More than three simple rules

This is the reason why the Three Simple Rules phenomenon in United Methodism has always confused me:

Nor, lastly, is he distinguished by laying the whole stress of religion on any single part of it. If you say, “Yes, he is; for he thinks ‘we are saved by faith alone:'” I answer, You do not understand the terms. By salvation he means holiness of heart and life. And this he affirms to spring from true faith alone. Can even a nominal Christian deny it? Is this placing a part of religion for the whole? “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.” We do not place the whole of religion (as too many do, God knoweth) either in doing no harm, or in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. No, not in all of them together; wherein we know by experience a man may labour many years, and at the end have no religion at all, no more than he had at the beginning. Much less in any one of these; or, it may be, in a scrap of one of them: Like her who fancies herself a virtuous woman, only because she is not a prostitute; or him who dreams he is an honest man, merely because he does not rob or steal. May the Lord God of my fathers preserve me from such a poor, starved religion as this! Were this the mark of a Methodist, I would sooner choose to be a sincere Jew, Turk, or Pagan.

These are words from John Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist.” They raise serious questions for me about the movement with United Methodism in recent years to offer the three rules laid out above (do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God) as a formula for Christianity. Rueben Job’s little book and follow-on materials have been hawked throughout United Methodism and commended by many within the denomination. But they seem to be offering a false religion, if Wesley is any guide.

Don’t get me wrong. I am aware that Wesley did not say these three things were bad. Indeed, he taught that a Christian would do all three out of love for Christ, and these three simple rules are the basis of our General Rules — which are supposed to be binding on all United Methodists.

But Wesley was quite emphatic in not letting early Methodists confuse these outward actions for inward faith. You can follow the Three Simple Rules, Wesley taught, and have no more true religion than a stone.

True religion, you see, is about an encounter with Jesus Christ. It is something that changes your heart. It is something that comes by faith.

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5 thoughts on “More than three simple rules

  1. Indeed, simply “doing” the three simple rules may not get one very far.

    At the same time, living out the General Rules (which, pace Job, DO concern themselves with concrete practices, not just principles!) as a Rule of Life, a concretization of the baptismal covenant, IS an inescapable part of participation in the whole of salvation we are offered. Living with no regard for what’s identified there would not likely lead us toward holiness of heart and life, either.

    Wesley’s point is doing one or more parts, but missing the whole, or eliminating any of the parts while claiming to focus solely on the whole all represent serious reductions of what the whole of salvation is for us– growth in holiness of heart and life toward perfection in love in this life. That’s the whole, in which all the parts participate, and of which all the parts are a part.

    1. I think I don’t read Wesley quite the same way you do, Taylor.

      In letter, journals, sermons, and this tract, he comes back to this point over and over. You can be the most passionate and persistent follower of these three rules as ever lived and still have no more religion than a stone.

      No true religion exists without doing good, avoiding harm, and attending on the ordinances of God, but these things — even practiced to perfection — are not true religion.

      True religion — Wesley preached — was the image of God restored in the heart, soul, and life of the person. It is new birth that grows into sanctification.

      I don’t think this conflicts with what you wrote, but my interpretation is that Wesley knew his own heart when he followed the three rules but did not truly love God and wanted to keep others from making the same mistake he made.

      1. So I think we agree, then, John. The rules alone don’t do it, any more than a feeling of assurance of justification or even of entire sanctification doesn’t do it.

        The means of grace, including those specified in the 3d General Rule, can help open us up to receiving the and abounding in the justifying and sanctifying grace of God. But they do not work “ex opere operato” to activate that grace in our lives. It is always about interaction– God’s grace offered, and how we live into, receive, grow and are perfected by it in love. One cannot be a Methodist (as I think we both agree John Wesley describes it) and an atheist or a mere materialist.

  2. My first thought that the implementation of the these rules is part of the “works versus faith” debate. The rules make sense if you understand where Christ is in your life but if one believes that you can get into heaven by following a set of rules and you have nothing in your heart, then you will end up losing in the end.

    I have never been comfortable with the idea that all you have to do is accept Christ as one’s Savior and that was that. That’s why I think I would make a terrible Baptist.

    On the other hand, it was pointed out to me that 1) one cannot work one’s way into heaven so the rules won’t help you there and 2) if you have accepted Christ, you had to make changes in your life and there the rules will help.

    1. Wesley argued that the law — from whence he derived the content of the General Rules — served multiple functions. It convicts us of our sin. It offers a guide to right living. It confirms and supports our growth in holiness.

      The three simple rules certainly might fill those various functions.

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