Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

Out of the isolation room

This summer working at the hospital, I’ve had several visits with people in isolation rooms. To go visit them, I have to put on a gown and rubber gloves and sometimes a mask. When I leave the room, I throw all these things away and wash my hands again.

I do all this because the person is infected and diseased and cannot be let out of the room.

Now, by one way of thinking, the doctor’s work is to kill off the infection, so the patient will be saved. But thought of another way, the real problem the patient has here is that he is dangerous to everyone around him and can’t leave that room. The ultimate bad result is that he will die and never leave that room again. What he needs to be liberated from is that isolated room and freed to be back in the world again. In order to do that, his infection has to be purged from him. Killing the infection is a means by which his liberation from isolation is made possible.

By way of analogy, sin is a contamination and disease. So long as we are so infected, we cannot get out of the isolation cell know as the world, both because we are too weak to do it but not inconsequentially because we are dangerous to those on the outside. Granted, it is a spacious and often comfortable isolation room, but we are trapped and unable to enter the world that is without sin and corruption so long as we are tainted.

Jesus came to usher us into that holy, pure, and beautiful kingdom. But first, our sins must be purged by the means of cross and forgiveness. Our sin must be dealt with as a necessary step to salvation, but that is not salvation itself. Salvation is getting out of the room.

Like all analogies, this is clumsy and limited, but I think there is something useful here.

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?

Salvation in Wesleyan tradition

Salvation = holiness

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.

Bishop reminds conference that Jesus saves

Recently, my bishop announced a small-grant program for churches that want to start new worship experiences to engage new people. In his weekly e-mail message to the conference today, he wrote about an unexpected response to the program:

One of the most interesting questions I have been asked about the plan to invite our churches to start 100 New Points of Light (worship opportunities to reach new people) has been the question “Why?”

I expected to hear the question “How?” asked often, and we are preparing to provide ideas, models, support, and advisors to help churches know “how” to start new worship services. That is important because we want this to be a free, Spirit-led movement, but we also want to give every opportunity for these new worship opportunities to be fruitful. I was expecting the question “How?” but I was not expecting the question “Why?”

After further reflection I realize that the issue is soteriology. That word “soteriology” is an academic way of saying that too many United Methodist people and pastors do not have a clear theology of salvation. Or to be put it even more crudely, too many of our pastors and people do not have a passionate belief that salvation is needed or that people are “lost” when they stand outside of a faith in Jesus Christ.

The absence of a clear soteriology is a weakness in many of our United Methodist congregations. Perhaps we bishops, seminary professors, clergy, Sunday School teachers, and others in the church have failed to emphasize and clearly state our understanding of salvation. If so, it is high time we did a better job of teaching, nurturing, and sharing our belief that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior makes a difference in people’s lives.

So, let me state it clearly and plainly: I believe that all people are created for a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and I believe that every one of us needs that relationship in order to be “whole” and “saved” and “complete.” Living without that relationship to God means that our lives are broken, lost, and incomplete. Our world today is testimony to the brokenness, pain, evil, and heartache which results from attempting to live on our own strength and direction. So many people today are lost and wandering through life without knowing their God-given purpose. Without that God-given purpose, their lives become mired in self-centeredness, immorality, and pain.

Finding faith in God through Jesus Christ causes us to yearn for everyone to know that relationship with God. Discovering the forgiveness, grace, and love of God prompts us to share that good news for everyone. No one can be a full and complete disciple of Jesus Christ without also wanting that life for everyone. Whenever any one of us finds new life in Christ, we are compelled to share that joyous opportunity for everyone.

So of course we care about those who are still “lost” – and we want to provide any new opportunity we can for persons to move into a loving, forgiving, freeing relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Why would we offer new worship opportunities for new people to be drawn to God’s love? Because we care about people, we care that they are lost, and we want to help them find their way in life.

An absence of a sound and clear soteriology causes our churches to become little religious clubs of persons who only want their own needs met, who demand their own preferences, and who are satisfied to sit by and watch other people continue to live their desperately lost lives without faith.

A joyful and robust soteriology causes our churches to focus outwardly, to reach out to others in love, and to provide any new opportunity to draw people to God.

Why start 100 New Points of Light? Because we care about persons who are lost and outside of God’s love.