A Longing for Holiness

1st Peter 1:13-16 and James 1:22-27

Society in the 1700’s was polarized. Rationalism had led people to believe they no longer needed God. The rich struggled with materialism and the poor with lack of necessities. Into this world a priest and Oxford professor named John Wesley came to trust in Christ and began preaching a faith that would bring a revival of Christianity throughout the British Isles and across America. Wesley’s message and faith continue to speak to 21st Century Christians – calling for a revival of our hearts and souls so that our lives and our world might be changed. Wesley’s story is our story – it is our heritage, it defines our faith and it challenges us to rediscover our spiritual passion.


Education was a priority in the Wesley home. John Wesley would earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Christ Church, arguably one of the finest Oxford University colleges ….He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1724, went on for his master’s degree, and was, in 1726, elected as a fellow of Lincoln College. Fellows were professors, instructors and tutors who also governed a particular college. They received housing, meals and an annual salary. They were also expected to do research. Wesley was a lecturer in Greek and philosophy.

Most people don’t think of John Wesley as an Oxford professor, but he referred to himself as a fellow of Lincoln College throughout most of his life. It is unusual to think that an Oxford professor of Greek and philosophy started a revival, but it points to something important about Methodists and the revival they led. Methodism is often described as a “thinking person’s church.” Presbyterians and Episcopalians think of themselves this way too. But what set Methodists apart was that they combined the intellectual approach to faith of the Presbyterians and Episcopalians with a passionate, evangelical faith. As Norman MacLean notes in his novel A River Runs Through It, his Presbyterian father described Methodists as “Baptists who could read.” Baptists were known for passion and zeal, while Presbyterians and Episcopalians were known for their emphasis on the intellect. Methodists held these two together.

This has, from the beginning, been a hallmark of Methodism. In America the same folks who held religious revivals (called “camp meetings”) started colleges and universities to educate leaders to change the world. The very first university of any kind founded in Kansas was Baker University, founded by the Methodists. The University of Missouri, Kansas City was initially the vision of the Methodist Church, and its first classes were held in the Central Methodist Church. Methodists started hundreds of colleges and universities including Duke, Syracuse, Southern Methodist, Emory, Northwestern, University of Southern California, Boston University, Vanderbilt, North Central College, and many more….

Wesley began to see that the goal of the Christian life was to be holy as God is holy, to be consumed by love for God and for neighbor, to always and everywhere wish to avoid evil and positively do good in body, soul, and mind. It was this longing to be holy in all his conduct, to be disciplined and put aside the desires that were not holy, that defined Wesley’s life at this point. And it was this that marked the beginning of the 18th-century Methodist revival.

Wesley became aware of his own brokenness, looked to Christ as a pattern for his life, and came to believe that God wants to restore us as human being…. By this time he was 26, his young brother Charles, 22, who was finishing his bachelor’s degree at Oxford, had begun the quest for holiness. He and a couple of friends were meeting to encourage one another in the faith as they studied the scriptures. They asked John to be their mentor. Soon another joined them and these four young men began seeking to encourage one another to “do all for the glory of God.”

They worshiped together, prayed together, studied together, and soon began serving others together. They would fast two days a week until 3 p.m. They would receive the Eucharist weekly. They read and meditated upon the Bible daily. Soon they began visiting the prisons to minister to prisoners. They began tutoring orphans. They visited the sick and the elderly…. Soon their fellow students began to mock them for their efforts at holiness. They came to call these young people the “Bible moths” or “the Holy Club.” To mock them for their methodical approach to the Christian life, their methodical practices for growing in faith, they came to be called Methodists.

The room at Lincoln College, and the four twenty-somethings that met together there, were the beginnings of Methodism. From these four young men the movement spread across the country and around the world. Wesley’s individual pursuit of holiness would not have gone very far, were it not for the way he gathered with others, both to teach and to learn and to hold one another accountable. It is in meeting with others we find the power and encouragement we need as we seek be holy as he is holy. It is also there that we find stretcher bearers who carry us when we’re weak.

John Wesley and the Spiritual Disciplines

John Wesley used to start his covenant group meetings with the question, “How is it with your soul?” Spiritual formation is not something we do, it’s who we are. It is the care and nurture of our soul. The spiritual disciplines are ancient practices through which Christians have nurtured their souls for thousands of years. Take some time to explore these channels of God’s grace.

  • Prayer: “To live the life of prayer means to emerge from my drowse, to awaken to the communing, guiding, healing, clarifying, and transforming current of God’s Holy Spirit in which I am immersed” (Douglas V. Steere). Simply put, prayer is a conversation with God. There are many ways to pray. Prayer is the language through which we speak to God and participate in his Kingdom work.
  • Worship: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God” (William Temple). Jesus tells us in John 4 that we are to worship “in spirit and truth.” Worship is not about a place, but an attitude. Worship happens wherever we meet God and sense his presence.
  • Fasting: “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us” (Richard Foster). Technically, fasting is abstinence from food for some period of time. But the discipline of fasting can relate to abstaining from anything that we habitually depend upon in order to increase our dependence on God. We see this practiced most often during the season of Lent, when Christians give up something in sympathy with the suffering of Christ. But as Richard Foster points out, we should give up anything that controls us and reduces our dependency on God.
  • Scripture: “We will only be happy in our reading of the Bible when we dare to approach it as the means by which God really speaks to us, the God who loves us and will not leave us with our questions unanswered” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). There are two ways to read scripture: informationally and formationally. We study the Bible to understand its universal message and truth. We read the Bible formationally when we are receptive to the personal truth that God reveals to us individually.
  • Study: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). The spiritual disciplines help us trade our worldly habits for holy habits. We all read and listen to the radio or television. But how much of that steady diet of words is God’s Word? Through the discipline of study we immerse ourselves in the thoughts of other Christians and examine our own beliefs and attitudes in light of God’s truth. In addition to reading scripture, we should study the spiritual classics of the past and of today.
  • Stewardship: “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (Luke 16:11). Stewardship is our act of worship and gratitude to God for all that he has given to us. We primarily think of our finances when we hear the word “stewardship,” but this discipline applies to anything and everything that God has given us to take care of. When we think of everything we have as belonging to God (Deut. 10:14), then we make different decisions with our resources.
  • Solitude: The greatest threat to spiritual growth is not creating enough white space in our calendars and our heads to spend listening to God. Hurry is the enemy of transformation. In unhurried silence we can see and hear things that are normally drowned out in the rush of our days. If we retreat into the desert of our minds, we allow God to reveal himself to us. He will also reveal those thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are preventing us from growing closer to him.
  • Fellowship: “Christianity means community in and through Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this, whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years. While it is important to have time in solitude, it is equally essential to spend time in Christian community and fellowship. We are meant to live out our faith with others, not alone. Fellowship can happen in groups, or one-on-one. This is how we can connect with the Body of Christ.
  • Service: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should also do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15). When we serve others we practice the discipline of humility. We are called to humble ourselves to care for others. It’s not what we do that matters, but the attitude with which we do it. Through service we show God’s love to those who desperately need to know that they are loved.