Getting beyond “How is it with your soul?”

An interesting extract from John Wesley’s journal dated March 25, 1739:

I baptized John Smith (late an Anabaptist) and four other adults at Islington. Of the adults I have known baptized lately, one only was at that time born again, in the full sense of the word; that is, found a thorough, inward change, by the love of God filling her heart. Most of them were only born again in a lower sense; that is, received the remission of their sins. And some (as it has too plainly appeared) neither in one sense nor the other.

I cannot tell from Wesley’s words here how he interprets his own report. Is this a sign of failure? Is it a defense of infant baptism, noting that adult converts by and large do not show any more signs of total reformation of life than babies? Is it something else? I’m not sure, but I do find the facts of the case interesting. As often is the case with Wesley, I find his categories interesting as well.

We see here at least three different states of the soul.

Born again in a lower sense — in which the sinner receives and is aware of a formal and positive forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.

Born again in the full sense — in which, added to the above, the sinner experiences a profound inward transformaion and a filling of the heart with the love of God.

The original state — in which we receive neither of the above even if we do the outward duties and rituals of the church.

It is notable that Wesley’s experience is that only a tiny subset of converts experience full rebirth at the moment of their baptism or conversion. For most, that is something that comes later. This would, of course, comport with Wesley’s own experience. Indeed, it is very likely that he would say he experienced neither the lower nor fuller sense of rebirth until his encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate in his mid-30s.

I don’t know if these ways of talking about the state of our soul need “translating” to make sense to people today. I am sure, however, that most of the people in our churches are not accustomed to thinking in such ways about their own spiritual life. I am also constantly struck by how little people in our churches can articulate their own spiritual experience. They lack the language, the categories, and the experience to talk in any concrete ways about “how is it with your soul?” I think one service Wesley and his preachers provided Christians in his day was to give them language and practice in talking about these important matters.

We could certainly do worse than provide our people the same thing.



The temptation we don’t discuss

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.

A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.

Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.

I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.

No wonder preachers don’t like hell

In Part II of his “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley challenges his fellow clergy to not be slack in their calling. He scolds the clergyman who sees no greater burden in his office than to preach once or twice a week and refuses the hard, continual work of shepherding the flock into spiritual growth and maturity.

He challenges them and us with a series of questions for clergy.

Have I not said, ‘Peace, peace, when there was no peace?’ How many are they also that do this? who do not study to speak what is true, especially to the rich and great, so much as what is pleasing? who flatter honourable sinners, instead of telling them plain, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ O, what account have you to make, if there be a God that judgeth the earth? … How great will your damnation be, who destroy souls instead of saving them!

Reading these lines from Wesley, I understand the appeal of those forms of theology that do away with the idea of eternal judgment and hell. Such theologies are soothing to people but even more are they soothing to pastors who no longer must carry the burden of risking their own souls if they neglect their work or turn aside when they see sinners rejoicing in their sins.

Wesley’s words certainly sting me today as I read them and consider my own answers.