Simple Methodism

In our ministry in the church, I know that our task is not to recreate what has come before. The Holy Spirit is not a cookie cutter, stamping out identical churches in every place and every time. But it is either my gift or my handicap that I am drawn to look at the root of things to discern what should be our central and animating principles today. So today, in the opening days of my ministry among a people new to me, I find myself looking again over John Wesley’s “Plain Account of a People Called Methodist.”

In that letter written in 1748, Wesley lists the four particulars about true Christianity that he and his brother Charles wished to persuade any who would hear them preach.

First, that the end of religion is that we become holy, happy, peaceful, and righteous people. It is about deep transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are the only way to that end.

Third, that Christ forgives, pardons, and frees from the power of sin and death all who have faith in him.

Fourth, that the fruits of this faith are not stored away to enjoy in heaven after we die, but are tasted even now in this moment and in this life.

What I take to be Wesley’s great target in this message is a kind of dead, formal, and cold religion that provides little comfort and little power. It was a religion that put a great emphasis on having the correct knowledge in your head about various theological topics, on being blameless in our outward conduct, and in doing all manner of good and pious things.

There is nothing wrong with orthodoxy. There is nothing bad about being good and pious people who show up to church every Sunday and the food pantry on Wednesday. Wesley did not disparage any of that, but he did not want people to confuse the means of religion with the end or purpose of it.

The purpose of it all is to restore to people the joy and peace that God intended for them from the Creation.

It seems to me, looking out over the church in America today, that we might benefit from this old idea if we can learn how to preach and teach it in a way that can be heard today.

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.

But why not in bulk?

Someone gave me a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism published in 1902 by the Reformed Church in America. In addition to a translation of the catechism itself, the book provides some counsel to confirmands, including advice not to despair if they cannot point to a moment of conversion.

The book urges the reader to understand their intentional, sincere, and intelligent taking of the confirmation as a change of heart and true conversion.

This change is not sudden, but runs through years. You have not had any wonderful religious experiences such as you hear about in others; but the Holy Ghost has done much in you in a very quiet way. …

It is the growth of years (Mark 4:26-28) and therefore all the more reliable. You cannot tell when you learned to walk, talk, think and work. You do not know when you learned to love your earthly father, much less the heavenly.

This is the Reformed doctrine of “getting religion.” We get religion, not in bulk but little by little. Just as we get natural life and strength, so spiritual life and strength, day by day.

The appeal to intelligent conversion and reliable faith strike me as quite fitting for the Reformed church as I know it today. And I hear many arguments like the above today in the church.

But it rings hollow to me. It sounds like trying to talk people into assurance they don’t experience first hand.

What do you think?