Methodist preaching is orthodox

I’m told the first point I want to make about the faith a Methodist preaches is no longer controversial.

Ten or twenty years ago, I’m told, yes. But not now.

There was a time when you did not struggle to find a Methodist preacher — or a bishop — who openly questioned foundational doctrines of the Christian church. It was not infrequent to hear a sermon on Easter that quibbled with whether it really mattered in the end if Jesus really rose from the grave.

I’m told those days are over, that the generation of clergy who questioned the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus are no longer among us. That such preaching ever happened from our pulpits still staggers my imagination.

And yet, I can start no other place than to say clearly that Methodist preaching, the faith we preach, is orthodox. It holds to and affirms the creedal formulations laid down in the early centuries of the church. It preaches the Trinitarian God. It preaches the resurrection. It looks forward to the return of Christ and the present work of the Holy Spirit.

Let me outline a couple of particular things this entails.

First, Methodists preach that there is one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other descriptions of God can be well meaning, but they are mistaken. They may not be vicious or malicious in their error, but they are in error. To argue that there is no Son or that the Holy Spirit is not fully God is to be wrong about who God is. To put it plainly: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, pagans of various stripes, and all who do not name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fundamentally in error about God. Methodist preaching can be gracious toward other religions, but it cannot say that all ways of talking about God are equally true.

Second, Methodists preach that our salvation is necessary, that sin must be forgiven, and that there is a judgment coming. I will write more about this when I turn to discuss the ways in which Methodist preaching is evangelical, but it should be recognized that the importance of salvation, the problem of sin, and reality of judgment were not ideas invented in the Protestant and evangelical revivals. It is all plainly affirmed in the Bible and the creeds.

While you may struggle to find Methodist clergy who deny the resurrection, or carefully avoid affirming it, you still can find quite a few who hold to some form of universalism — a belief that either there is no Hell or that it will be empty. You can still find Methodist preachers who speak dismissively or not at all about our sin and our need for forgiveness. Such preachers at times will proudly assert that they are not evangelicals. What is really at question is whether they are even orthodox.

There is much more that can be said about what orthodoxy entails and what it does not. Even these two points bear much more discussion than is suitable in a blog post. But this, at least, is a starting point. The faith we preach as Methodists is orthodox. It is in keeping with the grand and central doctrines of the church handed down through the centuries. When preaching ceases to be orthodox, it ceases to be Methodist.

Heathen, Devil, Apostle, Christian

When John Wesley published his first book of sermons, he intended for his traveling preachers to use it as a guide for their preaching. The sermon “Salvation by Faith,” first preached a month after his Aldersgate experience, is one of those.

The sermon was one of the first of Wesley’s I ever read, and it made a strong impression on me. In it, Wesley first describes what “faith” it is by which we are saved. He does this steps. He walks through several things that are not saving faith before landing on the actual definition. My overwhelming experience when I first read the sermon and when I read it today is to notice how much of what passes for faith in the church — then and now — does not rise to what Wesley describes as saving faith.

Here are the steps Wesley climbs on his way to that destination.

Faith of a Heathen -The faith of one  who believes that God exists and is righteous and mighty and just, who believes as well that there is a future state of reward and punishment, and that moral virtue is required of all people.

Faith of the Devil – The devil believes what the heathen does, but believes as well that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior. The devil knows as well that Scripture is given to us by the inspiration of God and knows full well the contents of that holy book.

Faith of the Apostles – The faith in Jesus that led people give up all to follow him and receive during Jesus’ earthly ministry power to perform miracles and wonders of various kinds.

None of these are saving faith. They are faith but they do not rise to faith that saves. What that faith looks like we find when we see what is lacking in each of these three lesser versions of faith.

Contrary to the faith of a heathen, saving faith is faith in Christ. Contrary to the faith of the devil, it is not merely about knowing the truth about God and having full knowledge of the contents of Scripture. It is rather a disposition of the heart, to use Wesley’s phrase.

And contrary to the faith the apostles had before the crucifixion, saving faith is a faith that acknowledges the necessity of Christ’s death and the power of his resurrection. It is a faith grounded on our need and reliance upon the blood of Christ as the source of our redemption from sin. Saving faith is faith in — and utter dependence on — Jesus as the one who gave his life for us and who now lives within us.

As I read these paragraphs in Wesley’s sermon, I bring to mind names and faces attached to these different kinds of faith. I think as well of my own faith and times in my life when I could have said I had rested on each of these. I remember as well the time when I had no faith at all, not even the faith of a heathen.

For Christians I know, I think the greatest challenge is to not stop short with the faith of the devil or the apostles. I know many who have filled their minds with a great depth of knowledge about God and the Bible. They know so much and speak so well about the truths of our faith, but their hearts are not stirred by what they know. A preacher friend of mine used to say that some of the meanest Christians he knew could quote the Scripture really well. So, too, can the devil.

For another group of followers of Jesus, the risk is falling into the faith of the pre-Easter apostles. They associate faith in Jesus with being willing to make all sorts of sacrifices to follow him. They are very busy and very active people. And they do a large amount of good in the world and the church. Like the apostles, they are often most interested in the miraculous works of Jesus. They believe in and pray with great passion for healing and the breaking of spiritual strongholds. For all this, though, they have not yet come to a saving faith in Christ. They confuse “good works” for saving faith.

As a pastor and as a Christian, I recognize all these various manifestations of faith. The great challenge I see for the church is how to partner with the Holy Spirit in moving people from forms of faith that do not save into a saving faith.

Wesley had his own style in doing that. He was very direct. He spoke “plain truth for plain people” and it got him disinvited from many pulpits. He did not have a regular church to serve, and so was an invited guest preacher for most of his pulpit preaching. A very common notation in his journals was that he would get invited to preach at a place and then be told never to come back.

I can imagine sermons such as “Salvation by Faith” are a big part of that.

Few people want to be told their faith is barely even the faith of Satan. Wesley never cared much whether he bruised the ego or feelings of those who heard him preach. It made him both a powerful preacher and a despised figure.

I do not have Wesley’s temperament and I often think he would not have abided to keep me among his preachers had I been in that company. As a pastor with a settled and established congregation — rather than a saddle bag and a circuit to ride — I value Wesley’s clarity of vision and language about our faith, but I am still striving to learn how best to teach, preach, and lead God’s people more fully into this living and saving faith.

Remembering what it means to be a Christian

We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.

— Rod Dreher, from the Introduction to The Benedict Option

The church in every age is tempted by the surrounding culture as Christ was tempted by the devil. Worship me, the church is told, and you will have power and prestige. It is the deal that kings and aristocrats made with the church. It is the deal that plantation owners made with the church. It is the deal that the Nazi government made with the church. It is the deal that America makes with the church.

The result of the church’s easy acceptance of the 20th century American version of this temptation is the desolation of the 21st century church. It turns out that rather than power and prestige, the church’s easy embrace of American cultural values — consumerism, me-first individualism, militaristic nationalism, and therapeutic spirituality — has led to the church’s marginalization. With little to offer people that they could not get in other places, the church found itself with less and less to say that was not already being said by others. As a result, more and more people see the church as irrelevant to their lives.

At its core, I believe, the problem of the church is that a great many Christians have no idea what it means to be a Christian. We leaders in the church have failed to teach, and the people have failed to learn. Instead of Christianity, a great many Christians practice a kind of hopeful niceness with a veneer of Christian vocabulary layered on top of it. Many of them would be stunned to learn that being a good American and a friendly neighbor are not the sum total of what it means to be a Christian.

This development has not gone unnoticed, of course. I am not breaking any new ground in writing this. Indeed, this problem is not even unique to our day and age. The Bible is a story of the ways in which God’s people have chased after things that are not God rather than worshiping and being formed by obedience to God. Remember the stories about that apple and that golden calf?

This is the same problem we read Paul scolding churches about and John of Patmos dictating letters about in Revelation. It is what inspired Luther to get his hammer out and John Wesley to preach while standing on his father’s tomb. And so it stirs many in the church today.

One response to this need is the The New City Catechism, which has been published as a book and has a handy mobile app. The Catechism is a short work — only 52 questions — packaged as a devotional. It grows out of the Calvinistic Gospel Coalition and is based heavily on the catechisms from Westminster and Heidelberg. The roots of the catechism mean it cannot be easily adopted wholesale for use in Methodist churches. For instance, the Heidelberg catechism was adopted by the very same Reformed Synod that condemned the Ariminian affirmation of free grace.

And yet, there is such pressing need for good formation and teaching in our churches, that I believe the New City Catechism could be a useful resource for pastors and lay leaders who want to help their congregations better understand what we believe and how that belief shapes the way we live.

I’d be interested in resources for teaching you have used in your churches and in hearing about ways you have used or adopted catechism in your ministry.