The faith we preach

My previous post stated my desire and intention to preach the faith of the church. Let me share some of what I believe that means for a Methodist preacher. This is a short post since my days have been very full the last two weeks. I will try to develop each of these points more in the coming weeks.

The faith Methodist elders are called to preach is fed by several streams.

First, it is orthodox.

Second, it is evangelical.

Third, it is Arminian.

Fourth, it is Spirit-filled.

In the coming days and weeks, I will return to these four and sketch out in more detail what each means and which elements are crucial to being a faithful preacher in the Methodist tradition. I welcome your thoughts, questions, and comments until then.

Preaching the faith of the church

Early in the process of discerning my call to ministry, I came to the conviction that the call of a member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church was to preach the faith of the church.

This conviction is not an easy one to hold to in the UMC for a couple of reasons.

First, it is not easy to hold because a large number of fairly vocal clergy leaders in the UMC advocate something else. It is quite easy to find clergy arguing that the task of the preacher is to preach their own struggles, their own doubts, their own truth. Such advice is usually given the name of being “authentic.”

I understand the appeal. I was an English major in college. I have written and read poetry. I’ve written and read personal essays about doubt and struggle. I’ve read Hamlet. I can sing many pop songs. I once cried after watching Dead Poets Society.

I am not saying preachers never struggle or doubt, but I don’t think they are called to do that while leading worship on Sunday morning. I do not believe our ordination as elders authorizes us to read Scripture out loud from the lectern and then declare from the pulpit, “I’m not really sure if I agree with what the Bible says about God here.”

Again, please hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying the Bible is always easy to interpret. I’m not trying to deny the existence of differences of interpretation among various traditions within the church. I’m not saying there are no controversies within the church over the meaning of Scripture.

I am merely saying that while standing in the pulpit — or on the stage of a worship center — the task of the preacher is to preach the faith of the church. They are not there to present a lecture on the history of controversy over a passage. They are not there to give us a tour of their own emotional or intellectual struggles with Scripture. There are places to do both those things. Sunday morning is not that place. Elders are called and ordained by the church to preach the faith of the church.

Which brings me to the second problem.

An elder or local pastor who sets out in ministry with the intention of preaching the faith of the church quickly discovers in the UMC that it is difficult to identify what our faith is. I had this very problem as I was first discerning my call.

Early in my process of discernment, I turned to the Book of Discipline and found our doctrinal standards. As quickly as I read over the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, however, I noticed that a lot of things described there were openly questioned or dismissed by some of the preachers and leaders in the UMC.

In my search, I also began to read the sermons, journals, and letters of John Wesley. Doing so only deepened my sense of disconnect between what our Discipline claimed to be our doctrinal standards and what I heard preached and taught in United Methodist churches. When I spoke of this sense of disconnect with some elders, they made jokes about Wesley.

For better or worse, in my process of discernment of my call, I came to the conviction that if I were to be a Methodist preacher, I should preach Wesleyan Methodism. Conveniently for me, as I delved more deeply into Wesleyan theology, I found that I quite agreed with John Wesley that the movement the Holy Spirit stirred up around Wesley’s ministry was Scriptural Christianity. If I had come to the conclusion that Wesley was in error about the essentials of Christianity, I hope I would have had the integrity to say I am not called to be an elder in a church bearing the name Methodist.

Why do I share this?

I share this because being clear about my role as an elder in Methodism is the place where I can make a difference in the church in this age of struggle. As United Methodism goes through the wrenching process of division into two or more new churches, lots of decisions need to be made and will be made. Almost all of them will be made by people other than me.

I am not in those rooms or part of those conversations, nor do I expect to be. But I am in a pulpit. I’ve been given a yoke to do ministry. The best way I can contribute to the future vitality of this movement of the Holy Spirit called Methodism is to be a Methodist preacher. I see no other way to do that with integrity than to preach the faith of the church as set forth in our doctrinal standards. Yes, I will struggle and have questions, but on Sunday morning my job is to preach the faith as well as I can. May God give me the grace to never fail in this task.

The hope of the new birth

I was reading John Wesley’s sermon “The Marks of the New Birth” recently. It is an excellent sermon worthy of consideration by any Methodist preacher.

The thing I noticed in it — which, despite being obvious, had evaded my previous readings — was how Wesley here is arguing for the doctrine of new birth as a doctrine of hope. One of the arguments he is working against in this sermon comes, I assume, from Anglican critics of the Methodist movement who say that once a person is baptized they have been “born again by water and the Spirit” and so all the Methodist talk about new birth or being born again is some sort of misleading enthusiasm.

Wesley’s response to that argument tells us a few key things about Methodism, which we also simply call Scriptural Christianity.

First, Wesley clearly has no time for an argument that our status with God is determined by some event in our personal history. He is quite explicit about this. While he does not dispute the value of baptism or the regeneration that it provides, he wants to see more than a baptism certificate when inquiring about the status of our salvation. The key issue is not “were you once baptized?” The key question is this: Does you inward and outward life right now provide evidence that your are born of God?

Here is how Wesley puts it:

Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.”

It is not hard to see how such preaching would upset many Christians who had rested on the thought that since they were baptized and participated in the ordinances and sacraments of the church their salvation was secure. To them, Wesley says, show me the fruit of your salvation. Show me a holy heart and life, and then I will believe you are indeed born of God. For saying such things, many a congregation informed the Rev. Wesley he would not be invited back.

But this first point builds to his second, and the source of hope that can be found in the doctrine of the new birth.

Whether they would hear him preach or not, many Christians then — as today — struggle with the sense that something is not right in their faith. Yes, they were baptized. Yes, they came to the altar and accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord, but still they do not know the joy of the Holy Spirit that the Bible speaks about. They do not feel the power to overcome their sin. They do not know the blessed assurance of their salvation. Their Christian walk is a forced march not a dance of joy.

To such people, the doctrine of the new birth is a doctrine of hope.

The teaching that says baptism is the only new birth in the church, which Wesley appears to be arguing against, leaves Christians in a fairly desperate place if, like many, they do not presently find themselves experiencing the righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul writes about in Romans.

To such Christians, Wesley says, there is hope. There is more. There is a better way. If you look at your faith, if you examine your walk with Christ, and find it lacking, even absent, you can still be born again. You can still know the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. You can receive again the Spirit of that allows you to name God tenderly as Father.

This I find quite helpful, but what is its relevance to us today?

You will not find many in Methodist churches who argue that the only new birth is in baptism, but I do think you will find a great many Christians who are both struggling in their faith and relying too much on some version of baptism certificate salvation. A great many Christians have none of the joy and power of salvation, but cling to the thought that since they were baptized or saved once their salvation is solid. They trudge along to church every Sunday, finding there no real joy or peace with God, which makes them all the more insistent that following the rules and being a good church member will get them into heaven.

Methodists, starting with Wesley, have always said the Bible promises us more than this. You can know the joy and peace and power of salvation today. What’s more, if you do not know those things, your salvation itself may be at risk. Do not cling to your baptism certificate as proof that you are a child of God. Look to your heart. Look to your life. Do you bear the marks of someone who is born of God? Do you have the faith of one who has placed their whole trust in the redemption of Christ? Do you have the hope of eternal life that leads you to rejoicing? Do you have the love of God that wells up within you like a fountain and spills out as love of neighbor?

These are the marks of the new birth. If you do not see them in yourself, do not despair. Do not cling defensively to your baptism certificate, your church camp come-to-Jesus encounter, your church attendance record, or your ability to quote biblical verses. Cry out instead to God. Pray for the Holy Spirit to come again. Pray to be born anew. Do not cease praying and seeking until you can say, “I am a child of God, born of His Spirit. The old has passed away. The new creation is here.”

There is more. There is joy. There is peace. There is, in Jesus, new life.