Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

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.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

What is the gospel?

John Wesley answers the question “What is the gospel?” in his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom.”

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

We can see a little of the Wesleyan both/and here. He acknowledges that the gospel includes the entire account of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. Fans of N.T. Wright can cheer this. But he also identifies the “substance,” a word that in philosophy and theology means the essential nature of the thing. That essential heart of the gospel is the saving and atoning work of Jesus.

Our peculiar doctrine

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.

Three marks of evangelicalism

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.

Am I like him?

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?

You are not a rhubarb pie

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?