rhetorically understandable.

These seventy-five texts are part of a storehouse of three hundred sermons preserved by Barrett’s daughter, Penelope, and prepared for publication by Dr. Ben Witherington III, a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary and former student of Barrett’s. This collection invites scholars to compare Barrett’s sermons to his biblical texts, discover where they inform one another, and perhaps observe where there is some variation. It also raises the possibility of delving deeper into his notes to see if there are any clues of how he might have adapted his basic manuscripts to reflect contemporary events. For instance, a sermon he first preached at Toll End in 1942 based on Mark 2:14 contains direct references to a blitz in London and to Hitler. He last preached it at Brandon in 1975. Did he keep those World War II references, or did he replace them with others? And did he add to other sermons comments on the coal miners’ strike in the 1980s around Durham, for instance, or the emergence of the European Union? 

A tethering point for all of Barrett’s sermons is what got John and Charles Wesley into trouble two centuries earlier. They embraced a vision that God’s grace was meant for all people, not just those who could afford to occupy a pew at the parish church. When the Bishop of Bristol refused to appoint John Wesley to a parish, Wesley responded, “The world is my parish!” Turning a necessity into a virtue, John road 250,000 miles on horseback to take this gospel of egalitarian gracefulness to people in the market squares and open pit mines, while Charles stayed home and wrote 6500 poems about it. Some judge that 5500 of them were not very good, but the Church still sings one thousand of them today. 

It was this Methodist insistence that inspired Barrett to preach for over seven decades that Christ died for us, all of us. But what exactly has God accomplished in Jesus’s death on the cross? In Barrett’s view, it is not the ancient sense that God becomes victorious over the devil or that God pays a ransom to the devil to set humanity free. He does not focus on the blood of the lamb satisfying God’s demands when humans cannot or on Jesus substituting for us on the cross because we are not able or willing to fulfil God’s expectations.

Rather, from the very beginning of his preaching ministry, as Barrett states in a sermon preached in 1943 on 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, human sin is the “essential egocentricity of the soul” (192). Sin is not a particular act or a contrary attitude but separation from God caused by human self-centeredness. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is acting to draw people out of their consuming self-absorption to embrace entirely the goodness of God and the worthiness of other people. Barrett’s homiletical claim over the years is that, in the crucifixion of Christ, God is setting us free from ourselves and for others. He dramatizes this freedom by concluding a 2001 sermon: “Freed from cowardice, the cowardice that inhibits our testimony. Freed from the bondage of inhibition that holds us back. Freed from the isolation that prevents us from joining in the work of our fellow Christians. But above all, and the key to everything else, freed from flesh, from self, free from concern for our own well-being that forgets the love we owe to the rest of humankind” (256). 

This vision of the atonement as God’s act of liberation revealed dramatically in the crucifixion defines Barrett’s view of the Church. He depicts the Church as “a fellowship of mutual love” (100). In this sense he is a good Methodist, rejecting the definition of the Church as a hierarchical institution with property and civic power. Barrett was a fierce opponent of any attempt to reunite the British Methodist Church with the Church of England. He inserts in a sermon, first preached in 1944 but adapted for use thirty years later, a condemnation of those former Methodist ministers who left their denomination to become Anglican or Roman Catholic priests. It marks a loss of nerve, a loss of confidence in the Gospel, and a misplaced trust in a “problematic succession of bishops” (303).

At the same time, Barrett criticizes his Methodist tradition for offering entertainment instead of worship, false doctrines instead of the truth, and a “romantic, superficial, kindliness and good will” instead of the cross. It is a hard message to preach in a culture wanting easy answers but, he continues, “The Cross is the denial of all human achievements, the extinction of all human power” (207). That contrarian message makes this a great time for the Church, he claims. This is like the apostolic age when again “the Church is a small remnant fighting for its life. The Church has once more the opportunity of developing heroic stature … [The] Church is great insofar as it is faithful to its Lord, and fighting the good fight” (10). The purpose of the Church, he preaches several times from 1947 to 2000, drawing upon Isaiah 52:3, is to confront the world. Do not smooth out the offense of the Gospel! Do not offer people what they want instead of what they need! Do not be so anxious to be friendly that you forget to be faithful! “It is never safe to bargain with your divine destiny” (38). 

The publication of C. K. Barrett’s sermons is an invitation to review more fully his academic gifts and to see for the first time how he shared them with plain folks.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philip L. Blackwell is a retired United Methodist minister who served for forty-five yeaars in the Northern Illinois Conference.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ben Witherington III is an American New Testament scholar. Witherington is Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary, in Wilmore, Kentucky; Doctoral Faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland; and an ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church.


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