Stumbling into salvation

I came to faith in Christ through the United Methodist Church. But my journey was a little strange.

I was not converted at a revival or altar call service. I was not raised in the church where I absorbed Christianity by osmosis. As curious as it is, you could say I came to faith in large part because the UMC was the custodian of a theology that I only stumbled upon by accident.

My first steps toward faith were guided by teachers who saw themselves not as the custodians of the faith handed to them but as those who would rescue the faith from its own ignorance.

I backed my way into Christianity through theologians who worked so hard to make Christianity “credible” to non-believers that they left very little for actual Christians to believe. Writers such as John Shelby Spong were non-threatening to my non-belief and so gave me an entry point to a faith I had been long suspicious of but had been consistently called toward.

I eventually found people such as Spong so lukewarm and diluted as to be a hinderance to my move toward an orthodox faith. I found after my time with them that they were offering me things I could have gotten just as easily from people who did not bog down their ideas with trying to somehow loosely tie it all to Jesus.

It was during this time that I first started reading the sermons of John Wesley. I could have found what he preached in many different places. Scores of contemporary evangelical pastors and teachers preach the same message Wesley did. But, for better or worse, it was Wesley who first told me that Christianity was about more than the weak and watered down brew I’d been sampling up to that point.

An example of the concepts Wesley introduced to me can be found in his first standard sermon, “Salvation by Faith.”

This then is the savlation which is through faith, even in the present world: A salvation from sin, and the consequences of sin, both expressed in the word justification; which, taken in the largest sense, implies a deliverance from guilt and punishment, by the atonement of Christ actually applied to the soul of the sinner believing on him, and a deliverance from the power of sin, through Christ formed in his heart.

Nearly every word of that passage was alien to me when I first encountered them. The theology of Spong and the Jesus Seminar had no room for preaching about sin and the necessity of atonement. It spoke little of Christ being formed in the heart and none at all about our need for deliverance from the consequences of our sin.

This was all amazing and shocking to me at first, but it stuck. There was something in all this that rung deeply true and powerful. And it finally brought me to my knees.

The oddest part of this entire story for me is that it was through our Book of Discipline that I learned about John Wesley. I’d not heard much about him in the preaching at the United Methodist Church I was attending at the time. That is not really surprising, of course. We should be preaching Jesus not John Wesley. But neither was I hearing much about the great themes that animated his preaching and the movement he led.

I only stumbled upon Wesley when I was looking through the Book of Discpline, a book that is rarely put in the hands of lay people or taken down from the shelves of the church library. Those pages and that book were only there for me to find because the church insisted on holding on to some things, even if it did not speak of them much. I read in those pages of our foundational doctrines and something called the standard sermons of John Wesley. And so began my search.

It was all God’s grace, of course, that brought me where I am, but God was strangely at work through the UMC and its persistence in holding on to the theology of Wesley. Of course, the UMC held to that theology the way some of us hold on to ancient family heirlooms. They might be stuffed away in the attic or basement where few ever venture to see them, but they are there waiting when someone makes that dusty climb.

As our denomination heads toward a split, I find myself wondering whether Wesley’s voice will still be heard well in the UMC that remains after the divide.  I was concerned not long ago when I discovered that the UMC official web site no longer posts Wesley’s sermons. Hundreds of links in this blog on posts I’ve written over the years now go to a dead end. For the link above in this post, I’ve had to rely on our denominational cousins the Nazarenes.

Maybe that is a small thing. I’m sure not a lot of people scour the internet for electronic copies of John Wesley’s sermons, but it feels significant to me. Somewhere along the way the UMC decided to abandon the notion that the words and theology of John Wesley were important enough to preserve. It feels to me like a decision to give up our role as the custodians of the movement stirred to life by the Holy Spirit at Oxford and Aldersgate.

I’m sure the people who made that decision would not describe it that way. I can’t help but feel a loss, however, when I view the results of searching the UMC website for “salvation by faith john wesley.”

I pray that pilgrims such as I might still find ways to stumble upon the things that changed my life. I hope we still insist on holding on to the original words and theology of Wesley.

Heathen, Devil, Apostle, Christian

When John Wesley published his first book of sermons, he intended for his traveling preachers to use it as a guide for their preaching. The sermon “Salvation by Faith,” first preached a month after his Aldersgate experience, is one of those.

The sermon was one of the first of Wesley’s I ever read, and it made a strong impression on me. In it, Wesley first describes what “faith” it is by which we are saved. He does this steps. He walks through several things that are not saving faith before landing on the actual definition. My overwhelming experience when I first read the sermon and when I read it today is to notice how much of what passes for faith in the church — then and now — does not rise to what Wesley describes as saving faith.

Here are the steps Wesley climbs on his way to that destination.

Faith of a Heathen -The faith of one  who believes that God exists and is righteous and mighty and just, who believes as well that there is a future state of reward and punishment, and that moral virtue is required of all people.

Faith of the Devil – The devil believes what the heathen does, but believes as well that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior. The devil knows as well that Scripture is given to us by the inspiration of God and knows full well the contents of that holy book.

Faith of the Apostles – The faith in Jesus that led people give up all to follow him and receive during Jesus’ earthly ministry power to perform miracles and wonders of various kinds.

None of these are saving faith. They are faith but they do not rise to faith that saves. What that faith looks like we find when we see what is lacking in each of these three lesser versions of faith.

Contrary to the faith of a heathen, saving faith is faith in Christ. Contrary to the faith of the devil, it is not merely about knowing the truth about God and having full knowledge of the contents of Scripture. It is rather a disposition of the heart, to use Wesley’s phrase.

And contrary to the faith the apostles had before the crucifixion, saving faith is a faith that acknowledges the necessity of Christ’s death and the power of his resurrection. It is a faith grounded on our need and reliance upon the blood of Christ as the source of our redemption from sin. Saving faith is faith in — and utter dependence on — Jesus as the one who gave his life for us and who now lives within us.

As I read these paragraphs in Wesley’s sermon, I bring to mind names and faces attached to these different kinds of faith. I think as well of my own faith and times in my life when I could have said I had rested on each of these. I remember as well the time when I had no faith at all, not even the faith of a heathen.

For Christians I know, I think the greatest challenge is to not stop short with the faith of the devil or the apostles. I know many who have filled their minds with a great depth of knowledge about God and the Bible. They know so much and speak so well about the truths of our faith, but their hearts are not stirred by what they know. A preacher friend of mine used to say that some of the meanest Christians he knew could quote the Scripture really well. So, too, can the devil.

For another group of followers of Jesus, the risk is falling into the faith of the pre-Easter apostles. They associate faith in Jesus with being willing to make all sorts of sacrifices to follow him. They are very busy and very active people. And they do a large amount of good in the world and the church. Like the apostles, they are often most interested in the miraculous works of Jesus. They believe in and pray with great passion for healing and the breaking of spiritual strongholds. For all this, though, they have not yet come to a saving faith in Christ. They confuse “good works” for saving faith.

As a pastor and as a Christian, I recognize all these various manifestations of faith. The great challenge I see for the church is how to partner with the Holy Spirit in moving people from forms of faith that do not save into a saving faith.

Wesley had his own style in doing that. He was very direct. He spoke “plain truth for plain people” and it got him disinvited from many pulpits. He did not have a regular church to serve, and so was an invited guest preacher for most of his pulpit preaching. A very common notation in his journals was that he would get invited to preach at a place and then be told never to come back.

I can imagine sermons such as “Salvation by Faith” are a big part of that.

Few people want to be told their faith is barely even the faith of Satan. Wesley never cared much whether he bruised the ego or feelings of those who heard him preach. It made him both a powerful preacher and a despised figure.

I do not have Wesley’s temperament and I often think he would not have abided to keep me among his preachers had I been in that company. As a pastor with a settled and established congregation — rather than a saddle bag and a circuit to ride — I value Wesley’s clarity of vision and language about our faith, but I am still striving to learn how best to teach, preach, and lead God’s people more fully into this living and saving faith.

Can we kindle less of that dreadful light?

In my previous two posts (1, 2), I looked at some of the motivations for John Wesley’s preaching and his goals in that preaching. In this post, I turn to look at the closing words from the preface to his first series of sermons. Here we find his words to those who believe his theology to be wrong headed and his actions misguided.

Wesley addresses such people with a request.

Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstance. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof in Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace.

Wesley had an extraordinary quality that I struggle to imitate in its fullness. He was capable of preaching and teaching out of a rock solid conviction that souls were hanging on the line. He did not waffle at all about the importance of the things he preached or the stakes for those who heard him. Eternity was at risk and there was no place in his preaching for “well some people say this but others say that.” He believed God had revealed the truth and the truth needed to be preached.

That got him excluded from a lot of pulpits. It caused people to throw rocks at him while he preached. He was not trying to please people. He was trying to please God in the only way he could see how.

And yet, along side this he held just as fiercely to the notion that he could be wrong and that we should not rip each other to shreds over our differences. We did not have to agree, but we should never fail to love each other.

No, this did not mean he ignored doctrinal error or sin. He tossed hundreds of people out of society meetings for their failure to abide by the covenants they made when joining. But he never aimed to do so in a spirit of wrath. (He was human so surely failed at times.)

As he wrote in his preface:

For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke on another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love! We may die without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels!

These are really quite remarkable words.

The United Methodist Church right now is coming apart. As it does, I am seeing more and more that “dreadful light” flaring up among us. I hear people attributing evil motives to each other and assuming the worst of their fellow Christians. Less and less charity seems to remain for those whose understanding of doctrine differs.

As we acknowledge the reality that our church is broken and divided, can we have as much charity toward one another as Wesley had for his critics and opponents? Having labored for more than 40 years to convince each other of our errors, could we give the devil a little less reason to smile about the way we treat each other as we conclude that we must walk different roads in the days ahead?