John Wesley on the Spirit of Unity

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Editor’s Note: This sermon was originally entitled “Catholic Spirit.” This expression has been changed in the title and throughout the sermon, since the term catholic today is not   usually understood in its original meaning.


“And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: And he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab said, It is.  If it be, give me thine hand.” (2 Kings 10:15)

It is agreed even by those who do not pay this great debt, that love is owed to all mankind; for the law, “Thou shalt love your neighbor as yourself,” is proof in itself. And it does not come with the limitation some place on it, “Thou shalt love your relation, acquaintance, and friend, but hate your enemy.” Not so, “I say unto you,” says our Lord, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; who maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

But it is certain that there is a special love that we owe to those that love God. Therefore David said, “All my delight is upon the saints that are in the earth, and upon such as excel in virtue.” And, likewise,  One greater than he said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; As I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34, 35). This is that love on which the Apostle John so strongly insists: “This is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11). “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us: And we ought,” if love should call us to, “to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3:16). And again: “Beloved, let us love one another: For love is of God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love” (4:7, 8). “Not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (4:10, 11).

All men approve of this, but do all men practice it? Daily experience shows the opposite. Where are even the Christians who “love one another as He has given us commandment?”  The greatest hindrance is that they cannot all think alike; and, as a result, do not all walk alike. Invariably, their practices will differ according to the difference of their opinions.

But even if a difference in opinions or forms of worship may prevent organizational unity; must it prevent our unity of affection? Though we cannot think alike, can we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Certainly, all the children of God may unite in this, even though they have these smaller differences.

It is certain that as long as our knowledge is imperfect, all men will not see all things alike. It is an unavoidable result of the weakness of human understanding that men will have various opinions about religion as well as common life. It has been this way from the beginning of the world, and so it will be until the restoration of all things.

Furthermore, although every man believes that every particular opinion he holds is true (for to believe an opinion not to be true is the same as not to hold it); no man can be sure that all his opinions, collectively, are true. In fact, every thinking man is sure they are not; since to be ignorant of many things, and to be mistaken in some, is the inevitable condition of humanity. Therefore, he recognizes this in himself as well. He knows, in general, that he is mistaken; although in what, specifically, he does not know.

And perhaps he cannot know, for who can tell how far ignorance or prejudice extends? Prejudice is often so established in tender minds that it is impossible to pull up what is rooted so deeply. And who could say, unless he knew every circumstance involved, to what degree any mistake is blameworthy? All guilt requires some consent of the will, which only He who sees the heart can judge.

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires for himself; and will no more insist that they embrace his opinions than he would want them to insist that he embrace theirs. He has patience with those who differ from him, and asks him with whom he desires to unite in love just one question: “Is your heart right, as my heart is toward yours?”

But even among the upright, men who desire to have a clear conscience, as long as there are various opinions, there will be various ways of worshipping God; since variety in opinion causes variety in practice. And as men have always widely differed in their opinions concerning the Supreme Being, so widely do they differ in their manner of worshipping Him. Had this been the case only in the heathen world, it would not have been surprising at all.  But is it not strange that, even in the Christian world, although all agree that, “God is a Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth;” still the particular modes of worshipping God vary almost as much as among the heathens?

How then will we choose among so much variety? No man can choose for another. Everyone must follow his own conscience in godly sincerity. He must be fully persuaded in his own mind, and then act according to the best light he has. No creature has the power to force another to walk by his own rule. God has given no right to any of the children of men to be lord over the consciences of his brothers, but every man must judge for himself, for every man must give an account of himself to God.

Therefore, although every follower of Christ is obligated, by the nature of the Christian institution, to be a member of some particular congregation (which implies a particular manner of worshipping God, for they could not worship together unless they agreed on the manner), no one can be required by any power on earth but his own conscience to prefer one congregation over another, or to choose a particular manner of worship. It is commonly supposed that the place of our birth determines the church to which we ought to belong; for example, that one who is born in England ought to be a member of the Church of England, and to worship God in the manner which is prescribed by that Church. I was once a zealous proponent of this idea, but no longer, for it seems to have difficulties that no reasonable man can get over.  One problem with the view is that it would allow no reformation from popery; since it destroys the right of private judgment on which the whole Reformation stands.

I do not dare, therefore, impose my mode of worship on any other person. While I believe it is true to the apostles’ teaching, my belief is no rule for another. Therefore, I do not ask him with whom I would unite in love, “Do you belong to my church?” “Do you have the same form of church government, and allow the same church officers?” “Do you join in the same form of prayer by which I worship God?” I do not ask whether you receive the Lord’s Supper in the same manner that I do, nor whether you agree with me in the manner of baptism, or the age of those to whom it should be administered. I do not ask (although it is clear in my own mind) even whether you allow baptism and the Lord’s Supper at all. Let these things wait; we will speak of them, if necessary, at a more convenient time; my only question now is this, “Is your heart right, as my heart is toward yours?”

What Is Necessary for Hearts to Unite

But what is properly implied in this question? What should a follower of Christ mean by it when he offers it to any of his brothers? The first thing it implies is this: is your heart right with God? Do you believe His being, and His perfections; His eternity, immensity, wisdom, power; His justice, mercy, and truth? Do you believe that He “upholds all things by the word of His power;” and that He governs even the smallest, even the most unpleasant, for His own glory, and the good of those who love Him? Do you have divine evidence, a supernatural conviction, of the things of God? Do you “walk by faith, not by sight,” not looking at earthly things, but at those things which are eternal?

Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, “God over all, blessed forever?” Is He revealed in your soul? Do you know Jesus Christ and Him crucified? Does He live in you, and you in him? Is He formed in your heart by faith? Having discarded any claim to your own righteousness, have you “submitted yourself unto the righteousness of God,” which is by faith in Christ Jesus?  And are you, through Him, “fighting the good fight of faith, and taking hold of eternal life?”

Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Do you love God “with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength?” Do you look for all your happiness in Him alone? And do you find what you are looking for? Does your soul continually “magnify the Lord, and your spirit rejoice in God your Savior?” Having learned “in everything to give thanks,” do you find it is a joyful and pleasant thing to be thankful? Is God the center of your soul? Is He the sum of all your desires? Are you then laying up your treasure in heaven, and considering everything else dung and dross? Has the love of God thrown the love of the world out of your soul? Then you are “crucified to the world;” you are dead to all that is below; and your “life is hid with Christ in God.”

Are you busy doing, “not your own will, but the will of Him that sent you?” Are you fulfilling the plan of Him that sent you down to spend a few days in a strange land, until, having finished the work He has given you to do, you return to your Father’s house? Is it your meat and drink “to do the will of your Father which is in heaven?” Is your single motive to honor Christ in all things? Are you always looking to Jesus in whatever you do: all your labor, your business, your conversation? Is your only goal the glory of God in whatever you do, either in word or deed, doing it all in the name of the Lord Jesus; giving thanks to the Father, through Him?”

Does the love of God cause you to serve Him with fear? Are you more afraid of displeasing God, than of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to you as the thought of offending the eyes of His glory? On this basis, do you “hate all evil ways,” every violation of His holy and perfect law; and, in this, “exercise yourself to have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward man?”

Is your heart right toward your neighbor? Do you love, as yourself, all mankind without exception?  Do you “love your enemies?” Is your soul full of goodwill, of tender affection, toward them? Do you love even the enemies of God, the unthankful and unholy? Could you “wish yourself” now “accursed” for their sake? And do you show this by “blessing them that curse you, and praying for those that despitefully use you and persecute you?”

Do you show your love by your actions? While you have time, and as you have opportunity, do you “do good to all men,” neighbors or strangers, friends or enemies, good or bad? Do you do for them all the good you can, trying to supply all their needs; assisting them both in body and soul, to the best of your ability? If this is your attitude, then every Christian may say, “Your heart is right, as my heart is with yours.”

What It Means to Take Another’s Hand

I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot; it does not depend on my choice. I can no more choose what to think, than I can choose what to see or hear. Keep your opinion, and I will keep mine. You do not need to try to come to my opinion, or bring me to yours. I do not want you to argue those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Leave all these opinions alone on both sides. Only, “give me your hand.”

I do not mean, “Embrace my mode of worship;” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does not depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each of us is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold to that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same. I believe the Episcopal form of church government is scriptural and apostolic. If you think the Presbyterian or Independent form is better, then think so, and act accordingly. I believe infants ought to be baptized, and that this may be done either by dipping or sprinkling. If you believe otherwise, continue to do so, and follow your own belief. It appears to me that written prayers are useful, particularly in the congregation. If you consider extemporaneous prayer to be more useful, act according to your own judgment. My belief is that I ought to teach baptism; and that I ought to eat bread and drink wine as a memorial of my dying Master. However, if you are not convinced of this, live by the light that you have. I have no desire to argue with you for one moment on any of the preceding topics. Let these smaller points stand aside.  “If your heart is as my heart,” if you love God and all of mankind, I ask no more than for you to “give me your hand.”

I mean, first, love me. Not only as you love all of mankind; not only as you love your enemies, or the enemies of God, those that hate you, that “despitefully use you and persecute you;” not only as a stranger, as one of whom you know nothing, either good or evil. I am not satisfied with this.  If your heart is right, as mine is with your heart, then love me with a very tender affection, as a friend that is closer than a brother; as a brother in Christ, a fellow citizen of the New Jerusalem, a fellow soldier engaged in the same battle, under the same Captain of our salvation. Love me as a companion in the kingdom and patient endurance of Jesus, and a joint heir of His glory.

Love me (but in a higher degree than you do the rest of mankind) with a love that is longsuffering and kind; with a love that is patient if I am ignorant or misguided, that lifts and does not increase my burden. Remain tender, soft, and compassionate.  Love me with a love that does not envy if at any time God prospers me in His work more than you. Love me with the love that is not provoked, either at my foolishness or my infirmities; or even when I do not act (if it sometimes appears that way to you) according to the will of God. Love me so as not to think evil of me; to put away all jealousy and presumptions of evil. Love me with the love that covers all things; that never reveals my faults or infirmities.  Love me with a love that is always willing to believe the best about all my words and actions.  And hope to the end that whatever is wrong, will, by the grace of God, be corrected; and whatever is lacking, supplied through the riches of His mercy in Christ Jesus.

Second, I mean lift me to God in all your prayers; wrestle with Him on my behalf, that He would quickly correct what He sees is wrong with me, and supply what is lacking in me. Beg of Him that my heart may be more as your heart, more right toward both God and man; that I may have a fuller conviction of things not seen, and a stronger view of the love of God in Christ Jesus; that I may walk more steadily by faith, not by sight; and more earnestly grasp eternal life. Pray that love for God and for all mankind may increase in my heart; that I may be more passionate in doing the will of my Father; more zealous to do good works, and more careful to avoid every appearance of evil.

Third, I mean urge me on to love and to do good works. Reinforce your prayer, as you have the opportunity, by speaking to me in love whatever you believe to be for the good of my soul. Motivate me in the work which God has given me to do, and instruct me how to do it better. Correct me whenever I appear to you to be doing my own will, rather than the will of Him that sent me. Speak and do not withhold whatever you believe may help; for correcting my faults, strengthening my weaknesses, building me up in love, or making me more fit for the Master’s use!

Finally, I mean love me not only in word, but also in deed. As far as you can with a clear conscience (retaining your own opinions, and your own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God, and let us go on hand in hand. This far, it is certain, you may go. Wherever you are, speak honorably of the work of God, and kindly of His messengers. And, if you are able, not only sympathize with them when they are in any difficulty or distress, but give them cheerful and effective assistance, that they may glorify God because of you.

Two things should be noted with regard to what has been spoken under this last topic. First, whatever duties of love, whatever spiritual or earthly assistance I ask of him whose heart is right, I am ready, according to my ability, to give him the same.  Second, I have not claimed this for myself only, but for all whose hearts are right toward God and man, that we may all love one another as Christ has loved us.

Observations Regarding a True Spirit of Unity

From what has been said, we may learn what a spirit of unity is. There is hardly any expression which has been more misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied than this. But we may learn, first, that a spirit of unity is not an indifference to all opinions. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true unity. A man with a true spirit of unity is not still trying to find his religion. He is as established as the sun in his judgment concerning the main parts of Christian doctrine. It is true that he is always ready to hear and evaluate evidence against his principles; but this does not show any doubt in his own mind, and neither does it cause any. He does not hesitate between two opinions, nor try uselessly to blend them into one. Pay attention, you who do not know to whom you belong; who call yourselves men with a spirit of unity, only because you have no clear understanding; because your mind is all in a fog; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but want to jumble all opinions together. Be convinced that you have completely lost your way; you do not know where you are.  Go and learn the basic truths of the gospel of Christ, and then you will learn to have a true spirit of unity. 

Second, we may learn from what has been said that a spirit of unity is not an indifference to rules of practice. It is not indifference to public worship, or to the outward manner of performing it. This, likewise, would not be a blessing, but a curse. Far from being a help, it would be a great hindrance to worshipping God in spirit and in truth. But the man with a spirit of unity, having considered carefully the things pertaining to the sanctuary, has no doubt concerning the particular mode of worship in which he participates. He is clearly convinced that this manner of worshipping God is both scriptural and rational. He knows of none in the world which is more scriptural, and none which is more rational. Therefore, without rambling here and there, he holds close to it, and praises God for the opportunity to do so.

Third, we may learn from this that a spirit of unity is not indifference to all congregations. This is far removed from a man of a true spirit of unity. He is firmly set in his congregation as well as in his principles. He is united to this church, not only in spirit, but by all the outward ties of Christian fellowship. This is where he receives the Lord’s Supper. This is where he pours out his soul in public prayer, and joins in public praise and thanksgiving. This is where he rejoices to hear the word of reconciliation, the gospel of the grace of God. Here he joins with his most-beloved brethren, on solemn occasions, to seek God by fasting. He watches over these in love, as they do over his soul; exhorting, comforting, reproving, and in every way building each other up in the faith. He regards these as members of his own household; and therefore, according to the ability God has given him, naturally cares for them, and provides all that they need for life and godliness.

But while he is established in his religious principles, in what he believes to be the truth; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he considers most acceptable in His sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation, his heart is enlarged toward all mankind. He embraces both those he knows and those he does not with strong affection. He that has this love has a spirit of unity. For love alone is a spirit of unity.

If, then, we take this word in the strictest sense, a man of a spirit of unity is one who, in the way we have just described, gives his hand to all whose hearts are right. He values and praises God for all the advantages he enjoys: the knowledge of the things of God, the true scriptural manner of worshipping Him, and his union with a congregation which fears God and works righteousness.  He keeps these blessings with great care, while at the same time loving all those, of whatever opinion, or worship, or congregation, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; who love God and man; who, rejoicing to please and fearing to offend God, are careful to avoid evil, and zealous for doing good.  He is the man of a true spirit of unity, who carries all these continually in his heart; who, having an unspeakable tenderness for them, and longing for their welfare, never ceases commending them to God in prayer, as well as pleading their cause before men. He speaks encouragingly to them and works by all his words to strengthen their hands in God. He assists them to the full extent of his ability in all things, spiritual and earthly. He is ready to spend and be spent for them; even to lay down his life for them.

Man of God, think about these things! If you already follow in this way, continue. If you have missed the path, praise God who has now brought you back! Run the race which is set before you, in the royal way of universal love. Be careful, or you will either become wavering in your judgment, or narrow in your bones. So keep an even pace, rooted in the holy faith which was given to the saints long ago, and grounded in true unifying love, until you are swallowed up in love for ever and ever!


This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.

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