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?

The famous theologians would scoff

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV)

John Wesley interpreted the phrase “kingdom of God” by citing Romans 14:17.

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,

For Wesley this use of scripture to interpret scripture allowed him to focus on the kingdom as holiness of heart and life. The kingdom is not a political arrangement but something that emerges within us. The kingdom that came near, Wesley would argue, is the emergence of righteousness, peace, and joy in the life of those who believe in Christ.

This is the worst kind of Pietism, of course, to those theologians who find Pietism contemptible. (I’m thinking first and foremost of Stanley Hauerwas here.) Read the Wikipedia page for a fuller account of Pietism, but some of its key elements as far as I understand the movement are a concern with practical Christianity over and above doctrinal formulations, concern with a living faith springing up from the inner soul of the Christian, and cultivation of devotional practices. It is Christianity that is most concerned with a change of heart as the center of Christian life.

United Methodists read Wesley’s sermons as doctrinal standards. At the very least, we are committed to giving a generous hearing to the preacher who declares that the reality of kingdom of God is found in the hearts of believers. That does not preclude us listening to other preachers, of course, but scoffing at Pietism seems quite out of character with our history and heritage. We are Pietists, or at least our ancestors were.

When we talk about the kingdom of God, if we still regard Wesley as a teacher or example, we need to keep at least one ear open to hear the way he would describe it:

This holiness and happiness, joined in one, are sometimes styled, in the inspired writings, “the kingdom of God,” (as by our Lord in the text,) and sometimes, “the kingdom of heaven.” It is termed “the kingdom of God,” because it is the immediate fruit of God’s reigning in the soul. So soon as ever he takes unto himself his mighty power, and sets up his throne in our hearts, they are instantly filled with this “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” It is called “the kingdom of heaven” because it is (in a degree) heaven opened in the soul.

Perhaps this is why Stanley Hauerwas decided, at last, that he could no longer be one of us. Whatever the case with Hauerwas, I’m fairly certain Wesley would have done poorly in my New Testament exegesis class.

The power of the Holy Ghost

A quote from John Wesley fitting for Pentecost:

The author of faith and salvation is God alone. It is he that works in us both to will and to do. He is the sole Giver of every good gift, and the sole Author of every good work. There is no more of power than merit in man; but as all merit is in the Son of God, in what he has done and suffered for us, so all power is in the Spirit of God. And therefore every man, in order to believe unto salvation, must receive the Holy Ghost. This is necessary to every Christian, not in order to his working miracles, but in order to faith, peace, joy, and love, — the ordinary fruits of the Spirit. (Taken from Part I of “A Father Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.”)

No holiness, no glory

From John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I”:

I not only allow, but vehemently contend, that none shall enter into glory who is not holy on earth, as well as in heart, as “in all manner of conversation.” I cry aloud, “Let all that have believed, be careful to maintain good works;” and “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from all iniquity.” I exhort even those who are conscious they do not believe: “Cease to do evil, learn to do well: The kingdom of heaven is at hand;” therefore, “repent, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”

Wesley offered these words as defense against the charge that his preaching of justification by faith alone undermined good works. I think most people who read my blog probably hear his words with a degree of resistance to the first line. We are not comfortable — for the most part — with the assertion that those who are not entirely holy will not enter into glory. It smacks of the most hated thing among us — exclusion.

And so, it is important for Methodists of all stripes to come to terms with Wesley on this point. We like to trot him out to reinforce our messages about love and works of mercy. But we tend to keep him in the basement when he talks about holiness.

Talking about being a Methodist or quoting John Wesley without understanding the central importance of holiness — complete and total holiness — to his theology is a bit like saying you are playing the game of baseball but removing home plate from the field. You can describe a lot of the action that goes on, but the point of the whole enterprise has been removed.

And this is why some of us are so vexed by what appears to be a cavalier attitude about questions regarding the meaning of holiness. People offer proposals to rewrite our understanding of Christian morality but reject all questions about what those proposals mean for closely related questions of Christian holiness. If we believe with Wesley that holiness of heart and life is essential to salvation, then we have to understand what holiness is and does and looks like.

At least, some of us feel that to be true.

What we believe, how we live

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)

From Romans to Jude, the epistles are jammed full of instruction on what it means to live as the people of Jesus Christ. The apostles teach that how we live is an expression of what we believe about God. Our claims that Jesus Christ is Lord and judge and that the Holy Spirit is the source of life are not just lovely notions. They call forth particular responses.

As James reminds us, we cannot have faith that does not show forth in works.

Methodists of all stripes — at least until we gave up listening to John Wesley — have believed that orthodoxy is not nearly as important as holy living. Devils, the saying goes, are orthodox on every point, and yet are devils still.

Of course, Methodists and Wesleyans are as orthodox as they come. We recite the Nicene Creed with nary a crossed finger or wink of the eye. But this is not the heart of the matter for us. Orthodoxy that does not lead us to holy lives is not worth the name. It is, rather, a false front used to hide the dry bones inside.

As Peter writes: “Be holy in all you do.”