Two simple words

I’m not sure how many posts this will entail, but I’m going to start a deep dive on John Wesley’s sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” This is one of John Wesley’s standard sermons, which are doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church.

As doctrinal standards, they should be key texts for helping us discern what it means to be Methodist today. These days in the United Methodist Church, it is quite fashionable to quote — and sadly often misquote — Wesley. What I want to do is take the time to actually read him, and, with God as my helper, hear him.

So, without further ado …

1. Nothing can be more intricate, complex, and hard to be understood, than religion, as it has been often described. And this is not only true concerning the religion of the Heathens, even many of the wisest of them, but concerning the religion of those also who were, in some sense, Christians; yea, and men of great name in the Christian world; men who seemed to be pillars thereof. He comes out swinging. That “as it has been often described” is doing so much work. Up until that point in the sentence, you could imagine lots of people nodding in agreement. Yes, yes. Religion is hard to understand and full of complicated ideas and practices. But then Wesley pivots. The man who said he was a plain preacher for plain people tosses much Christianity together with heathen paganism, even while barely granting it the status of Christianity. That reference to those “who were, in some sense, Christians” had clear targets in mind, as must have been his reference to those men who “seemed to be pillars” of the church.

Yet how easy to be understood, how plain and simple a thing, is the genuine religion of Jesus Christ; provided only that we take it in its native form, just as it is described in the oracles of God! Take note champions of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” The source of knowledge about the nature of Christianity is found in the Bible. And what’s more, that religion is plain, simple, and easy to understand. Now, Wesley has already shown us that he is well aware of all the ways that human beings make religion complicated and obscure, but he does not accept the fact that we make it a mess as an indication that it is a mess that Jesus has put in our hands.

It is exactly suited, by the wise Creator and Governor of the world, to the weak understanding and narrow capacity of man in his present state. I do not believe Wesley would object to the notion that God is well beyond our understanding and comprehension. His ways are higher than our ways. But Wesley did insist that the religion God has given us is simple. It has to be simple, because we are ignorant. The mystics are correct that there are depths to God that we cannot begin to grasp, but the religion of Jesus Christ is so simple that even we can get hold of it. How else could this be the case? Just as a parent or teacher of small children uses simple and plain examples to instruct, so God has done with us.

How observable is this, both with regard to the end it proposes, and the means to attain that end! The end is, in one word, salvation; the means to attain it, faith.

2. It is easily discerned, that these two little words, I mean faith and salvation, include the substance of all the Bible, the marrow, as it were, of the whole Scripture. So much the more should we take all possible care to avoid all mistake concerning them, and to form a true and accurate judgement concerning both the one and the other. And so here we see outline for the rest of the sermon. Wesley will first consider what we mean when we say the word “salvation” and then consider what we mean by “faith.” This method of preaching is one that Wesley uses a lot. He tells us what it means to be a Christian by giving clear meanings to words. We learn to “speak Christian” as a first step to learning how to be Christian. In this case, we must be clear about what we mean when we speak of salvation and faith.

This point feels as important today as it did in Wesley’s day. In the United Methodist Church today, it is not at all clear that we mean the same things when we use the same words. We appear, in my observation, to be much more interested in “our theology” and “my understanding” than we are in having a common vocabulary that unites us.

I think this is why it is so hard to say these days what makes a United Methodist a United Methodist. When someone says, “I was born and raised a United Methodist. The church I grew up in was as United Methodist as you can get” I’m not sure at all what they mean until they go on to explain it. Usually, what they explain are certain liturgical practices or features of our polity or some vague sense of being warm-hearted and socially concerned.

I’ve never heard any Methodist say anything like: “What makes me a Methodist is my conviction that the true religion of Jesus Christ is plain, simple, and easy to understand, and it can be summed up in just two words: salvation and faith.”

And yet, that is what the first Methodist insisted upon.

If you are at all interested, stay tuned as we move more deeply into this sermon and, perhaps, find a shared language to help us remember who we Methodists are.

The pitfall of the particular

It is a blessing to be a preacher in a time when many churches stream their worship services and post videos of their sermons. I find it helpful as a preacher to tune to 3-5 other sermons each week and watch and listen for things that I can incorporate to my own practice of preaching. There is a lot out there to appreciate.

But I’ve also been reminded of something well known in the church for centuries. The texts in the Bible are meant to be heard within the context of the whole Bible and within the context of an overarching theological framework. John Wesley called this “the analogy of faith.” The idea here is that although the Bible has many forms of writing and many different parts, what it reveals to us about God is not contradictory with itself.

In other words, when we interpret a particular text from the Bible, the lessons and principles we take from the text should not contradict the overall doctrinal commitments we take from our holistic reading of the entire Bible. This use of the whole to help us understand the particular is something we do all the time.

Imagine you are watching a movie. Over the course of the movie, you come to know a lot about the main character, say, perhaps, that it is a man who is clever and brave and has a strong moral compass. Now, suppose you come to a scene where this man is acting very differently. The natural response here is to suppose that something unique to the scene is causing him to respond in a certain way but that his basic character has not changed. This particular moment in the wider story does not cause us to change what we know about the character, but rather what we know about the character causes us to ask why he is acting in a way we do not expect in that particular scene.

In a rough way, that is what it means to say we let the whole Bible help us understand the particular parts of it. Sometimes, though, we preachers can get that backwards.

An example from a few years ago that is still controversial within United Methodism would be when one of our active bishops used the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. In this message, the bishop took the story to say that Jesus was still learning and needed to be taught by the woman he encountered about the worth of all human beings and his role in the world.

By reading only that story, with no theological convictions about Jesus, you could easily come to that conclusion. But as Christians and as Methodists we have theological commitments about Jesus. As pastors we have not only been taught these things, but we have also taken vows to uphold them.

We believe the Bible reveals that Jesus Christ was the incarnate Word, the second person of the Trinity, who is infinite in power, wisdom, and goodness. In his humanity, Jesus was subject to pain and death, but his full humanity in no way eliminated his attributes as God.

The stories about God in the Bible have to be read in light of what the Bible as a whole teaches us about God.

Everything I’ve written here is not universally accepted by preachers, however. For instance, I suspect our bishop in the case above was influenced by theological commitments that emphasize the experience of women to interpret isolated texts and seek to bracket off wider doctrinal commitments in the engagement with isolated stories. There are similar interpretive strategies that foreground people marginalized in our society. There are also theological frameworks that reject some of our basic doctrinal commitments — such as the idea that God is infinite in wisdom.

All of these ways of reading Scripture may lead to interesting results, but as United Methodists, we should be careful to preserve the doctrinal core of our faith. When we interpret stories in ways that contradict what we believe to be true about God, then we are not honoring God or our vows as clergy, and we mislead the people entrusted to our care as pastors.

This last point is the one that concerns me the most. We have a lot of really talented and skillful preachers in the UMC. With passion and eloquence, they can move congregations. If the preaching itself is not grounded and anchored by what we as a church believe about God, a great many of the laity in our congregations will not be able to spot that. When preachers go outside the boundaries of our shared doctrinal commitments, they lead the laity into a false understanding of God, which is a dangerous thing for both those who hear and those who preach.

As preachers, we should do all that we can to preach faithfully and preach the faith of the church, to which we have been called to serve.

Christ died for us. Christ lives in us

Every elder in the United Methodist Church has to write about their understanding of justification and sanctification in order to get ordained. Wesleyan Methodist preaching has always included both, or, at least, it was intended to include both.

We believe that all human beings are dead in sin and need to be made alive in Christ. Everyone falls short of the glory of God and needs to be receive the pardon that has already been won for us on the cross. But the story does not stop there. By the work of the Holy Spirit, all of those who are born from above are called to bear the fruit of their new life. A truly saved Christian cannot help but live out the love of God and neighbor, not from a sense of duty but because it is their very nature to do so. They are a new creation in Christ. Christians are called to expect and to seek to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus and to experience the renewal of the original image of God that we were created to bear.

Christ has died for us. Christ lives within us.

As a pastor in a local church, I have tried to teach and preach this faithfully, but people, even those who many would consider good Christians, put up many defenses against this message.

Some people, of course, resist even the notion that there is a God or that the Christian revelation is true or that we need to be forgiven. The cross still is a scandal and a stumbling block to a lot of people.

But even those who have come, by the grace of God, to a sense of conviction that they need Jesus, that they need to be forgiven, and that they need to accept him as their Lord, even these folks often have many ways to dodge the entire question of sanctification.

Some have been taught that “getting saved” is like a magic spell or an initiation ritual. If they say the right words, they get the secret handshake and the “get out of Hell” free card. They don’t actually seek or experience the justifying grace of God that frees us from sin and gives us power to resist and overcome it. They may confess Jesus Christ is lord with their lips, but their hearts have missed the lesson of the resurrection.

Of course, many people do experience a new birth that is deep and genuine. And yet, even among that group, there is often resistance to sanctification.

We believe God can raise the dead and create stars out of nothing, but we resist the idea that he can make us to be like Jesus Christ, not in power or in knowledge, but in perfect love for God and every person. We resist this idea. We say things like, “I’ll always be a sinner,” even though the Holy Spirit gives us the power to overcome sin. We say, “I can’t change,” even though God surely can do what we cannot. We settle for a less excellent way because we do not believe that God can do in us what he has promised.

The interesting thing to me about all of this is that what people most desperately want is that sense peace, power, and joy that justification and sanctification offer us. They want the very thing Christianity offers, but they want it from just about any other source. They want it on their terms. They will pay immense sums of money on false promises and burn up their days chasing lies, but they will not turn to God like little children and seek his pardon and his power. It is just too hard to give up our own sense of control. The serpent knew our weak spot perfectly in the garden.

And so, fractured and as broken as we are, I think that is why God keeps Methodists around. He keeps us around to continue to preach and teach and live out what John and Charles Wesley and a small band of others set out proclaim almost 300 years ago.

I have tried to preach Methodist Christianity, and I will continue to try to do so as well and faithfully as I can. I will continue to pray for my own entire sanctification, and I will continue to work with the Holy Spirit as he moves in my life.

To be honest, I don’t really know how I could call myself a Methodist if I did otherwise.