These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear — hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (Jude 16-23, NIV)
Late in his ministry, John Wesley looked back at the early days of Methodism and described in his sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” the truths first proclaimed by the Oxford students who started the movement:
Let us observe what God has done already. Between fifty and sixty years ago, God raised up a few young men, in the University of Oxford, to testify those grand truths, which were then little attended to: — That without holiness no man shall see the Lord; — that this holiness is the work of God, who worketh in us both to will and to do; — that he doeth it of his own good pleasure, merely for the merits of Christ; — that this holiness is the mind that was in Christ; enabling us to walk as he also walked; — that no man can be thus sanctified till he is justified; — and, that we are justified by faith alone. These great truths they declared on all occasions, in private and in public; having no design but to promote the glory of God, and no desire but to save souls from death.
Pulling this apart, we can list the key doctrines, according to Wesley, as these.
- Without holiness no one will see the Lord
- This holiness is the work of God who works in us both to will and do
- This holiness is grace, merited not by us but by Christ
- This holiness is having the same mind that was in Christ, enabling us to walk as he walked
- This holiness, or sanctification, must follow justification
- Justification is by faith alone
I wrote about point 1 in a recent post.
I wonder how we can communicate point 2: Holiness is the work of God — from first to last — who works in us both to will and do good. It seems people have a hard time hearing it.
In a recent comment here, someone wrote that telling a person to “try harder” when they cannot fulfill the demands of the law is not very helpful.
I agree, 100 percent. “Try harder” is at its heart Pelagian. It is why Pelagianism was actually a very harsh theology. If you were not holy, Pelagians said, the problem is that you did not work hard enough at it. A lot of Christianity, I think, is unintentionally Pelagian in that way.
What orthodox Christianity has taught since the settlement of the Pelagian controversy is that it is not our effort that makes us holy. God works in us so we can will and do what God desires.
What we are called to do is to trust in the grace we have been given. This grace stirs in us, convicting us when we do wrong, and drawing us to do right. But it is God’s initiative. We respond.
I’m not sure how to explain this. I think part of the problem is that it is all grounded on a doctrine of original sin and human depravity that is not well received in the church today.
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14, NIV)
If Methodism went looking for a bedrock biblical verse, Hebrews 12:14 would be a strong contender for that title. There are some verses that John Wesley might have liked more, but the need for holiness was the driving force that got him up in that saddle day after day.
And so, I find myself wondering what this verse means in 2014 in the United Methodist Church.
For me, this verse, especially when read in the context of the whole chapter, resonates with a tone that we shun. Hebrews 12 takes a stance toward God that we do not. It stands in reverent awe of God. It shudders at the immense stakes of all this. It is the voice of one who stands humbly and meekly before a God beyond our comprehension.
We, for the most part, do not stand where the author of Hebrews stands. We are arrogant. We presume to tell God what is right and just and true. We treat God like a hired servant, here to cater to our whims. We let our democratic impulses invade our theology, informing God that the voters are not buying his program. We lecture God about poor customer service and threaten to take our business to the vendor up the street.
Without holiness no one will see the Lord.
If we believed that, our theology would be undertaken with much less confidence and much more fear. Lives are at stake here. Our God is a consuming fire.
But here is the good news in that. Our God is powerful. Our God is not helpless to save us. Our God is not reduced to merely weeping beside us when we suffer. Our God is stronger than the foes that surround us. The Psalms know this to be true. They are prayers to a powerful and awesome God. They are prayers that speak in anguish when God does not rebuke the wicked precisely because they know in their bones that God could shatter evil like a rod on a clay pot.
A God powerful enough to kill Pharaoh’s child is a God who can save you, too.
The unholy will not see the Lord.
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16, NIV)
In an exchange earlier this week, I was reminded that United Methodists do not preach a “truncated” gospel concerned merely with flying away to heaven, but a full gospel of present salvation and redemption. These were words that would make John Wesley smile, I think.
For instance, here are Wesley’s on way of putting it in “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”:
By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our soul after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers, and, by consequence, all holiness of conversation.
And a few lines down:
Salvation, in this sense, and holiness, are synonymous terms.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33, NIV)
In a conversation over on Morgan Guyton’s blog, he asked me whether I ever felt as if I deserve eternal torment.
It was a good question. Like all good questions, it brought something from my own life into clearer focus. It pointed out to me that I analyze the situation from the other side. I don’t start with the assumption that I deserve paradise and God must prove the case if he would take it from me. I don’t put God in the dock. Continue reading