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.

A few words about salvation

What is salvation? This is a question of no small importance to believers and unbelievers alike. Here is a brief summary drawn from my reading of the Scriptures and Wesleyan theology. Please note the word “brief” in the previous sentence. This is not everything that can or needs to be written.

Salvation is about today not only tomorrow

We often talk about salvation in terms of going to heaven, and that is part of it. The hope of the saved is an eternity in presence of God, but salvation is not only in the future. It is more than a ticket to heaven, much more. Salvation is the work of God in our lives right now to free us from guilt, shame, and the shackles of sin that hold us trapped in patterns of behavior that destroy life, joy, and happiness.

Salvation began before you ever thought about God

We often think of salvation in terms of a “coming to Jesus moment.” Most of the time when we talk about “being saved” we think of an intense moment or period of time when we take an intentional step toward Christ. But to properly understand salvation, we need to understand that God began working for our salvation long before we were ever aware of him.

Even before we believe or have any inkling that we might come to believe, God’s grace is at work in us. That voice we commonly call “our conscience” that nudges us toward honesty, kindness, compassion, and mercy is not our own. It is the voice of God. It is the call of one who is leading us into the light, if we will follow. We often fight against this. We resist God’s grace, but it is there even before we know to call it grace.

Salvation fixes us

Nearly everyone understands that the world is broken. Yes, we see beauty. Yes, we can name moments of soaring heroism and mercy and grace that move us to tears or shouts of joy, but we do not have to look very hard or long to see that these things are so precious to us because they are so rare. The world is a place filled with suffering, hatred, jealousy, greed, cruelty, selfishness, violence, and despair. The world is broken. We are broken. We feel within the relentless impulses, the rage, the resentment at others, the longing for approval, the fear of rejection, the emptiness that we cannot fill, the wound we cannot heal. We are driven by forces we cannot fully understand or overcome. We are held captive by things we dare not speak out loud because they are so at odds with the image we try to project to the world.

The word we use for all of this is “sin.” Salvation what fixes us and fixes the world. God sees and knows all the things we are afraid to see in ourselves and terrified to say out loud. He would free us from their power, if we would only turn to him. If we would stand or kneel before him and drop all the ploys and tools we use to fool the world and hide from ourselves what goes on inside of us, if we would say, “God, I can’t do this. Forgive me. I need you,” he will answer, “Welcome home, child.”

Salvation brings us peace and joy

One of the first great works of salvation comes when we finally lay down our resistance to God’s grace and come to him seeking forgiveness and pardon. When we finally say, “I am yours,” we are forgiven and find ourselves at peace with the God we had been fighting and resisting before. We know the joy of coming home after a long season of wretched wandering.

Salvation begun is not salvation complete

This first work of salvation is not the last. When we lay down our arms and cease to fight against God, our struggle is not over. The sin that has bound us is broken but not exterminated at that moment. It still wars against us, now sometimes even more persistently. The ongoing work of salvation is our cooperation with the grace of God to master the sin that rages within us. The Holy Spirit working in us gives us the power to win this battle, but we must use the tools God has placed in our hands — worship, prayer, searching the Scriptures, the sacraments, Christian fellowship, works of mercy, compassion, and justice. We must run the race set before us as the Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Christ. This is the lifetime work of the Christian.

Salvation is for you

God wants you to know his peace, joy, freedom, and happiness. No one is excluded. There is no need to wait. Today is the day of salvation, if you will seek it. Call on the Lord while he is near and he will save you.

Casting out demons

In my previous post, we looked at the ways in which John Wesley named the work of the devil in his setting. I noted in that post that his description of the devil’s work still seems relevant and suggested that the contemporary American church would be wise to take up again the spiritual language that has fallen out of fashion in the last hundred years.

As we go further with Wesley into his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” we turn to his description of what it means to say we cast out devils or demons.

For Wesley, there was a bright line division between those who are in Christ and those who are still children of the devil. Those who do not have a vital, living faith in Christ are still held by the power of darkness. They are blind to the gospel and therefore robbed of all its benefits.

It is important to remember as we read these words that this did not mean Wesley thought non-Christians were incapable of good or were without any kind of moral compass. Far from it. Because we are created by a good God and God’s grace is active in our lives, even when we do not believe in Him, we are capable of goodness and kindness and all manner of virtues. Our problem is that without grace we are prone to slide into the darkness of greed, selfishness, jealousy, spite, and lust. We might fight the devil who has dominion in our hearts, but we cannot overcome him on our own.

For Wesley, to cast out demons is to bring people to repentance and to faith in Christ. We often call such work the “saving of souls.” Wesley grounds this work squarely as a spiritual struggle between the kingdom of darkness and the God of light. To bring a person to faith is to drive out the evil one who had previously bound them to his ways.

Wesley’s description of this takes up a fairly short portion of his sermon, but it is crucial for everything that comes in the rest of the sermon. He understood the work of preaching the gospel and building people up in holiness as work of a same kind as the casting out of demons that we read about in the gospels. It is the work of casting out Satan from the places where he reigns in the hearts of men and women. It is Christ, not preachers who do this. The devil is too strong for us to dislodge, but he flees before Christ. And yet, God has used human beings as the instruments of this work.

As I consider these crucial paragraphs in this sermon, I am struck by a couple of thoughts.

First, we in the contemporary church talk much more about shades of gray than Wesley did. Wesley took seriously the line from 1 John 5 that says God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. His ministry was not about helping people cope better with a difficult world or making mostly nice people a little nicer and more service oriented. He understood himself to be in the midst of a titanic spiritual struggle between Satan and God for the souls of men, women, and children. We can understand both his incredible passion and his sometimes grim attitude if we see his work as he saw it. People in the midst of battles are often somewhat determined and grim.

Second, this work is something that mere humans such as myself simply cannot do on our own. I can give counsel and comfort to people. I can teach them a lot about the Bible and church history. I can help order the life of the church I serve. On my best weeks, I can string together words in a sermon that touch the head and heart. But I cannot save souls. I cannot bring life to a dead soul any more than I can bring life to a dead body. Only God can do this. To the extent that I define my ministry in terms of what I can do, I will fall short of my calling. The key for me is to seek to live out my vocation in such a way that God chooses to use me to do what only God can do. I have no control over that. I can only seek to be faithful to my call and hope that in my imperfect faithfulness God chooses to act through me.

As John Wesley always does, he challenges me in this sermon. He challenges me not to take too lightly and not to misunderstand my role. One strain of my training as a pastor places a lot of emphasis on using the tools of secular helping professions and secular politics to meet the needs of the people I serve. When I read Wesley, I encounter a very different view.

It is one that runs at odds with some aspects of my personality. Like many clergy, I tend to be pretty good at the soft skills of empathy and listening. I do not relish conflict or confrontation. I am quite capable of seeing multiple sides to many issues. You don’t have to push me hard to acknowledge shades of gray.

But there is another part of me that Wesley speaks to. It is the part that has become convinced first in the truth of the gospel — that Jesus Christ came to save sinners and that we require saving. What I see in Wesley is a man who understood this truth and did not flinch from living out the implications of it in his ministry, even when that set him at odds with others.

If the gospel is true, if Wesley is correct, then I don’t want to be serving as a chaplain to the damned, helping to comfort them in their chains and darkness. I don’t want to do that because I love them. I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to fail God who has called me to this work.

I need encouragement in this. That is why I value Wesley so much. He is a constant challenge and encourager to me in my vocation.