Getting beyond “How is it with your soul?”

An interesting extract from John Wesley’s journal dated March 25, 1739:

I baptized John Smith (late an Anabaptist) and four other adults at Islington. Of the adults I have known baptized lately, one only was at that time born again, in the full sense of the word; that is, found a thorough, inward change, by the love of God filling her heart. Most of them were only born again in a lower sense; that is, received the remission of their sins. And some (as it has too plainly appeared) neither in one sense nor the other.

I cannot tell from Wesley’s words here how he interprets his own report. Is this a sign of failure? Is it a defense of infant baptism, noting that adult converts by and large do not show any more signs of total reformation of life than babies? Is it something else? I’m not sure, but I do find the facts of the case interesting. As often is the case with Wesley, I find his categories interesting as well.

We see here at least three different states of the soul.

Born again in a lower sense — in which the sinner receives and is aware of a formal and positive forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.

Born again in the full sense — in which, added to the above, the sinner experiences a profound inward transformaion and a filling of the heart with the love of God.

The original state — in which we receive neither of the above even if we do the outward duties and rituals of the church.

It is notable that Wesley’s experience is that only a tiny subset of converts experience full rebirth at the moment of their baptism or conversion. For most, that is something that comes later. This would, of course, comport with Wesley’s own experience. Indeed, it is very likely that he would say he experienced neither the lower nor fuller sense of rebirth until his encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate in his mid-30s.

I don’t know if these ways of talking about the state of our soul need “translating” to make sense to people today. I am sure, however, that most of the people in our churches are not accustomed to thinking in such ways about their own spiritual life. I am also constantly struck by how little people in our churches can articulate their own spiritual experience. They lack the language, the categories, and the experience to talk in any concrete ways about “how is it with your soul?” I think one service Wesley and his preachers provided Christians in his day was to give them language and practice in talking about these important matters.

We could certainly do worse than provide our people the same thing.

 

 

Advertisements

A few pretty ideas and nothing more

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)

Do you ever encounter this in church? Do you ever meet Christians who cling tightly to verses that promise life to those who believe in Christ and yet ignore the call that Christ puts on their lives? They act as if “belief” in Christ means nothing more than saying a few words with sincerity about his divine nature and his resurrection from the dead.

I find this attitude rather widespread and also quite difficult to change. Christians have been persuaded that this thin version of belief is all that is required for them to get to heaven, and so they rest happy in the delusion that Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, calls them to do nothing more than to hold a few pretty ideas in their head. They cling to John 3:16 and Romans 10:9 and look for loopholes in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The phrase I picked up from somewhere along the way goes like this: “The hardest people to convert to Jesus Christ are nominal Christians.”

Have you found this to be true? Do you have an experience with moving people deeper in their belief?

The sermon Wesley did not preach

If I understand the story properly, John Wesley never preached his sermon “True Christianity Defended.”

The manuscript of the sermon was found crumpled up among his papers after he died. I believe Methodist historian Richard Heitzenrater has argued that this was the sermon he planned to give at Oxford on the day he preached “The Almost Christian.” Some friends of his, however, talked him out of preaching “True Christianity Defended,” as it called out many of his fellow ministers — some by name — for corrupting the gospel and undermining the church by their preaching. Relenting to their counsel, he wrote and preached the better known sermon, which Methodists and United Methodists have regarded as a standard of doctrine for close to 300 years.

Even though it was not preached, “True Christianity Defended” does speak a challenging word to us still today. For instance, think of our common recitation of Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules — Do No Harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God — as you read what Wesley wrote about the nature of true holiness:

[M]any write and preach as if Christian holiness, or religion, were a purely negative thing; as if, not to curse or swear, not to speak or do evil, was religion enough to entitle a man to heaven! How many, if they go further than this, describe it as only an outward thing; as if it consisted chiefly, if not wholly, in doing good, (as it is called,) and using the means of grace! Or, should they go a little farther still, yet what do they add to this poor account of religion? Why, perhaps, that a man should be orthodox in his opinions, and have a zeal for the Constitution of the Church and state. And this is all: this is all the religion they can allow without degenerating into enthusiasm! So true it is, that the faith of a devil, and the life of a Heathen, make up what most men call a good Christian!

Do you hear him calling us out for making it sound as if the sum of Christianity is to do no harm, do good, and use the means of grace offered in worship, Scripture, and prayer?

Wesley was troubled — you might say outraged — by a dead formalism that he saw widely practiced as if it were true Christianity. What he argued for — throughout his life — was a religion that changed us from inside out. “Holiness of heart and life” was the phrase he used to describe the marks of true Christianity. This holiness did not consist of outward acts or restraint from evil, but in an actual transformation of our nature and heart. To be holy is to be a new creature, with a heart that is cleansed from all evil and a life that is animated by love of God and neighbor. Christianity, Wesley preached and taught, is an inward change of our very being.

Now, this inner change does lead to outward change. It is true that a person who is going on to perfection will refrain from all harm, will do good, and will be eager to worship God, pray, and read the Bible. But we err greatly, Wesley argued, if we mistake these outward things for the real thing.

In his sermon, he put it this way:

[T]he absence of the form [of Christianity] signifies much. It infallibly proves the absence of the power. For though the form may be without the power, yet the power cannot be without the form. Outward religion may be where inward is not; but if there is none without, there can be none within.

In other words, you can look like a Christian on the outside but not be one on the inside, but you cannot live like a heathen on the outside and truly be a Christian on the inside.

Although Wesley crumpled that sermon up, the spirit of it lived on throughout his ministry and challenges us still today. Do we preach a gospel of inward and outward holiness or a gospel of mere outward appearances?