‘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.

The creeds – a view from the pew

One of the great things about writing a blog is that people write comments on it that teach you things.

In the midst of the current Methoblog flurry about the creeds of the church, I wanted to highlight this comment from the pew by one of my frequent comment writers:

A practical view from the pew: After a life time of reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I came to the point as an adult that I realized I did not truly understand what I was saying “I believed”. Unfortunately hard on the heels of that realization, things went south for me at church and I ended up distancing myself from it. I finally stumbled on the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it that fleshed out the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. Over a space of a few days Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable and “even I” was folded into God’s story of salvation. I was left wondering why nobody had never shared this information before.

Bottom line is, clergy and theologians tend to over think things when it comes to creeds. Reality is, reciting a creed every Sunday has a practical use for the person in the pew if it is fleshed out elsewhere. It is a very good “jumping off spot”. And, when fleshed out properly, the Apostle’s Creed is very much a Trinitarian creed.

Do we need the Creed?

Andrew Thompson has provided a series of links to some recent and not-so-recent writings about the place of the Creed in Wesleyan and Methodist faith. The authors generally come out in defense of the Creed. This is not a controversial position for Christians to take, of course, but given the history of doctrinal neglect in United Methodism, it is not a foregone conclusion that any particular group of United Methodists will provide a robust defense of the creeds of the church.

So, these arguments are important.

But, at the risk of encouraging an “anything goes” attitude, I do want to ask whether the Creed is either sufficient or necessary for Christianity. Is affirming the Creed enough to make you a Christian (the demons believe and tremble)? Is affirming the Creed necessary for a person who claims to be a Christian?

Another way to ask this, I suppose, is whether Christianity could exist without the Creed. As a historical hypothetical, of course, it is an impossible question to answer. And yet, we do have an answer. The Creed was not handed to us by Jesus Christ. The Apostles did not recite the Apostles’ Creed. The church found the absence of a Creed problematic and the establishment of a Creed useful, but Peter and Paul and the subsequent generations were certainly good Christians despite their ignorance of the Creed.

So the question is not whether we need the Creed, but how best do we use it? What role should it play in the life of faith? How does knowing the Creed deepen our faith and practice? How does the Creed call us into holiness of heart and life?

A Methodist Easter message?

What is this thing that we are instructed to go tell the world about?

Jesus, who was dead, is alive.

Why is that such a big deal? Why does that matter? Why do so many Christians run around insisting that it is the most important thing that ever happened or ever will happen?

A dead guy came back to life.

It happens all the time on TV and in the movies.

What’s the big deal?

I’m sure different churches answer this question in different ways. Here’s my best short response based on my understanding of what it means to be a Methodist — United or otherwise.

My answer starts by observing that not everyone hears this news with the same ears. There are at least three different stances that a person adopts as they come to hear the news of Easter.

The first, I’ll call the careless. I don’t mean here careless as in not paying attention to what they are doing — although in certain cases that might apply. I mean careless as in “I could not care less” about Jesus and what all we church people have to say about him.

This may be a defiant rejection of Christ. It may be the voice of someone who just can’t be bothered. It may be the voice of one who, although they would never be quite so blunt as I put it above, thinks they have Christianity all sorted out quite nicely and don’t need any Jesus talk mucking things up. God is in his heaven, and I’ve got it all under control down here.

To the careless, Easter’s word is “Wake up!” Or perhaps, look again. That bothersome itinerant preacher, who you thought had been shut up, is on the loose. More than that, his resurrection testifies that he is who he said he is: the Son of God.

Much of the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts has this message. The resurrection proves that Jesus is the one who will judge the world. If he is the judge, perhaps it is time to look again at what he said when he was here with us.

The second group, we might call the convicted. These are the people who have paid attention to the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and the Torah. They are aware that there is something out of alignment in their own souls when it comes to God. Whether this is experienced as the guilt and shame of the more colorful sins or as the bondage and fear of our more subtle alienations from God, the convicted come to the tomb of Easter bearing the grief of Golgotha in their hearts. Their outward modes of grieving might be quite different, but the pain is still real. They know something is wrong in them and with them.

To the convicted, the word of Easter is “Come home!” The father is waiting on the hill watching the road for your return. Come home, and rejoice. Life is stronger than death. Love is more powerful than hate. You who were dead, be alive once more. Receive the grace and mercy poured out for you on the cross and sealed forever by an empty tomb.

The final group, at the risk of offending, we might call the Christians. These are the ones who have known the love of God poured out into their hearts. They can say with gladness that Jesus Christ has forgiven them, even them. But they come to Easter still looking for a sign to sustain them in the journey. The road is long and the trials are many.

To the Christian, the word of Easter is “Hold on to your hope!” The work Christ first worked in you, he will complete. He has gone ahead, but he will meet us again. So, hold tight to the hope of Christ. The women came that morning, perhaps, all out of hope, convinced by hard reality and stone cold power that the promises of God are too fragile to survive this bitter world. They came clinging to or perhaps even devoid of hope, but that morning hope found them. It will find and sustain you as well, if we do not let go.

I don’t think these messages conflict with each other, and we probably all need to hear all three at every point in our lives. But they do hit different accents.

Methodism has always been a way of being Christian that is keenly aware of the journey of faith. We believe that Christ calls us into ever deeper communion with him. We believe that there is no such thing as standing still with God. We either go forward or we fall back. And so, from the days of Wesley, Methodism has always been careful to fit its words and practices to the different needs of the people who receive them.

I’m not saying this is unique to Methodism. We Methodists have always insisted that our only goal was to be faithful to the faith once delivered to the church. We have never aimed at being new. All I am trying to do is figure out how to be the best Methodist I can be. God called me to this odd body of believers and has called me to ministry within it. I hope to honor that call as best I can.

This Easter, I pray I am serving Christ’s purpose in raising up a people called Methodist by seeking to preach in such ways.

Can you be born again and not be saved?

This is one of those topics that will sound like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin to some, so please pardon me if you don’t care for these kinds of questions.

I have been reading RC Sproul’s excellent book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. It is the kind of book that I wish Methodists could produce. In it, Sproul provides overviews of 100 important theological concepts. Each entry is brief and written for lay readers. It is clear but not at all simplistic. Being written by Sproul, of course, it is decidedly Reformed in its theology.

As an Arminian, which makes me a close sibling our Reformed brothers and sisters, much of the book speaks to me. Where I part ways with Sproul are when he writes about predestination, perfection, and the order of salvation. The last is the topic I want to consider for the balance of this post.

Sproul writes that the order of salvation goes like this:

  • Regeneration
  • Faith
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

In other words, we must be born again before we can have the faith that saves us. And this regeneration has nothing to do with our own activity or action, of course. Faith is only possible once we have been regenerated or born again.

This is different than the Arminian understanding preached by John Wesley and Methodists after him.

We teach that it is not full regeneration but preventing (or prevenient) grace that comes before faith. Human beings — who would be utterly lost and hopeless without grace — have received the preventing grace that arouses in us those first desires to do good and to seek God. We often call this effect of grace our conscience. By cooperating and listening to the grace that precedes salvation, we are brought to conviction of our sin and saving faith in Jesus Christ.

We would list the stages in this way:

  • Awakening
  • Conviction
  • Justification & New Birth (regeneration)
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

For us, faith in Jesus Christ, justification, and new birth are all distinct things that occur at the same moment. When we have faith in Jesus Christ as our savior, we are justified. When we are justified, we are born again by the Holy Spirit.

Both ways of thinking about the matter center on justification by faith. We are saved by grace when we believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us. Both would say that once we are justified, we grow into sanctification. We work out our salvation. We differ significantly, however, on what happens prior to justification.

What had not been so clear to me before reading Sproul’s book was that he would say it is possible to be born again but not be saved. For Wesleyans, the one cannot happen without the other. In the instant we are set right with God we are born again. When we are born again, we are justified.

As a pastoral matter, I am not sure how much these differences matter to the way we preach and teach and counsel. I have not worked that out yet. It does remind me, though, that just because a person uses words such as “born again” or “regenerated” does not mean they mean the same thing I do when I use those words.

Here comes the judge

How a sinner may be justified before God, the Lord and Judge of all, is a question of no common importance to every child of man. It contains the foundation of all our hope, inasmuch as while we are at enmity with God, there can be no true peace, no solid joy, either in time or in eternity.

— John Wesley, “Justification by Faith

I was preaching this morning from Mark 8:38, where Jesus warns that if we are ashamed of him during our time on Earth, he will be ashamed of us when he comes in glory. During my preparation during the week and in the sermon itself, I was deeply aware of the stark moment that lies before us all.

It is something we gloss over in the Apostles’ Creed when we say “he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

We breeze right past it.

He will come to judge.

It is what Paul writes about in Romans 14. It is preached over and over again in Acts. It is a core truth of Christianity that Jesus Christ will judge each and every one of us. We will stand before him, and there will be one of two verdicts offered — the Bible suggests no third or middle way here. It will either be “well done my faithful servant” or “I never knew you.”

In much of the church, if this is acknowledged at all, it is received with the assurance that we are innocent until proven guilty. The benefit of the doubt is on our side, and if we are not a gross and extravagant sinner — which is to say if we are good at covering up and putting up a good front — we expect to get a gold star when the Book of Life is read.

But this is not Christianity.

Our faith begins with the understanding that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are guilty before God. Yes, God created us and loves us, but that truth only deepens our guilt. We have been given every blessing and the greatest gift imaginable — life itself — and we have squandered that gift like the prodigal son.

The day of judgment comes. The judge approaches.

To write such things or to preach such things is to be held up as a “fire and brimstone” preacher — a term that is never ever used as a term of praise. But how can we recite our creeds or read our bibles and not have our attention fixed on this truth?

What sorrow awaits you who say, “If only the day of the Lord were here!” You have no idea what you are wishing for. That day will bring darkness, not light. In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion — only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he leans his hand against a wall in his house — and he’s bitten by a snake. Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless, without a ray of joy or hope. (Amos 5:18-20)