John Wesley on “Continual Enjoyment” in the New Creation
Is the New Creation something we should welcome, or something we should grieve? For much of my life, my study of the last things or “end times” brought little more than terror. Taught that the rapture was surely coming soon and fed by the overwarmed and more-fictional-than-they-let-on narratives of the Left Behind series, I was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was something fearful.
I was so wrong.
In his sermon “The New Creation,” John Wesley concludes with what is not only my favorite quote in the Wesley corpus, but perhaps the best description I know (outside of the Bible) of God’s Kingdom in its fullness:
As there will be no more death, and no more pain or sickness preparatory thereto; as there will be no more grieving for, or parting with, friends; so there will be no more sorrow or crying. Nay, but there will be a greater deliverance than all this; for there will be no more sin. And, to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him!
I was first exposed to this particular bit of Wesley thanks to my professor from Divinity School, Geoffrey Wainwright, in a lecture on the Kingdom of God and eternal life in Wesley. Some notable features:
- Priorities. The end of death, sickness, and grief is a secondary joy to the end of sin, which he calls the “greater deliverance.” What would it mean if we lived as if we were more afraid of sin than illness, suffering, or death?
- Communion. The theme of “constant communion” is used by various ways by Wesley. In a sermon by that name, he writes of the importance of the Eucharist as part of Christian piety. Might it be that a constant communion via the sacrament is nearly the best we can do, this side of the parousia, to the constant communion of God’s unfettered presence in the Kingdom?
- Father, Son, & Spirit. Wesley is unapologetically, explicitly Trinitarian. The union that is the “crown” of all the New Creation is not with an ephemeral deity, some “force” or Ground of Being, but the particular God revealed in Scripture and confessed in the creeds and Councils of the Church. Wesley is doubly clear that this communion is “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit,” whom he also describes via shorthand as the “Three-One God.” In an age, at least in North America, of increasing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it’s important to remember that the vision of the Kingdom that has animated Wesley and the church across time and space is solely dependent upon the Holy Trinity.
- A joyful union. Like other Arminians (and his grandchildren in the faith), Wesley is less focused on God’s glory (as Calvinists love to ponder) and far more interested in the joy of unbroken, perfect relationship to the Godhead. It is not only a knowledge or worship of God, but a “continual enjoyment” of the Trinity, with all creatures in him. Many visions of heaven or of the Kingdom (see N.T. Wright for this critical distinction) are so dreary that one would hardly want to go: the Father has not wrought our salvation through Christ and in the Holy Spirit so we could play golf in perpetuity. The end is rather, as the Westminster Catechism taught (and Wesley quoted frequently), to “enjoy Him forever.” That’s why for Wesley, the bottom line of the New Creation is nothing less than the “continual enjoyment” of God without end.
Of course, for Christians, the enjoyment of the Kingdom is not simply a promise that we reach through the door of death, but a way of life here and now. In his classic The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines the Kingdom as “the realm of God’s effective rule.” When Christ rules in our hearts, and with an increasing intensity as God’s ways hold sway over us through sanctification, we experience the joy of God’s reign. This is why Wesley regularly insisted, contra the images of dour nuns and dull saints the media gives us, that holiness and happiness are joined at the hip.
That’s the unique enjoyment that only God’s rule in our lives and in our world can bring. That is the promise for which we hope. That is the longing – the one true desire – of which all others are only a pale imitation.
Why wait to experience that joy until the next life? We can enjoy God now, and, as Charles Wesley so beautifully put it, “anticipate that heaven below.”
When you think of God’s Kingdom, do you think of joy? Why do so many images of the last things focus on fear rather than the enjoyment of God? Leave a comment below!