What John Wesley Actually Said About the Bible
John Wesley saw the Methodist movement as a return to the original life & faith & experience of Christianity. He wanted to return to the faith of the apostles and the early church — to find that same dynamic quality of faith and life that the early Christians had. So, Scripture had a place of central importance in Wesley’s teaching and preaching.
In Wesley’s view, devotion to the teachings of the Scripture is absolutely essential for the task of keeping and renewing the Christian faith.
So, in light of this, I’ve gathered together on this page everything substantive that John Wesley said about the Bible. I have not attempted to “tone down” or alter any of his opinions — though I have updated the language in the first quote. My goal here has been completeness.
Yes, there is some room for argument about what he may have meant by some of these remarks — of course. And, I certainly wouldn’t say the man was in any way infallible.
But, here is what he actually said.
A Clear and Concise Proof of the Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures.
“THERE are four grand and powerful arguments which strongly induce us to believe that the Bible must be from God; they are, (a.) miracles, (b.) prophecies, (c.) the goodness of the doctrine, and (d.) the moral character of the writers.
“All the miracles flow from divine power; all the prophecies , from divine understanding; the goodness of the doctrine , from divine goodness; and the moral character of the writers , from divine holiness.
“Thus Christianity is built upon four grand pillars: the power, understanding, goodness, and holiness of God. Divine power is the source of all the miracles; divine understanding, of all the prophecies; divine goodness, of the goodness of the doctrine; and divine holiness of the moral character of the writers.
“I now propose short, clear, and strong arguments prove the divine inspiration of the holy Scriptures.
“The Bible must be the invention either (1.) of good men or angels, (2.) of bad men or devils, or (3.) of God.
- It could not be the invention of good men or angels; they neither would nor could make a book, and tell lies all the time they were writing it, saying, “Thus says the Lord,” when it was their own invention.
- It could not be the invention of bad men or devils; for they would not make a book which commands all duty, forbids all sin, and condemns their souls to hell to all eternity.
- Therefore, I draw this conclusion, that the Bible must be given by divine inspiration.
— edited (language updated) from the tract “A Clear and Concise Proof of the Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures.”
Other Passages in Wesley’s Writings on the Authority of Scripture:
“To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (” a man of one book”).
“Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: – “Lord, is it not thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said; ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
— From the “Preface” to the Standard Sermons.
“Concerning the Scriptures in general, it may be observed, the word of the living God, which directed the first patriarchs also, was, in the time of Moses, committed to writing. To this were added, in several succeeding generations, the inspired writings of the other prophets. Afterward, what the Son of God preached, and the Holy Ghost spake by the apostles, the apostles and evangelists wrote. – This is what we now style the Holy Scripture: this is that word of God which remaineth for ever: of which, though heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall not pass away. The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.
“An exact knowledge of the truth was accompanied in the inspired writers with an exactly regular series of arguments, a precise expression of their meaning, and a genuine vigor of suitable affections. The chain of argument in each book is briefly exhibited in the table prefixed to it, which contains also the sum thereof, and may be of more use than prefixing the argument to each chapter; the division of the New Testament into chapters having been made in the dark ages, and very incorrectly; often separating things that are closely joined, and joining those that are entirely distinct from each other.
“In the language of the sacred writings, we may observe the utmost depth, together with the utmost ease. All the elegancies of human composures sink into nothing before it: God speaks not as man, but as God. His thoughts are very deep: and thence his words are of inexhaustible virtue. And the language of his messengers also is exact in the highest degree: for the words which were given them accurately answered the impression made upon their minds: and hence Luther says, “Divinity is nothing but a grammar of the language of the Holy Ghost.” To understand this thoroughly, we should observe the emphasis which lies on every word; the holy affections expressed thereby, and the tempers shown by every writer. But how little are these, the latter especially, regarded? Though they are wonderfully diffused through the whole New Testament, and are in truth a continued commendation of him who acts, or speaks, or writes.”
— from the “Preface” to Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
“In matters of religion I regard no writings but the inspired. Tauler, Behmen, and a whole army of Mystic authors, are with me nothing to St. Paul. In every point I appeal ‘to the law and the testimony,’ and value no authority but this.
“At a time when I was in great danger of not valuing this authority enough, you made that important observation: “I see where your mistake lies. You would have a philosophical religion; but there can be no such thing. Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world. It is only, ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’ So far as you add philosophy to religion, just so far you spoil it.” This remark I have never forgotten since; and I trust in God I never shall.”
— From An Extract of a Letter to the Reverend Mr. Law Occasioned by Some of his Late Writings .
“My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.”
— From the Journal: “June 5, 1766”
“But the Christian rule of right and wrong is the word of God, the writings of the Old and New Testament; all that the Prophets and “holy men of old” wrote “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost;” all that Scripture which was given by inspiration of God, and which is indeed profitable for doctrine, or teaching the whole will of God; for reproof of what is contrary thereto; for correction of error; and for instruction, or training us up, in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16.)
“This is a lantern unto a Christian’s feet, and a light in all his paths. This alone he receives as his rule of right or wrong, of whatever is really good or evil. He esteems nothing good, but what is here enjoined, either directly or by plain consequence, he accounts nothing evil but what is here forbidden, either in terms, or by undeniable inference. Whatever the Scripture neither forbids nor conjoins, either directly or by plain consequence, he believes to be of an indifferent nature; to be in itself neither good nor evil; this being the whole and sole outward rule whereby his conscience is to be directed in all things.”
— From the Sermon #12 “The Witness of Our Own Spirit.”
“And that this is a means whereby God not only gives, but also confirms and increases, true wisdom, we learn from the words of St. Paul to Timothy: ‘From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.’ (2 Tim. 3:15) The same truth (namely, that this is the great means God has ordained for conveying his manifold grace to man) is delivered, in the fullest manner that can be conceived, in the words which immediately follow: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God;’ consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true; “and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; ‘to the end “that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.’ (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)”
— from Sermon #16 “The Means of Grace.”
“All scripture is inspired of God – The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer. Hence it is so profitable for doctrine , for instruction of the ignorant, for the reproof or conviction of them that are in error or sin, for the correction or amendment of whatever is amiss, and for instructing or training up the children of God in all righteousness .”
— from Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament: “2 Timothy 3:16.”
“I am distressed. I know not what to do. I see what I might have done once. I might have said peremptorily and expressly, ‘Here I am: I and my Bible. I will not, I dare not, vary from this book, either in great things or small. I have no power to dispense with one jot or tittle what is contained therein. I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost, but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground? Join me on this, or not at all.'”
— from Sermon #116 “Causes Of The Inefficacy Of Christianity”
“I read Mr. Jenyns’s admired tract, on the “Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion.” He is undoubtedly a fine writer; but whether he is a Christian, Deist, or Atheist, I cannot tell. If he is a Christian, he betrays his own cause by averring, that “all Scripture is not given by inspiration of God; but the writers of it were sometimes left to themselves, and consequently made some mistakes.” Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.”
— From the Journal: Wednesday July 24, 1776.
“St. Paul says, ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable; for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.’
“The Scripture, therefore, being delivered by men divinely inspired, is a rule sufficient of itself: So it neither needs, nor is capable of, any farther addition.
“Yet the Papists add tradition to Scripture, and require it to be received with equal veneration. By traditions, they mean, ‘such points of faith and practice as have been delivered down in the Church from hand to hand without writing.’ And for many of these, they have no more Scripture to show, than the Pharisees had for their traditions.”
— from “Popery Calmly Considered.”
“In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church. And Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture. The best way, therefore, to understand it, is carefully to compare Scripture with Scripture, and thereby learn the true meaning of it.”
— from “Popery Calmly Considered.”
“This is the way to understand the things of God; Meditate thereon day and night; So shall you attain the best knowledge; even to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. And this knowledge will lead you, to love Him, because he hath first loved us: yea, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. Will there not then be all that mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus? And in consequence of this, while you joyfully experience all the holy tempers described in this book, you will likewise be outwardly holy as He that hath called you is holy, in all manner of conversation.
“If you desire to read the scripture in such a manner as may most effectually answer this end, would it not be advisable,
- To set apart a little time, if you can, every morning and evening for that purpose?
- At each time if you have leisure, to read a chapter out of the Old, and one out of the New Testament: is you cannot do this, to take a single chapter, or a part of one?
- To read this with a single eye, to know the whole will of God, and a fixt resolution to do it? In order to know his will, you should,
- Have a constant eye to the analogy of faith; the connection and harmony there is between those grand, fundamental doctrines, Original Sin, Justification by Faith, the New Birth, Inward and Outward Holiness.
- Serious and earnest prayer should be constantly used, before we consult the oracles of God, seeing “scripture can only be understood thro’ the same Spirit whereby “it was given.” Our reading should likewise be closed with prayer, that what we read may be written on our hearts.
- It might also be of use, if while we read, we were frequently to pause, and examine ourselves by what we read, both with regard to our hearts, and lives. This would furnish us with matter of praise, where we found God had enabled us to conform to his blessed will, and matter of humiliation and prayer, where we were conscious of having fallen short. And whatever light you then receive, should be used to the uttermost, and that immediately. Let there be no delay. Whatever you resolve, begin to execute the first moment you can. So shall you find this word to be indeed the power of God unto present and eternal salvation.”
— from the “Preface” to Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament.
On the Apocrypha:
“The Church of Rome not only adds tradition to Scripture, but several entire books; namely, Tobit and Judith, the Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the two books of Maccabees, and a new part of Esther and of Daniel; ‘which whole books,’ says the Church of Rome, ‘whoever rejects, let him be accursed.’
“We answer, We cannot but reject them. We dare not receive them as part of the Holy Scriptures. For none of these books were received as such by the Jewish Church, ‘to whom were committed the oracles of God:’ (Romans 3:2:) Neither by the ancient Christian Church, as appears from the 60th Canon of the Council of Laodicea; wherein is a catalogue of the books of Scriptures, without any mention of these.”
— from “Popery Calmly Considered.”
On the need for people to have a Bible they can read:
“As the Church of Rome, on the one hand, adds to the Scripture, so, on the other hand, she forbids the people to read them. Yea, they are forbid to read so much as a summary or historical compendium of them in their own tongue.
“Nothing can be more inexcusable than this. Even under the law, the people had the Scriptures in a tongue vulgarly known; and they were not only permitted, but required, to read them; yea, to be constantly conversant therein. (Deuteronomy 6:6, etc.) Agreeable to this, our Lord commands to search the Scriptures; and St. Paul directs, that his Epistle be read in all the Churches (1 Thessalonians 5:27.) Certainly this Epistle was wrote in a tongue which all of them understood.
“But they say, ‘If people in general were to read the Bible, it would do them more harm than good.’ Is it any honor to the Bible to speak thus? But supposing some did abuse it, is this any sufficient reason for forbidding others to use it? Surely no. Even in the days of the Apostles, there were some ‘unstable and ignorant men,’ who wrested both St. Paul’s Epistles, and the other Scriptures, ‘to their own destruction.’ But did any of the Apostles, on this account, forbid other Christians to read them? You know they did not: They only cautioned them not to be “led away by the error of the wicked.” And certainly the way to prevent this is, not to keep the Scriptures from them; (for ‘they were written for our learning;’) but to exhort all to the diligent perusal of them, lest they should ‘err, not knowing the Scriptures.'”
— from “Popery Calmly Considered.”
I compiled these quotations from Wesley’s writings with the help of: Burtner, Robert W. & Chiles, Robert E., John Wesley’s Theology: A Collection from His Works, Abingdon: Nashville 1954, 1982; and, The Master Christian Library (Version 6), Ages Software; and many other sources.
Thank you for taking the time to put this together.
I think it is also important to read Wesley’s Sermons, where the sermons were preached and to whom. That also sheds light on Wesley’s thinking and position.
I may be wrong but I believe you may have done a piece on Wesley’s sermon 52.
That sermon “The Reformation of Manners”
preached before the Society for Reformation of Manners on Sunday, January 30, 1763 could go a long way in clearing up the issue dividing the CC today. It makes clear where Wesley stood.
It is my understanding Wesley’s father also supported the movement called “The Reformation of Manners.”
A little study into that movement is very informative about the concerns of the times in Wesley’s day and prior to.
Thanks for reminding me of the Reformation of Manners sermon. I think I need to take a look at that one again.
Thank you for sharing this writing from John Wesley. I have been stirred in my spirit to read more of these articles.
Thanks for putting this all together and sharing it.
We would be much wiser if we looked at what the Bible has to say about Christian discipleship, the church and Christ being head of the church in addressing the concerns of church health. We have not done this, but have chosen dubious secular sources for wisdom.
Yes. I am concerned about this also.
Today, I used your quote from Wesley about the Apocrypha to show someone who thought that he accepted it. They also claimed that Luther moved some books into the Apocrypha that the Church of England and Wesley accepted. Another false claim. I pointed out to them that the Apocrypha is not listed among the accepted books for the UMC in our Articles of Religion.
I think some of these things just pass by word of mouth. Lots of false claims have been made about “what Wesley thought” as someomne passes along what they thought they heard from someone else (who may hve been wrong also). We do what we can, John.
I appreciate this blog and rich material from Wesley. I wanted to have this information and you have given me a valuable resource. I will share this to other Nazarene Ministers. Thanks.
Thanks, Wayne. I appreciate your kind words.
I am reading a book called “Scripture and the Wesleyan Way.” I am not a Methodist, but trying to earn what Methodist believe. The book states Wesley’s believed the most important message of the Bible (page 15) is the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Yet in Johns sermons /writings I clearly get the sense that the revelation of God and His Son (the King) is of importance (no mention of His Kingdom). I would like to keep the proverbial cart before the horse in my understanding of John’s faith. The book is written by a Methodist Bishop and Pastor.
I have not read that book and, thus, cannot comment on it. I have great respect for Scott Jones, however, and I imagine he is leading you on a good overview. I think “the Kingdom of God” theme was more in the backdrop of Wesley’s thinking than explicitly stated. Many of his sermons on justification and forgiveness and other themes can be read without encountering this theme. Jones may be emphasizing it because it is often lacking in the teaching of many modern-day “evangelical” preachers. Wesley, like others in his day and age (and for a long time after) would never have thought private personal salvation was divorced from the idea of social reform. Wesley’s concern (as I understand it) was to return to the teaching and practice of the early Church. The Bible (especially the New Testament) tells us what a Christian is — and that’s what he wanted to be. So, in that sense, this is very much a “back to the Bible” program. It’s: ‘what the Bible says and teaches is what I want to be.’ If you are trying to get the “cart before the horse” epistemologically, Daniel, then, I think you still have a problem. Wesley would have seen the existence of God as an established fact — as would most of his contemporaries — and see the Bible as the way we inspire and inform Christian faith.
So, specifically, the “Kingdom of God” is something we know about on the basis of the teaching of Jesus and the preaching of the prophets, etc. — things found (and only found) in the Scriptures. Wesley would not have denied knowledge from other sources, and would not have felt the (false) tension that we often do between “science” and “faith.”
LOL, I am not the best typist! No, I do not want to put the cart before the horse. In fact, the opposite.
I love the Wesley use of the Romans scripture which defines the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God … is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Sounds to me to be describing, not social reform, but personal reform. Which in turn leads to His Kingdom, as long as He is the King.
I was wanting to know what Wesley believed about the Bible. His words located in your website are clear – “infallible.” But, not without reason, the book I mentioned is illusive regarding that statement, yet it ascribes to be “the Wesley” way. So it creates an uneasy feeling inside me since I am seeking to understand the authentic “Wesley” way.
I was surprised to read Scott Jones and Author Jones consider the Bible a “complicated” book. Did Wesley ever say it was complicated? Seems that would be playing into the hands of those who wanted to keep the Bible “secret” and locked away. It has never been complicated to me, and when I was a new believer. Difficult in places, yes. But not complicated. Once I identified clearly the Bibles main theme (Jesus Christ’s loving sacrificial atonement for humanity and plan of salvation) I found it refreshingly inspired, uplifting and edifying.
Also this book mentions that if any “add” to the Bible, they have chosen to leave the Christian faith. Since Wesley was open to new ideas, isn’t this a contradiction as well? I mean this seems a close minded idea that any thought (even science) that is different must be expelled. I am sure the Jews in Jesus day would have agreed with this statement.
I appreciate the time you spent giving me a reasoned answer and with your encouragement, I will continue with this book. I hope to find the reading and study of it enlightening if not also enjoyable. Thank you.