Here comes the judge

How a sinner may be justified before God, the Lord and Judge of all, is a question of no common importance to every child of man. It contains the foundation of all our hope, inasmuch as while we are at enmity with God, there can be no true peace, no solid joy, either in time or in eternity.

— John Wesley, “Justification by Faith

I was preaching this morning from Mark 8:38, where Jesus warns that if we are ashamed of him during our time on Earth, he will be ashamed of us when he comes in glory. During my preparation during the week and in the sermon itself, I was deeply aware of the stark moment that lies before us all.

It is something we gloss over in the Apostles’ Creed when we say “he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

We breeze right past it.

He will come to judge.

It is what Paul writes about in Romans 14. It is preached over and over again in Acts. It is a core truth of Christianity that Jesus Christ will judge each and every one of us. We will stand before him, and there will be one of two verdicts offered — the Bible suggests no third or middle way here. It will either be “well done my faithful servant” or “I never knew you.”

In much of the church, if this is acknowledged at all, it is received with the assurance that we are innocent until proven guilty. The benefit of the doubt is on our side, and if we are not a gross and extravagant sinner — which is to say if we are good at covering up and putting up a good front — we expect to get a gold star when the Book of Life is read.

But this is not Christianity.

Our faith begins with the understanding that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are guilty before God. Yes, God created us and loves us, but that truth only deepens our guilt. We have been given every blessing and the greatest gift imaginable — life itself — and we have squandered that gift like the prodigal son.

The day of judgment comes. The judge approaches.

To write such things or to preach such things is to be held up as a “fire and brimstone” preacher — a term that is never ever used as a term of praise. But how can we recite our creeds or read our bibles and not have our attention fixed on this truth?

What sorrow awaits you who say, “If only the day of the Lord were here!” You have no idea what you are wishing for. That day will bring darkness, not light. In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion — only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he leans his hand against a wall in his house — and he’s bitten by a snake. Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless, without a ray of joy or hope. (Amos 5:18-20)

Aiming for heaven?

I get the feeling at times that the church tries to be more than it is and tries to do more than it reasonably can do. It feels at times that we don’t know why we exist, and so we grab on to virtually anything that justifies our existence.

John Wesley — whatever his faults — did not suffer this problem. He saw the purpose of the church as getting people to heaven. He sums this attitude up no where better than in the preface to his sermons when he discusses his own attitude toward the Bible.

I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.

Elsewhere he wrote more directly about the church, but the spirit was the same. The point of what we do is to land people in heaven.* This was Wesley’s passion and purpose for his entire ministry.

And I wonder what would change in the UMC if that was our goal. What if our mission statement was something like this: The mission of the United Methodist Church is to get people into heaven?

I have to confess that it feels like a goal with a great deal more clarity to it than “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” We won’t know if we have met the goal in this life, but the goal feels like the kind of thing that could actually organize our work in a way that our current mission statement does not.


* I am aware that the idea of heaven as the goal rather than the new heaven and earth is a debated point. I find the term “heaven” a convenient place holder for whatever we understand to be the end of all things.

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Dead, not sick

Since I was thinking about George Whitefield the other day, I went back and read the sermon John Wesley delivered in 1770 upon Whitefield’s death.

In the sermon, he summarized Whitefield’s fundamental point in all preaching as this:

“Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man;” and “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.” With this point, he and his friends at Oxford, the original Methodists, so called, set out. Their grand principle was, There is no power (by nature) and no merit in man. They insisted, all power to think, speak, or act aright, is in and from the Spirit of Christ; and all merit is (not in man, how high soever in grace, but merely) in the blood of Christ. So he and they taught: There is no power in man, till it is given him from above, to do one good work, to speak one good word, or to form one good desire.

If it not clear from the text, Wesley was one of those original Methodists. He is writing and speaking about his own doctrine here as much as Whitefield’s. If we miss this point about Wesley’s doctrine, we misunderstand the nature and power of preventing grace. For Wesley – just as for the Calvinist Whitefield – human beings are devoid of any power or desire to do good. We are fallen utterly, and left to our own devices are rude, selfish, and brutal.

But Wesley always insisted that there is no such thing as a human being totally devoid of grace. In his sermon “On Conscience” he explains that no human being we ever meet is in an entirely graceless state because preventing grace (what we United Methodists call prevenient grace) has been poured out already. We recognize it when we urge each other to listen to our conscience. What we sometimes think of as that universal human intuition about right and wrong is – according to Wesley – God’s grace tutoring us toward holiness.

But – and this cannot be emphasized enough as we read Wesley today – preventing grace is not saving grace. It lures and draws us toward God, but it is not itself grace that will save us. In other words, being a person who is guided by conscience or who is a “good person” by the world’s standards is not a sign of being right with God.

Indeed, in his sermon on Whitefield’s death, Wesley overturns one of the most common ways we like to talk about church, a turn of phrase we use, perhaps, because we want to think that all people are more or less good people and just need some support to live upright and holy lives.

Here is how Wesley put it:

For it is not enough to say all men are sick of sin: No, we all are “dead in trespasses and sins.” It follows that all the children of men are, “by nature, children of wrath.” We are all “guilty before God,” liable to death temporal and eternal.

Church is not a hospital for sinners, Wesley might say, but a slaughterhouse for the old Adam. We are not basically healthy people who just need to be cared for and nurtured back to full health. We are dead people, spiritual corpses, in need of a miracle.

This is the message George Whitefield preached, according to his spiritual friend John Wesley. It is the message John Wesley himself preached, despite our attempts to soften the edges of his doctrine. Is it or will it be the doctrine that we preach?

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.

Not as my will

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

I want to say a word in favor of obedience.

I’ve heard people say that there is freedom in obedience. It never really made sense to me.

I think it makes more sense today.

Being obedient to what you understand to be the will of God — after prayer, discernment, and struggle — does free your soul.

It does not make your life simple. It does not solve all your problems. It does not protect you from pain. But to hold the cup in your hands and say, “I will drink it,” well, it can leave you standing in the bathroom, where you hope none of your co-workers can hear you, crying tears of relief.