without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14b, NIV)
We United Methodists talk about John Wesley in a lot of odd ways. We quote him, sometimes wildly out of context. We make jokes about him. Some of us appear at times to have an unhealthy interest in him (raise your hands if you’ve read every volume of his journals).
But for good or ill, he is part of what makes us who we are as Christians. A group of English Christians became convinced of some core truths about the real meaning of Christianity and being a Christian. They put those ideas into practice. And 300 years later, here we are. Of course, in many ways, we are not recognizable in any significant way as spiritual heirs of his. Indeed, some of us appear to take it as a point of pride to not be Wesleyans.
But I’ve found him an important spiritual mentor. When someone asks me what makes United Methodism different from another denomination, I nearly always go to Wesleyan theology. And so, I’m nearly always looking to get a better handle on what makes a Methodist a Methodist.
One answer that I came up with a couple years ago and continue to find confirmed in my reading and experience comes down to one word: holiness. The Hebrews 12 verse quoted at the top of the post is among the most used by Wesley. He wrote over and over about the connection between holiness and salvation. Indeed, he saw them as two different words for the same thing.
Holiness is the state in which our heart is filled with love for God and humankind. It is the place in which we follow the laws of God with joy. It is the condition of soul in which we rejoice in God our savior whatever comes our way.
Before any other doctrine or practice that would become hallmarks of Methodism occurred to John Wesley, he was convinced of this doctrine: without holiness, no one will see the Lord. Indeed, this doctrine was a source of great anxiety for Wesley because he knew he was not holy. Aldersgate was such a relief because he discovered something that explained why he had failed so often.
So, what about us?
Do we accept Wesley’s claim? Do we believe that without holiness it is not possible to see the Lord? Do we believe that the less than holy will be shut out?
And if we do not, what is it that gets us to call ourselves by the name of Methodist?