Methodists: Holiness is essential

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?



17 thoughts on “Methodists: Holiness is essential

  1. I struggle with a definition of Methodism which reduces the faith to “holiness” when this in turn is stated in such a way that virtually any faith-filled person could claim it as his own. Wouldn’t a Muslim claim that his faith leads him to a state in which his “….heart is filled with love for God and humankind” and during which he follows the laws of God with joy?

    1. A couple thoughts in response to that. First, I was not trying to say this is all there is to being a Methodist. I am was trying to locate something that defined the movement known as Methodism in its beginnings and connect that to our situation today.In his pamphlet “A Character of a Methodist,” for instance, Wesley began by laying out the things we hold in common with other Protestants — we believe Scripture is inspired by God (marking us off from Jews, Muslims, and others), we believe that the Scripture is the sufficient authority on all matters of faith and practice (marking us off from Roman Catholics), we believe that Jesus Christ is God (marking us off from various non-Trinitarian forms of the faith).

      So, an emphasis on holiness is not the only thing required to be a Methodist. We are Christians first, but Christians who believe — at least in our origins — that Christianity is not real Christianity if it does not produce holiness of heart and life. A Christianity of ideas in the head that do not produce real change or a Christianity of dead, formal rituals is not real Christianity.

      If your reply is that “every” kind of Christian would affirm the same thing, then Wesley would agree with you. He never argued Methodism was anything more than an attempt to put into practice authentic, biblical Christianity.

      As a denomination, of course, we have left Wesley behind intentionally some ways and strayed from him, perhaps unintentionally, in others. But part of what I do in writing this blog is try to call our attention to the gap since we United Methodists claim him as an important figure.

      The goal of the post was not so much an attempt to explain Methodism as to raise a question for those who call ourselves Methodist today. It was to point out that Wesley insisted over and over again that those who are not holy will not see the Lord. It was to ask whether we still preach and teach that or whether we have let the single-eyed focus on holiness as the key to the whole deal slip away.

  2. Excellent word, John. In response to Frank, I think the same could be said of Jesus’ reduction(?) of the Law to “love God and neighbor,” for the Muslim could say they are striving to love God and neighbor, too. But both, holiness and love, I think, must have a defined referent: Jesus.

    A wonderful book by Rev. Sangster, “Can Methodism Be Reborn?” emphasizes holiness. I reviewed it on my blog a couple weeks ago here:

    It might interest you.

    thanks for this reminder to be be holy.


    1. Always looking for more books to put on the wish list. Thank you, Chad.

      I think the question of how Wesley would respond to a 21st century pluralistic religious county would be hard to anticipate. He preached in a country where everyone was at least in name a Christian. His ministry was about getting them to be Christians in truth.

      He clearly believed the NT was the revelation of God, and so all its claims about Jesus were true. But at least one time when dealing with the questions about non-Christians he wrote that he would leave to God those who were outside the Christian dispensation. I read this as his setting aside a hypothetical question so he could focus on the actual work at hand, but it is an interesting response.

  3. Now I understand your point and it makes sense. I didn’t understand the context of the origial piece. What may not make sense is for a non-Methodist, such as myself, to comment on such things. There simply may be too much what might be called “inside knowledge” for someone on the outside to understand what is actually being discussed. For example, now it appears to me that you are saying something like…in order to be holy one must first be a Christian, and not all Christians, and many Methodists, aren’t holy anyway. I suspect I am still misunderstanding things. But it does bring me to an interesting question, which is, can Muslims be holy according to Wesleyan thought?

  4. I just re-read Chad’s comment and noticed that he seems to be saying that the notion of a holy Muslim (Jew, Hindu, etc.) would be an oxymoron. Is my understanding correct, and if so, do you agree?

    1. Christian holiness is distinctively Christian. So, while a Jew or Muslim might have a person they call “holy” a Methodist would (or should) draw a distinction. Of course, the Old Testament does describe a kind of holiness through the law, but the testimony of the NT is that no one attained that holiness other than Jesus.

      Methodists, following Wesley, have a way of answering these kinds of questions that often annoys more systematic theological thinkers. We describe what holiness looks like (see “The Character of a Methodist“), describe the way we believe Scripture teaches that you can grow into holiness (faith in Jesus Christ, faith working through love, going on to perfection), and look at your life to see if it bears the fruits of holiness.

      We are quite comfortable with saying that in the ordinary course of things we believe certain things to be true, but we nearly always want to leave room for God to do things that we do not see as typical or ordinary. So, I do not think Hindus can have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14), but I’m not prepared to say that God has never saved a Hindu.

  5. I would say that it was Wesley’s invention of actual spiritual senses, and his related (and possibly heretical) claims on spiritual perfection, that made him unique among protestants of his day and that these are hard claims to take literally today but his emphasis on monastic style methods/disciplines and natural philosophy certainly still have a vital role to play in revitalizing a Church that confuses membership for discipleship. Also one should be aware that raising the “holiness” flag in the modern America context often echoes with the modern evangelical/born-again movements that are quite far from Wesley and make many Methodist churches virtually indistinguishable from Southern Baptists.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dirk. I demure from your description of Wesley’s “invention” and “heresy,” but I do agree Methodists often do allow ourselves to slide into a kind of generic faith that conforms to whatever the world around it is and does.

      1. given the historical record it seems pretty clear that Wesley took the natural philosophy of his time on the human senses and forged his own related take on the spiritual gifts from the Bible, no?
        I left open the question of how literally to take Wesley on “perfection” but it was and remains a pretty controversial view among orthodox minded protestants, do you not find Wesley to be pretty radical in relation to his fellow Anglicans?

        1. I do not know what he took from Locke, etc. I recall him writing some unfavorable things about one of Locke’s books in his journals or letters, but I forget the specifics. I do know he is not the first or last spiritual writer to refer to the eyes of faith or speaking of being blind as a spiritual state.

          Perfection was controversial in Wesley’s day, but controversial and heretical stand quite a distance apart from each other. I’m afraid I do not understand what you mean by saying you “left open the question of how literally to take Wesley on ‘perfection’.” Do you mean you don’t know how serious he was about the doctrine?

      2. When we do that, it’s often because of laziness both in our thinking and our actions. I reject the idea that the biblical command, from Jesus’ own mouth, “You must be born again” makes me a Baptist. John Wesley believed one must be born from above and his sermon “The Marks of the New Birth” bears that out, particularly the statement at the end where he says, “You must be born again by the Spirit of God.”

        We do have common ground with other denominations and sects. I don’t find that a bad thing. Wesley was a priest in the Anglican church whose maternal grandparents were dissenters (Puritans), whose close spiritual friend was a pietistic Lutheran, influenced a great deal by a Catholic mystic (á Kempis), experienced conversion after hearing a reading of Luther’s work on Romans, and was more concerned with Scriptural Christianity than anything else. Wherever others match up with that Scriptural Christianity is where I proudly link arms with them.

  6. Wesleyan theology affirms a God who loves all preveniently and whose Spirit imparts holiness to those whose hearts have been opened through their trust in Jesus’ sacrifice. The beatific vision of God is the telos of humanity; not entering into this vision is the outer darkness of hell. To frame the problem as one of needing grace-induced holiness to see God and enter into communion with Him is a completely different way of framing the problem than the pop-evangelical “decision for Christ” gospel in which we must convince God to let us into His presence by “accepting” Jesus in a sincere enough way that He’ll acquit us for our rule-breaking. I much prefer the former to the latter. The Wesley who channels the patristic fathers and Thomas a Kempis has a much more compelling vision of Christianity than the Wesley who was guarding his words against the ferocious attacks of Calvinists like Augustus Toplady.

    I just blogged on John 3:36, which I stumbled across a couple of days ago: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on them.” In this context, life and wrath refer to the realities we perceive according to whether we trust or reject Christ:

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