According to John Wesley, the goal of the Christian life is love: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. It is important to distinguish between the kind of love the Gospel and Wesley are calling us to, and our common (preferential) — but deeply meaningful — experience of love within our family and friendships. Wesley uses three interchangeable adjectives: divine, holy, or perfect love.
Perfect love was made visible to us and accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we turn toward this love we recognize that God holds us each in an unconditional embrace: we are beloved. The experience of divine love is grace, a gift of God; and the recognition that we are beloved calls us to love what God loves, which is the world — “every soul God hath made,” in Wesley's words.
You may quickly identify the distinction between preferential love and love divine, by your reaction to the command: “love your enemies.” It is not humanly impossible; so impossible, in fact, that I might not even use the word love to describe it. Rather, by grace, we recognize that even the soul of our enemy is sacred, precious in God’s eyes. Holy love is the emotions, thoughts, words and actions that proceed from the recognition that every soul is of inestimable worth, even your own, even your enemy's.
Guided by Scripture, Wesley believed that the emotions — “tempers” — thoughts, words and actions of divine love, were readily identifiable in the life of Christ, and so should shape the life of every christian believer. The goal of the Christian life is perfect love, or holiness. “In a word, holiness is to have the mind that was in Christ’ and the ‘walking as Christ walked.” The purpose of the church, then, is to nurture God’s Holy Love in the world, by encouraging the practices where Christ walked that we might have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. In these practices — the “means of grace” — God accomplishes God’s work in us for the healing of the world. This is the “method” in methodism. In Wesley’s words:
“In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and [humanity] … In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers;—long suffering, gentleness, meekness, fidelity, temperance; and if any other were comprised in “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.” In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace … Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety;—reading and hearing the word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one body, the Church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the Church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.” (from "On Zeal")
In a word, we the Church is to be a school of Holy Love. In all the books about Christian discipleship and mission I have read, I know no other description of the Christian life that so succinctly captures the work to which we are called.
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess (graphic by members of Riviera UMC).