Are we saving souls?

John Wesley gets paraphrased a lot in United Methodist circles. For those who read and study Wesley’s works, the things that get said about him are often cringe-worthy, which is a shame because so much of what he wrote could be of such value to our work today.

Here is a quotation from Wesley that I do not see very often in United Methodist commentaries or hear very often from the lips of our bishops.

It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.

Wesley did not believe that preaching alone could transform hearts and lives. In fact, he knew from hard experience that preaching was not sufficient to the work.

Here are some thoughts on the necessity of visitation from house to house taken from the minutes of the earliest Methodist conferences:

For, after all our preaching, many of our people are almost as ignorant as if they had never heard the gospel. I speak as plain as I can, yet I frequently meet with those who have been my hearers many years, who know not whether Christ be God or man. And how few are there that know the nature of repentance, faith, and holiness! Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts. I have found by experience, that one of these has learned more from one hour’s close discourse, than from ten years’ public preaching.

I don’t know what stands out for you in that quotation, but here is the line that grabs me: “Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts.”

How little the human heart changes despite the passage of time. How many of our people in our churches could that statement describe? How many of us know our people well enough to have a good sense of whether it applies to them or not?

There is some comfort in the realization that Wesley struggled with the same things that plague our churches these days. Elsewhere in the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, you can find reports of disguntled leadership and complaints about new programs or ministry ideas. Ministry was messy then as it is now.

As I read through Wesley’s program for visitation among the people, I am struck by how animated his work was by a clear mission: to save souls. That mission determines the shape of his work.

For instance, as he describes what a good visit to a house of a Methodist would entail, he includes the following:

Next inquire into his state, whether convinced or unconvinced, converted or unconverted. Tell him, if need be, what conversion is; and then renew and enforce the inquiry.*

Just reflect on that a moment. How many times have you asked such questions of members of your congregation? How many times have you as a church member had a pastor ask such questions of you?

They are uncomfortable questions and Wesley knew this. His advice on the matter includes acknowledgement of the resistance and discomfort such inquiries produce, but he always came back to whether such questions could be avoided if our aim is to save souls.

And so this somewhat rambling blog post comes to an end with this lingering question: Am I eager enough to save souls to let that mission shape my work? Are we?

 


*Note for those who think Wesley did not believe in “conversion” that here he seems to discuss quite directly.

What holds us back?

In his sermon, “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley considers some ways people hold themselves back from seeking the forgiveness of God.

The first mistake is to believe that before we can be forgiven we must first do certain things. We must first conquer sin or break off from every evil work. We must do good to all our neighbors. We must first go to church or hear more sermons or take the Lord’s Supper.

To this, Wesley says, “First believe!” and then you will find the power to do.

The second mistake is to harbor the thought in our heart that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. To this Wesley responds that not one of us is good enough to deserve acceptance by God, but that should be no barrier because we are invited into the cleansing waters. “Then delay not,” Wesley says. “The fountain is open.”

The third mistake that hinders us from seeking the forgiveness of God is the idea that we are not sufficiently wracked by the pain of our own sins. We are not contrite enough, so therefore we are not ready to be pardoned.  Wesley responds that we should be more contrite than we are, more aware of our own deep sinfulness, but we should not let that delay us.

It may be, God will make thee so, not before thou believest, but by believing. It may be, thou wilt not weep much till thou lovest much because thou hast had much forgiven. In the mean time, look unto Jesus. Behold how he loveth thee! What could he have done more for thee which he hath not done?

These are all words of spiritual counsel to those who are mindful that they are in need of pardon and reconciliation with God. They are not words offered to those who blissfully go along as if all were well.

These three hindering notions — that we must do certain things, that we must achieve certain degrees of holiness, or that we must feel certain things before we can find pardon in Jesus Christ — are familiar to me. I think Wesley is perceptive about the ways we talk ourselves out of seeking what is freely offered.

Can you think of other ways people who know they need redemption hold themselves back from seeking pardon, from faith in Christ?

How I learned to talk about goats

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I found myself using a line in my sermon last Sunday that has been lingering with me. In the midst of my sermon, I said to my two congregations that I did not want them to end up as goats, and from there I reminded them of the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46.

I have to confess this: Ten years ago, I would never have taken that kind of sermonic detour. Indeed, had I been in a pew hearing that, I might have bristled at it.

You see, I came to Christ from secular America and through theological liberalism. Talk of the supernatural and eternal judgment of humanity was alien to me — even a bit laughable, perhaps even contemptible.

There is a line in the TV show House that comes to mind. The atheistic Dr. Greg House is talking with another doctor about what happens after death or does not happen. House’s counterpart asks incredulously whether he believes this is all there is, to which House replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn’t simply a test.”

This is the way we often react to talk of the judgment of God, the coming wrath, eternal reward and eternal punishment. We act indignant that God would cheapen the meaning of life by reducing it to a never-ending test to judge our fitness for heaven and hell.

I get all that.

So why the warning to my congregations about sheep and goats?

The short answer to this is that I’ve spent the last 8 years reading John Wesley and the Bible. I’d read none of Wesley and scarcely any of the Bible before I was baptized in 2001. It was nearly pure experience that got me to the baptismal font and very little in the way of Scripture or Tradition. And it was gentle but powerful experiences of the grace of Jesus Christ that deepened my faith before I got my call to ministry several years after my baptism.

Once I sensed that call, I decided I had better start learning about Methodism and the Bible. And it was this study that helped me name my experiences of grace. Before this, I had only some spiritual experiences that, without the language of Christianity, were nearly impossible to articulate. The Bible and Wesley helped me to understand what had happened to me and what was happening in me. And they gave me the framework of belief that helped me see that this day-to-day life is much more than just a weary grind for a few decades before our bones dry out and we pass into forgotten memory. We are called to be children of God. We are called to that now. We are called to it forever.

Is life more than a test? Yes. Of course. But there is a test. And, as a pastor, I grow more convinced that I do the people in my congregations real harm if I shade that reality or hide it from them. The truth is this. We will stand before God. There will be a final exam. The good news is this. Jesus has already shown us the test. We know the questions and the answers. No one has to fail, but many will.

All this talk is crazy to atheists and those who have grown so wise that they find Jesus’ words in need of updating. It used to be crazy talk to me. As a pastor, though, I dare not treat it that way when given the awesome responsibility of teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people who come to hear it. How can I claim to love them if I act as if our purpose in life is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?