No need of redemption?

Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.

One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.

Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.

Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.

This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.

I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.

How we get salvation wrong

I was listening to a radio preacher yesterday talking about the nature of salvation and its dependence on believing the right things.

I know the words he read in Romans to support this contention. But I don’t see it. I think we get the means of salvation confused with salvation itself. I think John Wesley was on the right track when he argued that salvation is holiness, salvation is the restoration of the image of God, salvation is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, salvation is freedom from sin, slavery, and death.

Faith in Jesus Christ is not itself salvation. Faith in Jesus Christ is a means to salvation — Wesley would say it is the beginning of salvation. When we trust, believe in, and confess Christ, we enter into salvation, which transforms us.

“I am saved” is a true statement. “Salvation freed me from addiction” strikes me as a better and deeper truth. Here are some more experiments with that kind of language:

  • Salvation empowered me to love.
  • Salvation inspired me to forgive rather than seek revenge.
  • Salvation gave me strength to hold up despite my troubles.
  • Salvation shielded me from despair when I lost my job.

Jesus accomplished our salvation on Calvary. We enter into that salvation by faith and grow more and more into it. And that salvation itself acts on us and changes us.

Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

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.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

Out of the isolation room

This summer working at the hospital, I’ve had several visits with people in isolation rooms. To go visit them, I have to put on a gown and rubber gloves and sometimes a mask. When I leave the room, I throw all these things away and wash my hands again.

I do all this because the person is infected and diseased and cannot be let out of the room.

Now, by one way of thinking, the doctor’s work is to kill off the infection, so the patient will be saved. But thought of another way, the real problem the patient has here is that he is dangerous to everyone around him and can’t leave that room. The ultimate bad result is that he will die and never leave that room again. What he needs to be liberated from is that isolated room and freed to be back in the world again. In order to do that, his infection has to be purged from him. Killing the infection is a means by which his liberation from isolation is made possible.

By way of analogy, sin is a contamination and disease. So long as we are so infected, we cannot get out of the isolation cell know as the world, both because we are too weak to do it but not inconsequentially because we are dangerous to those on the outside. Granted, it is a spacious and often comfortable isolation room, but we are trapped and unable to enter the world that is without sin and corruption so long as we are tainted.

Jesus came to usher us into that holy, pure, and beautiful kingdom. But first, our sins must be purged by the means of cross and forgiveness. Our sin must be dealt with as a necessary step to salvation, but that is not salvation itself. Salvation is getting out of the room.

Like all analogies, this is clumsy and limited, but I think there is something useful here.

I see a broken world

This week, I listened to a presentation that included as one of its main points the argument that the Western tradition has gone terribly wrong because it is too focused on fixing problems. The concern is that this puts an emphasis on seeing people as broken or fallen in need of saving rather than as whole and healthy in need of — well, not much really except encouragement.

As  I listened, I recalled the opening pages of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In my presentation and in much of contemporary theology — so far as I can tell — the fact that human beings are radically out of alignment with God simply does not register. Awareness of this fact — which Chesterton memorably calls the only part of Christian theology that can be empirically proven — is described as a kind of morbid negativity about humanity.

I have a hard time reflecting over the arc of Scripture — Torah, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, and revelation — and finding much foothold for the notion that we — when left to ourselves — are well-grounded and responsive to God’s will for our lives.

I have a hard time looking at the world — especially beyond the little bubble of security that we all try to hard to wrap around ourselves — and seeing that people are generally happy, joyful, peaceful, just, merciful, and righteous.

I have a hard time looking in my own heart and seeing the image of Christ stamped there without any blemish or blot.

I’ve been accused of being a gloomy Gus many times in my life, so I’m aware that there may be people with a much more positive theology running around. But I don’t see the world looking much like the Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.

The world looks like a place that needs God to me, not just for some encouragement on the way but for rescue, healing, and salvation. God, of course, is at work already. All good comes from God. But the work is not done. The world is broken in need of healing. It is fallen in need of lifting up. It is captive in need of liberation.

This is how it looks to me. If I am wrong, God help me to see rightly.

The first thing they talked about at conference

When the first Methodist conference gathered in 1744 the very first question dealt with in its minutes was about salvation.

We began with considering the doctrine of justification: The questions relating to, with the substance of the answers given thereto, were as follows: —

Q.1. What is it to be justified?

A. To be pardoned and received into God’s favour; into such a state, that if we continue therein, we shall be finally saved.

Q.2. Is faith a condition of justification?

A. Yes; for every one who believeth not is condemned; and every one who believes is justified.

It may not be obvious from the bare words, but the doctrine at the very center of this thing called Methodism aims to cure those who are doomed to eternal death. The starting point for all Methodist preaching and doctrine was the notion that human beings are far from God and condemned to eternal destruction. That is the default state of a human being. We are on a highway to hell. No matter how nice we seem on the outside, even if we do all kinds of lovely works and care for the sick and poor, without faith in Jesus Christ we are doomed.

This is what John Wesley preached in 1738. It is what the Methodist conference set down as settled doctrine in its first meeting in 1744. It is what Wesley continued to preach into his dying days.

There is a reason proper Anglican priests kept telling him he would not be invited to preach a second sermon at their church. The doctrine of justification by faith is outrageous to sensible middle-class and wealthy people everywhere. It says they are not good in God’s eyes just because they have managed to get a nice job and a good house and raise kids with only minor character flaws. It says there are worse things than being poor and illiterate. It says our sins are but a sign of the wicked heart inside us that rebels against God.

And so my question, one that burns at me: Did we stop preaching this because it is not true? Did we decide the doctrine of justification by faith was not biblical or that the Bible got God wrong?

This question bedevils me so much because I don’t know what we are doing in the church if our conclusion is that John Wesley — and millions of other Christians — have been wrong about this basic theological issue. If people are basically good and everyone is going to heaven regardless of whether they have faith or receive forgiveness, then why did Jesus die? Why do we need a church at all? We have plenty of people giving us moral platitudes and inspiring video clips on Facebook. Why bother with all the rest?

And if John Wesley was right, then what, dear Lord, are we doing in church when we act as if the biggest problem most people have is finding meaning in their lives or getting their kids to behave? If Wesley was right that men and women are hurtling toward eternal death unless they receive pardon by the grace of Jesus through faith, if he was right about this, then why are we so quiet about it?

It was a big enough topic that it was agenda item #1 at the first Methodist conference. Is it still important for us today?