A plea for Methodism

In the wake of our great division, the United Methodist Church is struggling to find its identity. We have lots of voices projecting visions of the future of United Methodism and articulating the things that unite us after division. A number of people are planting flags in various places and inviting the church to rally around this or that set of priorities or shared values.

For me, the place to look for the answer to the question “What is a Methodist?” has always been John and Charles Wesley.

United Methodism, I believe, has always struggled to hold on to its Methodist identity. The pull of Mainline Protestantism, a gaunt and dying creature that still has an odd attraction for many, has always conflicted with our origins when we were derided by respectable Christians as too boisterous, too insistent on our discipline, and too expectant that God would actually do great things among us.

Fortunately, we still have the words of the Wesleys to help remind us who we are. Here is a gem that I don’t hear often sung, but I share it with you as one entry point into the heart of Methodism.

Let Us Plead for Faith Alone

Let us plead for faith alone,
faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

Active faith that lives within,
conquers hell and death and sin,
hallows whom it first made whole,
forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
sure salvation is the end;
heaven already is begun,
everlasting life is won.

Only let us persevere
till we see our Lord appear,
never from the Rock remove,
saved by faith which works by love.

These four short stanzas could sustain a great deal of discussion, but allow me to share a few observations about the contours of a Methodist Christianity found in these words.

First, faith is not something we will into being, but we receive. Let us “plead” for faith. Let us ask for faith. God, give us this faith. From first to last, our faith is a gift from God, not something we accomplish or create within ourselves.

In a recent survey I was asked to fill out of the United Methodist Church about clergy wellness, it asked me how much I agree with the statement that when I am struggling I can find within myself resources to help me through difficult times. My impression was that a “positive” answer to that question would be seen as a good sign, but I struggled to mark an answer because my commitment as a Methodist is that the source of my help is not “down inside me” but with God. We are not called to get through hell by drawing on our own inner strength, but by admitting our weakness and relying on the strength of God, who gives us the faith to stand even when the earth shakes.

Second, our concern for this faith is tied directly to our concern for salvation. We want this faith so that we can be justified by God’s grace, we can overcome the power of sin and death, we can be transformed into the image of Christ, and we can experience the joys of heaven both today and in eternity.

My social media accounts often include posts that say stuff like “The gospel is less about getting into the Kingdom of Heaven when you die and more about living in the Kingdom of Heaven now.” I don’t think that is correct. It is about both, equally. The Gospel is about eternal life. And it is about access to the joys of heaven right now. It is not one or the other. It is certainly not one at the expense of the other. John Wesley wrote in the preface to his published sermons that he desired to know one thing in his life: The way to heaven. We can certainly decide that old John got Christianity wrong, but we cannot reasonably go around telling people to stop being so worried about salvation, saving souls, and heaven and hell and still say we are speaking from the central concerns of the Methodist tradition.

Third, it is a faith that is visible to others in the lives we lead, by our works. Just as a healthy tree bears good apples, so our lives bear good fruit when this faith is the source of all that we are and do. The works signal that the faith is present, but they themselves do not save us or give us any of the blessing that come alone from faith.

My observation as a pastor is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for good church people is that they confuse works for faith. We confuse the outer things of religious life with a saving faith in Jesus Christ. And this confusion is all the more tempting because the works are the things that win us the approval of the world around us. They are the things people can use to defend the church when it is attacked as irrelevant or harmful or deluded. “Well, yes, but we have a food pantry.” God does want us to feed the hungry, but we are called to do so because we have faith the overflows from our hearts as love for God and love for his people. Without this faith and love, the works themselves are worthless.

Much more could be said about this hymn, and there is much more to say about what a Methodist is. I am a Christian called to be a Methodist by God’s grace. I am a Methodist called to be and remain a United Methodist. In this uncertain time for the people called United Methodist, I pray that God will help us recover the gifts first given to the people called Methodist. I plead for the faith that we sing.

The geography of a soul

In the new year, I’ve been reading the Psalms each morning. I don’t have a program or reading plan. Some days I read 1 or 2. Some days, I read more.

Reading the Psalms — at least the early ones — is a bit like peaking inside the spiritual notebooks of David. You get his ups and his downs. In one Psalm he is full of confidence, and in another he is full of despair. I find myself wondering how I would respond to David if he were to come to me, as members of the church I serve do sometimes, and shared some of the thoughts and prayers that he has scribbled into his journal.

Psalm 26 was one that really stood out to me. You can go read it yourself, but here are a couple of key verses.

“Vindicate me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life. I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered. … I do not sit with the deceitful nor do I associate with hypocrites. I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence, and go about your altar, Lord.”

As a pastor, I’ve met this person before.

I’ve met the church member who has great confidence in his or her own virtue, and can point to the facts to back up their sense of righteousness. I’ve seen that armor of good works that church people often put on, a confidence in good deeds and clean living. I see it, and I wonder, as a pastor, how to get through to such people.

For we know that our own righteousness is not enough. Indeed, pride in how blameless we are is, in my experience, a deadly disease of the soul, but it is one particularly resistant to treatment or correction. It is much easier to bring the prodigal son to Christ than his self-righteous older brother.

In my reflection about how I would speak to David as pastor in his Psalm 26 moment, I am helped by continuing to read. The David of Psalm 26 is also the David of Psalm 30: “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm, but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” And he is the David of Psalm 25: “For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.”

I think, perhaps, the role of the pastor is not to try to talk people out of Psalm 26 moments. That sense of confidence and righteousness may be built on sand, but it is a glimmer of the real confidence found when our feet rest on the rock that cannot be moved. No, what the Psalms call me to do as a pastor is not to seek to puncture the pride of my Psalm 26ers. The world is going to do that on its own.

What I can do is try to give people the vocabulary to be able to name our failures as places where God has turned his face away, where our iniquity drives us to ask for mercy, and where we come to realize that the only thing we have to offer God is a broken spirit.

This is the slow work of preaching and sacrament, of teaching, and of pastoral care. I am certain I have a great deal still to learn about doing this well. David has been teaching me the spiritual geography of the human heart. I pray I am a good student for the sake of the kingdom.

Methodist preaching is Spirit filled

This is the last of four posts trying to identify that makes Methodist preaching Methodist. In my mind, I have been narrowing the focus as I have gone, reducing the overlap at each step with other Christian traditions. In the widest claim, I wrote that Methodist preaching is orthodox. Then I wrote that it is also evangelical, marking it as distinct from all those forms of orthodox Christian preaching that do not place as much emphasis on a high view of biblical authority, the importance of the cross and conversion, and the translation of faith into action. Next, I distinguished Methodist preaching from Calvinistic strains of evangelicalism by pointing to the Arminian commitments that inform our preaching. In this post, finally, I assert hat the final distinctive of Methodist preaching is our powerful expectation that the Holy Spirit will bring to completion what begins when we are justified by grace.

I will discuss two examples of what we preach with regard to the Holy Spirit. First, we believe and preach that the Holy Spirit gives believers an assurance of their salvation in Christ. Second, we believe that the Holy Spirit will transform us into the image of Christ, provided we follow his leading in the work of grace.

Blessed Assurance

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Christian who was struggling with the fact that she had never had a Paul on the road to Damascus conversion. She remembered being led to pray a version of the sinner’s prayer as a child and young person, more than once. But she did not remember any experience of change. Was something missing, she wondered.

In the hit streaming show The Chosen there is a powerful example of the conversion experience told through an extra biblical embellishment of the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary has a powerful, redeeming, and liberating encounter with Jesus, who drives out the demons within her. Later, when she is recounting what happened, she is at a loss to explain it. She says, “I was one way, and now I am completely different. And in between, there was him.” *

This is what many people feel they lack in their Christian experience. We don’t often feel “completely different” after praying for Jesus to be our Savior and Lord. And we sometimes wonder if we did something wrong or if we are really saved.

We Methodists — along with many other Christians — believe that God does not want us to wonder such things. Indeed, we believe that the Holy Spirit longs to give us the assurance of our salvation that so many long for. One of our great hymn writers, Fanny Crosby, wrote one of our most popular hymns about this very thing.

Methodist preaching is grounded in the conviction that the Holy Spirit is active and present and moving. He speaks to our spirit that we are children of God. We do not have to limp along wondering if we are saved. We can know it.

Prior to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, a spiritual mentor asked him this simple question: “Do you know you are saved?” Wesley stumbled and fumbled around. He certainly hoped he was. He certainly had tried to live as if he was. He was intelligent, dedicated, and as hard a worker as the church could ever ask for, but faced with a simple question he was brought up short.

His mentor told him that he could know he was saved. He could have the assurance of his salvation. He did not have to wonder and stumble. Not long afterward, Wesley was given that assurance, and Methodist preachers have to this day continued to preach what we sing: Assurance is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who is active and ready to fill you with his presence.

This, I know, is not what we often think about when we write about Spirit-filled preaching. We usually mean by that signs and wonders and energetic and ecstatic experiences. We think of healing and people being slain in the Spirit and speaking in tongues. And none of these should be outside the bounds of our expectation as Methodists. The Holy Spirit is alive and active, and he will do what he will.

But these are not the essential hallmarks of the Spirit-filled preaching of Methodists. They are outward signs of the inner work of the Holy Spirit, work that can go on amid shouting and fire or in the quiet of a Bible study small group gathering. The essential thing is that Spirit gives you the assurance of your salvation and then leads you to work out the full sanctification of your soul. Methodist preaching should help people to understand that this gift is being offered to them by God. It should help them seek it. It should help them sing it.

In the conversation I had with the woman who was wondering if she had missed something in her conversion, I observed that her faith in Jesus seemed very solid to me. I asked her how that came to be. She told me about a summer when she came to have this firm sense of Jesus’ love and the peace she had in trusting in him. It was that summer that she found the unshakeable certainty of the love of Jesus.

I smiled when she recounted this story and told her she was more Methodist than she knew. That assurance of her salvation and the dissolving of her doubt was her Aldersgate. It is something the Holy Spirit will do for all believers, and something Methodist preachers should encourage Christians to seek, anticipate, and expect.

Going on to Perfection

The most controversial convictions of John Wesley’s teachings was a natural extension of his insistence that all the commands of God in Scripture are “covered promises.” In other words, God never commands us to do a thing that he will not also give us the grace to do. So, when God calls us to be as merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful, this is not an impossible hurdle for us to clear. It is a promise that if we seek it, God will give us the grace to become truly merciful.

Likewise, when God calls us to love God with all our soul, to love each other, to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus, he is also promising to work within us by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the sanctifying grace of God to become what he commands us to be.

In some Christian traditions, the Sermon on the Mount is taught as a tool God uses to crush our self-righteousness. We hear the commands of Christ in the sermon and — if we are honest — acknowledge that we are never going to be that good and so are driven to seek forgiveness for the sinful nature that we are powerless to rise above.

Methodists also believe that we are powerless, on our own, to rise above our sinful nature. But we believe that what is impossible for us is possible for God. When Jesus calls us to love perfectly and completely, he is also offering us the grace to do so, if we lean into that grace and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit within us. We will never be free of temptation, but in Jesus Christ we have the power to overcome what once held us fast in chains.

Methodist preaching gave rise to the holiness movements and pentecostalism precisely because it took on faith the idea that God really does intend to restore us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Spirit is active right now and the grace of God is capable of doing within us what we would never be able to do on our own.

When I attend non-Methodist churches, I sometimes hear some of our hymns sung in worship. I always take a small bit of joy that our gift to the church universal is music. It can also be a time that reminds me of how we Methodists do have our own place within the wider church. I recall a non-Methodist worship service that concluded with the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Exceling,” but it changed the words of the final verse. In that verse, we speak of God bring us into the full image of Christ, in which we were first made. It is a joyous verse, but one that must have rubbed our brothers and sisters in a related tradition as fanciful or just plain wrong. I don’t remember exactly the words that they sang that day, but I will conclude this post with the words as they appear in our hymnal, a confident plea that God do what he has promised he will do with us.

Finish then, thy new creation,
Pure and spotless, let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory
Til in heaven we take place,
Til we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.


* We may quibble that a scene about an exorcism is not exactly an good example of what happens in our conversion, the line from that show has powerful resonance in evangelical imagination, so much so that this one scene has become the inspiration for a song by a popular Christian recording artist.