How do I get to heaven?

Earlier this week, I asked how we as United Methodists would answer the question: How do I get to heaven?

Here are a few of my thoughts on the answer.

I begin by saying we make a mistake if we confuse the process of salvation with the goal. What do I mean by that? I mean that we often answer these types of questions by laying out some form of the order (or way) of salvation. Repent of your sin. Confess Jesus Christ. Get to a good church. Etc. But these are the steps in a process. They are the outward forms, not the inner grace.

As one who has been greatly influenced by the Wesleyan movement, I would say the answer to the question about getting to heaven is some variation on one of John Wesley’s favorite verses, Hebrews 12:14b. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. I’m not tied to this specific half-verse, of course. The witness to holiness in the Bible certainly spans from Genesis to Revelation. The points is this. God is holy. If we wish to dwell with him in eternity, we are called to be holy as well.

I see the answers — obviously not in this form if talking with a real human being — as going in this order.

How do I get to heaven? That’s easy. Be holy as God is holy.

What does it mean to be holy? Well, let me show you some places where God spells that out for us. Let me talk to you about the law and the prophets. Let’s see what Jesus said about those. Let me show you some people who have exemplified what he taught.

How can I do all that? I’ve tried, and I fail. Well, let me talk to you about Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the power of the Holy Spirit.

That seems pretty hard to do. Well, good news, we have a whole bunch of other people trying to do the same thing. We’re called a church. You should come along with us.

Of course, it is rarely this straight forward in real life. I just think staring off with “put your faith in Jesus” misses the point. It leads people into viewing Christianity as a kind of fire insurance program.

Do you ever see those signs or billboards on the side of the highway? They do it this way. “Avoid Hell. Believe in Jesus.” In church, I think our message is at times a more sophisticated version of these highway signs. But we are jumping the gun. We are offering the process before the solution. The process is not bad. It just isn’t the actual answer. It can confuse people into thinking that because they uttered some words in sincerity or got dunked in a creek that they are glory bound. When the real issue at the end of it all is going to be whether we are, in fact, holy.

Maybe I’m wrong. This is the way I’d answer my own question, though. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

 

What it means to save souls

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Romans 14:12)

John Wesley famously told his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

If we are not listening carefully to him, we might fall into the trap of thinking he is aiming at mere conversion. This might sound like an appeal for a kind of altar-rail salvation that takes a much too narrow view of the meaning of salvation but packages well in American culture.

Conversion is important, crucial even. But it is just a step in the process of salvation. It is salvation begun but not salvation completed. Salvation is not complete until the second coming when the book of life is opened and read.

If that is true, then the work of the pastor is not conversion but fruit. Each one of us will stand one day before the Lord who will judge us. And so the work of the pastor is to help people get ready to have their lives laid bear before the judgement seat of God.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for this work. It is the power to destroy sin and remove guilt and shame, but it is not everything. We can’t be saved without coming to faith in Christ, but coming to faith is the beginning rather than the end of the journey.

How failure led to fruit

When Philip Spener wanted to bring renewal to the Lutheran churches of Frankfurt, Germany, he started in the way that sounds familiar to me. He started by putting a focus on catechism and church discipline. He thought these measures might stir up the passive and nominal faith of the Christians in his charge.

They did not.

Frustrated by his failures to lead renewal from the top down, Spener eventually turned to the formation of small groups in response to a request from some of his more devout laity. They wanted a means of meeting with others who were longing for the kind of spiritual conversation and building up that they never could get in their world of work and secular relationships.

The groups that were formed in response to this request would set the model for devotional and edifying small groups that would be central to Pietism and later Methodism.

In the book where I read of this bit of history, the author did not mention this explicitly, but I assume those men came to Spener because his preaching and other actions had made it clear that he was passionate about a deeper and living faith. They came to him because they saw in him a kindred spirit.

As I think on that, I recall John Wesley’s account of the beginnings of Methodism. It was his preaching that led people to come to him seeking more opportunities to learn and grow in their faith. He formed the societies and classes as a response to those requests.

I hear two lessons in these examples.

First, if I want laity to reveal their longings for a renewed and vibrant faith, I should preach as if living faith is the norm or expectation of the Christian life.

Second, I cannot herd people into wanting a living faith, but I can remain attentive and open to those who show an interest or longing for it. It is okay to be reactive.

Neither Wesley nor Spener — nor for that matter Jesus — won everyone over to their views about Christianity. Indeed, they all made a number of enemies. But they also did help some people find a true and living faith that changed their lives.

I wonder if we can’t still do that.

I see a vision of United Methodist renewal that is worked out not from the top down but from the bottom up, a renewal based on scattered pockets where men and women are seeking a living faith in Jesus Christ. I see such a movement marked by preaching aimed at transformation and renewal of the heart, small groups with a focus on devotion and accountability, and the expectation of a living faith that shows forth in the outward lives of people.

What can Spener teach United Methodists?

I have been reading Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria. It is one of the foundation stones of Pietism, a movement that has had vast influence on both the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley and on the founders of the communions that would come together in the Evangelical United Brethren. Therefore, it is a book that should be read with humble and open hearts by United Methodists. It is a root from which our mingled traditions spring.

As a result of my first read through the book, I wanted to share some short observations about Spener’s method and his prescription for the church.

His method was exceedingly practical. He called upon clergy to examine themselves and the church carefully for signs of sickness and turn to God in prayer for the light to see the proper remedies. He urged them to do this task in writing to each other and in meeting together as they were able. He saw reform, in other words, as rising up from networks of clergy who shared a sense that something was not well and reached out to one another for discernment and encouragement in treating the illness of the church.

Having proposed some remedies, he urged them to put them into practice in their own congregations, but not with blindness of heavy-handedness. He urged clergy to first aim at those most ready to receive and be edified by what is useful and necessary to true and healthy Christianity. Aim first and exclusively at those who are “tractable.” As those efforts bear fruit, Spener argued, others would be drawn into the circle by their example.

Even as we do this, however, we must not expect instant results or immediate fruit. Spener urges patience and hope, knowing that the seeds we plant often bear fruit we do not see. He writes, “If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.”

As I read these words, I find Spener both pastoral and practical in ways that draw me into deeper study.

So what are the tools by which Spener urged clergy to cultivate these seeds? What is the medicine he urged for the sickness of the church and the people?

He offers six proposals, which I will list here but hope to expand upon in later posts.

  1. Extensive use of the Word of God both by individuals and in small devotional groups
  2. Diligent exercise of the priesthood of all believers
  3. Emphasis on living faith beyond mere knowledge of faith
  4. Engagement with non-believers and heretics in a spirit of love rather than bitterness or competition
  5. Reformation of training of clergy toward the practical arts of ministry and inward formation
  6. Promotion of preaching aimed at producing faith and fruits

Each of these items requires further explanation and each bears examination, but as a United Methodist, I find some encouragement that there may be a program here that fits our spiritual heritage and practices. I want to study these more.

‘I neither know nor desire to know’

If John Wesley were among us today, I think he would be scoffed at for being anti-intellectual. No one would say he was not intelligent, I think. But reading his letters, journals, and sermons, I see time and again that he was not much interested in theological controversies and placed little trust in reason as a path to truth about divine things.

Here is just one instance of what I mean. In a letter he wrote in 1753 to a Dr. Robertson about a treatise Robertson had sent him, Wesley shows his reliance on revelation and distrust of the conclusions of natural reason. The treatise uses reason to show the true principles of religion without any dependence on divine revelation. Wesley’s letter is an extended rejection of the arguments of the treatise. As Wesley puts it:

The treatise itself gave me a stronger conviction than ever I had before, both of the fallaciousness and unsatisfactoriness of the mathematical method of reasoning on religious subjects. Extremely fallacious it is; for if we slip but in one line, a whole train of errors may follow: And utterly unsatisfactory, at least to me, because I can be sufficiently assured that this is not the case.

In some of his particular objections, Wesley shows his willingness to stand in ignorance about questions to which others feel compelled to devise answers. He admits that he cannot explain how God’s complete foreknowledge of our actions is consistent with the idea that we are free, and yet he finds both God’s absolute knowledge and our freedom in Scripture. For him, that is enough to hold to both.

When the treatise refutes commonly held theological notions about the way original sin is transmitted from generation to generation, Wesley waves his hand at the whole discussion. He writes that he would not care if every reasonable explanation for the way original sin is transmitted were shot down.

I care not if there were none. The fact I know, both by Scripture and by experience. I know it is transmitted; but how it is transmitted, I neither know nor desire to know.

If Wesley were among us today and responded to questions about tricky theological points in such a manner, I suspect many of us would not approve. The question then remains, whether God would approve now or did approve then of his ministry.

How do you get heard?

The dominant non-religious attitude in America toward sex is something like the attitude Americans have toward commercial transactions. So long as both parties are fully informed about what they are doing and agree of their free will, whatever they want to do is fine with most people.

The standard is the same whether you are standing in a pawn shop or cruising Tinder looking for a hook up.

Because this is the American attitude toward sex, it makes much of what the church says seem silly or reactionary or bigoted. What does God care if two people — or more — enter into a sexual encounter with open eyes?

That is the question.

And the problem is that it is impossible to answer without back-tracking pretty seriously.

You see, Christians historically have not accepted the idea that we own our bodies. We are created by God and redeemed by Christ. Our body — like everything else — is placed at our disposal for a span of time, but belongs to God. So, the notion that we can do whatever we feel like with it is a bit like the teenager who trashes his parent’s house when they leave town over the weekend. He was left in charge of the house, but he was not given license to do whatever he wanted.

Paul gets at this to a degree in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

This idea that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit gets into another issue.

Some people will ask why anyone should care about what another person does so long as “no one gets hurt.” The problem for Christians is that sin hurts someone. It hurts the sinner. It profanes the temple of the Holy Spirit.

By the time we go back this far, of course, we’ve totally lost non-Christian conversation partners. It is nonsense and foolishness to them. In truth, it is nonsense and foolishness to a lot of Christians because we have largely adopted the secular attitude about our own bodies.

I’m not sure how to combat this within the church. How do you get to the point where those of us who follow Jesus and read the Bible can see the way a biblical view of who we are is at odds with the commercial view? The commercial view gets so much more time to make its case, and has spent a lot more time crafting its message and delivery. I’m not sure how we get heard, even inside our own sanctuaries.