Helping Christians be better Christians

Recently, I picked up a small book about Jacob Arminius‘ theology of election and his criticism of predestination. The strain of Reformed Protestant theology advocated by Arminius in the 17th century would have deep influence on the development of Methodism.

One hallmark of Arminius’ theology is an appreciation for the practical aspects of theology. Theology is not meant to be a series of abstract ideas. It is meant to have practical application and impact. The author of my book puts it this way:

Genuine theological knowledge (harkening back to St. Augustine) was a habitus, a way of thinking that could not be separated from a way of living. It touched the heart, enlightened the mind, and made one charitable … Arminius understood well that doctrine (doctina) had connotational roots in the history of the church as religious teaching that enables one to be a good Christian.

Christian doctrine exists to help Christians be better Christians. This idea is something Methodists have little difficulty affirming. I find it helpful to realize that this conviction locates us with a grand tradition of the church catholic that can be traced back to Augustine and the early church fathers.

For me as a pastor, then, the question is this: Am I teaching and preaching in ways that are not merely correct but also helpful to Christians seeking to live out their faith?

Methodist preaching is evangelical

The most surprising thing I learned after I became a Methodist was that we are evangelicals. I learned this from reading John Wesley’s sermons and paying attention to what Charles Wesley wrote in his hymns. I learned it by reading the biography of Francis Asbury and the autobiography of Peter Cartwright. I learned it when I read Mark A. Noll’s excellent The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys.

I must confess, the idea that I had joined an evangelical Christian tradition was news to me. To the extent that I’d heard about evangelicals as a Methodist prior to this discovery, it was in dismissive or defensive references to how we are not like them. Evangelicalism was suspect and discredited in the Sunday School, the pulpit, and the suggested reading lists at the Methodist churches I had attended.

I can’t really trace how we got from Wesley and Asbury to a place where many clergy and some laity viewed evangelical Christianity with suspicion or hostility. I am grateful that I did not stay ignorant of our roots and identity.

For the sake of simplicity, I will use the four hallmarks of evangelicalism described by scholar David Bebbington to explain what it means to be evangelical. These four hallmarks are:

  • A focus on conversion, the belief that lives need to be changed
  • A high view of the Bible and the conviction that all spiritual truth can be found within its pages
  • A dedication of all believers, not just the clergy, to living lives in the service of God, with a special concern for evangelism and missionary work
  • A conviction that Christ’s death on the cross was crucial for providing atonement for sin

These four taken together mark out a broad network of churches and movements far beyond what we know as Methodism. To say Methodist preaching is evangelical is not to say all evangelicals are Methodists. But the very concept of evangelical Christianity in the English-speaking world is impossible to describe without speaking of Methodism. The great revivals of the nineteenth century and the very rise of evangelical Christianity in the English-speaking world were deeply tied to spread of Methodism. The preaching and writings of the Wesleys bear all four of the hallmarks above. To be Methodist in any recognizable way is to be evangelical.

So what does this mean for preachers in the United Methodist Church or other Methodist traditions?

First, it means we should stop including in our sermons or teaching overt or subtle attempts to describe evangelicals as a foreign tribe to our own. I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t like evangelical Christianity. For Methodists to preach or teach against evangelicalism is to be like the man who saws off the limb he is sitting on.

Yes, we might take issue with certain expressions of evangelicalism, but I’ve heard so much preaching in Methodist churches that goes well beyond this. I’ve heard preachers say the church should not be worried about saving souls. I’ve heard preachers spend entire sermons explaining to me that Jesus did not die for me on the cross. I can’t begin to count how many times I have heard Methodist preachers tell me they really treasure and revere the Bible, but there are parts that they think lie to us about who God is.

No one is forced to be an evangelical, but if you call yourself a Methodist you are an evangelical. Don’t take my word for it. Read what John Wesley wrote. Pay attention the words in the hymns by Charles Wesley. If you are a United Methodist, read our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. All the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity are there. Methodist preaching is (or should be) evangelical.

Second, as evangelical Christians, we should be excited. If there is one thing that drives evangelical Christianity, it is the desire to reach people who have never heard the gospel. Right now, American Methodists are living a vast and growing mission field. As church attendance and affiliation continues to shrink in the United States, the opportunity for churches to evangelize their own communities is greater than it has been in generations. You cannot look out your window without seeing somewhere the gospel needs to be heard. The fields are white for the harvest.

Let’s be about our work. Let us talk about who we are in ways that don’t leave the next generation of Methodists surprised as I was when I first realized that Methodists are evangelicals.

Methodist preaching is orthodox

I’m told the first point I want to make about the faith a Methodist preaches is no longer controversial.

Ten or twenty years ago, I’m told, yes. But not now.

There was a time when you did not struggle to find a Methodist preacher — or a bishop — who openly questioned foundational doctrines of the Christian church. It was not infrequent to hear a sermon on Easter that quibbled with whether it really mattered in the end if Jesus really rose from the grave.

I’m told those days are over, that the generation of clergy who questioned the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus are no longer among us. That such preaching ever happened from our pulpits still staggers my imagination.

And yet, I can start no other place than to say clearly that Methodist preaching, the faith we preach, is orthodox. It holds to and affirms the creedal formulations laid down in the early centuries of the church. It preaches the Trinitarian God. It preaches the resurrection. It looks forward to the return of Christ and the present work of the Holy Spirit.

Let me outline a couple of particular things this entails.

First, Methodists preach that there is one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other descriptions of God can be well meaning, but they are mistaken. They may not be vicious or malicious in their error, but they are in error. To argue that there is no Son or that the Holy Spirit is not fully God is to be wrong about who God is. To put it plainly: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, pagans of various stripes, and all who do not name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fundamentally in error about God. Methodist preaching can be gracious toward other religions, but it cannot say that all ways of talking about God are equally true.

Second, Methodists preach that our salvation is necessary, that sin must be forgiven, and that there is a judgment coming. I will write more about this when I turn to discuss the ways in which Methodist preaching is evangelical, but it should be recognized that the importance of salvation, the problem of sin, and reality of judgment were not ideas invented in the Protestant and evangelical revivals. It is all plainly affirmed in the Bible and the creeds.

While you may struggle to find Methodist clergy who deny the resurrection, or carefully avoid affirming it, you still can find quite a few who hold to some form of universalism — a belief that either there is no Hell or that it will be empty. You can still find Methodist preachers who speak dismissively or not at all about our sin and our need for forgiveness. Such preachers at times will proudly assert that they are not evangelicals. What is really at question is whether they are even orthodox.

There is much more that can be said about what orthodoxy entails and what it does not. Even these two points bear much more discussion than is suitable in a blog post. But this, at least, is a starting point. The faith we preach as Methodists is orthodox. It is in keeping with the grand and central doctrines of the church handed down through the centuries. When preaching ceases to be orthodox, it ceases to be Methodist.