When properly interpreted, the General Rules of the United Societies provide helpful guidance for the Christian life. According to these rules, one should:
Do no harm.
Attend upon all the ordinances of God.
The first two of these are fairly self-explanatory. By the last, Wesley meant:
The public worship of God
The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
The Supper of the Lord.
Family and private prayer.
Searching the Scriptures.
Fasting or abstinence.
(This list taken from the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012, ¶104.)
These rules were reinterpreted in a short piece by Bishop Rueben Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living (Abingdon, 2007). Job rephrased the third rule as “stay in love with God,” which is not exactly the same as what Wesley wanted to emphasize, but is nevertheless more accessible than “attend upon the ordinances of God.”
We should keep in mind, however, that these rules were developed as ways of demonstrating the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people who attended the society meetings. They were meant as signs of an earnest yearning for salvation, “a desire to flee from the wrath to come” and to be saved from sin.
In his sermon, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fifth,” Wesley offers a caution about the General Rules:
[T]o do no harm, to do good, to attend the ordinances of God (the righteousness of a Pharisee) are all external; whereas, on the contrary, poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst after righteousness, the love of our neighbor, and purity of heart (the righteousness of a Christian) are all internal. And even peacemaking (or doing good) and suffering for righteousness’ sake, stand entitled to the blessings annexed to them only as they imply these inward dispositions, as they spring from, exercise, and confirm them. So that whereas the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was external only, it may be said in some sense that the righteousness of a Christian is internal only—all his actions and sufferings being as nothing in themselves, being estimated before God only by the tempers from which they spring (Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers, eds., The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, Abingdon, 2013, 537, and see also “The More Excellent Way, VI.5).
In other words, the external righteousness of the General Rules must be accompanied by an inward transformation. Otherwise it is what Wesley would call “the righteousness of a Pharisee.” He spends a great deal of time talking about inward transformation in his sermons, particularly those thirteen sermons dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount. For Wesley, holiness was an inward state that manifested itself in outward actions. The outward actions were empty without the inward change of heart, and the inward change of heart, if genuine, would necessarily result in a new way of living.
The General Rules, then, are both righteous and helpful, as long as they do not lead one to demonstrate “the outward form of godliness” while “denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5). To be a Christian, for Wesley, is to be changed by the power of God.
9 thoughts on “Wesley’s Caution about the “Three Simple Rules””
You make great points here, David. I think it is fair to say that the General Rules, while necessary, are not sufficient for the Christian life. We often treat the General Rules today as if they are the ceiling of discipleship, whereas Wesley clearly treated them as if they are the floor.
Thanks for reading, Andrew. I like the way you put this: the General Rules are the floor, not the ceiling.
Yes, The rules nail the floor to the Gospel foundation, the ground of being, and then ever upward!
Great article. I find it sad that people speak more about loving neighbor without the inward transformation that needs to take place to love God completely. Only in this transformation can we truly love our neighbor.
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Well said. That is why I was shocked to read In D. Stephen Long’s book (which is his commentary on the Articles of Religion) “What is this religion of the heart? It is good works.” How wrong can an SMU professor be? If you want to know what Wesley really meant by the religion of the heart see my book “The Renewal of the Heart is the Mission of the Church.” Cascade Books 2010.
Well said. That is why I was shocked to read In D. Stephen Long’s book (which is his commentary on the Articles of Religion) “What is this religion of the heart? It is good works.” (P. 90) How wrong can an SMU professor be? If you want to know what Wesley really meant by the religion of the heart see my book “The Renewal of the Heart is the Mission of the Church.” Cascade Books 2010.
Hi Greg, The three rules are “do good,” “avoid evil” and “attend upon the ordinances of God.” The first and third are clearly works — “do, attend.” I think to “avoid” is also a work. Wesley called these rules the religion of the heart. He also told us to do them whether we had a mind to do so or not and, by God’s grace, we would do them because our life is transformed. If we did not do them we could not claim “The Lord our Righteousness” without them. So I continue to be surprised that you find my statement so shocking and in need of correction. I wonder if it is because of a hyper-Protestantism you are ascribing to Wesley or am I still missing your point? Blessed Advent, Steve
Respectfully, you seemed to have missed the point of this post–that the three rules are not of Christianity for Wesley. As David said (summarizing Wesley’s S.O.M. # 5) “In other words, the external righteousness of the General Rules must be accompanied by an inward transformation. Otherwise it is what Wesley would call ‘the righteousness of a Pharisee.'” So to say, as you did in your book, that “this religion of the heart . . . is good works” is wrong. You are free to hold that as your own view, of course, but it is not Wesley’s view. More importantly, it is not biblical. It is not “hyper-Protestantism” to point out that the “circumcision of the heart” is not just a title of one of Wesley’s sermons–it is a biblical phrase (Romans 2:29) Likewise, the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-24–one of the scriptures Wesley quotes most–describes the “religious affections” that Wesley said are indispensable for any Christian (love, joy, peace, etc.) The “heart,” that biblical metaphor to describe the center of a human (Greek kardias in Rom 2:24) must be engaged with the Good news if Christianity is to take hold of a person’s life. For both the Bible and Wesley, the heart, despite the distorting 19th Century understandings of “emotion” which would separate it from the intellect, is our basic instrument for perceiving value. In his Sermon “Original Sin” Wesley says “Ye know that the great end of religion is to renew our hearts in the image of God.” (#44, 185) As I have made clear in my own explication of his heart religion, Wesley was clear that without the “works of piety” and the “works of mercy” heart religion cannot be firmly formed or decisively expressed. But to say “heart religion” for Wesley is simply good works is just wrong. Thanks for the Advent wishes. May your heart be renewed this Christmas!
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