He breaks the power of canceled sin

Kevin Watson has an interesting post responding to Rachel Held Evans’ argument that we cannot overcome sin.

Watson argues that the Wesleyan teaching of holiness is often rejected precisely because people are persuaded by arguments such as Evans’. The point Wesleyan Christians have made consistently is that we cannot overcome sin, but that Christ can. If we are growing in holiness by working out our salvation, the Holy Spirit does, in fact, have the power to overcome sin. It is along journey for many, but it is not impossible for God.

In response to Evans’ claim that sin is inevitable, Watson writes:

This is not the fullness of the gospel. The gospel proclaims that Jesus was the Son of God, he was crucified, died, and raised again on the third day. Jesus faced the very worse that sin and death could do. He entered fully into the reality of death. And he conquered sin, even the grave!

Which leads to his strong statement about God’s grace:

Here is what it comes down to: Which do you believe is more powerful: sin or God? If you believe that people are not able to “go and sin no more,” then you believe that sin is more powerful than God. If you believe that God is more powerful than sin, which I think is the conclusion Christians must come to, then you may need to take a closer look at the reflexive excusing of the reality of sin in the lives of those who have taken on the name of Christ that is prevalent in contemporary American Christianity.

Galli: We need the cross

The most needful and difficult task of the church today is to again preach the message of the Cross, and to do so in a way that alarms, surprises, scandalizes, challenges, invigorates, and inspires a 21st century world. What that would look like exactly is hard to say; our theologians and pastors need to help us here. In the most general terms, it has to be about Christ first and last. It has to be about the Christ who came into the world not to improve generally good people, but to resurrect the dead, not to bolster our self-esteem but to forgive us, not to make people successful but to make them loving, not to win the culture but to establish a kingdom without end. Even more scandalously, the message of the Cross is about a universe saturated with grace, where nothing we have done or can do earns us the right to participate in this stunning new reality; all has been done for us. The best we can do is acknowledge the reality (faith) and begin to live as if it is reality (repent).

— Mark Galli, “The Troubled State of Christian Preaching

An earnest appeal to sinners

In the midst of his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley shares with his reader an example of his typical manner of preaching to sinners. It is too long to reproduce in whole here (and my fingers would get too weary), but here is my take on the gist of it.

He starts with the experiences — might we say “felt needs” — of the sinner. He speaks of the restless heart and the heaviness that even laughter cannot mask. He speaks of the twinges of guilt and fear the sinner feels when his or her mind turns to eternity. And for those who insist there is no “hereafter” he broods upon the awful significance of oblivion at the end of life. By these and other means he seeks to stir up anxiety about death and dissatisfaction with life lived without any thought of eternity.

And then the message turns.

O let not the poor wisdom of man any longer exalt itself before the wisdom of God! You have fled from him long enough; at length, suffer your eyes to be opened by Him that made them. You want rest to your soul. Ask it of Him who giveth to all men liberally …

The moves are obvious and even predictable, but this makes them no less effective. Wesley certainly was the means by which many sinners were converted. His method, as I see it here, was to zero in on the unsettled souls of the hearers and to unsettle them even more. He tried to cut through the defenses we have against the big questions of life and existence. And once he had stirred up fear and anxiety — which are the natural outcome of talking about death to those doomed to die — he offered Christ. Having explained the disease, he provided the cure.

The first move strikes me as the pivotal one. In my own preaching, at least, I find stirring up anxiety and fear of God a trial. Even in general terms, people don’t like to hear that they are not inside the kingdom. And in our culture that has made “comfort” its hallmark, getting people to experience anxiety of any kind is both difficult and unwelcome.

Nonetheless, I want to take a lesson from Wesley here. I certainly want to preach and teach in ways that lead to life. Maybe his methods do not fit our day, but I know I could learn to do this better.

An Earnest Appeal: The pardon of Christ

In a previous post, I wrote about the nature of faith as described in John Wesley’s “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” Here we look at the role of Christ in the religion of love that Wesley expounds in that pamphlet.

Wesley had described faith as like growing a new set of spiritual eyes. It is by grace being given the perception of God and the things of God. When we have this faith, Wesley wrote, we experience a radical change that breaks sin, implants peace, and saves us.

But this talk of being saved by faith must have raised some objections. Where was the work of Christ in this faith and religion that Wesley was describing? The answer to this question lead to some of the more interesting passages in the entire pamphlet.

Wesley’s argument on this topic arises out of his discussion of assurance. In describing faith, he closely connects it with assurance, which makes sense as he defines faith in terms of Hebrews 11 — a confidence or evidence or conviction of things not seen. Having confidence in the love of God is the very definition of faith as Wesley describes it here.

But that confidence arises not, again, from some sort of intellectual assent to a doctrine or argument. The confidence arises as we experience the love of God. That love that we experience — Wesley will use the words know and feel — is the love of a forgiving and pardoning God. We know that God loves us because we have witnessed by faith the forgiveness of God.

Pardoning love is still at the root of all. He who was offended is now reconciled. … A confidence then in a pardoning God is essential to saving faith. The forgiveness of sins is one of the first of those things whereof faith is the evidence.

Wesley writes elsewhere of the atoning work of Christ and the death of Christ as the meritorious cause of our justification. Here, however, he contends for the experience of Christ’s forgiveness rather than the doctrine of it.

In some circles, the description of it all these concepts — faith, pardon, the nature of religion — appears to run like this. We hold a mental commitment that Christ died for us. This is called faith. Because of this faith, we appropriate the forgiveness of sins that Jesus accomplished on our behalf on the cross. This makes us new creatures. We strive to live as God’s people.

This is how I hear it working for Wesley, at least in this pamphlet. We are blind. We do not see God. Even if we are zealous for every outward thing of religion, inside we are dead and blind to God. As a consequence, we are ill at ease. We are anxious. We are not happy in God. We are sin plagued and sin sick. By the grace of God, our dead eyes are opened. Our deaf ears are unstopped. We come to see and hear what before was hidden from us by sin. Among the things that we witness are the forgiving and pardoning love of God through Jesus Christ. Because he loves us, we find our hearts filled with the love of God, spilling over and out to the love of every man, woman, and child. And as we abide in this love, we grow in holiness.

The notes Wesley plays are the same as most evangelical theology, but the arrangement and key are different.

At least, this is how I read his argument in this particular piece of writing. My reading may be off, or he may have later modified his own understanding, but I find his approach defies the easy formulas that I often see us trying to cram him into. This is why I keep reading him.

Guest blog: Untamed faith in English class

My daughter, JillAnn, asked if she could borrow a post on my blog to share something on her heart. I was only too happy to hand over the space.

First off, thank you to my dad for letting me steal some of his blog space. I’m John’s daughter and a junior at a small, southern liberal arts college. You may remember me by my alias, Christian Girl at College, under which I blogged my freshman year. I guess the blogging bug never goes away because when my academic and faith lives crashed together this week, my first instinct was to write. I had to riddle something out: what do you do when you’re obligated to overlook your Christian convictions?

In college, I’ve been exposed to different people and challenged by new ideas, which is exactly why I chose a liberal arts school in the first place. I fancy myself open-minded. So no one was more surprised than me at the email I wrote to my English professor last night.

A little background: I’m taking a class this semester that studies modernist British fiction. One of the required texts is Crash by JG Ballard, which you may know from the movie adaptation with Holly Hunter. The novel centers on car crash fetishists, and includes graphic depictions of sex and violence. I know that many people, including my professor, consider it a profound work of art. I don’t want to get into a debate over aesthetics, but to me, this book is degrading, desensitizing, and pornographic.

I believe whole-heartedly that God doesn’t want me to read this book. Let me be clear here: I am anti-censorship and never in a million years would I tell someone else that they can’t read a novel. I also don’t think sex is evil or wrong. It’s just that, in my opinion, Crash crossed the line. I felt emotionally and mentally violated just reading it. “Hear no evil, see no evil,” remember?

I had no idea what to do, how to respond. I am required by the course to read a book that I simply cannot read. I froze. I wasn’t prepared for my ideals and my aspirations to clash. I’ve never heard about this conflict in a sermon or a Bible study. Maybe that’s one more sign that the church has become too enmeshed with its surrounding culture. After all, if we agree on everything, there’s nothing to fight about. But Christ calls us to more complicated, more important living.

In my head, I know that. I know that we’re called to sacrifice anything and everything for Christ and this was hardly facing a lion in the arena, but how am I supposed to tell my professor that? I don’t want to play a “religion card.” I don’t want to fail the class and ruin my future!

It got me to thinking about way bigger theological thing-a-ma-jigs than one novel in one college class. We live in a secular world and a secular country – sorry, televangelists. And if we are living our faith as untamed as Christ calls us to live it, there will be times when our faith does not jive with the demands of that world. Sure, we’re supposed to be working for the kingdom to come, but in the moment? I mean, it’s just a little thing; I can let it slide this one time; I don’t want to make a scene.

Except that Jesus never let an opportunity slip by to transform his world. What if it would’ve caused too much trouble to talk to the woman at the well? What if the stakes were too high to save the adulteress? Radical change is the very foundation of the Christian life. That doesn’t always mean toppling oppressive regimes or exposing Foxconn or eradicating racism. Sometimes it’s the everyday choices about what TV shows you watch or who you eat with at lunch.

The end of my story is that the prof replied graciously, saying that he understood my concerns. It was my choice if I read Crash or if I attended class – though, thinking about it now, he didn’t say I wouldn’t be penalized. I split the difference; I didn’t read it, but I sat in class today and tried my best. Probably not the best solution. I guess we learn by doing.

Has your faith ever made trouble for you? How do you handle it when you’re called to disrupt the order?

Facing Pharaoh’s magicians

I’ve been reading through the Bible four chapters at a time since July 1. Although I am no longer going to attempt to write about it every day, I have been wading into Exodus the last few days, and it has stirred up some thoughts about the church and the world that I wanted to put out there for response and reactions.

In the confrontation with Pharaoh and the ten plagues, the text reports multiple times that Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate the “wonders” of God, which played some role in Pharaoh’s hard heartedness. He saw his people doing the same tricks as Moses and Aaron, and it took the fear of God out of him.

I am an English major, and so unlike John Wesley I often move quickly to allegorical or metaphorical readings of Scripture. The “plain reading” as Wesley would call it is not nearly as interesting. So, for instance, I am not really interested in whether Egyptians magicians could actually turn water into blood the way God did.

But I am alert to ways the stories serve as metaphors for our condition and spiritual life.

And so I wonder if part of the challenge the church encounters this day is that Pharaoh’s magicians are so good at replicating so many of the wonders of God. Is this, in part, why Jesus downplayed the important of signs and wonders in his ministry? Wonders could be explained away. Some of them could be duplicated. With time and critical scholarship they could be discounted. The magicians are very crafty when it comes to debunking the miracles of God.

And so, after the apostolic age, the power of God was not seen nearly so much in miracles (although I am inclined to agree with John Wesley that every new birth of a dead soul is a miracle), but in humble witness and testimony of believers one to another. It was not by spectacle that the church spread, but by something more ordinary.

Of course, the urge to spectacle never departs the church. We always have those who want to be like Moses and raise our staff to summon frogs and flies and hail.

But these are exceptions, and perhaps even aberrations. When the church relies too much on spectacle, it may be a sign of weakness or a loss of Christ. It is may be a sign of seeking to go back to Egypt.

These thoughts of mine are not well worked out. They began in margin notes as I have been reading Exodus the last few days. They likely say as much about my mood and mind as they do about Exodus, so, I share them with the warning that they may be little more than that.