Do we know what Christianity is?

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord. (Heb 12:14)

— John Wesley, “Scriptural Christianity

From Scripture and experience, John Wesley believed he understood the typical way the spirit worked in the hearts of men and women. He believed that sinners were like sleeping people, unaware of the life of the spirit and the things of God. Many who went by the name of Christians were little more than sleep walkers, making the motions without the actual awareness of waking life. To be awakened from this was startling and distressing. The sinner became aware of his or her sin and the holiness of God and was pained by the difference. Justifying faith brought an end to such agony by bringing assurance to sinners that Jesus Christ died for them and loved them. This new birth of the spirit then needed to be nurtured into full maturity and perfection of love for God and neighbor, or else it would wither and die and people would return to spiritual slumber.

Although the description in the paragraph above is fairly linear, Wesley was too careful to be so blunt. He understood that individuals might move back and forth and by small steps or large leaps through this journey of the spirit. He acknowledged there might be exceptional cases that did not follow this pattern. But this was what he understood to be the ordinary, the typical way of Christianity in the life of person.

I am not aware of within United Methodism today anything like a shared understanding of the progress of Christianity in the life of individuals (or congregations). We do not, so far as I can see, share a sense that there are typical patterns of Christian development, do we? When it comes to raising questions about the Wesleyan pattern, we are pretty quick to speak, but I do no hear from the leaders and teachers of my denomination any commonly held description of Christianity (to use Wesley’s organization scheme for the sermon quoted above) as it first rises in individuals, as it spreads from person to person, and as it covers the whole Earth.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we had such a shared understanding of what we are doing?

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3 thoughts on “Do we know what Christianity is?

  1. I agree, John. Excellent point and analysis of the modern/post modern church. This weekend I am reading Scot McKnights “The King Jesus Gospel” and it pushes this thought even farther, that we (the Church – especially evangelicals) miss what the Gospel is all about – and thus our methodologies are doomed to fail because we keep missing the mark when it comes to evangelism – until we get this sorted out we will be unable to make disciples…let alone transform the world.

  2. It would be most helpful, but I fear too many of our colleagues believe so many errant versions of the faith that a consensus is not forthcoming.

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