Christ died for us. Christ lives in us

Every elder in the United Methodist Church has to write about their understanding of justification and sanctification in order to get ordained. Wesleyan Methodist preaching has always included both, or, at least, it was intended to include both.

We believe that all human beings are dead in sin and need to be made alive in Christ. Everyone falls short of the glory of God and needs to be receive the pardon that has already been won for us on the cross. But the story does not stop there. By the work of the Holy Spirit, all of those who are born from above are called to bear the fruit of their new life. A truly saved Christian cannot help but live out the love of God and neighbor, not from a sense of duty but because it is their very nature to do so. They are a new creation in Christ. Christians are called to expect and to seek to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus and to experience the renewal of the original image of God that we were created to bear.

Christ has died for us. Christ lives within us.

As a pastor in a local church, I have tried to teach and preach this faithfully, but people, even those who many would consider good Christians, put up many defenses against this message.

Some people, of course, resist even the notion that there is a God or that the Christian revelation is true or that we need to be forgiven. The cross still is a scandal and a stumbling block to a lot of people.

But even those who have come, by the grace of God, to a sense of conviction that they need Jesus, that they need to be forgiven, and that they need to accept him as their Lord, even these folks often have many ways to dodge the entire question of sanctification.

Some have been taught that “getting saved” is like a magic spell or an initiation ritual. If they say the right words, they get the secret handshake and the “get out of Hell” free card. They don’t actually seek or experience the justifying grace of God that frees us from sin and gives us power to resist and overcome it. They may confess Jesus Christ is lord with their lips, but their hearts have missed the lesson of the resurrection.

Of course, many people do experience a new birth that is deep and genuine. And yet, even among that group, there is often resistance to sanctification.

We believe God can raise the dead and create stars out of nothing, but we resist the idea that he can make us to be like Jesus Christ, not in power or in knowledge, but in perfect love for God and every person. We resist this idea. We say things like, “I’ll always be a sinner,” even though the Holy Spirit gives us the power to overcome sin. We say, “I can’t change,” even though God surely can do what we cannot. We settle for a less excellent way because we do not believe that God can do in us what he has promised.

The interesting thing to me about all of this is that what people most desperately want is that sense peace, power, and joy that justification and sanctification offer us. They want the very thing Christianity offers, but they want it from just about any other source. They want it on their terms. They will pay immense sums of money on false promises and burn up their days chasing lies, but they will not turn to God like little children and seek his pardon and his power. It is just too hard to give up our own sense of control. The serpent knew our weak spot perfectly in the garden.

And so, fractured and as broken as we are, I think that is why God keeps Methodists around. He keeps us around to continue to preach and teach and live out what John and Charles Wesley and a small band of others set out proclaim almost 300 years ago.

I have tried to preach Methodist Christianity, and I will continue to try to do so as well and faithfully as I can. I will continue to pray for my own entire sanctification, and I will continue to work with the Holy Spirit as he moves in my life.

To be honest, I don’t really know how I could call myself a Methodist if I did otherwise.

Peter and Paul vs Borg and Spong

One of the things that broke me of an early attraction to the theological liberalism of men like Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong was reading the Bible.

Reading what the apostles said about Jesus in the book of Acts, for instance, seemed quite at odds with the messages I heard from theological liberals. Peter and Paul spoke quite a bit about judgement and sin and repentance. They kept bringing up the cross. They were inconveniently fixated on the reality of the resurrection. They seemed to insist pretty strongly that Jesus was the unique and only way to salvation. They seemed pretty interested in salvation and not so interested in signing people up for a political or social protest movement.

Here are just a handful of examples:

Peter on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Peter before the Sanhedrin: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Peter at the house of Cornelius: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Paul at Pisidian Antioch: “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”

Paul in Athens: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Paul before Agrippa reporting what Jesus told him to do: “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

Of course, if we get into the epistles, we see much more of this.

I spent many years of my life as an unbeliever. I found in the liberal theology of the late 1990s and early 2000s a first step toward Christianity, but it was the Bible, it was Jesus Christ the living Lord, it was the Holy Spirit who made me a Christian.

I know Borg and Spong no longer hold much sway in United Methodism, but I hear a great deal of talk and preaching that draws on convictions and conceptions of the “message of Jesus” that they would have embraced. I’m a simple small-church pastor, however. If I can talk about Jesus and the gospel in a way that Peter and Paul would recognize, I will trust that I am doing Jesus faithful service.

A plea for Methodism

In the wake of our great division, the United Methodist Church is struggling to find its identity. We have lots of voices projecting visions of the future of United Methodism and articulating the things that unite us after division. A number of people are planting flags in various places and inviting the church to rally around this or that set of priorities or shared values.

For me, the place to look for the answer to the question “What is a Methodist?” has always been John and Charles Wesley.

United Methodism, I believe, has always struggled to hold on to its Methodist identity. The pull of Mainline Protestantism, a gaunt and dying creature that still has an odd attraction for many, has always conflicted with our origins when we were derided by respectable Christians as too boisterous, too insistent on our discipline, and too expectant that God would actually do great things among us.

Fortunately, we still have the words of the Wesleys to help remind us who we are. Here is a gem that I don’t hear often sung, but I share it with you as one entry point into the heart of Methodism.

Let Us Plead for Faith Alone

Let us plead for faith alone,
faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

Active faith that lives within,
conquers hell and death and sin,
hallows whom it first made whole,
forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
sure salvation is the end;
heaven already is begun,
everlasting life is won.

Only let us persevere
till we see our Lord appear,
never from the Rock remove,
saved by faith which works by love.

These four short stanzas could sustain a great deal of discussion, but allow me to share a few observations about the contours of a Methodist Christianity found in these words.

First, faith is not something we will into being, but we receive. Let us “plead” for faith. Let us ask for faith. God, give us this faith. From first to last, our faith is a gift from God, not something we accomplish or create within ourselves.

In a recent survey I was asked to fill out of the United Methodist Church about clergy wellness, it asked me how much I agree with the statement that when I am struggling I can find within myself resources to help me through difficult times. My impression was that a “positive” answer to that question would be seen as a good sign, but I struggled to mark an answer because my commitment as a Methodist is that the source of my help is not “down inside me” but with God. We are not called to get through hell by drawing on our own inner strength, but by admitting our weakness and relying on the strength of God, who gives us the faith to stand even when the earth shakes.

Second, our concern for this faith is tied directly to our concern for salvation. We want this faith so that we can be justified by God’s grace, we can overcome the power of sin and death, we can be transformed into the image of Christ, and we can experience the joys of heaven both today and in eternity.

My social media accounts often include posts that say stuff like “The gospel is less about getting into the Kingdom of Heaven when you die and more about living in the Kingdom of Heaven now.” I don’t think that is correct. It is about both, equally. The Gospel is about eternal life. And it is about access to the joys of heaven right now. It is not one or the other. It is certainly not one at the expense of the other. John Wesley wrote in the preface to his published sermons that he desired to know one thing in his life: The way to heaven. We can certainly decide that old John got Christianity wrong, but we cannot reasonably go around telling people to stop being so worried about salvation, saving souls, and heaven and hell and still say we are speaking from the central concerns of the Methodist tradition.

Third, it is a faith that is visible to others in the lives we lead, by our works. Just as a healthy tree bears good apples, so our lives bear good fruit when this faith is the source of all that we are and do. The works signal that the faith is present, but they themselves do not save us or give us any of the blessing that come alone from faith.

My observation as a pastor is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for good church people is that they confuse works for faith. We confuse the outer things of religious life with a saving faith in Jesus Christ. And this confusion is all the more tempting because the works are the things that win us the approval of the world around us. They are the things people can use to defend the church when it is attacked as irrelevant or harmful or deluded. “Well, yes, but we have a food pantry.” God does want us to feed the hungry, but we are called to do so because we have faith the overflows from our hearts as love for God and love for his people. Without this faith and love, the works themselves are worthless.

Much more could be said about this hymn, and there is much more to say about what a Methodist is. I am a Christian called to be a Methodist by God’s grace. I am a Methodist called to be and remain a United Methodist. In this uncertain time for the people called United Methodist, I pray that God will help us recover the gifts first given to the people called Methodist. I plead for the faith that we sing.