The pitfall of the particular

It is a blessing to be a preacher in a time when many churches stream their worship services and post videos of their sermons. I find it helpful as a preacher to tune to 3-5 other sermons each week and watch and listen for things that I can incorporate to my own practice of preaching. There is a lot out there to appreciate.

But I’ve also been reminded of something well known in the church for centuries. The texts in the Bible are meant to be heard within the context of the whole Bible and within the context of an overarching theological framework. John Wesley called this “the analogy of faith.” The idea here is that although the Bible has many forms of writing and many different parts, what it reveals to us about God is not contradictory with itself.

In other words, when we interpret a particular text from the Bible, the lessons and principles we take from the text should not contradict the overall doctrinal commitments we take from our holistic reading of the entire Bible. This use of the whole to help us understand the particular is something we do all the time.

Imagine you are watching a movie. Over the course of the movie, you come to know a lot about the main character, say, perhaps, that it is a man who is clever and brave and has a strong moral compass. Now, suppose you come to a scene where this man is acting very differently. The natural response here is to suppose that something unique to the scene is causing him to respond in a certain way but that his basic character has not changed. This particular moment in the wider story does not cause us to change what we know about the character, but rather what we know about the character causes us to ask why he is acting in a way we do not expect in that particular scene.

In a rough way, that is what it means to say we let the whole Bible help us understand the particular parts of it. Sometimes, though, we preachers can get that backwards.

An example from a few years ago that is still controversial within United Methodism would be when one of our active bishops used the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. In this message, the bishop took the story to say that Jesus was still learning and needed to be taught by the woman he encountered about the worth of all human beings and his role in the world.

By reading only that story, with no theological convictions about Jesus, you could easily come to that conclusion. But as Christians and as Methodists we have theological commitments about Jesus. As pastors we have not only been taught these things, but we have also taken vows to uphold them.

We believe the Bible reveals that Jesus Christ was the incarnate Word, the second person of the Trinity, who is infinite in power, wisdom, and goodness. In his humanity, Jesus was subject to pain and death, but his full humanity in no way eliminated his attributes as God.

The stories about God in the Bible have to be read in light of what the Bible as a whole teaches us about God.

Everything I’ve written here is not universally accepted by preachers, however. For instance, I suspect our bishop in the case above was influenced by theological commitments that emphasize the experience of women to interpret isolated texts and seek to bracket off wider doctrinal commitments in the engagement with isolated stories. There are similar interpretive strategies that foreground people marginalized in our society. There are also theological frameworks that reject some of our basic doctrinal commitments — such as the idea that God is infinite in wisdom.

All of these ways of reading Scripture may lead to interesting results, but as United Methodists, we should be careful to preserve the doctrinal core of our faith. When we interpret stories in ways that contradict what we believe to be true about God, then we are not honoring God or our vows as clergy, and we mislead the people entrusted to our care as pastors.

This last point is the one that concerns me the most. We have a lot of really talented and skillful preachers in the UMC. With passion and eloquence, they can move congregations. If the preaching itself is not grounded and anchored by what we as a church believe about God, a great many of the laity in our congregations will not be able to spot that. When preachers go outside the boundaries of our shared doctrinal commitments, they lead the laity into a false understanding of God, which is a dangerous thing for both those who hear and those who preach.

As preachers, we should do all that we can to preach faithfully and preach the faith of the church, to which we have been called to serve.

Methodist preaching is Spirit filled

This is the last of four posts trying to identify that makes Methodist preaching Methodist. In my mind, I have been narrowing the focus as I have gone, reducing the overlap at each step with other Christian traditions. In the widest claim, I wrote that Methodist preaching is orthodox. Then I wrote that it is also evangelical, marking it as distinct from all those forms of orthodox Christian preaching that do not place as much emphasis on a high view of biblical authority, the importance of the cross and conversion, and the translation of faith into action. Next, I distinguished Methodist preaching from Calvinistic strains of evangelicalism by pointing to the Arminian commitments that inform our preaching. In this post, finally, I assert hat the final distinctive of Methodist preaching is our powerful expectation that the Holy Spirit will bring to completion what begins when we are justified by grace.

I will discuss two examples of what we preach with regard to the Holy Spirit. First, we believe and preach that the Holy Spirit gives believers an assurance of their salvation in Christ. Second, we believe that the Holy Spirit will transform us into the image of Christ, provided we follow his leading in the work of grace.

Blessed Assurance

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Christian who was struggling with the fact that she had never had a Paul on the road to Damascus conversion. She remembered being led to pray a version of the sinner’s prayer as a child and young person, more than once. But she did not remember any experience of change. Was something missing, she wondered.

In the hit streaming show The Chosen there is a powerful example of the conversion experience told through an extra biblical embellishment of the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary has a powerful, redeeming, and liberating encounter with Jesus, who drives out the demons within her. Later, when she is recounting what happened, she is at a loss to explain it. She says, “I was one way, and now I am completely different. And in between, there was him.” *

This is what many people feel they lack in their Christian experience. We don’t often feel “completely different” after praying for Jesus to be our Savior and Lord. And we sometimes wonder if we did something wrong or if we are really saved.

We Methodists — along with many other Christians — believe that God does not want us to wonder such things. Indeed, we believe that the Holy Spirit longs to give us the assurance of our salvation that so many long for. One of our great hymn writers, Fanny Crosby, wrote one of our most popular hymns about this very thing.

Methodist preaching is grounded in the conviction that the Holy Spirit is active and present and moving. He speaks to our spirit that we are children of God. We do not have to limp along wondering if we are saved. We can know it.

Prior to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, a spiritual mentor asked him this simple question: “Do you know you are saved?” Wesley stumbled and fumbled around. He certainly hoped he was. He certainly had tried to live as if he was. He was intelligent, dedicated, and as hard a worker as the church could ever ask for, but faced with a simple question he was brought up short.

His mentor told him that he could know he was saved. He could have the assurance of his salvation. He did not have to wonder and stumble. Not long afterward, Wesley was given that assurance, and Methodist preachers have to this day continued to preach what we sing: Assurance is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who is active and ready to fill you with his presence.

This, I know, is not what we often think about when we write about Spirit-filled preaching. We usually mean by that signs and wonders and energetic and ecstatic experiences. We think of healing and people being slain in the Spirit and speaking in tongues. And none of these should be outside the bounds of our expectation as Methodists. The Holy Spirit is alive and active, and he will do what he will.

But these are not the essential hallmarks of the Spirit-filled preaching of Methodists. They are outward signs of the inner work of the Holy Spirit, work that can go on amid shouting and fire or in the quiet of a Bible study small group gathering. The essential thing is that Spirit gives you the assurance of your salvation and then leads you to work out the full sanctification of your soul. Methodist preaching should help people to understand that this gift is being offered to them by God. It should help them seek it. It should help them sing it.

In the conversation I had with the woman who was wondering if she had missed something in her conversion, I observed that her faith in Jesus seemed very solid to me. I asked her how that came to be. She told me about a summer when she came to have this firm sense of Jesus’ love and the peace she had in trusting in him. It was that summer that she found the unshakeable certainty of the love of Jesus.

I smiled when she recounted this story and told her she was more Methodist than she knew. That assurance of her salvation and the dissolving of her doubt was her Aldersgate. It is something the Holy Spirit will do for all believers, and something Methodist preachers should encourage Christians to seek, anticipate, and expect.

Going on to Perfection

The most controversial convictions of John Wesley’s teachings was a natural extension of his insistence that all the commands of God in Scripture are “covered promises.” In other words, God never commands us to do a thing that he will not also give us the grace to do. So, when God calls us to be as merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful, this is not an impossible hurdle for us to clear. It is a promise that if we seek it, God will give us the grace to become truly merciful.

Likewise, when God calls us to love God with all our soul, to love each other, to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus, he is also promising to work within us by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the sanctifying grace of God to become what he commands us to be.

In some Christian traditions, the Sermon on the Mount is taught as a tool God uses to crush our self-righteousness. We hear the commands of Christ in the sermon and — if we are honest — acknowledge that we are never going to be that good and so are driven to seek forgiveness for the sinful nature that we are powerless to rise above.

Methodists also believe that we are powerless, on our own, to rise above our sinful nature. But we believe that what is impossible for us is possible for God. When Jesus calls us to love perfectly and completely, he is also offering us the grace to do so, if we lean into that grace and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit within us. We will never be free of temptation, but in Jesus Christ we have the power to overcome what once held us fast in chains.

Methodist preaching gave rise to the holiness movements and pentecostalism precisely because it took on faith the idea that God really does intend to restore us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Spirit is active right now and the grace of God is capable of doing within us what we would never be able to do on our own.

When I attend non-Methodist churches, I sometimes hear some of our hymns sung in worship. I always take a small bit of joy that our gift to the church universal is music. It can also be a time that reminds me of how we Methodists do have our own place within the wider church. I recall a non-Methodist worship service that concluded with the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Exceling,” but it changed the words of the final verse. In that verse, we speak of God bring us into the full image of Christ, in which we were first made. It is a joyous verse, but one that must have rubbed our brothers and sisters in a related tradition as fanciful or just plain wrong. I don’t remember exactly the words that they sang that day, but I will conclude this post with the words as they appear in our hymnal, a confident plea that God do what he has promised he will do with us.

Finish then, thy new creation,
Pure and spotless, let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory
Til in heaven we take place,
Til we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

* We may quibble that a scene about an exorcism is not exactly an good example of what happens in our conversion, the line from that show has powerful resonance in evangelical imagination, so much so that this one scene has become the inspiration for a song by a popular Christian recording artist.

Helping Christians be better Christians

Recently, I picked up a small book about Jacob Arminius‘ theology of election and his criticism of predestination. The strain of Reformed Protestant theology advocated by Arminius in the 17th century would have deep influence on the development of Methodism.

One hallmark of Arminius’ theology is an appreciation for the practical aspects of theology. Theology is not meant to be a series of abstract ideas. It is meant to have practical application and impact. The author of my book puts it this way:

Genuine theological knowledge (harkening back to St. Augustine) was a habitus, a way of thinking that could not be separated from a way of living. It touched the heart, enlightened the mind, and made one charitable … Arminius understood well that doctrine (doctina) had connotational roots in the history of the church as religious teaching that enables one to be a good Christian.

Christian doctrine exists to help Christians be better Christians. This idea is something Methodists have little difficulty affirming. I find it helpful to realize that this conviction locates us with a grand tradition of the church catholic that can be traced back to Augustine and the early church fathers.

For me as a pastor, then, the question is this: Am I teaching and preaching in ways that are not merely correct but also helpful to Christians seeking to live out their faith?