adapted from a sermon by John Wesley
John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist movement, traveled extensively throughout Britain. He preached in the fields, halls, cottages, chapels – and in churches that would allow him entry. He was also a prolific writer. He printed several volumes of his sermons, 141 sermons in total, during his lifetime, Wesley wanted every Christian to attain the status of perfect love, wherein the love of God and neighbor would reign in the hearts of people. His sermon on “The More Excellent Way was written in later life. It is a stirring call to choose for the more excellent way of love and holiness.
Note: The following text is a paraphrased adaption for modern readers. It is excerpted from the first half of the sermon. The original full-length sermon is available online . Editor.
Earnestly desire the higher gifts – and I will show you still a more excellent way.1 Corinthians 12:31
Now, by the grace of God, may we choose the “more excellent way” in following Jesus Christ. I would like to contrast this excellent way with the way most are inclined to go.
Let me give some examples: First, do we as Christians devote ourselves to good spiritual disciplines – such as the practice of taking a personal time for daily prayer and reading of Scripture? Do we choose the more excellent way of a structured and consistent pattern of daily prayer? Second, how do we as Christians approach our responsibilities and daily tasks – are we diligent or idle? Sloth is inconsistent with the good practice of our religion. Third, how do we as Christians approach daily family life and common practices, such as eating meals together? Do we begin each meal with a prayer for God’s blessing and then at the end of the meal offer a prayer of thanksgiving to our Heavenly Provider for all the blessings he gives us? Fourth, do we make good use of our free time, especially times for diversion and relaxation? And fifth, how do we as Christians use our money – are we good stewards of our resources? Is there not “a more excellent way we can choose in all of these matters?”
Gifts of the Holy Spirit
In the preceding verses of 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul has been speaking of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit – such as healing the sick, prophesying, (foretelling things to come), speaking in strange tongues that the speaker had never learned, and also the miraculous interpretation of tongues. The Apostle says that these gifts are desirable. He even exhorts the Corinthians, at least the teachers among them… to earnestly desire such gifts so they can be used for helping Christian and non-Christians alike. “And yet,” he goes on to say, “I will show you an even more excellent way” that is far more desirable than all these extraordinary gifts put together. This way of excellence will surely lead you to happiness both in this world and in the world to come…
I presently wish to pass over addressing the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, and instead focus on the “ordinary” gifts that we should earnestly desire so we can more profitably use them in serving others today. Some of the gifts which I think we should earnest desire are: the gift of convincing speech – especially to awaken the unbelieving heart, and the gift of persuasion, to move the affections, as well as to enlighten the mind with understanding. We can earnestly strive to grow in knowledge, knowledge of God and his works, both his providential care and work of grace in our lives. We can earnestly desire a measure of the gift of expectant faith which goes far beyond the power of natural causes. God grants this gift on particular occasions, both for his glory and for our happiness. We can desire the gift of speaking well in whatever situations we may find ourselves, with a pleasing manner of speech that is useful to the hearer and which is also pleasing to God and in accord with his will.
The more excellent way of love
While it is good to desire these gifts, there is still an even “more excellent way” which God wants us to earnestly seek. That more excellent way is the way of love – of loving all people for God’s sake. Such love is characterized by humility, gentleness, and patience – as the Apostle Paul admirably describes in chapter 13. Paul goes on to explain that without love, all of our eloquence, all knowledge, all faith, all works, and all sufferings, are of no more value in the sight of God than the sound of clanging brass or rumbling cymbals… they do not help us in the least towards the goal of eternal salvation. Without this gift of divine love, all that we know, all that we believe, all that we do, and all that we suffer in this life will profit us nothing in the great day when we must give an account of our stewardship to God.
Choosing the higher path
I would like to examine this text from a different angle and point out “a more excellent way” in another sense. One of the very early Christian writers observed from the beginning of the church two types of Christians – those who followed the lower path or higher path of holiness. Those on the lower path sought to remain innocent in terms of avoiding serious sin, but often in their outward behavior they conformed to all the customs and fashions of the world around them. They did good deeds, abstained from gross evils, and generally observed the commandments of God. And they endeavored to maintain a good conscience that brought no offence to God. But their outward behavior didn’t really look any different from their non-Christian neighbors. They lived pretty much the same customs and style of life as their neighbors.
The Christians who chose to follow a higher path of holiness not only strove to avoid doing evil, they were also eager to do as much good as they could for others and to attentively live out the teaching of the commandments with a zeal for holiness of life. They strove to put on the mind of Christ and to eagerly follow in the footsteps of their beloved Master. They followed the path of self-denial to pursue God’s will – preferring what was pleasing to God over every other pleasure which stood in the way. They strove to take up their cross daily. They struggled, without letting up, to enter the straight and narrow gate which Christ set before them. And they spared no pains to arrive at the summit of Christian holiness, which can be summarized in the New Testament verses:
“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity [also translated as “perfection” or “completeness”]” (Hebrews 6:1), and “to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”.Ephesians 3:19
From observation and long personal experience, I am inclined to think that whoever finds redemption in the blood of Jesus, whoever is justified by Christ, has then the choice of walking in the higher or the lower path of holiness. I believe the Holy Spirit sets before such a person who has found new life in Christ “the more excellent way,” and inspires this person to pursue the one best way which Christ offers, and to aspire after the heights and depths of holiness, striving to be fully transformed in the image of God. If such a person does not accept this offer from Christ, he or she will invariably choose a lower path towards holiness of life. Such a person can still go on in living a good life, in serving God in some degree, and in receiving God’s mercy in the close of life through the blood of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
Obtaining a crown of glory
I would be far from quenching a flickering or smoldering wick, from discouraging those that serve God in whatever measure – however small it might be. But I could not wish them to remain there. I would encourage them to come up higher, without thundering some threat of punishment or condemnation. I would endeavor to point out to them “a more excellent way” they could choose to follow.
However, let us not forget that in the age to come, those who have chosen to pursue the lower path of holiness will not be raised to a high place in heaven as they would have had if they had chosen the better path. And will this be a small loss – having much fewer stars in your crown of glory? Will it be a little thing to have a lower place than you might have had in the kingdom of your heavenly Father? The Lord assures us that there will certainly be no sorrow in heaven. There all tears will be wiped from our eyes – but if it were possible that grief could enter there, we should grieve at that irreparable loss. Irreparable then, but not now. Now, by the grace of God, may we choose the “more excellent way.”
Top image of a cross on top of a hill, from Bigstock.com, by © pavel_klimenko, stock photo ID: 27211673. Used with permission.
John Wesley (1703-1791) was the founder of the Methodist movement. A brilliant organizer, he formed societies throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. He appointed itinerant, un-ordained preachers to evangelize and care for people in the Methodist societies. Wesley wanted every Christian to attain the status of perfect love, wherein the love of God and neighbor would reign in the hearts of people. Wesley preached in the fields, halls, cottages, chapels – and in churches that would allow him entry.