These days the concept of ‘social justice’ is thrown around with a great deal of flimsiness and misrepresentation but it was obviously something which the great evangelist John Wesley agreed to and promoted in his own life and writings. Yet Wesley’s view of social justice, which inherently carried notions of mercy and justice, has often been by misunderstood by contemporary followers. There is an over emphasis by many on Wesley’s mission to the poor that it is almost treated as if this was his soul concern. Indeed, it is supposed by many within the Wesleyan heritage that Wesley was so heavily concentrated on mercy towards the poor that he neglected any real notion of justice outside of the context of the oppressors of the poor. But Wesley’s view of mercy always had an underlying notion of divine justice beneath it.
It is true that Wesley was very focused on ministering to the poor. In his sermon Scriptural Christianity, Wesley noted that Christ and the apostolic church had an emphasis on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the fatherless or stranger, visiting the sick, etc. Christ “rejoiced to labour or to suffer for them; and wherein soever he might profit another, there especially to ‘deny himself’ (SC, I.9). Wesley held an empathetic view of mercy. Indeed, God’s act of mercy to us was his suffering alongside and for us. The Christian, in Wesley’s view, was to be conscientious to show mercy to those who were oppressed by the world in the same way that Christ showed mercy.
Wesley practiced this in his own life as he constantly would monitor his own finances and possessions. In fact, he wrote an entire sermon on how Christians should be good stewards with their money (The Use of Money) and even organized the Oxford Methodists to cut off all needless expense so that they could minister to the poor more effectively (Collins, 45).
In his sermon The Scripture Way of Salvation, Wesley taught that aside from piety, good works of service were needed in order for sanctification. In these he included: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those in prison, and visiting the sick or afflicted (SWS, III.10). He termed these “works of mercy.” Wesley saw love as being the fullest outpouring of mercy as it found its worldly relevance in the command to love our neighbor. The extreme consequence of this love is the willingness to lay down one’s life for his neighbor (MNB, III.3). Obviously, Wesley saw our human duty as being paralleled with the cross. To share the mercy of God—the sacrifice of himself—with the hurting world is to live it out to its fullest expression in our own lives: show mercy to all, even if that means going to the same end as Christ did.
But we must not leave it there. Wesley’s view of mercy was built around the concept of justice. Even in his ministry to the poor, justice was a continuous underlying theme. Wesley never intended to express the need for mercy without the understanding that we are all in need of God’s mercy first and foremost. Wesley’s emphasis on social justice was never strictly for the sake of helping the poor. He believed that there was an end in sight, an end result which must contextualize ministry to the poor. That is, Wesley believed mercy was best put in terms of the coming of God’s kingdom.
The concept of mercy presumed that things are not the way they should be and that there is something wrong with the way the world is now. This, of course, was the result of the Fall of both man and the world. It is through Christianity that God intends to “heal the soul” (OS, III.3) and bring about justice the way it should be. Spiritually, God has enacted justice through the death of his Son and this anticipates full justice with the world. The cross represents God dealing with sin on its own terms, putting it on his Son, and thereby freeing us. We are brought into redemption and eventual sanctification and justice is fully dealt with by the Creator.
Wesley was emphatic about the fact that no matter what we may do or hope to do, man can never bring make himself just. He can never pardon his own sins or advocate on his behalf. Therefore, any true justice which is to be done will be done on the part of God himself. Thus, for the poor, they were called to have confidence and belief that they could receive justice here and now for their sins and anticipate full justice in the future with full inauguration of the kingdom.
Thus, Welsey’s views on justice and mercy were interwoven with each other. Where justice was, mercy was and where mercy was, justice was. Both would be fully brought about and enacted by God in the future and had, in some sense, already been enacted on the cross. But for the moment, the Church is called to participate both in being merciful to those who need it and yet, at the same time, expressing this mercy in the context of God’s justice done on the cross.
Collins, Ken. John Wesley: A Theological Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003)
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