There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, ….
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In their original form, the General Rules of the Methodist Church were a kind of living prayer. Conforming to the Rules was not a means to earn God’s favor. Neither were Rules a prescription for virtuous and praiseworthy living in general. They were not even a roadmap for living gratefully and joyfully in response to what God had done. Rather, they were a way for people “deeply convinced of sin, and earnestly groaning for redemption” to wait actively and expectantly before God.
Wesleyan Christians don’t believe that anyone saves themselves. From the beginning to the end, we rely on the grace of God. If God does not act, we are lost. That pertains to our being forgiven and set right with God to begin with. And it pertains to our ultimate deliverance from the power of sin, death and the devil. Christians rest confidently in the power of the cross, but they are never content with their sin. Sooner or later, God must deliver them from bondage to powers they can overcome on their own. And sooner is better than later.
Forgiveness of sins and life in heaven were only part of the salvation Wesley preached. For Wesley, the aim of the Christian life – indeed, the goal of all creation – is deliverance from the power of sin and perfection in love. Just as saving faith comes only as gift of grace, so the power for holy living comes only through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Peter Bohler once advised Wesley to preach faith until he had it. In a similar manner, Wesley advised his followers to exhibit the “form” of godliness as a means of expectantly seeking the power of godliness.
Avoiding evil, doing good to all and attending upon the ordinances of God were evidence that the desire for full salvation was “fixed in the soul”. They were a kind of non-verbal prayer, expressing the desire for God’s transforming power to descend upon the hearts of those seeking him.
Of course sinful men and women couldn’t even keep the Rules on their own. Until God worked his miracle of sanctification in human hearts, even keeping the Rules was a problem. Calling them “Three Simple Rules” seems terribly misleading to me. They are hardly simple. Those who sought the kind of transformation Wesley taught organized into societies, classes and bands for encouragement, exhortation, comfort and accountability. The members “watched over each other in love” as together they sought the transformative power of the Holy Spirit through holy living. It was within the shared experience of the societies, classes and bands that the Holy Spirit often made his power known. Living in accordance with the Rules, then, was not just a personal prayer for holiness, but an act of communal prayer as well. The Rules provided a framework for a kind of Christian community.
From a Wesleyan perspective, I think we sometimes have things backward. Wesley would certainly have nothing to do with the idea that salvation is a decision or an experience that results in salvation no matter what you do after that. Neither would he support the idea that we have to be good enough to earn our salvation. The third option sometimes proposed is also a little off the mark, that we receive salvation by grace alone through faith alone and then just naturally live godly lives after that. Putting away sin and living a godly life of love is never natural – or easy. Godly living, as Wesley saw it, was both the work of the Holy Spirit and a means of posturing ourselves before God in holy expectation. The General Rules provided a framework for that to happen in Methodist societies.