John Wesley’s Evangelistic Forerunners: The Puritans – John Boruff

John Wesley (d. 1791)For more on the Puritans’ influence on John Wesley’s thought and preaching, see Robert Monk’s John Wesley, His Puritan Heritage: A Study of the Christian Life (1966); John Newton’s Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism (2003); Roland Burrows’ John Wesley in the Reformation Tradition: The Protestant and Puritan Nature of Methodism Rediscovered (2008).

It is a well-known fact among historians of revival that John Wesley stands out as the first great revivalist in the Evangelical tradition. Honestly, this is debatable, because Jonathan Edwards’ revival in Northampton, Massachusetts came before Wesley’s revival. But the revivals of Edwards were short lived and not long lasting; the same went for the powerful revivals of George Whitefield, who was influenced by Wesley. But Wesley had a long lasting revival impact on the Methodist Bible study groups, and so he has the tendency to shine out above all other revivalists as the first GREAT revivalist. (The second great revivalist being Charles Finney.) When I speak of “revival,” I am referring to the original meaning of the word, as it was used during the first Great Awakening. It is a PURITAN and EARLY METHODIST renewal of GOSPEL PREACHING and PRACTICAL HOLINESS in the daily lives of Christians. That is revival. It is rooted, grounded, and maintained in conversion experiences brought about by powerful Gospel preaching, by men called either “evangelists” or “revivalists.”

In addition to being a great Gospel preacher, Wesley was an avid reader and an Oxford scholar. He edited a 30 volume work called “A Christian Library.” The subtitle says: “Extracts From and Abridgments of Choicest Pieces of Practical Divinity.” It is good to have access to this work of Wesley’s, because it shows us who his theological influences were–that is, who he looked up to, his favorite preachers. To save you the time and research, let me tell you as simply as I can: most of them are PURITANS. In addition to all the Puritan works he included, he also has some Pietist (Johann Arndt, August Hermann Francke), Quietist (Fenelon, Miguel de Molinos), and Cambridge Platonist (John Smith) material in there as well.

I sifted through his “Christian Library” a few times, and out of all the Puritan names he includes in his anthology, the following stand out to me as probably strong influences on Wesley so far as his (1) Gospel Preaching and (2) Open Air Preaching were concerned.

Robert Bolton (d. 1631) left us The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven.

Joseph Alleine (d. 1668) wrote An Alarm to Unconverted Sinners, (also called A Sure Guide to Heaven), and many other similar things.

John Bunyan (d. 1688) left Some Gospel Truths Opened, The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded, and many other convicting Puritan material that he preached in the open air. It seems Bunyan was the only well-known open air Puritan preacher.

John Flavel (d. 1691) wrote The Method of Grace in Gospel Redemption.

Richard Baxter (d. 1691) wrote A Call to the Unconverted, What We Must Do To Be Saved, and many other convicting things about the Gospel and practical holiness.

Jonathan Edwards (d. 1758) left us “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and many other fire and brimstone sermons; and was Wesley’s contemporary along with George Whitefield.

The Puritans Were Evangelistic Calvinists

It is worth noting that all of these preachers were “Calvinists,” but I use quotes because they were not your usual dead, speculative, inactive Calvinists. They were Puritans, and that meant they were EVANGELICAL CALVINISTS–that is, they believed in preaching the Gospel to get people saved. After James Arminius died in 1609, Puritan theology was in constant dialogue with the concepts of Calvinism and Arminianism all the way up till the Great Awakening in the 1730s. (And so it is today.) This Calvinism-Arminianism dialogue even led Richard Baxter to take a mediating view of four point Calvinism, instead of the classic five point TULIP. Following suit with the established position of the Church of England at the time, John Wesley chose to reject all Calvinism, which gave the early Methodists a distinct Arminian approach to their Gospel preaching. He expressed his Arminian views most clearly in his book Predestination Calmly Considered. Wesley had open air preaching in common with the Puritans of old, but had Arminianism in common with the spiritually dry clergy of the Church of England. Thus, Wesley combined what he felt were the best of both worlds, and formed the Methodist Gospel approach: EVANGELICAL ARMINIANISM. Francis Asbury, Adam Clarke, and other Methodist preachers followed suit. J. I. Packer, in his chapter 18 of “Puritan Evangelism” in A Quest for Godliness, also mentions other Puritan evangelists and their theology: Hugh Clark, John Cotton, Westminster Confession, Westminster Shorter Catechism, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Thomas Goodwin, etc.

Puritan Evangelism Was Mainly Confined to the Church Building

The only downside of the Puritan approach to evangelism, at least according to Packer’s overview, is that it seemed to downplay street preaching. The normal way was to preach Gospel sermons during church services, because it was done in the view of Calvinism: that God would elect people in the world, according to His grace and predestination, and would draw them by His Spirit sovereignly to a Puritan church service. Then, at the Puritan church service, the church attendee would hear the pastor preaching about justification, regeneration, repentance, faith, sanctification, and election, and other soteriological subjects–this would get the people permanently and lastingly saved, bearing goodness and holiness in their lives. So the Puritan’s church building was viewed as an evangelistic center, not as a missions sending base for street preachers. The church was the place to preach, the pastor was the one to do the preaching of the Gospel, and it was God’s responsibility to draw people to the church and get saved. There was not much evangelism or active outreach to the public in the streets or elsewhere. Unless, of course, you were John Bunyan (d. 1688)–but we know that led him to prison. We should also be aware that the Church of England, which had full legal control over the British government at the time, was persecuting the Puritans: so they were really in hiding.

Modern Calvinists Give Finney a Bum Rap,
And Discourage Preaching About Immediate Repentance

Another thing I did not like about Packer’s evaluation, is that he discredits the evangelistic method of Charles Finney (d. 1875). (This is typical of modern day Calvinists.) Packer is right in that he labels Finney as a Pelagian (one who believes it is possible for all men to obey God’s law with natural human ability). That was one of Finney’s greatest theological errors; but, at other times in his writings, he comes to express things that could be shown to be Arminian or Synergist in nature, explaining that the influence of the Holy Spirit is necessary to bring men to repentance, faith, and a life of holiness. Oh well, Finney was not trained as a theologian, but as a lawyer. And, it was just that kind of background that God used to make him one of the most powerful Gospel preachers of all time. Finney is widely regarded today as the primary revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. He was so experienced in starting revivals in upstate New York, that he wrote a manual on how to start revivals, called Lectures on Revivals of Religion. One of the aspects of Finney’s approach to evangelism, that of the so-called “New School Calvinism” theology, was unlike the passive view of some Puritans. Finney took hold of a “I have to go out there at get ‘em” approach. True, God draws men to Christ, but Christians also have a responsibility to obey the voice of Christ: “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full” and “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Luke 14:23; Mark 16:15, NKJV).

Packer says the following in critique of Finney’s pro-active “go get ‘em” approach. He compares the old way of Puritan in-church evangelism with the approach of Finney, which was to go out and hold evangelistic meetings, and persuade his hearers to “REPENT RIGHT NOW.” This is how Packer explains away Finney’s powerful evangelistic preaching–all in the name of election and predestination (God help him). In other words, says Packer, if you want to be a Puritan-style evangelist, then don’t be like Finney:

Preachers are to declare God’s mind as set forth in the texts they expound, to show the way of salvation, to exhort the unconverted to learn the law, to meditate on the Word, to humble themselves, to pray that God will show them their sins, and enable them to come to Christ. They are to hold Christ forth as a perfect Saviour from sin to all who heartily desire to be saved from sin, and to invite such (the weary and burdened souls whom Christ Himself invites, Mt. 11:28) to come to the Saviour who waits to receive them. But they are not to do as Finney did, and demand immediate repentance and faith of all and sundry. They are sent to tell all men that they must repent and believe to be saved, but it is no part of the word and message of God if they go further and tell all the unconverted that they ought to “decide for Christ” (to use a common modern phrase) on the spotBullying for “decisions” thus in fact impedes and thwarts the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Man takes it on himself to try to bring that work to a precipitate conclusion, to pick the fruit before it is ripe; and the result is “false conversions,” hypocrisy and hardening.

Why?! With all due respect to Packer as a theologian, wouldn’t this sort of reasoning be convenient for a lukewarm and man-pleasing pastor? Is Packer just being unloving, apathetic, and unconcerned for the lost on their way to an eternal Hell?! I doubt that. But his logic against preaching immediate repentance doesn’t seem to mesh well with a desire to seek and save the lost. How could anyone, with a clear conscience, ever tell evangelists to preach the Gospel as abstract doctrines of salvation, but not in such a way as to make it clear that the hearers are in great need of repenting, believing, and giving their lives to God immediately? They could die immediately and go to Hell immediately if they die in their sins! Why not preach they need to apply the blood of Christ and repent as soon as possible? Maybe Packer believes the grace of God forces men to repent against their sinful will, so there is no point in pressing the issue now. But THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH THIS! How many thousands of people, hearing a gospel preached in such a passive “unrepentant” manner, will think to themselves, “Oh, well then, God is loving and gracious. I don’t have to repent right now and live by the Ten Commandments right now. I’ll wait until I’m on my death bed, then I’ll repent.” Then, after the church services, they get in car crashes, die, and go to Hell—and they can’t get out. Trapped in Hell burning forever and ever. All because some gentle pastor didn’t want to “bully” his congregation (his source of income), with harsh and pressuring preachings, about the need to escape the judgment of an everlasting fire in Hell; all because highly educated yet well-meaning theologians like J. I. Packer say it’s better not to preach that people should REPENT RIGHT NOW–let them wait a while, God in His sovereignty will get around to it. Would it be too harsh for me to include the great J. I. Packer under this rebuke?: “Woe to these dumb dogs! They cannot bark!” (Isaiah 56:10, KJV). I reply to this scholar of Puritanism with quotes from the renowned Puritan evangelist, Joseph Alleine (d. 1668), so we can share in his spirit of urgency:

“There is no entering into Heaven but by the strait passage of the second birth; without holiness you shall never see God (Heb. 12:14). Therefore GIVE YOURSELVES UNTO THE LORD NOW.” (A Sure Guide to Heaven, p. 16).

“There is every reason in the world that YOU SHOULD IMMEDIATELY TURN AND REPENT.” (A Sure Guide to Heaven, p. 67).

Arminianism Is Perfectly Biblical and Logical When Applied Evangelistically

John Wesley, George Whitefield, and the early Methodist circuit riders did lots of open air preaching along these lines. And Finney too would have fit in quite well with the early Methodists. Arminianism does that to Gospel preachers: TAKE ACTION! DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW! REPENT! REPENT! BELIEVE THE GOSPEL! NOW!! Whether God opens the hearts of the elect as you preach, or after, is none of the preacher’s business. There is no way the preacher can know that until after the fact. The preacher must preach repentance; that’s his responsibility before God. And, I think it is obvious in the Bible, that the style through which it is presented by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles: repentance is always supposed to be preached in a “please do it right now—I’m warning you in love” kind of way!

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About John and Rebekah Boruff

John Boruff is a Philosophy and Religion graduate of UNC Pembroke. In his free time, he street preaches, blogs about the Christian life, and has interests in evangelism and prophetic ministry. He is currently in the process of writing, and has posted his e-book "How to Experience God" on this site. John and his wife Rebekah have been married for 5 years, and are happy to be walking with Jesus together. They have a beautiful 4 year-old daughter named Mary Elizabeth; and live near Raleigh, North Carolina.
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