This is the 34th 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.
“Catholic Spirit” is the 34th sermon of the Wesleyan Standard Sermons. Of all of Wesley’s sermons, “Catholic Spirit” may be the most frequently cited today by contemporary Methodists. In my view, the sermon is often misused to justify a big-tent vision for Methodism. But the sermon is intentionally titled “Catholic Spirit” and not “Methodist Spirit.” In other words, the sermon provides a vision for how Christians can extend love and goodwill towards one another when they disagree on matters of belief and practice that prevent them from being in the same denomination. Click here and here to read posts I’ve written that unpack how this sermon is often misused or misunderstood. This is a powerful and convicting sermon when Wesley’s words are read carefully and on their own terms.
In hopes of sparking interest in Wesley’s sermons and Methodism’s doctrinal heritage, here is my very short summary of “Catholic Spirit.” 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 while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the most tender and close ties to one particular congregation, his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection both neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit. [III.4]
One sentence summary:
This sermon describes the love and good-will that Christians ought to have towards one another across denominational or confessional lines; they can be united in love though they cannot be united in one body.
Scripture passage for the sermon:
“And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rehab coming to meet him. And he saluted him and said, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. If it be, give me thine hand.”
– 2 Kings 10:15
Outline of “Catholic Spirit”
1. The royal law of love is due to all mankind.
2. We have a special obligation to love God.
3. Daily experience shows that people do not love one another as God has commanded. This is because “they cannot all think alike” and “they cannot all walk alike.”
4. “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”
5. Wesley introduces the Scripture he chose for the sermon as a way into his “Catholic spirit”
I. First, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?”
1. There is no questioning at the outset of Jehonadab’s opinions, though there were certainly points of difference.
2. Jehu “lets Jehonadab abound in his own sense.”
3. “It is an unavoidable consequence of the present weakness and shortness of human understanding that several men will be of several minds, in religion as well as in common life.”
4. Everyone believes that their opinions are true. But we cannot be certain that all of our opinions are true. Indeed, some of them are almost certainly false. But we don’t know which ones, or we would change our minds.
5. “Who can tell how far invincible ignorance… may extend.”
6. “Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs.”
7. Secondly, Jehu did not question Jehonadab’s way of worshipping.
8. “As long as there are various opinions, there we be various ways of worshiping God; since a variety of opinion necessarily implies a variety of practice.”
9. How do we choose among so much variety of belief and practice? “No man can choose for, or prescribe to, another. But everyone must follow the dictates of his own conscience, in simplicity and godly sincerity.”
10. “Although every follower of Christ is obliged… to be a member of some particular congregation… none can be obliged by any power on earth but that of his own conscience to prefer this or that congregation to another, this or that particular manner of worship.”
11. “I dare not, therefore, presume to impose my mode of worship on any other.” Wesley also includes form of church government, liturgy or form of prayer, posture and manner of receiving the Lord’s Supper, and administration of baptism in this category.
12. What is, then, implied in the question: “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?” First: “Is your heart right with God?” Wesley here includes a variety of doctrines as required: “Do you believe his being and his perfections? HIs eternity, immensity, wisdom, power?”
13. “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?” Wesley again includes here a litany of questions that require affirmative assent, such as “Having absolutely relinquished all your own works, your own righteousness, have you ‘submitted yourself to the righteousness of God which is by faith in Christ Jesus?'”
14. “Do you love God… ‘with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength’? … Has the love of God cast the love of the world out of your soul?”
15. “Are you employed in doing not your own will, but the will of him that sent you?”
16. “Are you more afraid of displeasing God than of either death or hell?”
17. “Is your heart right toward your neighbor? Do you love as yourself, all mankind, without exception?”
18. “Do you show your love by your works? While you have time, as you have opportunity, do you in fact ‘do good to all men?'”
II. “If it be, give me your hand.”
1. “I do not mean, ‘Be of my opinion.'”
2. “I do not mean, ‘Embrace my modes of worship,’ or, ‘I will embrace yours.’… We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. He includes form or government or church polity, infant baptism, and communion in the category where differences do not prevent “catholic spirit.”[This is a key paragraph that shows that Wesley could not have intended this paragraph to apply for relationships within one denomination, but was intended to be applied across denominations.]
3. “I mean, first, love me.”
4. “Love me… with the love that is long-suffering and kind; that is patient.”
5. “I mean, secondly, commend me to God in all your prayers.”
6. “I mean, thirdly, provoke me to love and to good works.”
7. “I mean, lastly, love me not in word only, but in deed and truth.”
8. “Two things should be observed with regard to what has been spoken under this last head: One, that whatever love, whatever offices of love, whatever spiritual or temporal assistance, I claim from him whose heart is right, as my heart is with his, the same I am ready, by the grace of God, according to my measure, to give him: Two, that I have not made this claim on behalf of myself alone, but of all who heart is right toward God and man, that we may all love one another as Christ has loved us.”
III. From the previous, we can learn what a “catholic spirit” is.
1. “There is scarcely any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied, than this: but it will be easy for any who calmly considered the preceding observations to correct any such misapprehensions of it, and to prevent any such misapplication.
… First, a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being ‘driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,’ is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism.
2. Second, “a catholic spirit is not any kind of practical latitudinarianism. It is not indifference as to public worship, or as to the outward manner of performing it.
3. Third, “a catholic spirit is not indifference to all congregations.
4. “But while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the most tender and close ties to one particular congregation, his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection both neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit.
5. “A mean of a catholic spirit is one who… gives his hand to all whose hearts are right with his heart.”
6. “You, O man of God, think on these things! If you are already in this way, go on. If you have until now mistaken the path, thank God who has brought you back! And now run the race which is set before you, in the royal way of universal love. Take heed, lest you be either wavering in your judgment or hardened in your sympathies: but keep an even pace, rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints, and grounded in love, in true catholic love, till you are swallowed up in love for ever and ever!”
Read “Catholic Spirit” in its entirety.
Check out my brief summaries of the first thirty-three 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.
William J. Abraham has just published a three volume edition of the 44 Standard Sermons, with his own commentary. I just received my copy and am very excited to get into them! Check them out here. We are now in the third volume of Abraham’s edition.
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.