Finish, then, thy new creation

A question for my brothers and sisters who claim an ongoing connection with Wesleyan theology: Do you affirm the doctrine of Christian Perfection?

Huge numbers of Christians do not. As I understand Lutheran and Calvinism, they reject the doctrine. Everyday non-reflective American Christianity does as well. Even the early Methodist movement in John Wesley’s day resisted the doctrine.

Do we who sing the final verse of Charles’ hymn that provides the title of this post, join the critics or the hopeful teachers of this doctrine?

Do we believe that men and women can be made perfect in love?

Of course, to answer that we need to be clear about what we mean. Christian perfection does not mean we are free of ignorance or weakness, so we still might harm others or fail in our duty as a result. Neither does being perfect in love mean we feel no impulse or temptation to sin. That we will not be free of while dwelling in this house of clay, but Christ has broken the power of sin. We can overcome sin if we rely on Christ’s strength and not our own. We can love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can have the same love that Christ poured out for us pour out for others. Love can be the center of all we do and say.

At least, that is what Christian Perfection claims. And it does not claim these things merely as some higher or better way of being a Christian. It believes that we can be made perfect in love because it believes that without holiness no one will see the Lord. It answers the question “How do sinful humans become holy enough to live with God for eternity?” By the grace of God, we are made holy in heart and life.

Here has been my experience. It is easier to sin and ask for forgiveness than to grow in holiness. It is easier to say “I cannot change” than it is to put to death the things of the flesh.

So those strains of Christianity that deny Christian Perfection come up with doctrines explaining how unholy people arrive in heaven.

Are we among them?

Or do we sing our own hymns with integrity?

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.

 

A word for Pietism

Stanley Hauerwas is an influential voice among United Methodist pastors. He is not shy about his dislike of Pietism, which is awkward for United Methodists since John Wesley was one of the most well-known advocates of the heart religion that is the hallmark of Pietism.

Since Hauerwas was influential in my early Christian intellectual formation and still tugs on my head-strings, I have always found his disdain for Pietism — I can still hear in my head his distinctive Texas twang’s mocking way of saying the word in some YouTube lecture I heard long ago — at odds with my understanding of what it means to be a United Methodist.

As a bookish man with a somewhat academic bent and a Midwestern introvert not given to emotionalism, I’ll admit that religion of the heart is not something I would have naturally been inclined to embrace. But, perhaps in good Methodist fashion, my experience tells me that the “heart warming” religion that so changed John Wesley’s life is still at work today.

I had a recent conversation with a man in which he discussed the jaw-dropping experience of discovering that all this church stuff was not just words jangling off his ears, but something that had gotten down in his heart. It was not just something in his head, but it was running through his whole life in an exciting and a little bit of a shocking way.

I know we need to be watchful for the ways Pietism can lead us off the narrow path of Jesus. We need to watch for hyper-individualism and mysticism and things that I’m not aware of, I’m sure. But this kind of deeply felt — yes “felt” — experience of faith seems to me to be one of the gifts of Methodism to the church catholic. It is part of what we exist to offer God’s world.

We won’t find many of our brothers and sisters in the Protestant world embracing Pietism. I’m sure there are orders and movements within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions who speak this heart religion language.

It seems to me that we should be mining and preserving and passing on these forms of Christian spirituality. That is why God raised up our movement in the first place. Or, so it seems to me.

The cause of social misery

Here is a brief Wesleyan account of the root causes of social evils. In a word, the cause is sin.

In his treatise on Original Sin, John Wesley gives the following example of the ways misery and poverty are ultimately traced back to sin.

Many families are miserable through want. They have not the conveniences, if the necessaries, of life. Why have they not? Because they will not work: Were they diligent, they would want nothing. Or, if not idle, they are wasteful; they squander away, in a short time, what might have served for many years. Others, indeed, are diligent and frugal too; but a treacherous friend, or a malicious enemy, has ruined them.; or they groan under the hand of an oppressor; or the extortioner has entered into their labours. You see, then, in all these cases, want (though in various ways) is the effect of sin. But is there no rich man near? none that could relieve these innocent sufferers, without impairing his own fortune? Yes; but he thinks of nothing less. They may rot and perish for him. See, more sin is implied in their suffering.

Wesley argues that miseries of many kinds — from that of individuals to that of nations — can be traced back to sin. And these sins are always a case of willful actions or omissions. Wesley did not look to impersonal or systematic causes of social evils. Sin was the cause and sinners were in one way or another the agents of misery.

The role of the church in the face of these things was to identify the sin, convict the sinner, and thereby relieve the suffering and redeem souls at the same time.

This is slow work, of course. And in a culture where people reject the gospel out of hand, it is a solution that many people cannot even contemplate. In such cases, it falls to the church to care for those who suffer, to continue to witness to the gospel, and to lay down its life for others so long as sin runs free.

This is what the church has done through the ages when it is at its best.

Body and/or soul?

Irenaeus from “On the Apostolic Preaching”

For the way of all those who see is single and upward, illumined by the heavenly light, but the ways of those who do not see are many, dark and divergent; the one leads to the kingdom of heaven, uniting man to God, while the others lead down to death, separating man from God. Thus it is necessary for you and for all who are concerned about their salvation to make [your] way by faith, without deviation, surely and resolutely, lest, in slacking, you remain in gross desires, or, erring, wander from the right.

That last sentence is a prelude to a more extended discussion by Irenaeus about the importance of keeping holiness of body and of soul. Holiness of the body, he writes, is abstaining from all “shameful and lawless deeds.” Holiness of the soul is to know and keep the whole truth of the faith without adding to it or subtracting from it.

He asks, “For what use is it to know the truth in words, only to defile the body and perform evil deeds? Or what profit indeed can come from holiness of body, if truth is not in the soul? For these rejoice together and join forces to lead man to the presence of God.”

For Irenaeus, at least, orthodoxy without bodily holiness is useless. Bodily holiness without orthodoxy profits us nothing.

Irenaeus, of course, was just man. His teaching could be false. Many Protestants, for instance, might resist what appears to be a form of works righteousness not just here but in the rest of his writings.

But I find his linking of holiness of body and holiness of soul a good reminder that we should not place too much emphasis on one to the neglect of the other.

Male sin vs. female sin?

I’ve heard variations on this idea before. Do you think it is the case — as presented here — that men and women are tempted to different kinds of sin?

Many women have negated self so much that we no longer have a self to surrender to God. The primary meaning many of us find is in identification with the lives of others. When the husband or children are joyful, sad, or pensive, we feel likewise, taking on the feelings of others, instead of being a self that is related to God apart from these relationships. Women are not inherently more “good” than males. Women are just as sinful, but in different ways. Valerie Saiving provided a valid list of the sins women are tempted toward: sins of distraction, diffuseness, triviality, sentimentality, avoiding responsibility, mistrusting reason, lacking centeredness, disrespect of boundaries, and passivity. These temptations seem trivial to males (and may even appear to males as virtues). But for women, they’re sins just as much as lust, rage, and power-seeking. Women can be tempted to find their identity completely in others instead of God and are tempted to give their entire selves to others, leaving no self left to surrender to God.