The first thing they talked about at conference

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?

I Am A Witness

John Meunier:

An excellent first-person testimony about the power of covenant disciple groups to form Christians.

Originally posted on Wesleyan Leadership:

Tom Lee is a member at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, witnessTennessee. For the past year he has been part of one of three pilot Covenant Discipleship groups. On Sunday, January 12, the congregation was invited to form new groups. Mr. Lee was the preacher for both worship services. The following is his sermon. I think you will find it to be a witness to the power of Covenant Discipleship groups to form persons as leaders in discipleship.

A sermon preached by Tom Lee:

“I Am A Witness”
Matthew 3:13-17

I have been a member of West End United Methodist Church for 25 years. I’m a lawyer. I’m also a lobbyist. Read every Gospel reference to lawyers you can find. We come out on the losing end.

An old judge in Nashville used to scold witnesses who were tempted offer their opinions. “No, no,” he would say. “The jury…

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Augustine the spiritual reader

A recent post by my friend Jeremiah Gibbs reminded me of the pleasure of reading Augustine.

One of the great surprises for me the first time I read The Confessions — recall I am a Protestant — was his use of allegorical or spiritual reading of the Bible. For Augustine, such reading was the key that made much of the Old Testament comprehensible. Hearing Ambrose preach allegorically led him to realize that he was hearing truth from texts that had formerly repulsed him.

This realization  was particularly keen when once, and again, and indeed frequently, I heard some difficult passage of the Old Testament explained figuratively;such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally. As I listened to man such scriptural texts being interpreted in a spiritual sense I confronted my own attitude, or at least that despair which had led me to believe that no resistance whatever could be offered to people who loathed and derided the law and the prophets. (The Confessions V.14.24)

It is not clear to me whether the objectionable passages were those that conflicted with Augustine’s late Roman philosophy or those that many Western Christians in 2014 find difficult — those that depict genocide and insist on taboos we find objectionable.

But I do find it interesting how Augustine solved the problem that we still wrestle with in various ways. Adam Hamilton is the latest among us Untied Methodists to try to make the “difficult” parts of the Old Testament comprehensible to the testimony of the New Testament. Hamilton uses three buckets. Augustine used different ways of reading – literal vs. spiritual.

I don’t want to push the Augustine-Hamilton comparison too far, for a number of reasons. But it is interesting to note that these supposedly new and vexing questions that torment Christians in the 21st century are actually not even remotely new nor uniquely vexing to us. Thoughtful Christians (a phrase Hamilton likes to use) have been wrestling with these questions from the days of the Apostles and Church Fathers.

What remains the largest distinction between Hamilton’s buckets and Augustine’s spiritual reading, however, is the attitude toward Scripture that springs from each approach. Hamilton’s buckets approach discards many of the difficult and outrageous passages of Scripture as unworthy of God. Augustine finds in spiritual reading a deeper reverence for all of Scripture.

The authority of the sacred writings seemed to me all the more deserving of reverence and divine faith in the scripture was easily accessible to every reader, while yet guarding a mysterious dignity in its deeper sense. In plain words and very humble modes of speech it offered itself to everyone, yet stretched the understanding of those who were not shallow-minded. It welcomed all comers to its hospitable embrace, yet through narrow openings attracted a few to you — a few, perhaps, but far more than it would have done had it not spoken with such noble authority and drawn the crowds to its embrace by it holy humility. (VI. 5. 8)

The elitism in Augustine is undeniable, but this is hardly unique to him among those who approach scripture attempting to make it “credible” to “thoughtful” Christians, words I read quite often among many of our contemporaries.

I am aware of the problems of spiritual readings of Scripture. But if my choice is chucking whole sections of the Bible in the bucket labeled slander against God, I think it would be better to read in the way of Augustine.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks

I wanted to reply to something written by Bertrand Russell’s daughter.

Russell was a philosopher and outspoken atheist in the 20th century. His daughter, apparently, was not.

What she says has a lot of truth in it. No one can deny that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Christianity is Christians. It is not that we are sinners. That is not the problem. The problem is that too many of us think we are righteous. We are not humble. We are not meek. We are not gracious or loving. We show forth all the works of flesh and dare to slander Jesus by naming ourselves after him.

But – for all that – I think we do God a great disservice if we imagine that shoddy Christianity is more powerful than the Holy Spirit.

I met a woman recently who could name everything that turned Bertrand Russell’s stomach. She had seen church people who could barely get the “Amen” through their lips before they started lashing each other with their tongues. She’d known the man who stood up and shouted “Praise Jesus” on Sunday morning and came home to beat his wife on Sunday afternoon. She’d been hurt by Christianity. She’d seen enough pain and suffering in the world to question the idea that God is good and loving.

But still see searched, still she was convinced that God is and that God is seeking her.

If we want to find reasons not to believe in God, the world and worldly Christians will give us plenty of them. The larder is never empty. But the Holy Spirit still works anyway. And where ears and hearts are ready to receive, the truth is still heard.