‘He that committeth sin is of the devil’

I used to ask this question all the time, and so here it is again. Could John Wesley actually preach in any of our pulpits if he were a young seminarian today?

This hit home when I was reading his sermon “The First Fruits of the Spirit.” The sermon is largely taken up with questions about sin and the freedom from condemnation that comes from Jesus Christ. At one point, he considers the case of a person who had a “come to Jesus” experience at some point in the past, but is now living in willful sin. Wesley says he can make no judgment about whether or not the hypothetical person really was justified in the past.

But this I know, with the utmost degree of certainty, “he that committeth sin is of the devil.” Therefore, thou art of thy father the devil. It cannot be denied: for the works of thy father thou doest. O flatter not thyself with vain hopes! Say not to thy soul, “Peace peace!” For there is no peace.

And he does not hold back are suggesting a cure.

Cry aloud! Cry unto God out of the deep; if haply he may hear thy voice. Come unto him as at first, as wretched and poor, as sinful, miserable, blind and naked! And beware thou suffer thy soul to take no rest, till his pardoning love be again revealed; till he “heal thy backslidings,” and fill thee again with the “faith that worketh by love.”

This preaching was not popular in Wesley’s day. The most common reaction to his preaching in a church pulpit, especially in the early years, was to be told not to bother ever coming back to that church.

So, of course, we should not expect him to be popular in today’s church. So the question I find myself struggling with is whether this kind of preaching is necessary, whether it is popular or not.

The stages of faith, Wesleyan style

I see from time to time on Christian bookstore shelves a book called Stages of Faith. I gather it is still read fairly widely and is deemed helpful to many in ministry. I have not read it. But stumbling over it recently reminded me of the Wesleyan outline of the stages of faith.

Here is my summary, as Wesley explained in his sermon “Salvation by Faith.”

Stage 1 Faith – Awareness that there is a god or gods and that they interact with the world. We seek to know and please the god or gods by giving them glory, thanking them for the blessings they bestow, and practicing moral virtues, including the showing of justice, mercy, and truth to all. The god or gods reward those with whom they find favor, and they punish those whom offend or reject them.

Stage 2 Faith – Trust that the one God has revealed himself through the life of his chosen people and the revelation witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures, and that God was incarnate in the flesh and broke the power of all evil and the enemies of God.

Stage 3 Faith – Trust enough to leave all that we have and cling to so we might follow Jesus. The witness and receipt of the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and strengthen those beset by the enemies of God. Faith sufficient to preach the kingdom of God and proclaim Jesus is Lord.

Stage 4 Faith – Or saving faith. Faith in Christ. Faith that moves not just the mind, but heart. Faith that acknowledges the necessity of Jesus’ death for our good and the power of his resurrection for new life. It is not something we attain by effort, but we receive. An assurance that Jesus Christ by his life, death, and resurrection has saved me, even me, from the power of sin and death. That he was given for us and now lives in us.

It would be imposing something on Wesley that I do not think was his aim to describe these stages as developmental ones. He did not teach that we necessarily move through these. He offers them more as historical alternatives, I think, than a personal pathway. But I do find the “stages” he outlines helpful in thinking about my own faith and in trying to reflect prayerfully on the faith of others.

‘No one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle’

Asbury seminary president Timothy Tennent responds to Adam Hamilton’s exegesis over the question of why we no longer stone sinners.

[I]t is important to understand the reason the New Testament does not command Christians to stone sinners. It is not because of a relaxation of the moral demands of God, nor even, quite frankly, because of any relaxing of the consequences of sin.

On the contrary, the New Testament teaching is that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness. It is in the face of Christ that we see the full extent of how God’s mercy meets God’s righteousness. It is not that “stoning” is culturally bound and therefore we can draw a red line through it. It is not because God has now relaxed the consequences of sin. Rather, it is that Jesus Christ has already borne the full penalty of our rebellion against God and neighbor on the cross. Just as we say, “Christ died for us” so we could also say, “Christ was stoned for us.”

After the Rev. Tennent’s eloquent argument, I deserve to be stoned for the following link, but I cannot write about this topic without thinking of something completely different.

Manskar: ‘Keep church’s focus where it belongs’

Steve Manskar on Wesleyan leadership:

Too much of what I am reading and seeing about leadership in the church today is focused on church growth. When the focus of leadership is the church and increasing membership, we end up emulated consumerist standards. If we look to Scripture and tradition we see that leadership is centered on Christ and his mission in the world. They teach that one of the essential roles of leadership is to keep the church’s focus where it belongs: Jesus Christ and his mission in the world. When we focus on what God loves (people, justice, righteousness, and the world) then church growth will take care of itself.

 

NT Wright: How Jesus changes the Old Testament

At the community center where I volunteer each week, a client started going on in a loud voice about how the Bible condemns certain kinds of sexual activity. The case worker, who was just trying to make small talk, tried to deflect and change the conversation. Finally exasperated that she could not change the topic, she said, “Well, the Bible says lots of things we don’t pay attention to.”

And so the pair pretty much summed up the way we talk about ethics in the church.

I picked up NT Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God at annual conference (thank you Cokesbury discount) and started reading it a couple of days ago. It is — as is everything he writes — readable and engaging and interesting.

His discussion about how the early Christian church read the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) brought back to mind the exchange at the community center.

Wright’s argument goes like this: The early Christians did not treat the Old Testament like a grab bag of ideas from which they could pick and choose, but they did read it in a new way. As a consequence of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, they understood that something new and decisive had happened and that some of the purposes of God had been accomplished. They read the scriptures in a new way in light of this.

This new way resulted in their recognizing that some parts of the scriptures were no longer relevant for their ongoing life — not, we must stress, because those parts were bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belonged with earlier parts of the story which had now reached its climax.

With the coming of Christ and the opening up of God’s covenant promises to all people, Wright argues, those parts of the Mosaic law that served to mark out Jews from Gentiles were set aside because they had served their purpose. He argues that the purity laws mandating non-contamination by Gentiles, the temple sacrificial codes, sabbath requirements, and the conception of a geographic Holy Land limited to a specific place were no longer part of the story of the people of God now that Jesus Christ had opened the Abrahamic promises and covenant to all people.

But even as some parts of the scripture were understood as having served their purpose — Wright uses the analogy of a pilgrim people who travel part of the voyage on ship, but leave the ship behind when they get to land — that did not mean that none of it was relevant any longer. The story of God, as Wright describes it, is a story of creation, redemption, and final victory of God’s purposes in a world that will one day fully reflect God’s will in all things.

What Wright is encouraging us to do is to take seriously the theological seriousness of the early Christians. In response to Jesus Christ, they did read the scriptures in new ways — ways that would have been unrecognizable a few generations before. But it was a new reading that was grounded entirely in the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The case worker at the community center articulated what we often do with the principled and difficult theological discernment of the early church. We see that those early Christians “ignored” some parts of scripture. We take that as a license to say we can do so, too.

But, of course, there has been no new Jesus since the days of the early church. There has been no new decisive event that brought to a climax the story God had been telling and opened a new chapter (unless you think the Muslims have it right). Jesus Christ is the same today and yesterday.

Wright is not at all flippant about the challenges of reading scripture well in our day and age. He dismisses the “because the Bible says so” arguments that some make just as energetically as he engages the “we eat bacon” arguments of others. I am grateful for the seriousness with which he takes the scriptures and the need for us to engage with them and be formed by them.

I recommend the book. I am sure I will write about it more in the days ahead.