Archive for the ‘Justification’ Category
I’ve had the opportunity this summer to lead three people in prayer to ask Christ to be their Lord and Savior. These numbers won’t show up on my official United Methodist vitality statistics because they were not at the church I served. Two of them were not closely tied to churches at all. (I urged them in strong terms to find a church and get into a community of Christians.)
So here is the question.
How much “education” do you do before you lead someone to Christ?
In these cases, I talked with them about the story of salvation. God created us to be good, happy, and at peace. We are fallen. All of us fall short of the glory of God. Jesus Christ came to save us. By belief in him and by the power of his resurrection we can have new life. By the pouring out of the Holy Spirit we can have the assurance of our salvation. By working with the Holy Spirit we can be returned to that lost vision that God had for us in creation.
This, obviously, takes some time, but it is not like a full-on twelve-week catechism class.
So, I’m curious. What is your practice?
(In case you are interested, my training in the area has come not from other pastors or at seminary, but from this book by Eddie Fox and George Morris. William J. Abraham’s little book on evangelism has also been instructive to me.)
“How do I get that?”
I had been talking to a woman about God. She was convinced that God could never look on her with love. She had done too much that in her own eyes was wrong and unworthy of God.
In all her talk, she had never uttered the word “Jesus,” even though she had talked over and over about her certainty that God “is there.”
So, I asked her about Jesus. She did not know what to say about him. She was not sure how God was Jesus and Jesus was God. It was all confusing. So, we talked about that for a little bit.
Then I talked to her about the fact that God loves us, loves her. I talked about the fact that all of us — me as much as any — fall short of the glory of God. We all are sinners. We all have a list of the ways we fall short of God’s dreams for our lives.
But the good news is this: While we were yet sinners, Jesus Christ died for us.
And I talked about the cross and forgiveness and new life.
I talked about the sense, the assurance, the knowledge that one can have that Jesus Christ loves me and died for me and forgives me, even me, for all sin.
“How can I get that?” she asked.
And so I talked about faith. I talked about trust in Jesus. I talked about it being something that we receive not something we do. I asked her if she would like to pray with me.
“I was going to ask you if we could,” she said.
And so we prayed. We confessed our sin. We asked to be forgiven. We named Jesus as Lord and Savior. We thanked him for all he has done and will do for us. One after the other. Voice after voice.
As she prayed, she cried.
We said “Amen.”
When I saw her the next day we talked about building on that foundation. We talked about finding a church where others could help her continue what had begun.
She said that before she had been seeking relationship with God. She thought she had it. But what she had was not real. It needed drugs and alcohol to keep her numb.
“I know what it means now. I know what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.”
Some days, being a pastor is not at all a bad way to get along in this world.
When the first Methodist conference gathered in 1744 the very first question dealt with in its minutes was about salvation.
We began with considering the doctrine of justification: The questions relating to, with the substance of the answers given thereto, were as follows: –
Q.1. What is it to be justified?
A. To be pardoned and received into God’s favour; into such a state, that if we continue therein, we shall be finally saved.
Q.2. Is faith a condition of justification?
A. Yes; for every one who believeth not is condemned; and every one who believes is justified.
It may not be obvious from the bare words, but the doctrine at the very center of this thing called Methodism aims to cure those who are doomed to eternal death. The starting point for all Methodist preaching and doctrine was the notion that human beings are far from God and condemned to eternal destruction. That is the default state of a human being. We are on a highway to hell. No matter how nice we seem on the outside, even if we do all kinds of lovely works and care for the sick and poor, without faith in Jesus Christ we are doomed.
This is what John Wesley preached in 1738. It is what the Methodist conference set down as settled doctrine in its first meeting in 1744. It is what Wesley continued to preach into his dying days.
There is a reason proper Anglican priests kept telling him he would not be invited to preach a second sermon at their church. The doctrine of justification by faith is outrageous to sensible middle-class and wealthy people everywhere. It says they are not good in God’s eyes just because they have managed to get a nice job and a good house and raise kids with only minor character flaws. It says there are worse things than being poor and illiterate. It says our sins are but a sign of the wicked heart inside us that rebels against God.
And so my question, one that burns at me: Did we stop preaching this because it is not true? Did we decide the doctrine of justification by faith was not biblical or that the Bible got God wrong?
This question bedevils me so much because I don’t know what we are doing in the church if our conclusion is that John Wesley — and millions of other Christians — have been wrong about this basic theological issue. If people are basically good and everyone is going to heaven regardless of whether they have faith or receive forgiveness, then why did Jesus die? Why do we need a church at all? We have plenty of people giving us moral platitudes and inspiring video clips on Facebook. Why bother with all the rest?
And if John Wesley was right, then what, dear Lord, are we doing in church when we act as if the biggest problem most people have is finding meaning in their lives or getting their kids to behave? If Wesley was right that men and women are hurtling toward eternal death unless they receive pardon by the grace of Jesus through faith, if he was right about this, then why are we so quiet about it?
It was a big enough topic that it was agenda item #1 at the first Methodist conference. Is it still important for us today?
From John Wesley’s journal of April 11, 1751:
The barber who shaved me said, “Sir, I praise God on your behalf. When you was at Bolton last, I was one of the most eminent drunkards in all the town; but I came to listen at the window, and God struck me to the heart. I then earnestly prayed for power against drinking; and God gave me more than I asked: He took away the very desire of it. Yet I felt myself worse and worse, till, on the 5th of April last, I could hold out no longer. I knew I must drop into hell that moment unless God appeared to save me: And he did appear. I knew he loved me; and felt sweet peace. Yet I did not dare to say I had faith, till yesterday was twelvemonth, God gave me faith; and his love has ever since filled my heart.”
One of my favorite scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Delmar’s baptism:
Delmar comes up out of the water and declares his sins washed away to the point that neither God nor man has any claim on him any longer.
I thought of the scene while reading one of the less newsworthy parts of the GQ interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.
During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.
“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”
As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.
Robertson may not follow in the church of Delmar, but it sounds quite similar to me.
And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?
For some folks that could be an impossible task, of course. We cause so many hurts and wounds that we cannot even count them all, much less repair each injury. But there is still something here that sounds wrong to me. Even if we hold to a strong reading of Paul’s words that we die to the old self and rise as a new self, it seems to me that repentance toward God does not mean we have truly repented of the harm we have caused other humans. It feels to me, rather, that using our baptism as a way to absolve ourselves of wrongs we have done to other people is trading on God’s grace in ways God did not intend.
This is a complicated, pastoral question that probably does not lend itself to absolute rules. But I wonder how others understand it. To what extent does repentance require seeking to undo or heal the damage we have done to other people?
John Stott sums up the evangelical case for the need to make a “decision” for Christ in his classic little book Basic Christianity:
I myself used to think that because Jesus had died on the cross, everyone in the world had been put right with God by some kind of rather mechanical transaction. I remember how puzzled, even offended, I was when it was first suggested to me that I needed to take hold of Christ and his salvation for myself. I thank God that he later opened my eyes to see that I must do more than face up to the fact that I needed a Savior, more even than admit that Jesus Christ was the Savior I needed; it was necessary to accept him as my Savior.
Stott uses the image of Christ waiting at the door, pictured here, to explain the need and the process by which a person receives Christ as Lord and Savior. He ends the chapter with one of the nicer versions of the sinner’s prayer that I have read.
As I read this chapter, two sets of questions that emerge.
First, as a Wesleyan, it still feels pretty mechanical — to use Stott’s word above. The prayer — which I have prayed myself — is treated in some ways like an incantation. If it is prayed, it is done. Stott even goes so far as to warn us not to worry about how we feel after we pray that prayer. Just be know that it is done and be grateful.
This runs directly in the face of Wesleyan assurance. The old Methodist teaching was that we would have a perceptible awareness of the Holy Spirit speaking to our spirit that we are children of God. It was not about feelings, so much, but it was about a palpable spiritual sensation. It is what Wesley referred to when he described his heart being strangely warmed.
The Methodists were also known for the tarrying that often happened between crying out for Jesus and receiving this assurance. The crying out was not conversion. It was not a sign of justification. The sign of justification was the faith that God gave to sinners that Jesus Christ had died for them and pardoned them. It was this faith and assurance that also marked the moment of pardon. I do not believe the old Methodists would tell a sinner that a single prayer without any sense of assurance should be taken as a token of salvation.
Whether we should side with the Methodists or with Stott — or neither — of course is not a settled question. But it helps to be aware of the differences.
Second, I find myself asking about those who cannot respond in the way Stott prescribes. This system of his is built upon a stack of cognitions and the use of language. What about those for whom such things are difficult to impossible? What about people with mental disabilities?
This is a place where I find Scripture does not help immensely. This troubles me at times. At other times, I am aware that Scripture was written for people who are literate — or in communities of literacy — and is mostly addressed to adults with what we call normal mental faculties. It is a means of grace for those who can receive it. But I’m not convinced that means it maps out the ways of grace for those who are not equipped to operate in the cognitive and literacy-based world of Scripture.
Interestingly, for me at least, in a Wesleyan context, it may not be that those with cognitive disabilities need to hear Jesus knocking at the door. It may be that they never shut the door. John Wesley, famously and controversially, argued that we are not condemned for Original Sin but only for actual sins. And for Wesley, actual sins were willful breaches of the law of God. Although Leviticus speaks of unintentional sins, Wesley argued that only intentional sins were actually sins.
In other words, those who cannot understand what they do in terms of God’s commands, are by definition not sinning.
Now, I know this opens a whole can of worms and is not easily dealt with in a simple blog post. Wesley’s notion has been criticized and dismissed by many learned Christians.
But I am not ready to dismiss him. Not, at least, while I struggle to understand what may, in the end, be too high for me to understand.
An exchange between a young John Wesley and Moravian August Spangenberg in 1736:
[Spangenberg] said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” “True,” he replied, “but do you know he has saved you?” I answered, “I hope he has died to save me.” He only added, “Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words. (From Wesley journal’s but quoted from this book.)
It would be two more years before Wesley could answer such questions without halting uncertainty.
Jonathan Edward’s account of the revival that broke out in Northampton, Mass., in the 1730s is an interesting and careful account of the variety of ways that the Holy Spirit worked conversions in his community. He is a great antidote for anyone who argues that there is only one way for a person to be converted to God. That is not the book’s only virtue by far, but it is one that struck me while reading it recently.
Here is one passage that I particularly liked in which he described the way saving grace breaks through the darkness.
In some, converting light is like a glorious brightness suddenly shining upon a person, and all around him: they are in a remarkable manner brought out of darkness into marvelous light. In many others it has been like the dawning of the day, when at first but a little light appears, and it may be presently hid with a cloud; and then it appears again, and shines a little brighter, and gradually increases, with intervening darkness, till at length it breaks forth more clearly from behind the clouds.
John Wesley’s sermon “The Witness of of the Spirit (II)” explains the sequence of changes in his spirit as a result of his encounter with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit itself bore witness to my spirit that I was a child of God, gave me an evidence hereof, and I immediately cried, “Abba, Father!” And this I did, (and so did you,) before I reflected on, or was conscious of, any fruit of the Spirit. It was from this testimony received, that love, joy, peace, and the whole fruit of the Spirit flowed.
Fruit comes after faith.