Atheists, deists, and sleepers

John Wesley writes about the person he describes as spiritually dead or asleep in his sermon “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption.”

The darkness which covers him on every side, keeps him in a kind of peace; so far as peace can consist with the works of the devil, and with an earthly, devilish mind. He sees not that he stands on the edge of the pit, therefore he fears it not. He cannot tremble at the danger he does not know. He has not understanding enough to fear. Why is it that he is in no dread of God? Because he is totally ignorant of him: If not saying in his heart, “There is no God;” or, that “he sitteth on the circle of the heavens, and humbleth” not “himself to behold the things which are done on earth:” yet satisfying himself as well to all Epicurean intents and purposes, by saying, “God is merciful;” confounding and swallowing up all at once in that unwieldy idea of mercy, all his holiness and essential hatred of sin; all his justice, wisdom, and truth. He is in no dread of the vengeance denounced against those who obey not the blessed law of God, because he understands it not.

When I read this, I am struck by how many people fit the descriptions here. You have atheists and deists here. You also have a vast number of people who say something to the effect of “God is too merciful to allow people to go to hell.” You have, in other words, me before my conversion to Christianity.

There is nothing new here. We have all these people with us today.

When Wesley encountered these types of Christians and non-Christians, he understood them to be “natural” men and women, that is people dead to the life of the Holy Spirit and unaware of God. He did not see them as people who just happened to disagree with him, but as people who were spiritually dead and in need of supernatural intervention.

I gather that in spite of the fact that Wesley’s sermons are supposed to be doctrinal standards for United Methodists, a great many United Methodists would not embrace Wesley’s description of human nature. We tend to speak of pluralism rather than of people who slumber in spiritual darkness in need of being awakened by God.

But what is the source of our confidence as United Methodists (or Christians) that Wesley did not know what he was talking about? We appear to have largely abandoned the concern that men, women, and children stand under eternal judgment — as our creeds and Bible indicate — and instead seem mostly concerned with what will help people be worldly happy during this brief span of years they have been granted by God.

I don’t understand how we end up that way as Bible reading, creed repeating Christians. But for a large number of us, that appears to be the case.

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14 thoughts on “Atheists, deists, and sleepers

  1. Wesley seems to give the answer to the question he raised: “He sees not that he stands on the edge of the pit, therefore he fears it not. He cannot tremble at the danger he does not know. He has not understanding enough to fear.”

    Such a person is spiritually blind. He/she does not understand. Wouldn’t the solution be to make/help him or her understand. I think many peole experience something like watching a scary movie in a different language. They sort of understand they should have some fear but they don’t know exactly why or what they should do in response. We must do our best to present God as the awesome, powerful God He is, and we must do that (as well as we can) in a way that people can understand.

    Of course another problem is that the Bible is often watered down. If a weak, cushy god (not the God of the Bible, the God who makes Promises and is alive and completely competent to fulfill those Promises hundreds or thousands of years later) is preached why are we surprised if people have a weak, cushy faith?

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