Do you love God?

Do you love God?

That is the first great commandment, yes?

Love God.

Do you love God?

Please note, this question is not “Do you think highly of God?” or “Do you admire God?” or “Do you like it when God does good stuff for you?” or even “Do you sing a good praise song and lift your hands in worship?”

Do you love God?

Of course, if you do not know God, the answer must be “no.” We cannot love the idea of God or the rumor of God. We must know God to love him.

Too many Christians spend their spiritual might trying love a God they neither know nor experience. They try. They say all the right words. They do all the right things. But they, as John Wesley put it once, have no more love of God than a stone.

And as a stone our hearts will remain until our eyes of faith are opened to the great truth that we tell during Holy Week. Jesus Christ loved you, loved me, so much that he died to free us from sin and death. He knelt in the garden that night — when he could have run — because he loved us. He bore the lash because he loves us. He took the nails because he loves us. He died humiliated, tortured, and mocked because he loves us.

Do you know how much God loves you?

Do you know?

Do you know?

Faith is a miracle

If you were to ask John Wesley the meaning of the word “faith,” he would quote Hebrews 11:1.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)

Only he would most often quote the original Greek and then explain that the word “evidence” means “conviction” as well.

For Wesley, faith was a supernatural gift of spiritual insight. It is a gift of God that allows us to see things that are hidden from our natural senses. More specifically, the faith that saves is the conviction not only that God exists but also that Jesus Christ loved me and gave himself for me.

This is not something we can decide to believe. We can only be convinced of it by the work of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Wesleyan theology is always suspicious of “decisions for Christ.” Such decisions are not bad, but they are not faith and certainly not saving faith. That only comes as a gift from God.

The good news, according to Wesley, is that anyone who seeks such faith will be granted it. Ask, and it shall be given, but not necessarily on our timeline.

I return again and again to Wesley’s definition of faith — he would undoubtedly say the biblical definition — because the word is defined differently by so many people inside and outside the church. Behind so many exhortations to “have faith” or to “believe the good news” is the unstated assumption that we could generate that faith ourselves. If we just tried harder to believe, we could believe.

It is often described as a willful clinging on to something for which we cannot have any rational grounds to trust. It is described as a willful ignoring of the brute facts of the world. Even though I have no reason to trust God’s promises, I will.

That could not be farther from a Wesleyan understanding of faith. Faith is trust based on conviction born of the Holy Spirit. It is an opening of spiritual awareness that allows us to see, hear, and know God. It has no more to do with effort than seeing a sunrise.

We can repent. We can ask God to give us faith. But we can only receive faith. We cannot produce it.

This is how I understand Wesley’s doctrine regarding faith.

Does that ring true to you?

Are there problems with this teaching?

The heart of Methodism in 16 lines

If you want a concise summary of Wesleyan theology, read the lyrics to Charles Wesley’s “Let Us Plead for Faith Alone.”

Let us plead for faith alone
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is Who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies.

Active faith that lives within,
Conquers hell and death and sin,
Hallows whom it first made whole,
Forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
Sure salvation is the end;
Heaven already is begun,
Everlasting life is won.

Only let us persevere
Till we see our Lord appear,
Never from the Rock remove,
Saved by faith which works by love.

Every line of this hymn is packed with points of Wesleyan emphasis. You get free grace. You get the faith-works linkage. You get God’s agency and our response. You get the overcoming of sin and the distinction between justification and sanctification. You get the need to work out our salvation and persevere to the end. You get present salvation and eternal life. And you get the overall focus on the saving of our own souls that was the heart of Wesleyan preaching and practice.

I’m not a huge fan of the standard tune that this hymn is set to in our hymnal. I do find the words of this hymn to be a wonderful gift to Methodism and the wider church.

The stages of faith, Wesleyan style

I see from time to time on Christian bookstore shelves a book called Stages of Faith. I gather it is still read fairly widely and is deemed helpful to many in ministry. I have not read it. But stumbling over it recently reminded me of the Wesleyan outline of the stages of faith.

Here is my summary, as Wesley explained in his sermon “Salvation by Faith.”

Stage 1 Faith – Awareness that there is a god or gods and that they interact with the world. We seek to know and please the god or gods by giving them glory, thanking them for the blessings they bestow, and practicing moral virtues, including the showing of justice, mercy, and truth to all. The god or gods reward those with whom they find favor, and they punish those whom offend or reject them.

Stage 2 Faith – Trust that the one God has revealed himself through the life of his chosen people and the revelation witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures, and that God was incarnate in the flesh and broke the power of all evil and the enemies of God.

Stage 3 Faith – Trust enough to leave all that we have and cling to so we might follow Jesus. The witness and receipt of the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and strengthen those beset by the enemies of God. Faith sufficient to preach the kingdom of God and proclaim Jesus is Lord.

Stage 4 Faith – Or saving faith. Faith in Christ. Faith that moves not just the mind, but heart. Faith that acknowledges the necessity of Jesus’ death for our good and the power of his resurrection for new life. It is not something we attain by effort, but we receive. An assurance that Jesus Christ by his life, death, and resurrection has saved me, even me, from the power of sin and death. That he was given for us and now lives in us.

It would be imposing something on Wesley that I do not think was his aim to describe these stages as developmental ones. He did not teach that we necessarily move through these. He offers them more as historical alternatives, I think, than a personal pathway. But I do find the “stages” he outlines helpful in thinking about my own faith and in trying to reflect prayerfully on the faith of others.

Malcolm Gladwell on the power of faith

Popular writer Malcolm Gladwell talks about his newest book and his own rediscovery of his Christian faith, a work still in progress.

It wasn’t an “I woke up one morning” kind of thing. It was a slow realization something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing. Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too.