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.

I am a goat

 “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

How should we preach about money?

John Wesley’s sermon “The Use of Money” is a remarkable piece of practical Christianity.

It begins in what may seem an unlikely place for a sermon about money. It begins by turning back the arguments that would say money is bad.

For, let the world be as corrupt as it will, is gold or silver to blame? “The love of money,” we know, “is the root of all evil;” but not the thing itself. The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it. It may be used ill: and what may not? But it may likewise be used well: It is full as applicable to the best, as to the worst uses. It is of unspeakable service to all civilized nations, in all the common affairs of life: It is a most compendious instrument of transacting all manner of business, and (if we use it according to Christian wisdom) of doing all manner of good. … in the present state of mankind, it is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of his children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked: It gives to the traveller and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of an husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless. We may be a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death!

What Wesley intended to teach the Methodists was the proper way to use this blessing for the good that God intends. In this, he exhorts them to diligent and productive labor, frugal spending, and wide-ranging generosity. Far from speaking evil of money, Wesley intended to teach people how to use money in ways that would glorify God and demonstrate the fruits of their own salvation.

He advises these things not merely as good ideas for people who want to get along well in the world, but as positive duties for the Christian who will one day stand before the Lord. For Wesley, this was a matter of eternal significance.

“Render unto God,” not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God’s, be it more or less; by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all mankind, in such a manner, that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can be no longer stewards; in such a manner as the oracles of God direct, both by general and particular precepts; in such a manner, that whatever ye do may be “a sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savour to God,” and that every act may be rewarded in that day when the Lord cometh with all his saints.

Even in Wesley’s day, the people did not take well to this message. He was continually fretting about the failures of Methodists in this regard. Like we often do, they ignored his doctrine without bothering to argue against it.

Today, United Methodists continue to ignore Wesley’s doctrine while revering his name. We do not bother to argue why or how he was wrong on biblical grounds. We merely act as if neither he nor the Bible had much to say on the subject, which is, of course, ridiculous.

This whole state of affairs raises for me issues that I do not know how to work through.

Is Wesley’s doctrine sound? Is it biblical?

Is — to quote Wesley from another place — wasting the Lord’s goods a sin?

How can we best teach and preach about these matters?

Four ideas that created Methodism

In his account of the rise of the Methodism, John Wesley laid out the four convictions that he and Charles put at the center of their preaching in the early days of the movement:

First, that orthodoxy, or right opinions, is, at best, but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it all; that neither does religion consist in negatives, in bare harmlessness of any kind; nor merely in externals, in doing good, or using the means of grace, in works of piety (so called) or of charity; that is nothing short of, or different from, “the mind that was in Christ;” the image of God stamped upon the heart; inward righteousness, attended withe the peace of God; and “joy in the Holy Ghost.”

In short: Christian religion is about nothing less than changing people. It is not about small adjustments. It is a supernatural transformation of a person to the deepest core of their being.

Secondly, that the only way under heaven to this religion is to “repent and believe the gospel;” or, (as the Apostle words it,) “repentance towards God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That word “only” is the big one here. The conviction that drove Wesley on all those early mornings and rainy nights was that thousands of men and women were cut off from God if their eyes were not opened to the need to repent and believe. If he believed there was another way to save people, he might have slept in until 5 a.m. from time to time.

Thirdly, that by this faith, “he that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, is justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ.”

In the middle of our sins, we are made right with God by the free offer of grace to every one who believes. This has nothing to do with our merit or worthiness. It is a gift that we neither deserve or control in any way.

And, Lastly, that “being justified by faith,” we taste of the heaven to which we are going; we are holy and happy; we tread down sin and fear, and “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”

In short: We are holy. We are happy. We tread sin under our feet.

I have to admit it.

I have moments in which these words ring true. I have had times when I have fled to Christ and by his grace tread down sin. I do know the joy of the Holy Spirit.

But not always. Not every moment. I am still working out my salvation. Indeed, at times I fear I am like Wesley who had his Aldersgate but still at times felt the joy of the Holy Spirit eluded him.

Life can be hard. And the trouble right in front of me today is hard to dismiss. It is, in fact, in this fourth preaching point of John and Charles that I am struck most forcefully by the fact that faith has nothing to do with willpower or earnest striving. I cannot make myself “taste of heaven” when I’m mired a day that leaves me worn out and bewildered. No matter how much I’d like to be able to flip a spiritual switch that washes it all away, some days life does not go away at the thought of Jesus.

Not most of the time, any way.

So, I’m reminded that I have a long way to go. I need grace. Oh, yes. I need grace.