Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline could be more precise in its statements about the place of John Wesley’s sermons in our doctrinal panoply. In ¶103 it explains that the Plan of Union for the UMC understood Wesley’s sermons and notes to be established standards of doctrine for the church. In other places, however, the Discipline appears to treat Wesley as a model or example rather than as a measuring stick for our doctrine.

This is relevant to me because my conversion to Christianity was followed by immersion into the works of Wesley. Early in that process, I was continually struck by how far the United Methodist Church as I knew it strayed from the vision of Christian life and the church as I encountered in the works of Wesley. I found myself asking at times whether John Wesley could even get ordained among us if he were a candidate today. Our responses to him often are often more in keeping with his critics than his co-workers.

These thoughts arose again for me as I was reading John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he introduces what will be a 13-sermon series on those three chapters in Matthew and considers the first two beatitudes. In discussing the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit, tilts into what would later be called revival preaching.

He calls out for sinners to know themselves and wake up to their state.

Know and feel, that thou wert “shapen in wickedness,” and that “in sin did thy mother conceive thee;” and that thou thyself hast been heaping sin upon sin, ever since thou couldst discern good from evil! Sink under the mighty hand of God, as guilty of death eternal; and cast off, renounce, abhor, all imagination of ever being able to help thyself!

To those he calls to wake up, he offers Christ as the cure for their ailments, making no scruple at the mention of being washed in the blood. He then describes in three paragraphs the righteousness, peace, and joy that are offered to us as the inward kingdom of heaven.

Finally, he shifts to an exhortation worthy of any sawdust trail preaching of the century following Wesley’s death.

Thou art on the brink of heaven! Another step, and thou enterest into the kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy! Art thou all sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!” – all unholy? See thy “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous!” – Art thou unable to atone for the least of thy sins? “He is the propitiation for” all thy “sins.” Now believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all thy sins are blotted out! Art thou totally unclean in soul and body? Here is the “fountain for sin and uncleanliness!” “Arise and wash away thy sins!” Stagger no more at the promise through unbelief! Give glory to God! Dare to believe! Now cry out, from the ground of thy heart – “Yes, I yield, I yield at last, Listen to thy speaking blood; Me, with all my sins, I cast On my atoning God.” (This last is a quote from a Charles Wesley hymn.)

So the question I have is this: Are United Methodists called to treat such preaching by Wesley as mere “models of doctrinal exposition” or as standards by which we can judge our own interpretation and preaching of the Bible?

In other words, if what I preach is incongruous with what Wesley preached – or a direct contradiction of it – am I failing to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church? If the answer to that question is “no,” then what place does Wesley’s preaching have among us and why is it mentioned as a standard of doctrine in our Discipline?

A Methodist Easter message?

What is this thing that we are instructed to go tell the world about?

Jesus, who was dead, is alive.

Why is that such a big deal? Why does that matter? Why do so many Christians run around insisting that it is the most important thing that ever happened or ever will happen?

A dead guy came back to life.

It happens all the time on TV and in the movies.

What’s the big deal?

I’m sure different churches answer this question in different ways. Here’s my best short response based on my understanding of what it means to be a Methodist — United or otherwise.

My answer starts by observing that not everyone hears this news with the same ears. There are at least three different stances that a person adopts as they come to hear the news of Easter.

The first, I’ll call the careless. I don’t mean here careless as in not paying attention to what they are doing — although in certain cases that might apply. I mean careless as in “I could not care less” about Jesus and what all we church people have to say about him.

This may be a defiant rejection of Christ. It may be the voice of someone who just can’t be bothered. It may be the voice of one who, although they would never be quite so blunt as I put it above, thinks they have Christianity all sorted out quite nicely and don’t need any Jesus talk mucking things up. God is in his heaven, and I’ve got it all under control down here.

To the careless, Easter’s word is “Wake up!” Or perhaps, look again. That bothersome itinerant preacher, who you thought had been shut up, is on the loose. More than that, his resurrection testifies that he is who he said he is: the Son of God.

Much of the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts has this message. The resurrection proves that Jesus is the one who will judge the world. If he is the judge, perhaps it is time to look again at what he said when he was here with us.

The second group, we might call the convicted. These are the people who have paid attention to the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and the Torah. They are aware that there is something out of alignment in their own souls when it comes to God. Whether this is experienced as the guilt and shame of the more colorful sins or as the bondage and fear of our more subtle alienations from God, the convicted come to the tomb of Easter bearing the grief of Golgotha in their hearts. Their outward modes of grieving might be quite different, but the pain is still real. They know something is wrong in them and with them.

To the convicted, the word of Easter is “Come home!” The father is waiting on the hill watching the road for your return. Come home, and rejoice. Life is stronger than death. Love is more powerful than hate. You who were dead, be alive once more. Receive the grace and mercy poured out for you on the cross and sealed forever by an empty tomb.

The final group, at the risk of offending, we might call the Christians. These are the ones who have known the love of God poured out into their hearts. They can say with gladness that Jesus Christ has forgiven them, even them. But they come to Easter still looking for a sign to sustain them in the journey. The road is long and the trials are many.

To the Christian, the word of Easter is “Hold on to your hope!” The work Christ first worked in you, he will complete. He has gone ahead, but he will meet us again. So, hold tight to the hope of Christ. The women came that morning, perhaps, all out of hope, convinced by hard reality and stone cold power that the promises of God are too fragile to survive this bitter world. They came clinging to or perhaps even devoid of hope, but that morning hope found them. It will find and sustain you as well, if we do not let go.

I don’t think these messages conflict with each other, and we probably all need to hear all three at every point in our lives. But they do hit different accents.

Methodism has always been a way of being Christian that is keenly aware of the journey of faith. We believe that Christ calls us into ever deeper communion with him. We believe that there is no such thing as standing still with God. We either go forward or we fall back. And so, from the days of Wesley, Methodism has always been careful to fit its words and practices to the different needs of the people who receive them.

I’m not saying this is unique to Methodism. We Methodists have always insisted that our only goal was to be faithful to the faith once delivered to the church. We have never aimed at being new. All I am trying to do is figure out how to be the best Methodist I can be. God called me to this odd body of believers and has called me to ministry within it. I hope to honor that call as best I can.

This Easter, I pray I am serving Christ’s purpose in raising up a people called Methodist by seeking to preach in such ways.

Skipping level 1

John Wesley had three categories he used to organize his thinking about how to best preach the gospel. We see these three nicely in his sermon “Scriptural Christianity.” Here he is describing his vision for how the first converts to Christianity engaged their neighbors and relations with the gospel.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

Did you notice the three groups?

  1. Those who don’t care about the wrath of God or imagine they are in need of a savior.
  2. Those who long earnestly for a word of grace in the midst of their sense of condemnation.
  3. Those who need to be encouraged and admonished to continue on toward full holiness.

Do you know why they threw rocks at Wesley and closed so many church doors to him? In large part it was because he preached that the vast majority of good Church of England members were in the first group. He told them that just because they showed up to church and sacrament every Sunday, it did not mean they were right with God. Indeed, he preached that so-called Christians who do not have any real experience of Christ were the hardest people to convert to real Christianity.

It feels as if we in the church today are overrun with people at whom Wesley would advise us to thunder “Awake!” But there is tremendous social and theological pressure to act as if all is well. There is pressure to treat everyone as if all they need is a gentle and inspiring version of the message designed for groups 2 and 3.

I feel that pressure.

I can hear the questions that it raises.

Why be so judgmental? Who are you to warn others? Aren’t you just a hypocrite?

Do you hear those questions? I suspect Wesley did. I wonder if it ever caused him to shrink back before climbing in the pulpit or mounting the market cross.

The virtues of topical preaching?

I had a talk with a retired preacher the other day. He told me he did not like the way everyone preaches today. He said it feels like sitting through Bible studies rather than hearing a sermon.

I asked him what he meant by the distinction he was making there.

He said that in his preaching career, when he was working up a sermon, he started with the human concerns. In his seminary, his professor had given him a list of 34 areas of life that all people are concerned about. He’d been taught to consult that list every now and then to make sure he was not neglecting any of them.

When it came time to preach, he’d start with one of these areas of human concern — how do I deal with disappointment, for instance — and build a sermon that answers that question by drawing on one or more texts of the Bible.

The retired preacher told me what frustrates him about the practice of lectionary preaching — which he notes was just becoming popular in the seminaries when he was coming up — is that is so rarely speaks to him about things he’s really worried about.

What does any of that have to do with me? This was his question, not as a disinterested lay person with only passing interest in his faith but as a member of the preaching fraternity now retired.

He said he listens to sermons that are often wonderfully crafted and powerfully delivered and he wonders whether anything that was said really connects to anything pressing or of deep concern to his life.

My entire ministry has been spent in a time in which the kind of preaching this retired minister practiced during his whole ministry was discouraged as non-biblical. Talking with him, though, did get me wondering if his point was not one that I should take closer to heart.

The devil’s scorecard

Have you cast out any devils recently?

This is a very Wesleyan question.

John Wesley, in his oft-cited sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” suggests our standard for judging the ministry of another be that question. Does the preaching of the person destroy the work of the devil?

In his sermon, Wesley points out that all the sins and evils of this world are the sign of the devil’s dominion.

Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience?

To this list, Wesley adds liars, slanderers, oppressors, extortioners, perjurers, and traitors. He even mentions the genocidal actions of his own colonizing countrymen. But the important point here is that all these manifestations of sin are signs of people under the power of Satan. A sinner is a captive. To bring a sinner to repentance is to drive the devil out. Conversion itself is a miracle of God. As Wesley writes elsewhere, it is no less a miracle to bring back to life a soul dead in sin than it is to bring back to a life a body dead in the ground.

We are locked in a spiritual war, Wesley writes in the sermon. We need all the allies we can get.

He that gathereth not men into the kingdom of God, assuredly scatters them from it. For there can be no neuter in this war. Every one is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side? Then you will not only not forbid any man that casts out devils, but you will labour, to the uttermost of you power, to forward him in the work.

Wesley suggests a three-part test to see if a person has driven out devils.

  1. Find a person who once was an open sinner.
  2. Notice that this person is no longer such and instead is living a Christian life.
  3. Fix the impetus for this change in attending the preaching of this or that person.

If you can do all three, than you can assume that God has driven out the devil through the work of that preacher.

This is more important than any disagreements over doctrine or practice. Wesley — in the part of the sermon that tends to get quoted most often — goes on to say that even if the person doing the preaching is an Arian or a Muslim or a Jew or Deist, if the fruit of the preaching is the driving out of Satan, then we should applaud and support that preacher’s work.

Wesley does not explain exactly how a Muslim imam might lead someone to live “a Christian life,” but his point remains. Perhaps in our internal denominational conversations and our interfaith dialogue we would be served well if we asked Wesley’s question rather than got bogged down on other matters.

Have you driven out devils? Yes? Then let us praise God together for that.

The Methodist way of preaching

By 1751, John Wesley had become concerned about a new kind of preaching that was taking hold in some Methodist societies. The men who were preaching this new way called themselves “gospel” preachers. The preached only the promises of Christ and none of the law. In Wesley’s account, indeed, they even mocked the original style of Methodist preaching that was careful to preach both law and gospel as warranted by the state of the hearers.

In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” Wesley describes both the methods by which law and gospel were to be preached and decries the damaging effects of the gospel preaching. He points out that in several cities that once had thriving societies, the numbers had been seriously eroded by the gospel preachers. Without the starch of the law, Methodist zeal and discipline waned.

In contrast, Wesley highlighted the contrary example of a society in Yorkshire, which under the continued preaching of law and gospel had grown from 1,900 members to 3,000 even as other societies withered under pure gospel preaching.

Wesley described the Yorkshire preaching this way:

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore, live to God, till you live with him in glory. So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way. God grant that we never turn therefrom, to the right hand or the left.

I notice that in each of these statements the good news comes first. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him.” This is the way that Wesley said he would preach to established Christians, those who have already had an experience of conviction and justification. The law is preached here as a pattern for a life that bears the fruit of faith. To the unconverted, Wesley wrote earlier in the letter, he would counsel leading with law to break up the complacency of those who have not yet felt the true forgiveness of Christ.

As always, I’m struck in reading Wesley by how aware he was that the state of his audience should determine the shape of his preaching. This is not “felt needs” preaching. It is much more like a medical diagnosis. Wesley had a clear idea what spiritual health and wholeness looked like. He had strong opinions about the various maladies of the soul and the phases a person must pass through to be “cured.” His observations about the spiritual state of his hearers then shaped his approach in preaching and teaching.

The Methodist cure was not for everyone, of course. At the height of the Methodist movement, it accounted only for a small fraction of the population of England. Not even Wesley would have argued that non-Methodists were necessarily out of step with Christ. But for many people, the Methodist way was the true way to Christ.