Where our story begins

Christianity starts with the assertion that there is something deeply wrong with the world. It starts with the observation that the world is not as it should be and the conviction that what is wrong is not some minor flaw that can be easily removed by just a bit more human effort. Christianity tells the story of the world as the Bible does: It is a good creation that is fallen.

If you do not accept that story, then there is little in Christianity that makes sense. If you think the world is basically good and getting better all the time, then it does not need a savior and we do not need Jesus. If you think that the only problem in the world is that we have not yet tried hard enough or discovered the right tools, then you will not believe that the solution to every problem has already been given to us.

Christians tell the story this way. God created all that is and gave us dominion within his good creation. And God gave us the free choice to live in harmony with and obedience to his just, perfect, and loving commands. We rejected these gifts. We broke the world. We ushered in death and all the evils that follow in its train. And as the world shattered, we were shattered down to the very deepest depths of our heart and soul.

Salvation is nothing less than a restoration — a recreation — in the life of a person and the entire world of the joy, peace, harmony, and love that God first instilled in us. It is a gift and work of God, but one we must both accept and nurture within ourselves, for the old impulses die hard.

A preacher named John Wesley believed this and taught it to anyone who would receive it. As United Methodists — but I would argue as Christians — this is what we teach as well.

No wonder preachers don’t like hell

In Part II of his “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley challenges his fellow clergy to not be slack in their calling. He scolds the clergyman who sees no greater burden in his office than to preach once or twice a week and refuses the hard, continual work of shepherding the flock into spiritual growth and maturity.

He challenges them and us with a series of questions for clergy.

Have I not said, ‘Peace, peace, when there was no peace?’ How many are they also that do this? who do not study to speak what is true, especially to the rich and great, so much as what is pleasing? who flatter honourable sinners, instead of telling them plain, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ O, what account have you to make, if there be a God that judgeth the earth? … How great will your damnation be, who destroy souls instead of saving them!

Reading these lines from Wesley, I understand the appeal of those forms of theology that do away with the idea of eternal judgment and hell. Such theologies are soothing to people but even more are they soothing to pastors who no longer must carry the burden of risking their own souls if they neglect their work or turn aside when they see sinners rejoicing in their sins.

Wesley’s words certainly sting me today as I read them and consider my own answers.

What holds us back?

In his sermon, “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley considers some ways people hold themselves back from seeking the forgiveness of God.

The first mistake is to believe that before we can be forgiven we must first do certain things. We must first conquer sin or break off from every evil work. We must do good to all our neighbors. We must first go to church or hear more sermons or take the Lord’s Supper.

To this, Wesley says, “First believe!” and then you will find the power to do.

The second mistake is to harbor the thought in our heart that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. To this Wesley responds that not one of us is good enough to deserve acceptance by God, but that should be no barrier because we are invited into the cleansing waters. “Then delay not,” Wesley says. “The fountain is open.”

The third mistake that hinders us from seeking the forgiveness of God is the idea that we are not sufficiently wracked by the pain of our own sins. We are not contrite enough, so therefore we are not ready to be pardoned.  Wesley responds that we should be more contrite than we are, more aware of our own deep sinfulness, but we should not let that delay us.

It may be, God will make thee so, not before thou believest, but by believing. It may be, thou wilt not weep much till thou lovest much because thou hast had much forgiven. In the mean time, look unto Jesus. Behold how he loveth thee! What could he have done more for thee which he hath not done?

These are all words of spiritual counsel to those who are mindful that they are in need of pardon and reconciliation with God. They are not words offered to those who blissfully go along as if all were well.

These three hindering notions — that we must do certain things, that we must achieve certain degrees of holiness, or that we must feel certain things before we can find pardon in Jesus Christ — are familiar to me. I think Wesley is perceptive about the ways we talk ourselves out of seeking what is freely offered.

Can you think of other ways people who know they need redemption hold themselves back from seeking pardon, from faith in Christ?