I was reading Ken Collin’s book The Theology of John Wesley and was surprised when I read about Wesley’s view on providence:
…Wesley viewed the particular providence of God in a threefold circle of increasing intensity and care. Thus, the outer circle incldues all of humanity, which is composed of “not only the Christian world . . . but the Mahometans . .. . and the heathens likewise.” The second, smaller circle, contains all who are Christians, all who are called such, and all who “profess to believe in Christ.” And finally, the thrid circle, the innermost one, embraces only real Christians, those “that worship God, not in form only, but in spirit and truth.” (page 41)
This view of providence is contained in Wesley’s sermon 68 “On Divine Providence” (which makes quite a bit of sense). Wesley begins by acknowledging God as creator of all things and also knowing all things. From that foundation he writes:
He hath made us, not we ourselves, and he cannot despise the work of his own hands. We are his children: And can a mother forget the children of her womb? Yea, she may forget; yet will not God forget us! On the contrary, he hath expressly declared, that as his “eyes are over all the earth,“so he “is loving to every man, and his mercy is over all his works.” Consequently, he is concerned every moment for what befalls every creature upon earth; and more especially for everything that befalls any of he children of men.
Of the first circle of providence he writes:
We do not now speak of that over-ruling hand which governs the inanimate creation, which sustains the sun, moon, and stars in their stations, and guides their motions; we do not refer to his care of the animal creation, every part of which we know is under His government, “who giveth food unto the cattle, and feedeth the young ravens that call upon him;” but we here speak of that superintending providence which regards the children of men. each of these is easily distinguished from the other, by those who accurately observe the ways of God.
The second circle Wesley writes:
Yet it may be admitted, that He takes more immediate care of those that are comprised in the second, the smaller circle; which includes all that are called Christians, all that profess to believe in Christ. We may reasonably think that these, in some degree, honor him, at least more than the Heathens do: God does, likewise, in some measure, honor them, and has a nearer concern for them. By many instances it appears, that the prince of this world has not so full power over these as over the Heathens. The God whom they even profess to serve, does, in some measure, maintain his own cause; so that the spirits of darkness do not reign so uncontrolled over them as they do over the heathen world.
Wesley says that God takes more immediate care of those who honor God. In short, God honors those who honor God.
Yet, there is another more inner circle in God’s providence. Those in this circle, Wesley says, are the real Christians. Wesley in other sermons has also made a distinction between Christians and Real Christians, or True Christians, or Scriptural Christians. For a short study one might want to look at his sermon Almost Christian where Wesley describes those who are “almost Christian” and those who are truly Christians.
Those who are “real Christians” are those who worship God in spirit and in truth. He writes:
18. Within the third, the innermost circle, are contained only the real Christians; those that worship God, not in form only, but in spirit and in truth. Herein are comprised all that love God, or, at least, truly fear God and work righteousness; all in whom is the mind which was in Christ, and who walk as Christ also walked. The words of our Lord above recited peculiarly refer to these. It is to these in particular that he says, “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” He sees their souls and their bodies; he takes particular notice of all their tempers, desires, and thoughts, all their words and actions. He marks all their sufferings, inward and outward, and the source whence they arise; so that we may well say,
I don’t know how those in Wesley’s world viewed such a teaching on providence, but I’m not sure this view of providence would be considered politically correct today. We like to say that God treats everybody the same. Or, at least view no difference between those who “profess Christ” and those who are real Christians.But as I reflect on this, I can make some sense of it. After all, if a parent has a child who trusts them so much that they listen to what the parent says (third circle) is more protected than a child who doesn’t listen to their parent very well (second circle). After all, when the first parent yells at their child before the child runs into the street, the child will probably stop and thus not be hit by a car. The child who doesn’t listen runs the risk of being hit because they continue running into the street even if the parent tells them not too. Of course the first circle, given this analogy, represents those children who have no idea it is their parent, who loves them, who is telling them to stay out of the street and therefore the child doesn’t pay much attention at all.
What’s the point of all this? Well, if Wesley is right, then those who are sold out to Jesus and his way experience a greater intimate care than those who simply profess Christ. There is a message for those of us who believe that we can profess Christ yet live outside of Jesus’ will and way. In fact, if Wesley is right, we hinder and forfeit God’s care and influence in our lives.
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