Highlights

Religion of the heart

May 2020    

In his letter to Titus his protégé, the Apostle Paul exhorts the young pastor to “Teach what befits sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Orthodoxy (right belief) is important for the Christian faith because Christians believe that God has revealed something about Himself and His purposes for the world in Scripture.

However, even a cursory reading of Paul’s letter would show that “right doctrines or beliefs” alone are not enough. Orthodoxy has implications in the way we conduct ourselves and relate to one another. In other words, orthodoxy must lead to orthopraxis (right action).

John Wesley understood the importance of both orthodoxy and orthopraxis. He embraced the truths revealed in the Bible and summarised them in the Church’s ancient creeds, such as the Nicene Creed. And he believed that certain actions are required if one is to consider oneself a Christian.

Wesley helpfully divided these “necessary actions” into “works of piety” (e.g. participating in corporate worship, taking the sacraments, praying and Bible study) and “works of mercy” (e.g., feeding the poor, clothing the naked and visiting those imprisoned).

But beyond these two “orthos”, Wesley introduced a third, which he gleaned from his study of the Fathers of the early Church. Besides “right beliefs” and “right actions”, Wesley insisted, the Christian must also cultivate the “right heart” (orthokardia).

Although Wesley did not himself use the term “orthokardia”, the idea that the Christian faith is the “religion of the heart” pervades his entire corpus, and became increasingly prominent in his matured work.

Orthokardia, or the right heart, prevents the Christian faith and Christian discipleship from succumbing to that subtle erosion which some theologians have described as “externalism”—a religion that is reduced to outward conduct and ritual performances, devoid of real life, vitality and conviction.

For Wesley, the “heart” represents the true centre of the person—it defines who he is, the essence of his character. The “heart” therefore reveals the true self of an individual, more than do his outward actions, which can be hypocritical and deceptive.

The heart, Wesley says repeatedly, discloses the “tempers” of the individual. By “tempers”, Wesley does not mean an emotion or a person’s state of mind. Wesley uses this word in its more archaic sense to refer to the enduring disposition of a person.

Wesley also speaks of “religious affections”, and often uses this expression interchangeably with “heart” and “tempers”. Again, affections should not be confused with emotions. They have to do with the things are profoundly important to us, the things that we desire and long for—our ultimate concerns.

Like Augustine before him, Wesley brings love and the affections into the closest possible relationship with each other. Very often our affections are for the things we love.

Thus, those who love the world, Wesley explains, will have affections for carnal and worldly things. They will “have their thoughts and affections fixed on such things that gratify their corrupt nature: namely on things visible and temporal: on things of the earth, on pleasure (of sense or imagination), praise, or riches.”

But those who love God will be drawn to divine things. They will “think of, relish, love things invisible, eternal; the things which the Spirit hath revealed, which he works in us, moves us to, and promises to give us.”

The religion of the heart must be cultivated. Holy affections and holy tempers, once formed by divine grace, must be nurtured.

This can be achieved through the various spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith, which Wesley has given sacramental status by describing them as the means of grace, that is, as the vehicles or conduits by which the Holy Spirit works in the life of the Christian.

This means that the Christian must immerse himself fully in the life of the Church if he is to mature spiritually. Thus, it is through his participation in the rhythms of the worshipping community—prayer, liturgy, Eucharist, service—that the Christian cultivates orthokardia.

For Wesley, the importance of understanding the Christian faith as “the religion of the heart” cannot be over emphasised.

For without holy affections, Christian worship and service will be reduced either to mindless activism or a suffocating legalism. Without holy tempers, orthodoxy will not only be “dead”. It will also become a dogmatism that is harsh, cold and unforgiving.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).

1 See Sermon 9, “Spirit of Bondage and Adoption,” Works of John Wesley 1:252.

2 Wesley’s comment on Romans 8:5, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1976).

3 Ibid.

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