Can we talk about justification?

In “The Principles of a Methodist” John Wesley wrote about justification by faith.

I believe three things must go together for our justification: Upon God’s part, his great mercy and grace; upon Christ’s part, the satisfaction of God’s justice, by the offering his body and shedding his blood; and upon our part, true and living faith in the merits of Jesus Christ.

There is a lot packed into this short summary. Here are  few things that I observe.

First, we just don’t talk about justification much in the church today. For Wesley it was one of the central doctrines that motivated everything he did. We have some words that play in the same ballpark as “justification” — saved, born again, redeemed — but none really captures the sense of the word as Wesley understood it and our doctrinal standards discuss it.

Justification is simply the concept that we are out of line with God and we need to be brought into alignment. We are guilty before God and need to be pardoned. We cannot pay off the debt of our guilt. We can only be forgiven. This is justification, God’s gracious and merciful pardon of sinners, of us.

Perhaps you can pick up why we don’t talk about this much in the church these days. We don’t like to talk about sin. In the church, we like to talk about problems and issues. How do I cope with life when it is hard? How do I strengthen my marriage? How do I overcome anxiety? But we don’t like to talk about sin. And if we don’t know ourselves to be sinners, then we can’t have any interest in what is required for us to be justified.

I notice as well in reflecting on this short passage the emphasis on Jesus’ death as satisfaction required by God’s justice. What does that mean? It means that sin — our sin and that of the world — demands a payment. God’s justice requires that the debt and guilt piled up by our sin be paid off. We can be forgiven but balance must be restored. By his death, Jesus Christ reset the scales. He paid the price that should have been ours to pay and that we could never pay. This is part of why we say above that the mercy of the Father is necessary for our justification. What could have been required of us was not. In the words of the song, Jesus paid it all.

While it is true that the Christian church has never come down to a single understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross — what the theologians call atonement theory — it is undeniable that the people called Methodist preached from the very beginning of the necessity and power of Christ’s satisfaction.

And finally, I notice in reading Wesley’s words the necessity for not just faith, but a living faith that Jesus Christ has in fact won my pardon by the satisfaction he made on the cross. We are called to put our whole trust for peace in this world and glory in the next not in our own goodness, our own efforts, or our own observance of religious duties, but totally and solely in Jesus Christ.

If we have this faith, it will be as plain to see as it is to observe signs of life in any living thing. A living faith grows and bears fruit. It is a source of activity and energy in the life the Christian. It multiplies and reproduces. I depends on the Holy Spirit for its life just as we depend on air for ours. This is the living faith that Wesley preached and handed down to the Methodists after him.

On each of these three points, I believe the United Methodist Church today has much to learn. I know I do.

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Not as soldiers but as Christians

In the wake of St. Louis, my reading through some of John Wesley’s works fell upon his tract, “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained.” It is part of a series of writings Wesley put down in response to critics of the early Methodist movement and Wesley in particular.

In the beginning of this document, he explains why he has been reluctant to enter into disputation and controversy with his critics.

Fear, indeed, is one cause of my declining this; fear, as I have said elsewhere, not of my adversary, but of myself. I fear my own spirit …. I never knew one (or but one) man write controversy with what I thought a right spirit. Every disputant seems to think, as every soldier, that he may hurt his opponent as much as he can; nay, that he ought to do his worst to him, or he cannot make the best of his own cause. …

But ought these things be so? (I speak on the Christian scheme.) Ought we not love our neighbor as ourselves? And does a man cease to be my neighbor because he is of a different opinion? nay, and declare himself so to be? Ought we not, for all this, to do to him as we would he should do to us? But do we ourselves love to be exposed, or set in the worst light? Would we willingly be treated with contempt? If not, why do we treat others thus?

As we move forward from St. Louis as a church, these words resonate with my spirit.

If we examine ourselves, we know that we often should share Wesley’s fear, although too often we dismiss it, taking up rather the contrary position that the rightness of our cause purifies the viciousness of our methods. Too often we Christians — we Methodists — look no different from the world in the midst of our disagreements and our self-justification of our methods.

No, not all of us are guilty of this offense, but enough that we should all take time to reflect, repent, and reconsider how it is we talk to, with, and about each other. We will not need to look far to find excuses to continue to rend at each other. I hope and pray that we might be instructed by Wesley’s words of caution and heed the words of Christ.

I am not leaving

The United Methodist Church will have a special General Conference next weekend (Feb. 23-26) that may have profound impact on the future of the denomination. No matter how the vote comes out, I will not be leaving.

I don’t make this declaration lightly.

If the One Church Plan is adopted, I suspect that the UMC will experience what other denominations have after adopting similar measures. We will see a large exodus of people, clergy, and congregations, which will shift the denomination further to the progressive side. The net effect of these changes will be that I will find myself a minority in a denomination that will grow increasingly less tolerant of my theology. I am not naive about the way evangelical clergy are treated in progressive conferences already. I have heard the hostile language used by “centrists” toward evangelicals in the last year. I have read the words of a bishop of our church who accuses those who support our current Discipline of being merely interested in power and oppression rather than fidelity to Scripture. I know that staying in an increasingly progressive UMC will not be a path of ease. Indeed, I may face expulsion at some point down the line, despite the promises of the OCP to protect the conscience of clergy.

If this is a possible future I imagine, why stay and why be public about that intention before the votes? I have a few reasons.

First, my sense of call has not waivered or changed. God called me to serve in the United Methodist Church. I have prayed quite a bit about whether that is still God’s intention for my ministry, and the only answers I have received are “yes.” Although I had no awareness of the looming crisis in the denomination when I answered my call more than 10 years ago, God was surely aware. Absent a strong leading from God, it would be unfaithful for me to abandon the call.

Second, I can’t shake Jeremiah 32. I believe God has put that piece of Scripture in my mind. In Jeremiah 32, God tells the prophet that the Babylonians are coming and that to resist them is pointless. Instead, Jeremiah should buy a field in Anathoth and seal the records away in a clay jar where they will surive a long period because God’s promise is that one day the people will return to the land. I apologize to my colleagues who hear in this passage a comparison to the Babylonians. I merely share what is on my heart. Staying even if the denomination takes a vote that I do not support is my version of buying a field in Anathoth. At least, I think that is what God is telling me by keeping this passage so clearly before me.

Third, I interpret John Wesley’s instructions as a counsel for unity. In his sermon “On Schism,” Wesley argues that the only biblical grounds for separation from a church of which I am a member is if the body requires me to do something the word of God forbids or prohibits me from doing something the word of God requires. On its face, the adoption of the OCP neither requires me to do something the Bible forbids nor prohibits me from doing what it requires. Yes, in time, as the denomination changes that may also change. In the meantime, however, I lean on the wisdom of our movement’s founder. Wesley has been a profound spiritual teacher and guide for me. I continue to turn to him for guidance in matters such as this.

Finally, I cannot as a matter of personal integrity continue in the process of ordination that I am in if my plan is to leave the UMC if it votes contrary to my understanding of the Bible. I know some people land somewhere else on this. For some, the vote changes things and changes the analysis. I fault no one for that. In the coming days, however, I am hoping to hear that I have been approved to move forward to track 3 of my conference’s ordination process. I have had to persevere under some very difficult circumstances to get to this point. I have in the past two years wondered whether the UMC was trying to tell me it did not want me to be an elder, but I have pressed ahead because I believe this is the work God is calling me to do. I simply do not feel that I can with integrity ask the conference to vote me forward in the process, but plan to leave if the General Conference goes a direction I do not support. I know that statement may sound incoherent to some. I can only offer that it feels like an issue of integrity to me. I cannot accept the polity of the UMC and refuse to accept the outcome of its politics. Others do not share my view. I understand.

This is where I stand as we approach the General Conference.

My prayers are with the delegates who will gather, discuss, debate, and decide. I cannot imagine the burdens they carry.

My heart is already breaking for the church general because I know that no matter what happens the pain and difficulty will continue. I am also carrying grief because I know that the vote could lead members of the congregation I serve to cut ties with the UMC.

These are heavy days.

In these days, I hold on to the hope of Jeremiah and I trust that God is at work in ways that I am too small to comprehend.