Methodist preaching is Spirit filled

This is the last of four posts trying to identify that makes Methodist preaching Methodist. In my mind, I have been narrowing the focus as I have gone, reducing the overlap at each step with other Christian traditions. In the widest claim, I wrote that Methodist preaching is orthodox. Then I wrote that it is also evangelical, marking it as distinct from all those forms of orthodox Christian preaching that do not place as much emphasis on a high view of biblical authority, the importance of the cross and conversion, and the translation of faith into action. Next, I distinguished Methodist preaching from Calvinistic strains of evangelicalism by pointing to the Arminian commitments that inform our preaching. In this post, finally, I assert hat the final distinctive of Methodist preaching is our powerful expectation that the Holy Spirit will bring to completion what begins when we are justified by grace.

I will discuss two examples of what we preach with regard to the Holy Spirit. First, we believe and preach that the Holy Spirit gives believers an assurance of their salvation in Christ. Second, we believe that the Holy Spirit will transform us into the image of Christ, provided we follow his leading in the work of grace.

Blessed Assurance

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Christian who was struggling with the fact that she had never had a Paul on the road to Damascus conversion. She remembered being led to pray a version of the sinner’s prayer as a child and young person, more than once. But she did not remember any experience of change. Was something missing, she wondered.

In the hit streaming show The Chosen there is a powerful example of the conversion experience told through an extra biblical embellishment of the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary has a powerful, redeeming, and liberating encounter with Jesus, who drives out the demons within her. Later, when she is recounting what happened, she is at a loss to explain it. She says, “I was one way, and now I am completely different. And in between, there was him.” *

This is what many people feel they lack in their Christian experience. We don’t often feel “completely different” after praying for Jesus to be our Savior and Lord. And we sometimes wonder if we did something wrong or if we are really saved.

We Methodists — along with many other Christians — believe that God does not want us to wonder such things. Indeed, we believe that the Holy Spirit longs to give us the assurance of our salvation that so many long for. One of our great hymn writers, Fanny Crosby, wrote one of our most popular hymns about this very thing.

Methodist preaching is grounded in the conviction that the Holy Spirit is active and present and moving. He speaks to our spirit that we are children of God. We do not have to limp along wondering if we are saved. We can know it.

Prior to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, a spiritual mentor asked him this simple question: “Do you know you are saved?” Wesley stumbled and fumbled around. He certainly hoped he was. He certainly had tried to live as if he was. He was intelligent, dedicated, and as hard a worker as the church could ever ask for, but faced with a simple question he was brought up short.

His mentor told him that he could know he was saved. He could have the assurance of his salvation. He did not have to wonder and stumble. Not long afterward, Wesley was given that assurance, and Methodist preachers have to this day continued to preach what we sing: Assurance is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who is active and ready to fill you with his presence.

This, I know, is not what we often think about when we write about Spirit-filled preaching. We usually mean by that signs and wonders and energetic and ecstatic experiences. We think of healing and people being slain in the Spirit and speaking in tongues. And none of these should be outside the bounds of our expectation as Methodists. The Holy Spirit is alive and active, and he will do what he will.

But these are not the essential hallmarks of the Spirit-filled preaching of Methodists. They are outward signs of the inner work of the Holy Spirit, work that can go on amid shouting and fire or in the quiet of a Bible study small group gathering. The essential thing is that Spirit gives you the assurance of your salvation and then leads you to work out the full sanctification of your soul. Methodist preaching should help people to understand that this gift is being offered to them by God. It should help them seek it. It should help them sing it.

In the conversation I had with the woman who was wondering if she had missed something in her conversion, I observed that her faith in Jesus seemed very solid to me. I asked her how that came to be. She told me about a summer when she came to have this firm sense of Jesus’ love and the peace she had in trusting in him. It was that summer that she found the unshakeable certainty of the love of Jesus.

I smiled when she recounted this story and told her she was more Methodist than she knew. That assurance of her salvation and the dissolving of her doubt was her Aldersgate. It is something the Holy Spirit will do for all believers, and something Methodist preachers should encourage Christians to seek, anticipate, and expect.

Going on to Perfection

The most controversial convictions of John Wesley’s teachings was a natural extension of his insistence that all the commands of God in Scripture are “covered promises.” In other words, God never commands us to do a thing that he will not also give us the grace to do. So, when God calls us to be as merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful, this is not an impossible hurdle for us to clear. It is a promise that if we seek it, God will give us the grace to become truly merciful.

Likewise, when God calls us to love God with all our soul, to love each other, to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus, he is also promising to work within us by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the sanctifying grace of God to become what he commands us to be.

In some Christian traditions, the Sermon on the Mount is taught as a tool God uses to crush our self-righteousness. We hear the commands of Christ in the sermon and — if we are honest — acknowledge that we are never going to be that good and so are driven to seek forgiveness for the sinful nature that we are powerless to rise above.

Methodists also believe that we are powerless, on our own, to rise above our sinful nature. But we believe that what is impossible for us is possible for God. When Jesus calls us to love perfectly and completely, he is also offering us the grace to do so, if we lean into that grace and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit within us. We will never be free of temptation, but in Jesus Christ we have the power to overcome what once held us fast in chains.

Methodist preaching gave rise to the holiness movements and pentecostalism precisely because it took on faith the idea that God really does intend to restore us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Spirit is active right now and the grace of God is capable of doing within us what we would never be able to do on our own.

When I attend non-Methodist churches, I sometimes hear some of our hymns sung in worship. I always take a small bit of joy that our gift to the church universal is music. It can also be a time that reminds me of how we Methodists do have our own place within the wider church. I recall a non-Methodist worship service that concluded with the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Exceling,” but it changed the words of the final verse. In that verse, we speak of God bring us into the full image of Christ, in which we were first made. It is a joyous verse, but one that must have rubbed our brothers and sisters in a related tradition as fanciful or just plain wrong. I don’t remember exactly the words that they sang that day, but I will conclude this post with the words as they appear in our hymnal, a confident plea that God do what he has promised he will do with us.

Finish then, thy new creation,
Pure and spotless, let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory
Til in heaven we take place,
Til we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

* We may quibble that a scene about an exorcism is not exactly an good example of what happens in our conversion, the line from that show has powerful resonance in evangelical imagination, so much so that this one scene has become the inspiration for a song by a popular Christian recording artist.

Methodist preaching is Arminian

A while back, I started a series of short posts on the nature of Methodist preaching.

My intention was to describe Methodist preaching as orthodox, evangelical, Arminian, and Spirit-filled. Part way through these four short posts, I dropped the ball, so here I am picking it back up again. I’d invite you go back an read those posts about the orthodox and evangelical implications of our preaching as they lay the groundwork for this post.

The third marker of distinctly Methodist preaching is rooted in the theology of Jacob Arminius, a 16th century Dutch theologian who greatly influenced John Wesley. Arminius was a Reformed theologian who came to disagree with some of the tenants of the Calvinism of his day. (W. Stephen Gunter’s Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments is a brief but thorough introduction to Arminius, his times, and his key theological arguments with Dutch Calvinism.)

In following Arminius, Wesley would later write that Methodism is a “hair’s breadth” from Calvinism, but that tiny width has had serious implications for our preaching as Methodists. Wesleyan Methodism agrees with traditional Calvinism that human beings are incapable of willing or doing good, unless the grace of God intervenes and enables us to do so.

A Calvinist of Arminius’ day would say that the saving grace of God is completely irresistible. Once God has determined to save us, there is no room for us to resist. Along side this belief is the doctrine of predestination that says God has determined before the creation of the world who he would save and who he would not save. As such, the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross was not for everyone, but only those who God had predestined to salvation.

Arminius and Methodists teach that Jesus Christ did indeed die for everyone, not just a predestined elect. We teach that God has determined since before creation that all who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved. The means of salvation was predetermined not the identity of the saved. Grace, consequently, is offered freely to all. We teach that while this grace is necessary for our salvation, God permits us to resist or reject it, and although nothing the devil does can pry us from the hand of God once we are justified, we can ourselves backslide in our faith and fall again into a state of unrighteousness.

Much more can be said than these short paragraphs can convey, but some of the implications of this Arminian preaching are as follows.

First, we do not preach the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” While we do believe in the necessity of conversion and justification by faith in Jesus Christ, we believe it is possible to reject even our salvation. We should be mindful that some of the “best Christians” may be the ones most in need of conversion, and we should always urge people to continue to work out their salvation, never resting on that time long ago when they gave their lives to Christ.

Second, we should never cease to carry the gospel to those who have not heard it. Everyone needs to be saved and everyone can be saved. The church is not for the “frozen chosen” but for everyone, and so Methodist preaching should be aggressively bent toward evangelism and calling sinners to turn to God and believe the good news. God does all the work in salvation. It is by his grace alone that we are saved, but he has called and appointed us to be his witnesses and bearers of that gospel, not merely to a small elite, but to every soul we can possibly reach.

Finally, we should be wary of the impulse to pick quarrels with our theological cousins in Calvinism. Evangelicals have often fallen into disagreement over the same doctrines that caused so much stir in the days of Arminius, but we would be better served to follow the example of John Wesley, who disagreed quite sharply with George Whitefield on the very doctrines discussed in this post. Despite this disagreement, Wesley viewed him as a valuable co-worker in the gospel and preached at Whitefield’s funeral.

Long before Whitefield and Wesley, Arminius ably defended a grace-filled evangelical faith. In addition to the points above, he was challenged by his contemporaries on the nature of sanctification. While many of his colleagues argued strongly that it is not possible for any human being to attain spiritual perfection in this life, Arminius wrote that there was no reason to believe that Holy Spirit was incapable of doing such work in us, even if we must honestly claim we do not know anyone who has been blessed to attain it. In my fourth post in this series, we will see how Wesley went farther than Arminius was willing to go, leading to our fourth Methodist distinctive in preaching: Spirit-filled.

God called us here

I understand the impulse many in our denomination have right now to rally around the flag.

Our official institutional organs, in particular, cannot be faulted for encouraging us to express our love and excitement over being United Methodists. Part of the job of institutions is to perpetuate the institution, after all.

But, I have to confess, I’ve always struggled when invited to shout about how much I love the United Methodist Church.

You see, I don’t really love the UMC.

I love Jesus.

I love Jesus. I’ve been called by the Holy Spirit to be a United Methodist.

I’ve been called to be a United Methodist. I did not choose it. Indeed, and I know this is going to be controversial, I don’t think choosing a church or a denomination is ever a good idea. If your answer to why you are United Methodist is some version of “Well, I shopped around and kicked the tires of a lot of churches, and this is the one that seemed like the best fit to me” then I worry that you might have missed something along the way.

If your answer to why you are a United Methodist is something like the above, then, at the very least, please never criticize people for their consumer attitudes toward the church.

But, even more than that, if you think the church you are a part of is mostly about your choice, I’d invite you to pray about that. Pray that the Holy Spirit show you where God is calling you to be.

We Methodists have to spend a lot of time talking people out of what we consider mistaken notions about baptism. Lots of people think baptism is mostly something we choose to do. This is why infant baptism is confusing to so many people. They think baptism is a choice we make and therefore should not be provided to those incapable of making choices.

But this understanding of baptism is confused. Baptism is not something we decide to do. It is a gift of God. We are called by God to baptism. In his grace, he gives us a choice about accepting what he offers, but fortunately our fitness for baptism has nothing to do with us being able to make fully informed decisions about our choice. None of us knows enough to understand what we are getting into when we get baptized, which is fine because baptism was not our idea.

Although we Methodists have a lot of experience trying to help people understand what it means to be a called people when we talk about baptism, we fall right back into the language of choice when we are trying to generate enthusiasm for our struggling denomination.

Sadly, I cannot find any support in the Bible for the idea that we are the ones in charge when it comes to God. There are lots of stories in the Bible about people comparison shopping for gods. There are lots of stories about the people deciding that God did not meet their needs or he asked of them things that felt unreasonable. I don’t think, however, we United Methodists should take them as models.

In this moment of fear, anger, and chaos in the United Methodist Church, I don’t think what we need most is a campaign to #BeUMC or social media invitations to tell everyone why we love the UMC. I think, in this moment, we need to spend less time talking about how much we love the UMC and more time figuring out how to be Methodists.

We have been called by the Holy Spirit to become a part of this movement within the Church catholic stirred up by the Holy Spirit in England in the 1700s. It was and remains a movement that can energize and revitalize the church, if it remains true to its call and purpose. It was and is a movement gifted with a strong vision of simple Christianity that preaches salvation by free grace, believes in the power of the Holy Spirit to actually make us who Jesus calls us to be, and refuses to stop moving as long as there are people who have not yet heard — really heard — the good news.

I did not choose the United Methodist Church. God called me here. If you are a United Methodist, I believe God called you here as well. The question for us in this moment is not how to #BeUMC or invite people to share how much they love the denomination. The question for us is the same one that the Holy Spirit laid before John and Charles Wesley. How do we — in this moment — take what God has placed in our hands and wants to plant in our hearts and reach a world that does not know Jesus? How do we be Methodist Christians?

If we can figure that out, I believe the UMC will continue and even spread. If we cannot, or if we abandon who we have been called to be, then we will be pruned. No amount of hashtags and pep rallies will prevent that.