Digging through the sand

[N]one can trust in the merits of Christ, till he has utterly renounced his own.

— John Wesley, Salvation by Faith

This is so hard.

We are so good at polishing our own resume. We do such a good job listing off our own merits. We spend so much time telling ourselves “I am good enough” and “I deserve to be happy” that we cannot easily say “I am a sinner.” Indeed, some of us cannot say it at all and are upset at the notion that we need to.

I meet so many Christians who cannot comprehend the idea that they are sinners or that they need a Savior.

Other people, yes. But not them.

They have never murdered anyone or committed adultery. They go to church. They pray. They give. They do good works. Surely, this is enough. This is what they have been taught by example it means to be a Christian. Surely, Jesus must smile when he looks upon them.

We fight our whole lives to get ahead and prove we are worthy. As a result, we often cannot admit the one true thing and the first most necessary thing for our salvation — that we are sinners. We cannot admit that we need saving. We feel entitled to heaven and can explain why we deserve to get in. We do not worship God. We worship ourselves.

It is the most heart-breaking thing I see as a pastor because I know it is all sand.

I know the day will come for each of us when we look death in the eye, and in that day we will discover that there is only one foundation strong enough to support us. We are not enough. I am not enough. I need a Savior because I am a sinner, full of pride and self-righteousness. My resume means nothing. Only Jesus Christ can save me.

There is nothing more heart-breaking as a pastor than seeing someone who imagines themselves to be a Christian finding out in the midst of a hurricane that their confidence has been built upon the sand of their own self-righteousness rather than the solid rock of faith in Christ. I’ve found no work more difficult, more challenging, or more holy, than getting on my knees with someone as the waters rise and digging through that sand to find that rock. I wish I had time and skill enough to do this better. I am repeatedly humbled by the importance of the work and my limitations in doing it. I am constantly reminded that without the grace of God, we would all drown.

There is nothing more heart-breaking as a pastor than seeing the ones who never found that rock and got carried away by the waves when the sand beneath their feet gave way. There are a many things I need to learn to do better as a pastor. This is the one area I most feel at a loss — helping people to see, to understand, and to embrace the most basic truth of our faith. We are sinners. We need a Savior.

But I will keep digging so long as God and the United Methodist Church call me to dig.

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Can we talk about justification?

In “The Principles of a Methodist” John Wesley wrote about justification by faith.

I believe three things must go together for our justification: Upon God’s part, his great mercy and grace; upon Christ’s part, the satisfaction of God’s justice, by the offering his body and shedding his blood; and upon our part, true and living faith in the merits of Jesus Christ.

There is a lot packed into this short summary. Here are  few things that I observe.

First, we just don’t talk about justification much in the church today. For Wesley it was one of the central doctrines that motivated everything he did. We have some words that play in the same ballpark as “justification” — saved, born again, redeemed — but none really captures the sense of the word as Wesley understood it and our doctrinal standards discuss it.

Justification is simply the concept that we are out of line with God and we need to be brought into alignment. We are guilty before God and need to be pardoned. We cannot pay off the debt of our guilt. We can only be forgiven. This is justification, God’s gracious and merciful pardon of sinners, of us.

Perhaps you can pick up why we don’t talk about this much in the church these days. We don’t like to talk about sin. In the church, we like to talk about problems and issues. How do I cope with life when it is hard? How do I strengthen my marriage? How do I overcome anxiety? But we don’t like to talk about sin. And if we don’t know ourselves to be sinners, then we can’t have any interest in what is required for us to be justified.

I notice as well in reflecting on this short passage the emphasis on Jesus’ death as satisfaction required by God’s justice. What does that mean? It means that sin — our sin and that of the world — demands a payment. God’s justice requires that the debt and guilt piled up by our sin be paid off. We can be forgiven but balance must be restored. By his death, Jesus Christ reset the scales. He paid the price that should have been ours to pay and that we could never pay. This is part of why we say above that the mercy of the Father is necessary for our justification. What could have been required of us was not. In the words of the song, Jesus paid it all.

While it is true that the Christian church has never come down to a single understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross — what the theologians call atonement theory — it is undeniable that the people called Methodist preached from the very beginning of the necessity and power of Christ’s satisfaction.

And finally, I notice in reading Wesley’s words the necessity for not just faith, but a living faith that Jesus Christ has in fact won my pardon by the satisfaction he made on the cross. We are called to put our whole trust for peace in this world and glory in the next not in our own goodness, our own efforts, or our own observance of religious duties, but totally and solely in Jesus Christ.

If we have this faith, it will be as plain to see as it is to observe signs of life in any living thing. A living faith grows and bears fruit. It is a source of activity and energy in the life the Christian. It multiplies and reproduces. I depends on the Holy Spirit for its life just as we depend on air for ours. This is the living faith that Wesley preached and handed down to the Methodists after him.

On each of these three points, I believe the United Methodist Church today has much to learn. I know I do.

What holds us back?

In his sermon, “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley considers some ways people hold themselves back from seeking the forgiveness of God.

The first mistake is to believe that before we can be forgiven we must first do certain things. We must first conquer sin or break off from every evil work. We must do good to all our neighbors. We must first go to church or hear more sermons or take the Lord’s Supper.

To this, Wesley says, “First believe!” and then you will find the power to do.

The second mistake is to harbor the thought in our heart that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. To this Wesley responds that not one of us is good enough to deserve acceptance by God, but that should be no barrier because we are invited into the cleansing waters. “Then delay not,” Wesley says. “The fountain is open.”

The third mistake that hinders us from seeking the forgiveness of God is the idea that we are not sufficiently wracked by the pain of our own sins. We are not contrite enough, so therefore we are not ready to be pardoned.  Wesley responds that we should be more contrite than we are, more aware of our own deep sinfulness, but we should not let that delay us.

It may be, God will make thee so, not before thou believest, but by believing. It may be, thou wilt not weep much till thou lovest much because thou hast had much forgiven. In the mean time, look unto Jesus. Behold how he loveth thee! What could he have done more for thee which he hath not done?

These are all words of spiritual counsel to those who are mindful that they are in need of pardon and reconciliation with God. They are not words offered to those who blissfully go along as if all were well.

These three hindering notions — that we must do certain things, that we must achieve certain degrees of holiness, or that we must feel certain things before we can find pardon in Jesus Christ — are familiar to me. I think Wesley is perceptive about the ways we talk ourselves out of seeking what is freely offered.

Can you think of other ways people who know they need redemption hold themselves back from seeking pardon, from faith in Christ?