From John Wesley’s journal of February 1789:
Friday, 6, being the Quarterly Day for meeting the Local Preachers, between twenty and thirty of them met at West-Street, and opened their hearts to each other. Taking the opportunity of having them all together, at the watch-night, I strongly insisted on St. Paul’s advice to Timothy, “Keep that which is committed to thy trust;” particularly the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which God has peculiarly entrusted to the Methodists.
That doctrine, expounded upon in detail in Wesley’s great sermon “Christian Perfection,” teaches that while humans prior to the Second Coming will never be free from ignorance, mistakes, weakness of the flesh, or temptation, the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts does give Christians power to resist all sin — in thought and deed. By an act of grace God will sanctify in this life those whom he has justified.
Wesley preached this for nearly his entire post-Aldersgate ministry. And he was resisted all along the way by those within and outside Methodism who objected on scriptural or experiential grounds. After his death, this doctrine would give rise to splits as groups that held firm to Christian Perfection — or as Wesley also called it in his sermon, holiness — broke off from the moderating masses of Methodists.
We United Methodists still hold to this doctrine formally. It is still committed to our trust. But it is a relic that we keep in the attic.
I wonder what it would be like if in the upcoming Annual Conference season every bishop in United Methodism followed Wesley’s example in 1789 and pressed on the gathered preachers to affirm, embrace, and proclaim again this peculiar doctrine and all it entails.
I came across a wonderful little book at the university library earlier this summer. Timothy L. Smith’s Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth contains sermons and writings from the two great Methodist preachers. It also includes a lucid and edifying essay by Smith tracing the essentials that bound the two men and the differences that divided them on matters of theology. The book is out of print, but worth picking up if you find a copy.
In Smith’s essay, he summarizes his view of the three points on which Wesley and Whitefield always agreed. Smith writes that the pair shared these convictions with Quakers, Baptists, German Pietists, Mennonites, Moravians, and Presbyterian, Anglican, and Congregationalist heirs to the Puritans.
All such “evangelicals” affirmed the moral authority of the Bible, declaring that it called human beings to righteousness that is not only imputed to them in Christ’s name but actually imparted to them by His grace. All stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, assuring them of forgiveness, and, by His presence thereafter in their hearts, nurturing in them the love and holiness that please God. Evangelicals also declared it the duty of all who had discovered these truths and experienced this grace to proclaim the good news of salvation everywhere, at home and abroad. From that day until this, these three convictions have marked the boundaries of evangelical Protestantism.The Bible is its authority, the new birth its hallmark, and evangelism its mission.
There are others schemes that people try to use to define what it means to be an evangelical, but I find Smith’s summary quite appealing.
Rob Renfroe of Good News has a video that is both a statement of what it means to be an evangelical United Methodist and a call to action and call to battle for the soul of the church.
Renfroe uses the question throughout the video “I wonder if you are like me?” As I watched I found the question pressing on me. The deeper he went and the more combative his tone became, the less comfortable I was with that question.
It is not that I disagree with anything he says about what it means to be a evangelical Wesleyan orthodox Christian. But the call to conflict does unsettle me.
That does not mean it is wrong. It does not mean it is right. It merely observes my own reaction.
I wonder about you. How do you hear this message?
I really don’t understand this.
A fellow pastor posted on his Facebook page this blog post from a self-identified progressive Christian blogger and ordained Presbyterian minister. My fellow pastor lauded the post as providing great food for thought.
The point of the post, if you don’t want to read it, is that Jesus never said he was God in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so worshiping Jesus as God should not be a requirement for calling ourselves Christians. The writer informs us that he calls himself a Christian because Jesus is the best teacher he knows about “this god thing.” The title of the blog post does not beat around the bush: Jesus Is Not My God.
As I say, I don’t understand this.
I’m not terribly familiar with the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I assume somewhere in there it talks about Jesus being God. I feel fairly confident about this because this has been a more or less settled question for 1,700 years. What I read of John Calvin and what I’ve read about John Knox suggests to me that they took the whole Jesus is God thing pretty seriously, too.
The blog writer says he is not trying to say orthodox Christians are wrong (I’m allowed to use orthodox in this case, right Via Media?). He just wants to be free to call himself a Christian even though he openly denies that Jesus is God.
Of course, it is a free country. If he wants to call himself a rhubarb pie, he can do so. But the rest of us are still allowed to tell him he is wrong.
Right? Could we still do that if he were a United Methodist?
God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:6-8, NIV)
The larger context of this passage is that God’s response to good and evil ignores the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but we should not let the distinction that Paul feels he has to make a case for obscure from our vision the claims about God that Paul feels no need to defend because everyone agrees, namely that God punishes those who do evil and rewards those who persist in doing good.
This is so fundamental to biblical religion that we render the Bible incomprehensible if we suppress this fundamental claim about God.
The old Methodist teaching took this for granted. And it equally took for granted that we are no able to do the persistent good that Paul writes about. We might do good here or there, but we cannot form a life grounded in persistent goodness out of our own resources. And we cannot erase the crippling stain of sin by our own good deeds. We cannot, in other words, deserve the reward.
This old Methodist message has many detractors in United Methodism, but what I have find even more perplexing is the resistance to the fundamental biblical claim about God rewards those who do good and punishes those who do evil.
Tom Lambrecht, vice president of the United Methodist renewal group Good News, argues that the places where United Methodism is dying the fastest are precisely those places at the forefront in disobedience to church discipline and doctrine regarding sex. This, he writes, gives us a glimpse of the future that progressives would create for the denomination.
Since the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Annual Conference appears to be at the forefront of advocating new moral teachings by the church, according to the hypothesis that this represents the Methodism of the future, the conference should be showing remarkable growth and vitality. Instead, we see a stunning drop in membership and worship attendance.
In 2003, the PNW reported 60,495 members. Ten years later in 2013, they report 46,209, a decrease of over 23%. The membership loss in 2013 was 2,465 alone, nearly double the yearly average over the last ten years. So the membership loss is getting worse, not better, even in light of the church’s permissive stance regarding sexuality.
Worship attendance was even worse. In 2003, the PNW reported 26,421 in average worship attendance. Now that number is 18,505, a decline of 30%. In 2013 alone, worship attendance declined 1,663, an 8.2% drop! The decrease in worship attendance in 2013 alone was more than double the average annual decrease over the last ten years, so again, the loss is getting worse.
This kind of argument, of course, does not address the justice arguments made by United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the connection. Also, I think a fair reading of the progressive argument is that the denomination is doomed to lose younger generations if it maintains its historic doctrine, so it would be interesting to see if there is any evidence to support that claim. Eroding membership in progressive conferences and jurisdictions may be older generations, which while nothing to cheer does not directly address what I take to be the progressive argument.
Nonetheless, the numbers Lambrecht reports are sobering and certainly give us cause to wonder about the best road forward for a denomination that strives to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.