Plucking souls from the fire

This morning, I was reading part of John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” In this work, he includes plea to sinners who rush headlong and continuously away from God and into sin.

Think a little for once. What is it you are doing? Why should you destroy yourself? I could not use the worst enemy I have in the world as you use yourself. Why should you murder yourself inch by inch? Why should you burn yourself alive? O spare your own body at least, if you will not have pity for your soul! But have you a soul then? Do you really believe it? What, a soul that must live for ever! O spare thy soul! Do not destroy thy own soul with an everlasting destruction! It was made for God. Do not give it into the hands of that old murderer of men! Thou canst not stupify it long. When it leaves the body, it will awake and sleep no more. Yet a little while, and it launches out into the great deep, to live, and think, and feel for ever. And what will cheer thy spirit there, if thou hast not a drop of water to cool thy tongue? But the die is not yet cast: Now cry to God, and iniquity shall not be thy ruin.

I am reminded in reading this that Wesley’s ministry and passion was stirred by a clear and specific theology, one that is not in favor in many Christian gatherings in the United States today. Wesley, in short, believed in eternal torment of the damned.

Now, an NT Wright would point out to us that Wesley’s picture of souls disembodied misses the good news of resurrection. A Rob Bell will attempt to drive us with beautiful questions to doubt that anyone would ever be condemned for eternity. More than a few United Methodist pastors I know would point out that Wesley had bad relationships with women and was a dictator in the Methodist movement.

All these are worthy of note, but they also all seem to miss an important point.

When we look at Wesley’s ministry, we cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer intensity and energy with which he set about his task. Here was a man driven by the conviction that men and women all around him were leaping into eternal torment, and he must do everything he could to pull as many back from the pit as he possibly could.

Many among us these days might make fine arguments about his theological or psychological faults, but I wonder how many of us would dare compare our energy and passion with his.

The missing parts of the story

I had a curious exchange recently with a man who got me thinking about being a pastor.

Talking to this man, who professes faith in Jesus Christ, I realized that the story he tells himself about his own life includes neither Genesis 3 nor Revelation. If he wrote a private version of the Nicene Creed, it would not include the line about Jesus being crucified for our sake or coming to judge the living and the dead. The article on the Holy Spirit would not include mention of forgiveness of sins or the life of the world to come.

He is living now and for today and — so far as he can see it — the only point of Christianity is to help improve the material and social conditions of people living right now. The only sin he could see in the world was “institutional” or “systematic.” It was all out there and not in him.

I understand that Christianity can easily become so “other worldly” that it fails to live out the call to love our neighbor. It is pretty easy, however, for me to point out where and how the Bible instructs us on this point and corrects this mistake. Someone who acts as if Christianity is purely about getting a personal, eternal fire-insurance policy has missed some important parts of the Bible.

And it seems to me that the man I was talking to did so as well. Talk of his own sin, his need for a Savior, and his own eternal status before the Lord were dismissed as if the Bible never spoke a word about such things.

I struggled to draw his attention to this in a way that he could hear. I’m sure he left our encounter convinced that I was the one missing the point.

I am reflecting on the conversation, in part, because I know that man is not the only one in my community who thinks that way. I wonder how I am called to witness to our faith in his presence. As a pastor, how do I best feed this lamb of Christ?

There is a model in our Wesleyan heritage that says the correct response is to lay out in clear terms his mistakes. Like John Wesley himself, we might dust off our copy of “Almost Christian” and walk through point-by-point where he has gotten the whole thing wrong.

That is a model, and Wesley would chide me at my hesitation to embrace it. He would tell me to pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of this lost soul. He would remind me that if this fellow — clearly still in the slumbers of his fallen nature — would not hear the message, I would at least be clear of the guilt of refusing to deliver it. His blood would not be on my hands.

I can feel Wesley’s firm but loving stare as I write these things, but I must confess that I feel ill-equipped for such a response.

Nearly every person we encounter — and I don’t exclude myself here — is getting something wrong and failing to live the faith we profess in full. How as pastors do we respond? The answer, of course, depends on the particulars of the person and the situation before us. There are blanket principles but not blanket answers. Each person requires different things. This is also something Wesley would say.

Discerning when to lead with the rod and when to offer milk is a skill learned over many years. I am aware that I have much to learn in this area. I know myself well enough to know I am apt to err too much toward gentleness when firmness is often required. I pray that the Lord will give me grace to do this thing I have been called to do, to feed and care for his flock.



The lure of universalism

I was talking with a pastor colleague not long ago when he recounted a story about an unpopular funeral sermon. The gist of the story is that the funeral was for a man who was not a believer or member of a church and in the sermon he raised just a bit of doubt about than man’s eternal destiny.

As you might imagine, that did not go over well.

If you’ve been a pastor for any time at all, I expect you’ve met someone who is anxious about the salvation of someone they love. The question comes up as something like this: “My (cousin, brother, daughter, mother, etc.) does not believe in God or go to church. I’m afraid what will happen to them if they never come to faith. What do you think, pastor?”

Here is the answer I sense people want. “I’m sure they will be with you in heaven.”

There is great pressure for pastors — and other Christians — to go along with the comfortable universalism that pervades our culture. No one wants to tell a fried that Aunt Maude is bound for hell. Few church people want to contemplate a kingdom of God without the people they love.

And while I would never presume to declare the eternal destiny of any particular person — that is Jesus’ job not mine — I do find the pressure to adopt a de facto universalism serves to undermine most of the rest of my ministry. It reduces the point of what we do in the church to a kind of do-gooder society with covered dish meals. You can get a lot of praise and a fairly comfortable life leading a do-gooder society — and the covered dishes are often quite tasty — but it can be an uneasy life if you read the Bible much at all.

Do you ever sense this tension? How can pastors and lay members better resist the pressure toward universalism in the church?