No holiness, no glory

From John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I”:

I not only allow, but vehemently contend, that none shall enter into glory who is not holy on earth, as well as in heart, as “in all manner of conversation.” I cry aloud, “Let all that have believed, be careful to maintain good works;” and “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from all iniquity.” I exhort even those who are conscious they do not believe: “Cease to do evil, learn to do well: The kingdom of heaven is at hand;” therefore, “repent, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”

Wesley offered these words as defense against the charge that his preaching of justification by faith alone undermined good works. I think most people who read my blog probably hear his words with a degree of resistance to the first line. We are not comfortable — for the most part — with the assertion that those who are not entirely holy will not enter into glory. It smacks of the most hated thing among us — exclusion.

And so, it is important for Methodists of all stripes to come to terms with Wesley on this point. We like to trot him out to reinforce our messages about love and works of mercy. But we tend to keep him in the basement when he talks about holiness.

Talking about being a Methodist or quoting John Wesley without understanding the central importance of holiness — complete and total holiness — to his theology is a bit like saying you are playing the game of baseball but removing home plate from the field. You can describe a lot of the action that goes on, but the point of the whole enterprise has been removed.

And this is why some of us are so vexed by what appears to be a cavalier attitude about questions regarding the meaning of holiness. People offer proposals to rewrite our understanding of Christian morality but reject all questions about what those proposals mean for closely related questions of Christian holiness. If we believe with Wesley that holiness of heart and life is essential to salvation, then we have to understand what holiness is and does and looks like.

At least, some of us feel that to be true.

Everything?

By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. (2 Peter 1:3, CEB)

The last couple of days I have been deeply challenged by this verse.

Do we believe — do I believe in the sense of deep trust — that the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness? Everything?

Abraham’s blessing

I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3, NIV)

The Christian claim has always been that we are children of Abraham through faith (Rom. 4:16). If that is so, we are the people through whom all the peoples of the earth should be blessed. Or if the footnote in my Bible is more correct, all the earth should use our name as a blessing.

Abraham was called by God and set apart so that through him all the peoples of the earth might be blessed.

I often forget this aspect of holiness. God calls us to be a people set apart from the world and its ways so that the world might be blessed by and through the church. Holiness is a means to God’s ends, not something we strive for in and of itself.

And it is necessary. We cannot be the means of God’s blessing if we are not holy, if we do not respond to the call to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God could arrange it without us, but God has chosen to call a people to holiness so we might carry the blessing of Abraham to the world.

I think this is why the Bible spends so many words discussing holiness, urging holiness, teaching holiness, and explaining the means by which holiness is secured and regained. It is why we need our sins forgiven. We cannot be God’s holy people and be sinning. It is why we need to forgive each other. As God’s called people, it is not our place to refuse those whom God has forgiven. It is why our holiness can never be about hiding safely behind walls. Our vocation is to be a blessing to God’s beloved children.

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:17-18, NIV)

Welcome to Corinth?

An online pornography site is taking its advertising public.

This story about the ad campaign — which I can’t figure out how to link to without linking to, but it would not be appropriate for reading in church, so be warned — calls the ads tasteful. This is a new meaning of the word “tasteful” that is unfamiliar to me.

This is the culture that tells the church it needs to loosen up about sex.

Some questions from Wesley

Near the end of his sermon “The Almost Christian,” John Wesley invites the congregation to examine its own heart:

I beseech you, brethren, as in the presence of that God before whom “hell and destruction are without a covering–how much more the hearts of the children of men?” –that each of you would ask his own heart, “Am I of that number? Do I so far practise justice, mercy, and truth, as even the rules of heathen honesty require? If so, have I the very outside of a Christian? the form of godliness? Do I abstain from evil, –from whatsoever is forbidden in the written Word of God? Do I, whatever good my hand findeth to do, do it with my might? Do I seriously use all the ordinances of God at all opportunities? And is all this done with a sincere design and desire to please God in all things?” 

These, it should be noted, are the preliminaries. Someone who could give a good answer on all these counts would still be in Wesley’s estimation an “almost Christian.” To be an altogether Christian requires more, something deeper. It requires a new heart.

To gauge the state of our hearts, Wesley presses even more questions upon us:

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? And is this commandment written in your heart, “That he who loveth God love his brother also”? Do you then love your neighbour as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? as Christ loved you? Yea, dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave himself for thee? Hast thou faith in his blood? Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins, and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea? that he hath blotted out the handwriting that was against thee, taking it out of the way, nailing it to his cross? Hast thou indeed redemption through his blood, even the remission of thy sins? And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art a child of God? 

What are your answers? They are all simple questions to answer. Yes or no will do. We want to quibble, as many have. This sounds like it all has to do with feelings. That has been a stumbling block for me, too. A pastor pointed out to me once, though, that you can love someone even when your feelings are not all gushing up like the first swoon of romance. This is not about “feelings” any more than the love of our family is merely about feelings.

Look at the verbs. He is asking us about who we love, what we desire, what we believe, and what we know by the witness of the Spirit.

So the answers are simple: Yes or no?

If the answer is “no,” Wesley has this exhortation for us.

Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and call upon thy God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest, till he make his “goodness to pass before thee;” till he proclaim unto thee the name of the Lord, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.” Let no man persuade thee, by vain words, to rest short of this prize of thy high calling. But cry unto him day and night, who, “while we were without strength, died for the ungodly,” until thou knowest in whom thou hast believed, and canst say, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember, “always to pray, and not to faint,” till thou also canst lift up thy hand unto heaven, and declare to him that liveth for ever and ever, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

Lord you know all things. You know that I love you.

Can we say that? Or are we still only almost there?