Wesleyan Lectionary: Two sermons on new birth

John Wesley wrote two sermons on new birth that were based on verses from this week’s gospel reading: John 3:1-17.

The Marks of the New Birth

The New Birth

The second sermon ends with what I consider to be John Wesley’s version of the Sinner’s Prayer.

“Lord, add this to all thy blessings, — let me be born again! Deny whatever thou pleasest, but deny not this; let me be ‘born from above!’ Take away whatsoever seemeth thee good, — reputation, fortune, friends, health, — only give me this, to be born of the Spirit, to be received among the children of God! Let me be born, ‘not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever;’ and then let be daily ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!’”

Lectionary blogging: Battle begins

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matthew 4:1-3, NIV)

I’ve been reading Gustaf Aulén’s classic book Christus Victor this week. I was not reading it to guide my study of this week’s gospel lectionary text, but it sure has set off some interesting resonances.

Aulén argued in his book that there are three broad types of atonement theories. The objective model, represented by Anselm and subsequent satisfaction and substitution theories, describes the primary focus of the atonement upward toward the Father. The cross is the place where the debt created by humanity’s sin is paid off.

The subjective model, first articulated by Abelard and widely influential in the West since the 19th century, describes the primary focus of the atonement downward to those of us at the feet of Jesus. The cross creates a change in us.

Against both of these models, Aulén argues for what he calls the “classic” theory, which he says goes back to the apostles. This theory views the atonement as an act in an unfolding dramatic conflict between God and the devil. We might think of it as a horizontal focus of atonement. The atonement defeats the devil.

I thought of the book while reading the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

By Aulén’s thinking, the temptation is really just the opening skirmish in a contest that will be carried forward all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. The testing in the desert is not merely about teaching us some responses to difficult life challenges. It is not merely validation of Jesus’ status as the unblemished one who can reset the scales of divine justice by his death. It is the start of a battle that will be fought, not with guns and bombs, but with weapons of the Spirit.

This is a reading of the text that passes through the cross, which therefore means it is shaped by our understanding of atonement. Whether that is a useful way to read and preach the text this week, I’m not certain. I’ll let the Spirit guide on that one.

Can we ‘be perfect’?

John Stott in his book Evangelical Truth repeats a common critique of the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection.

[M]ost evangelicals, interpreting “perfectionist” texts in their context, are convinced that neither the eradication of evil nor the possibility of sinless perfection promised in the New Testament is for this life. Rather, we are on a journey, pilgrims heading for the celestial city.

Those of who preach following the Revised Common Lectionary will come squarely into this discussion next week when we read in worship the words “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Wesley’s attempts to meet the objections to perfection are numerous. His sermon “On Perfection” is not one of the doctrinal standards of United Methodism, but it is a good overview of Wesley’s engagement with the critiques of the doctrine. Rather than go through those replies, though, I want to quote Wesley’s summary of the positive content of the doctrine:

What is then the perfection of which man is capable while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command, “My son, give me thy heart.” It is the “loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.” This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:” Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:” These contain the whole of Christian perfection.*

One crucial difference between Wesley and Stott is that Wesley taught that this perfection is possible in this life. Indeed, he said we should expect it and seek it. Wesley interpreted Jesus’ commands to be perfect and Paul’s exhortation to put on the mind that was in Christ as applying to this life and made possible by the grace of God.

No discussion of this topic is complete without noting that Wesley had a terribly hard time persuading even Methodists to embrace this doctrine. We recoil at the thought that we might actually attain this perfection. I suspect this is for many reasons. First, it feels like a breach of humility. Second, it feels beyond our reach. Of course, it is beyond our reach. That is the whole point. But our pride is stubborn. We cannot imagine that God would desire more for us than we are capable of doing by our own power and virtue.

The best-selling book by Stephen Covey told millions of readers to begin with the end in mind. By putting our focus on the final thing, everything prior to that is recast in light of the end. The doctrine of perfection is not just a cherry on the top of the sundae. It is the point by which all the rest of our doctrine is tested. As a United Methodist preacher, I am challenged by the lectionary — and men such as John Stott who I admire — to come to terms with this distinctive doctrine of United Methodism. What does it mean? Will I preach it? How will I do so?


*This is one reason why I do not like the Common English Bible’s translation of Matthew 5:48. “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” In the CEB, the first of the two great commandments drops from sight.

Short enough Paul could have tweeted it

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:12, NRSV)

This was not Paul’s tent revival strategy. This was not his plan for hosting a Billy Graham-style crusade. This was the vision and plan for his ongoing ministry in Corinth. It was his pastoral strategy for planting and nurturing Christian congregations.

The command is also a promise

We may yet farther observe, that every command in holy writ is only a covered promise.

So John Wesley wrote in his fifth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, which expounds upon the second half of this week’s lectionary reading from the gospel. (Another sermon of Wesley’s concerns itself with the first half of our lectionary gospel.)

The idea that God will give power to do what he commands us to do is fundamental to a Wesleyan reading of the Sermon on the Mount. It is fundamental, really, to his reading of the entire Bible. When God commands us to do a thing, Wesley taught, the Holy Spirit enables us to do it — if not right away then as we grow in grace.

No command of Scripture should be read as an impossible higher work of holiness that is beyond the grasp of “ordinary” Christians.

Some Christians read the Sermon on the Mount as a hammer meant to shatter the pride of men and women. They read it as setting out such an impossibly high standard that it drives us to our knees in despair, for no one could hope to actually follow such teaching.

This is not the Wesleyan reading.

God not only commands us to be holy but also gives us the means to do so.

Of course, this is also an extremely controversial reading. Even in Wesley’s own ministry it was often not received well. He wrote — in what I only interpret as despair — to his brother over the resistance of Methodists and outsiders to the doctrine of Christian perfection, which is the outgrowth of his confidence in the promises of God.

The experience of many Christians refuted rather than confirmed Wesley’s biblical interpretation on this point. The idea that we could actually live in true freedom from sin was always contested and remains so today.

For myself, I have great sympathy for those who resist Wesley’s reading because I often want to resist it as well. But when I look more closely at my resistance, it is nearly always born of a desire to disobey Christ. My resistance to the idea that I can live a life in which sin does not control me is strongest exactly where there are sins tempting me toward disobedience. It is those moments when I start arguing with God.

“Sure, I know this is wrong, but I have all these really good reasons for doing it. In fact, it will be better for people I love and people who depend on me if I do this. Really, the greater good is being served here, and isn’t that what Jesus wants?”

I don’t think Wesley was a utilitarian. And as far as I can tell, neither was Jesus. But I sure am happy to pretend to be one when it serves my sinful inclinations.