Building on the foundation

From John Wesley’s “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”:

We see, on every side, either men of no religion at all, or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are grieved at the sight; and should greatly rejoice, if by any means we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained — a religion worthy of God that gave it. And this we conceive to be no other than love; the love of God and of all mankind; the loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made, every man on earth, as our own soul.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men. Wherever this is, there are virtue and happiness going hand in hand. There is humbleness of mind, gentleness, long-suffering, the whole image of God; and at the same time a peace that passeth all understanding, and joy unspeakable and full of glory.

I have published these words before on my blog, but I find them such a wonderful introduction to the basic impulse of Wesley’s theology that it is worth repeating and remembering.

On the merits of love few of my United Methodist brothers and sisters would likely object. But will we go just a few paragraphs farther with the Rev. Wesley? If we will, we will read of the means of attaining this religion of love: faith.

For Wesley, faith was not an act of the will or the result of cognition. It was rather a sixth sense, “the eye of the new-born soul.” It is the eye of the soul that allows a person to see the invisible God and the ear of the soul that allows a person to hear of Jesus Christ speaking pardon and love to the sinner. It is the “palate” (the tongue) of the soul that tastes the good word. It is the feeling of the soul that allows the believer to perceive the invisible and eternal world. (Wesley had not description for the nose of the soul for some reason.)

This faith is a gift of God. We cannot summon it. We cannot choose it. We can only receive it.

It is the free gift of God, which he bestows, not on those who are worthy of his favour, not on such as are previously holy, and so fit to be crowned with all the blessings of his goodness; but on the ungodly and unholy; on those who till that hour were fit only for everlasting destruction; those in whom was no good thing, and whose only plea was, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” No merit, no goodness in man precedes the forgiving love of God. His pardoning mercy supposes nothing in us but a sense of mere sin and misery; and to all who see, and feel, and own their wants, and their utter inability to remove them, God freely gives faith, for the sake of Him in whom he is always, “well pleased.”

I suspect that some of my brother and sisters in the United Methodist Church would part ways with Wesley before getting through this third paragraph. It speaks too much of what we lack. It is bad news. It discards and dismisses our own “goodness.”  It reeks too much of “sin management.”

And to a degree, Wesley would agree with this impulse. In the first Methodist conferences, he argued this very point. Among those who have the foundations of faith, among the believers, Wesley instructed his preachers to build up and draw on toward perfection. It did little good to preach the remission of sins over and over to those who knew their sins forgiven. With them the aim was to nurture the work of sanctifying grace.

But the foundation was found in the faith described above. Without that nothing solid could be built. Wesley’s entire doctrine of grace and all he preached and taught about social holiness and good works built upon the foundation of this faith.

As a United Methodist pastor who preaches and ministers among an established congregation, I try to build on this same foundation. I am not the most skillful carpenter, but I am learning and striving to improve all the time.

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2 thoughts on “Building on the foundation”

  1. Well, yes, and then, Repentance was preparatory to such faith, too. I can’t help but think that one of the big differences between Wesley & his direct followers, and the UM preaching of today is the heavy emphasis on the necessity of repentance.

  2. A bigger difference, perhaps– and related to it– is that of our perfectability in love. If you’re in this to “get a pass into heaven” or to “become more moral” merely, Wesley would have little time for you. It was about striving after entire holiness, complete salvation, and nothing less.

    I hear few of our United Methodist colleagues, lay or clergy, speaking in these terms. Religion is approached more as a self-improvement scheme or the church as a leadership development factory than a hospital for sinners and a workhouse for the formation of saints.

    Complete salvation for him was not merely deliverance from guilt, though that was essential as a foundation, but complete deliverance from the power of sin in our lives, opening us to offer perfect love toward God and neighbor.

    You can’t get anywhere near that if you’re not serious first about acknowledging the degree to which sin has laid hold of you– to a degree and with a ferocity you have no resources to match. No amount of self-improvement or leadership development or “therapy” will overcome this– only the prevening, justifying and then sanctifying grace of God.

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