Thoughts on preaching Christ

John Wesley held that a preacher needed to offer people both law and gospel.

In a 1751 “Letter on Preaching Christ” he wrote that preaching gospel means “preaching the love of God to sinners, preaching the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ, with all the blessings which, in consequence thereof, are freely given to true believers.”

Preaching law means “explaining and enforcing the commands of Christ, briefly comprised in the Sermon on the Mount. I took note when I read this that he said to preach the commands of Christ. He did not instruct us to call people sinners or get them to focus on wrath, but to recount the commands in the Sermon on the Mount. That alone, he seems to argue, will convict where conviction is necessary.

Wesley wrote that he believed the best method of aiding and nurturing belief was to preach a mix of law and gospel “in every place, if not in every sermon.”

I think, the right method of preaching is this: At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law, in the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel in order to ‘beget faith,’ to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconviced; but becasue otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel.

Wesley wrote that the commands of Christ (the law) are food for the soul just as much as the gospel and should not be omitted. But he lamented that many preachers had turned to gospel preaching – leaving out the law entirely – which caused havoc in the Methodist societies. (Note: A cordial is a strong, usually alcoholic, drink with sweet or spicy flavors.)

Why this is the very thing I assert: That the gospel Preachers, so called, corrupt their hearers; they vitiate their taste, so that they cannot relish sound doctrine; and spoil their appetite, so they cannot turn it to nourishment; they, as it were, feed them with sweetmeats, till the genuine wine of the kingdom seems quite insipid to them. They give them cordial upon cordial, which make them all life and spirit of the present …. As soon as that flow of spirits goes off, they are without life, without power, without any strength or vigour of soul; and it is extremely difficult to recover them, because they still cry out, ‘Cordials! Cordials!” of which they have had too much already, and have no taste for food which is convenient for them.

Wesley closes the letter with a recounting of a congregation destroyed by gospel preaching contrasted with societies invorgated by law and gospel preaching.

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. ‘God loves you; therefore love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore live to God, till you live with him in glory.’

So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way.

As often happens when I read Wesley, I find him speaking to our current problems and conditions.

NOTE: This is a republication of a blog post I wrote in 2009. I was re-reading this letter this morning and thought I might write about it, but when I discovered I had written about it before, I thought my previous post summed up what I wanted to share quite well.

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How do we dig the wells again?

As Methodist preachers were facing opposition and struggling to bear fruit in Calvinistic Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1771, John Wesley wrote the following in a letter to one of the movement’s supporters:

If any one could show you, by plain Scriptures and reason, a  more excellent way than that you have received [from Methodists], you certainly would do well to receive it; and, I trust, I should do the same. But I think it will not be easy for any one to show us, either that Christ did not die for all, or that he is not willing as well as able to cleanse from all sin, even in the present world.

As I read this, I found myself wondering what my fellow clergy in the United Methodist Church would say about such a passage.

I do not think many would quibble with the notion that Jesus Christ died for all.

The second point would meet more resistance, as it did among Methodists even in Wesley’s day. Wesley believed that Christ has both the power and the intention of healing us from all sin. In theology class, we call this sanctification. In practical terms, it means that the power of Christ not only pardons us from the guilt of sin but also cures us of the very inclination and desire to sin in any way. In more positive terms, we love both God and our neighbors perfectly.

Wesley believed and taught that Christian could receive this total sanctification and should, in fact, seek after it. He did not argue this because he thought humans were capable of it, but because he believed that Scripture testified that Jesus Christ both wants that for us and is capable of doing what he desires.

This doctrine of Christian Perfection is part of the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, even if it is not frequently preached and often ignored in practice.

But the controversial nature of Christian Perfection is not the place where I suspect a congress of United Methodist clergy would find the most ground to argue over Wesley’s advice in his letter. I suspect where we would most disagree is over his standard for doctrine itself. Wesley urges the woman to whom he writes to appeal to “plain Scriptures and reason” as the foundation for what she should believe.

I suspect a gathering of United Methodists would quarrel quite a bit if this were proposed as the basis of our doctrine.

Where are tradition and experience from our later 20th century invention the Wesleyan Quadrilateral?

Where are all the critical tools that make the notion of “plain Scripture” anything but plain?

Wesley read Scripture from the privileged position of a white man in a patriarchal society, of course, so what of readings from the margin? Are they still plain?

What about impartations of the Holy Spirit that give us new words?

And so on.

For my part, I find as a pastor in a church that I am not really interested in exploring our doctrinal divisions. They have been well mapped and discussed and remain unchanged. I need to understand them just as I need to understand various reasons people resist the gospel or struggle to grown in their faith. They are the landscape in which I do my pastoral work. But I do not feel my work advances a great deal by trudging again over this well trodden turf.

What I long for is some conversation among those of us who seek to preserve the Wesleyan deposit in our doctrinal standards. I find in the realities of pastoral work among a settled congregation that it is quite challenging to nurture and develop a Wesleyan Christianity. The flock has so long been fed from whatever sources it could find and many different streams, that the particular theological and doctrinal commitments that mark a church as a Methodist church have all but vanished.

How do we dig again these wells of spiritual nourishment?

 

Are we a church or an institution?

Do we in the United Methodist Church consider ourselves a church or a human institution?

Yes, I know, the answer is both because we in the UMC always say the answer is both. But bear with me for a moment, please.

As I’ve listened to clergy in the UMC begin to prepare themselves for a possible split within the UMC, I hear lots of people saying some variation of this: “The institution might change, but God’s work continues.” Or this: “Whatever happens, I know that God called me to this vocation and God will see me through even if the institution falls apart.”

These kinds of statements are variations on the theme you often hear when clergy and laity talk about the United Methodist Church. They betray, I think, a weak theological understanding of the church or, perhaps, an unspoken acknowledgement that we are not really a church at all.

In the minds of many in the United Methodist Church — left, right, and center — seems to be the idea that the UMC is a human institution not a product of the Holy Spirit’s work. I get the impression that many of us do not really believe that the Book of Discipline is a result of the Holy Spirit’s guiding hand in our conferencing. I suspect that many do not really believe that the Holy Spirit works through the General Conference. Many of us have seen how the sausage is made and find it hard to believe the Holy Spirit was leading the process.*

I suspect all this because of the ease with which we speak of the demise of the UMC and the way I hear so many speak of it. I get little sense that many of us understand the UMC to be a church raised up by the Holy Spirit, sustained by his power, and in communion with one another and with Christ. We tend to speak of it as a bureaucratic superstructure that holds our local congregations together — sometimes against their will.

It may very well be that God has decided that the UMC as it is constituted now no longer serves his purposes, and God is working to do a new thing with our church. God might be dividing us or purifying us. We see only in part right now, and so it is hard to say. But I find it helpful to remember that the UMC is itself a work of the Holy Spirit, a clay vessel, perhaps, but one with precious treasure within and formed by the potter’s hands.

If we believe we are a church, the way we talk about the bishop’s commission and the possibility of church division should reflect that. We should talk much more about what God is doing in and among us and have much less brave talk about the mere institution being something that does not really matter in the end. If the institution does not matter, was it ever a church to begin with? On the contrary, it matters a great deal.

The United Methodist Church was raised up by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s ends on the earth. And right now the church is like Jacob wrestling with the Spirit at night, aware of our failures, anxious about our future, and crying out for a blessing. I don’t know how this encounter with the Holy Spirit will end or which direction we will be sent limping away from it, but I do think we would all be better served if we would be intentional about the way we think about the church and speak of it in these times.


*Do we betray an aversion to incarnation here? When pushed do we resist the idea that God actually works in and through messy human beings?