This is the 32nd sermon in this series. It is very encouraging to see how many people are reading these posts and clicking through to read the sermon itself. Just joining the growing number of people reading these sermons? Feel free to start at the beginning by reading the first sermon by John Wesley in this series, “Salvation by Faith,” or jump right in with us!
Did you know that many of John Wesley’s sermons are part of the formal doctrinal teaching of multiple Wesleyan/Methodist denominations? Wesley’s sermons have particular authority because these were the main way he taught Methodist doctrine and belief.
“The Nature of Enthusiasm” is the 32nd sermon of the Wesleyan Standard Sermons. This sermon describes enthusiasm, imagining you are someone you are not. Wesley applies this in a variety of ways, some of which will likely be surprising and convicting to many contemporary Christians.
In hopes of sparking interest in Wesley’s sermons and Methodism’s doctrinal heritage, here is my very short summary of “The Nature of Enthusiasm.” I hope it will inspire you to read the sermon in its entirety yourself. Links to the sermon and other resources are included at the end of this post.
But the most common of all enthusiasts… are those who imagine themselves Christians and are not… That they are not Christians is clear and undeniable, if we believe the oracles of God. For Christians are holy; these are unholy. Christians love God; these love the world. Christians are humble; these are proud. Christians are gentle; these are passionate. Christians have the mind which was in Christ; these are at the utmost distance from it. Consequently they are no more Christians than they are archangels. Yet they imagine themselves so to be; and they can give several reasons for it. For they have been called so ever since they can remember. They were ‘christened’ many years ago. They embrace the ‘Christian opinions’ vulgarly termed the Christian or catholic faith. They use the ‘Christian modes of worship’, as their fathers did before them. They live what is called a good ‘Christian life’, as the rest of their neighbours do. And who shall presume to think or say that these men are not Christians? Though without one grain of true faith in Christ, or of real, inward holiness! Without ever having tasted the love of God, or been ‘made partakers of the Holy Ghost’! 
One sentence summary:
This sermon describes the dangers of enthusiasm: imagining you are someone you are not.
Scripture passage for the sermon:
“And Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself.”
– Acts 26:24
Concise outline of “The Nature of Enthusiasm”
1. “If you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, then it will not be long before your sentence is passed: ‘Thou art beside thyself.'”
2. “It is no compliment which the men of the world pay you herein. They for once mean what they say. They not only affirm but cordially believe that every man is beside himself who says the love of God is shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him, and that God has enabled him to rejoice in Christ with joy unspeakable and fully of glory.”
3. The thing the world counts as madness is “the whole spirit and life and power of the religion of Jesus Christ.”
4. The “madness” Christians are accused of is of a specific kind and is called “enthusiasm.”
5. Enthusiasm is much used but seldom understood.
6. Wesley discusses the questionable Greek origins of the word.
7. The word may have been untranslated because it always had a “loose, uncertain sense.”
8. “It is not therefore at all surprising that it is so variously taken at this day, different persons understanding it in different senses quite inconsistent with each other.”
9. Others understand it to mean “uncommon vigour of thought.”
10. But most people use it to mean something “evil… this is plainly the sentiment of all those who call the religion of the heart enthusiasm. Accordingly I shall take it in the following pages as an evil – a misfortune, if not a fault.”
11. “As to the nature of enthusiasm, it is undoubtedly a disorder of the mind, and such a disorder as greatly hinders the exercise of reason.” An enthusiast “imagines himself to be what he is not.”
12. “Enthusiasm in general may then be described in some such manner as this: a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God; at least from imputing something to God which ought not to be imputed to him, or expecting something from God which ought not to be expected from him.”
13. The sermon shifts to describing the most common forms of enthusiasm. The first is “those who imagine they have the grace which they have not.”
14. “The foundation of all their reveries is this: they imagine themselves to have faith in Christ.”
15. “There are many other enthusiasts of this sort.”
16. “But the most common of all enthusiasts… are those who imagine themselves Christians and are not… That they are not Christians is clear and undeniable, if we believe the oracles of God. For Christians are holy; these are unholy. Christians love God; these love the world. Christians are humble; these are proud. Christians are gentle; these are passionate. Christians have the mind which was in Christ; these are at the utmost distance from it. Consequently they are no more Christians than they are archangels.”
17. “Ah, poor self-deceivers! Christians ye are not. But you are enthusiasts in an high degree.”
18. “A second sort of enthusiasm is that of those who imagine they have such gifts from God as they have not.”
19. “To the same class belong those who in preaching or prayer imagine themselves to be so influenced by the Spirit of God as in fact they are not.”
20. It is also enthusiasm to attribute things to God in one’s private life that are without “any rational or scriptural ground.”
21. “To this kind of enthusiasm they are peculiarly exposed who expected to be directed of God, either in spiritual things or in common life, in what is justly called an extraordinary manner.”
22. The point is not that Christians shouldn’t want to know the will of God. The point is that the primary way they should seek to know the will of God is through Scripture.
23. What if Scripture doesn’t directly speak to a specific circumstance? “The Scripture itself gives you a general rule, applicable to all particular cases: ‘The will of God is our sanctification.’ It is his will that we should be inwardly and outwardly holy; that we should be good and do good in every kind, and in the highest degree whereof we are capable.”
24. When faced with different choices in life, we ought to ask, “In which of these states can I be most holy, and do the most good?”
25. The assistance of the Holy Spirit is present throughout this process of discernment.
26. “This is the plain, scriptural, rational way to know what is the will of God in a particular case.”
27. A third sort of enthusiasm is when people seek to “attain the end without using the means, by the immediate power of God… Such are they who expect to understand the Holy Scriptures without reading them and meditating thereon.”
28. Some say enthusiasm is “imagining those things to be owing to the providence of God which are not owing thereto.” But Wesley argues everything that happens can be ascribed to the providence of God, so the charge of enthusiasm does not apply here.
29. “Don’t you see that he who believing this imputes anything which befalls him to providence does not therein make himself any more the favourite of heaven than he supposes every man under heaven to be?”
30. Enthusiasm leads to pride.
31. “Together with pride there will naturally arise an unadvisable and unconvincable spirit; so that into whatever error or fault the enthusiast falls there is small hope of his recovery.”
32. “Being thus fortified both against the grace of God and against all advise and help from man, he is wholly left to the guidance of his own heart, and of the king of the children of pride. Nor marvel then that he is daily more rooted and grounded in contempt of all mankind, in furious anger, in every unkind disposition, in every earthly and devilish temper.”
33. Take care that you do not talk of enthusiasm without knowing what you are talking about. “Know the meaning of this hard word; and then use it if need require.”
34. Second, “beware of judging or calling any man an enthusiast upon common report.”
35. “If enthusiasm be so great an evil, beware you are not entangled therewith yourself.”
36. “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast.”
37. “Beware you do not run with the common herd of enthusiasts, fancying you are a Christian when you are not.”
38. Do not fall into the snare of “fancying you have those gifts from God which you have not.”
39. “Beware, lastly, of imaging you shall obtain the end without using the means conducive to it. God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason to think he will… Thus expect a daily growth in that pure and holy religion which the world always did, and always will, call enthusiasm; but which to all who are saved from real enthusiasm – from merely nominal Christianity – is the wisdom of God and the power of God.”
Read “The Nature of Enthusiasm” in its entirety.
Check out my brief summaries of the first thirty-one Standard Sermons:
I highly recommend the critical edition of Wesley’s sermons, which has excellent references that show his reliance on Scripture throughout his preaching. There are four volumes if you want every known Wesley sermon. The sermon outlined in this post is in volume II. These books aren’t cheap, but this is the most important publication by Abingdon since its release. And they are designed to last. Highly recommended!
There is also a three volume edition of Wesley’s sermons in modern English, which is easier to read if you find the 18th century English frustrating. Here is the first volume.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.