Getting beyond “How is it with your soul?”

An interesting extract from John Wesley’s journal dated March 25, 1739:

I baptized John Smith (late an Anabaptist) and four other adults at Islington. Of the adults I have known baptized lately, one only was at that time born again, in the full sense of the word; that is, found a thorough, inward change, by the love of God filling her heart. Most of them were only born again in a lower sense; that is, received the remission of their sins. And some (as it has too plainly appeared) neither in one sense nor the other.

I cannot tell from Wesley’s words here how he interprets his own report. Is this a sign of failure? Is it a defense of infant baptism, noting that adult converts by and large do not show any more signs of total reformation of life than babies? Is it something else? I’m not sure, but I do find the facts of the case interesting. As often is the case with Wesley, I find his categories interesting as well.

We see here at least three different states of the soul.

Born again in a lower sense — in which the sinner receives and is aware of a formal and positive forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.

Born again in the full sense — in which, added to the above, the sinner experiences a profound inward transformaion and a filling of the heart with the love of God.

The original state — in which we receive neither of the above even if we do the outward duties and rituals of the church.

It is notable that Wesley’s experience is that only a tiny subset of converts experience full rebirth at the moment of their baptism or conversion. For most, that is something that comes later. This would, of course, comport with Wesley’s own experience. Indeed, it is very likely that he would say he experienced neither the lower nor fuller sense of rebirth until his encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate in his mid-30s.

I don’t know if these ways of talking about the state of our soul need “translating” to make sense to people today. I am sure, however, that most of the people in our churches are not accustomed to thinking in such ways about their own spiritual life. I am also constantly struck by how little people in our churches can articulate their own spiritual experience. They lack the language, the categories, and the experience to talk in any concrete ways about “how is it with your soul?” I think one service Wesley and his preachers provided Christians in his day was to give them language and practice in talking about these important matters.

We could certainly do worse than provide our people the same thing.

 

 

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Don’t wait for heaven

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its orginal purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in rightouseness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.

— John Wesley, “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” 1744

Methodism at its foundation was deeply concerned with the eternal destiny of souls. John Wesley wrote that his great aim in life was to land on the happy shore of heaven when he died. But he had no time for those who thought heaven was a far off country that would remain ever distant from us until our final hour. No, Wesley and his preachers taught with great passion that the best part of the good news of salvation is that we do not have to wait until our death to taste the blessings of heaven.

Our salvation is about today. It not something we tuck away like our life insurance policy to be consulted during funeral arrangements. In Christ, we can experience the restoration of our souls today.

So much of our talk in church denies this.

How often do we say or hear other people say, “I’ll never be perfect” or “I’m always going to be a sinner”?

Yes, we are all sinners.

No, we are not condemned to always sin.

Christ came so that you might know life today.

I know these words do not express all there is to say on this topic, but I am going to stop today with these words because I find that once we open the gates to caveats and exceptions and “yes, but” conversations, we lose sight of the good news.

God desires that you know the sweetness of your original design. Christ has come so it might be possible for you to do so. The Holy Spirit is at hand to refresh and renew your soul.

You need only let go. Seek what you long for. Accept what you most wish to find. It is here. It is waiting. God waits only for your hands to be opened.

Why do we preachers need to talk more about heaven? Because it is close at hand, if only we will seek it.

Skipping over our sin

“I’m a sinner, but I’m forgiven.”

If you have been around church or been a pastor, you’ve heard these words. You may have even said them.

One of the things I find myself struggling to communicate to people is the importance of not skipping over the first part of the sentence too quickly.

We like to get to the forgiven part quickly. We don’t like to dwell on the sinner part. That, of course, makes perfect sense. Dwelling on our sinfulness is rather unpleasant.

But here is the thing I often encounter in my ministry.

Many Christians struggle because they have not really experienced the good news of the gospel. Oh, they have heard it. They have sung about it. They’ve sat through countless sermons about it, but there is something that has not yet grabbed hold of them.

They are like the pre-Aldersgate John Wesley, who spent his life in admirable Christian service, but had himself not come to know the joy of the gospel. For him, the key moment was when he came to a deep realization that his sin had been forgiven.

In the Bible, Jesus puts the contrast this way. Those who have been forgiven much rejoice much. Those who have been forgiven little, rejoice little.

And our problem so often is that we want to convince ourselves and others that we have little to be forgiven for. We do not really dwell on the ways that we reject God. We do not think on our sins. We do not experience the cold hard truth that we are in dire need of forgiveness. Instead, we rush ahead and grab the warm comfortable mantle of forgiveness and so fail to really know what it means to come out of the cold and into the warmth of the Father’s love.

We skip past our sinfulness like someone running on hot coals. We move so quickly, that we barely need the healing that awaits on the other side.

And so, this is work I continue to seek the wisdom to do better. For I do know this to be true. The tepid relief of “I’m a sinner but forgiven” often provides little comfort when a person is lying in a hospital bed with their heart failing or cancer assailing their body. At the hour of their death, they need the full assurance that only comes from the full gospel.

Lord, help me to learn better how to help the people in my care die a good death.