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John Wesley on how the Bible regulates affections

The authority of Scripture is of utmost importance to those of us who write here on the Religious Affections blog. The Bible regulates our doctrine, our practice, and even our love. We do not believe our love is arbitrary, to be expressed by our natural whim and fancy.

We refuse to believe every theological concept that naturally springs into our head; we submit our theology to what the Bible teaches.

Similarly, in our practice, we may have a good idea about how church ministry or (more broadly speaking) Christian practice ought to look. But, ultimately, we want our idea of ministry and practice to be one that flows from Scripture.

If this is true for our theology and practice, is also true for the way in which we learn to love God. That is, we want to love God the way the Bible teaches us to love God. The Bible is sufficient for this too. The Bible regulates our affections.

Before I go further, I want to interject a very important idea related to this matter. The love we have for God may properly be distinguished from the outward expression of that love. For example, someone may make outward expressions of love, but not truly love God. This is hypocrisy. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when in 2 Tim 3:5 he described the heretics of the latter days as “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” King Saul’s outward expressions of love and worship notwithstanding, he did not truly love God. 

Similarly, I believe that it is possible, given the inconsistency that plagues humanity, that someone may have a genuine love for God, but express it in a way unfitting with the object. For example, I believe that my paedobaptist brothers and sisters truly love God and their children, but they sin when they express that love for God by sprinkling their unregenerate children. Paedobaptism is more than heresy and wrong practice, it is, as an alleged act of worship, an inordinate expression of love. Moreover, sometimes inconsistent expressions in worship belie a much deeper, more significant problem: true love for God may not be present at all. 

That aside, unfitting expressions of love ought to avoided. We best avoid unfitting (or untrue) expressions of love  by learning to express the genuine love for God that comes only through the Spirit’s regenerating work in a way that is informed by Scripture.

This is what Christians in previous generations, like John Wesley, believed. Listen to how he describes the New Testament in the preface to his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament:

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 word 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 tempershown by every writer. But how little are these, the latter especially regarded? Tho’ they are wonderfully diffused through the whole New Testament, and are in truth a continued commendation of him, who acts, or speaks, or writes.1

What Wesley is telling us is that God’s Word does not simply give us right theology, but also the proper expression of the affections within us. It is not striking that he laments how little the expression of affections in Scripture were attended to in his own day? How much more is that true for ours?

Now, it is true that we cannot entirely return to the exact forms of New Testament worship. To be clear, that is not what I am arguing. I am saying, with Wesley as cited here, that the Bible ought to shape how we express our love for God. We ought to set our “wild,” natural, expressions of love aside, and allow the Scriptures to inform how we communicate to God and others our love. The Bible sheds light on how we as human beings appropriate communicative forms to express the divinely wrought love within us. 


About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (London, 1767), vi. []