Now is the time to ask for faith

In the closing exhortation at the end of his sermon “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley addresses many of the artificial barriers we put in the way of saving faith.

The first parts of the sermon deal with the difference between righteousness based on our own good works and righteousness based on faith in Jesus Christ. Wesley’s point is that we cannot attain righteousness by anything we do because we are sinners through and through. The only means we have to rest in the favor of God and restore within ourselves the image of God is by believing in Jesus Christ.

That part of the sermon and that argument is well worth attention, but I wanted to focus more on how Wesley addresses what he proposes to be the objections that people raise when invited to believe in Christ.

It is important to note here that Wesley is addressing those who actually desire to be forgiven and reconciled. In other words, he was speaking and writing to people who were aware that their lack of peace and happiness was because they were out of line with God. He is not here offering arguments to those who have no regard for God at all or who do not believe themselves to be out of step with God.

To those who do desire peace with God but do not feel it, Wesley outlines some objections – no doubt ones he encountered in his own life and pastoral work.

The first objection is the sense that we must do certain things prior to believing in Christ. Wesley imagines someone saying, ” I must first conquer every sin; break off every evil word and work, and do all good to all men; or I must first go to church, receive the Lord’s Supper, hear more sermons, and say more prayers.”

No, Wesley says, you have it all backwards. Belief in Jesus is the foundation that allows us – with God’s help – to do the very things we imagine we need to do before we can believe.

The second objection Wesley shares comes from the heart that says “I cannot be accepted by Christ because I am not good enough.” To which Wesley responds: Of course we are not good enough. We never will be. Indeed, the harder we try to establish our own goodness the more of a mess we make. Delay no longer, Wesley urges. God will make you clean.

The third objection I was not quite expecting when I first read this sermon, but it is one I have seen expressed in various ways. The objection is “I am not contrite enough. I am not sensible enough of my sins.”

The version I hear of this in my own ministry is slightly different. I have encountered many Christians who have the sense that they need to draw closer to God but also feel like they are not in the right place to get on their knees or cry out for Jesus. They will acknowledge as true the statement that they are sinners, but they just don’t feel it. They are not at ease in their relationship with God but are reluctant to name and shed tears over their own sins. I interpret such spiritual conflicts as at least standing near the ground that Wesley was pointing out in his third objection.

Here is part of his answer to that concern. “I would to God that thou wert more sensible of them, more contrite a thousand fold than thou art. But do not stay for this. It may be God will make thee so, not before thou believest, but by believing. It may be, thou wilt not weep much till thou lovest much because thou hast had much forgiven. In the mean time, look unto Jesus. Behold how he loveth thee!”

I hear Wesley calling us here not to get hung up on having the right amount of grief or sorrow for our sins before we seek out the Lord. We don’t need to match our story or our faith journey up with someone else or some set of steps we’ve been taught. Are you aware that you need God and that you are not in line with him? Yes? Great. You are ready to believe.

The great catch — and one illustrated perfectly by Wesley’s own life — is that wanting to believe in Jesus and being able to believe in Jesus are not the same thing. Faith itself is a gift that God gives us. When Wesley says we are ready to believe, what he is really saying is that we are ready to cry out and ask God to help us believe. We are ready to “seek God while he is near” and not cease asking until we have been given what we seek.

For Wesley, that belief did not arrive until one night at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. For us, the same belief lies waiting for us to seek to have it.

Wesley’s sermon concludes in this way: “Unto thee saith the Lord, not, ‘Do this,’ — perfectly obey all my commands, — ‘and live;’ but, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.'”

Now, Wesley says, is the time. There is no reason to wait. Believe the good news and God will remember yours sins no more.

Now is the time.

One reason we don’t talk about heaven

I have a theory about why some pastors talk so little about “the way to heaven” in the mainline church. I have no evidence at all to indicate whether my theory has any merit, but since it costs you little to read these thoughts, I hope you might indulge me for a few moments.

I think that one reason we in the mainline talk so little about “the way to heaven” is that talking about it will require us to observe that not everyone ends up there. And drawing attention to that truth makes people — the preacher among them — uncomfortable.

It is easier to avoid saying such things because the moment we say out loud that not everyone goes to heaven, we instantly have a lot of questions to answer.

“What about my son/daughter/husband/wife/mother/father who does not believe and never comes to church?”

“What about me? Sure I gossip and harbor resentment in my heart toward others and refuse to forgive that person who hurt me back in the day, but I’m going to heaven, right? I mean, I come to church every Sunday.”

Questions like these arise out of anxiety and fear, and are unpleasant to confront for all involved. Pastors, as a group, prefer to ease people’s fears rather than heighten them, so our impulse is often to create wiggle room that avoids the hard implications of the truths we believe.

I am prone to this. I am an empathetic person who scores high on the Feeling scale on the Myers-Briggs type indicator. Not only do I want to offer comfort to people who are hurt, but I also want people to like me. So, my inclination is avoid and deflect questions like these. My impulse is to say things like this: “Well, yes, your uncle Bud expresses contempt toward God and church, but I’m sure Jesus is working on him and will judge him with mercy.” My impulse is to shy away from saying what the Scriptures say about Bud because I know that will deepen the anxiety of the person who brings me the question.

But protecting people from anxiety about God is not my job.

If a man came to his heart doctor weighing 350 pounds, smoking every day, and eating nothing but fast food, we would not consider the doctor heartless, cruel, or unkind if he told the man the truth about the likely outcome of his life. Indeed, if the doctor worried about upsetting the man and told him that things would probably be okay, we’d say the doctor had failed to do his job.

When a pastor does that very thing, avoids the truth, we often call it being “pastoral.”

And so why doesn’t the church talk much about “the way to heaven”? One reason — and I know there are others — is because talking about it upsets people. Talking about it always involves talking about the fact that not all ways lead to heaven and, in fact, most of the ways that the world likes to tread lead away from heaven. This makes people uncomfortable and fearful and angry, and we don’t want to deal with that in the church.

But here is the problem. People need to be uncomfortable before they can find comfort in the gospel. If we are too tender about disturbing their hearts, we will find that they often remain impervious to the true blessing of good news and apt to wander far from the road that leads to heaven.

If people never feel themselves to be lost, they will not rejoice at being found.

And so, the challenge I take from these thoughts is this: If my task as preacher and pastor is to lead people in the way that ends in glory, I must not be too sensitive about the pains they might experience along the way. God uses those pains and even causes them. Yes, as pastor, I must find a way to speak always with grace, always with the aim of building up and edifying, but also always in truth. To do anything else is to shirk my calling. Lord, help me.

Behind enemy lines

The very first time I read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I remember being deeply taken with the following observation:

Christianity thinks that a Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied terrority — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Lewis was an Englishman writing during World War II. As I read these lines, I am reminded both of that war and of the legends of the English hero Robin Hood, who fought against an evil king until the rightful king returned to claim his throne.

Our metaphors might be different and our frames of reference are not those that Lewis used. I’ve worked a bit on mapping this image onto the Star Wars movies, which also feature a rebel movement within a vast evil empire. Whatever metaphors we use, though, I find the basic idea compelling.

To me, this basic idea — that the universe is in rebellion against its Creator — creates a lot of tension with the way we often think about the state of the world and our place within it. It is a rich and creative tension that calls us into forms of life and ways of being Christian that do not sit easy with cultural Christianity, but it also has risks. This “fighting religion” view of Christianity can lead us into grimness and its own kind of darkness. We must be careful of that even as we recall that the world is not as God intends it to be. It is bound by a dark power, and as servants of the light we are unavoidably at odds with it.