The sermon Wesley did not preach

If I understand the story properly, John Wesley never preached his sermon “True Christianity Defended.”

The manuscript of the sermon was found crumpled up among his papers after he died. I believe Methodist historian Richard Heitzenrater has argued that this was the sermon he planned to give at Oxford on the day he preached “The Almost Christian.” Some friends of his, however, talked him out of preaching “True Christianity Defended,” as it called out many of his fellow ministers — some by name — for corrupting the gospel and undermining the church by their preaching. Relenting to their counsel, he wrote and preached the better known sermon, which Methodists and United Methodists have regarded as a standard of doctrine for close to 300 years.

Even though it was not preached, “True Christianity Defended” does speak a challenging word to us still today. For instance, think of our common recitation of Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules — Do No Harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God — as you read what Wesley wrote about the nature of true holiness:

[M]any write and preach as if Christian holiness, or religion, were a purely negative thing; as if, not to curse or swear, not to speak or do evil, was religion enough to entitle a man to heaven! How many, if they go further than this, describe it as only an outward thing; as if it consisted chiefly, if not wholly, in doing good, (as it is called,) and using the means of grace! Or, should they go a little farther still, yet what do they add to this poor account of religion? Why, perhaps, that a man should be orthodox in his opinions, and have a zeal for the Constitution of the Church and state. And this is all: this is all the religion they can allow without degenerating into enthusiasm! So true it is, that the faith of a devil, and the life of a Heathen, make up what most men call a good Christian!

Do you hear him calling us out for making it sound as if the sum of Christianity is to do no harm, do good, and use the means of grace offered in worship, Scripture, and prayer?

Wesley was troubled — you might say outraged — by a dead formalism that he saw widely practiced as if it were true Christianity. What he argued for — throughout his life — was a religion that changed us from inside out. “Holiness of heart and life” was the phrase he used to describe the marks of true Christianity. This holiness did not consist of outward acts or restraint from evil, but in an actual transformation of our nature and heart. To be holy is to be a new creature, with a heart that is cleansed from all evil and a life that is animated by love of God and neighbor. Christianity, Wesley preached and taught, is an inward change of our very being.

Now, this inner change does lead to outward change. It is true that a person who is going on to perfection will refrain from all harm, will do good, and will be eager to worship God, pray, and read the Bible. But we err greatly, Wesley argued, if we mistake these outward things for the real thing.

In his sermon, he put it this way:

[T]he absence of the form [of Christianity] signifies much. It infallibly proves the absence of the power. For though the form may be without the power, yet the power cannot be without the form. Outward religion may be where inward is not; but if there is none without, there can be none within.

In other words, you can look like a Christian on the outside but not be one on the inside, but you cannot live like a heathen on the outside and truly be a Christian on the inside.

Although Wesley crumpled that sermon up, the spirit of it lived on throughout his ministry and challenges us still today. Do we preach a gospel of inward and outward holiness or a gospel of mere outward appearances?

Pray like Christians, live like heathens

Should Christians live differently than non-Christians?

Even in my limited role as a part-time local pastor, I come across this question quite often. The question is not about whether Christians should be drug dealers or murderers but whether they should be typical Americans. Should our lives, interests, entertainments, and ambitions look pretty much like everyone else’s or should following Christ change more about our lives than what we do on Sunday morning? The most frequent way I hear this question emerge is in the unsettled voices of members of the church who wonder if it is — after all — a problem to love expensive luxuries or whether God will pardon them for lavish vacations or days spent in idleness while other humans live in misery and constant suffering.

These are not new questions. William Law wrote an influential book in the 18th century that gives a decisive answer. Here is a representative excerpt:

You may see them different from other people, so far as times and places of prayer, but generally like the rest of the world in all the other parts of their lives: that is, adding Christian devotion to a Heathen life. … they who add devotion to such a life, must be said to pray as Christians, but live as Heathens.

Law was hugely influential on the young John Wesley, whose sermon “The Almost Christian” makes the very distinction Law does between living according to the general morality of the world and practicing real Christianity. And so, these pastoral questions also raise questions about our very notion of what it means to be a Christian in the United Methodist tradition.

In the days of Law and Wesley, critics found their approach to border on lunacy. It was too much to expect men and women to forgo the pleasures of this world simply because their fellow creatures suffered. The idea of such a “serious” approach to life seemed to them to be morbid and joyless. Isn’t it okay for a man to gamble a bit on Friday night and buy a sports car in his forties so long as he shows up for church on Sunday and puts his check in the offering plate?

As a pastor, the great temptation is to soothe the worry behind such questions. “Of course, God wants you to enjoy your life. Just try to be good and do good most of the time. It is okay.”

Law argues that such answers and questions miss the entire point. What we need, he writes, is to reframe our whole point of view. The question is not what God will pardon or forgive, but what will God honor. The Christian seeks to please God in all aspects of life, and so the questions that we often ask are turned on their heads.

He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praiseworthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether they are appointed for the gaining of His favour? He does not inquire, whether it be pardonable to hoard up money, to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and to gild our chariots, whilst the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner, want to be relieved; but he asks, whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them; because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for aught we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.

The question that Law poses strikes hard: Do we intend to please God?

The question exposes for me the misguided mindset with which we often approach our faith. We often view religion as another product or service that we buy. Here is a little dose of relief from anxiety about death. Here is a lovely gathering to celebrate a wedding. Here is some uplifting music and a pretty little talk by a pastor on Sunday morning. We want these things, but we want them with as little cost as possible. God is a merchant peddling some wares and we want to strike as good a deal as we can for what he offers.

Law — and Wesley after him — argue that this attitude not only misses the point but falls outside the bounds of actual Christianity. It is heathenism dressed up for Sunday morning.

Honor God in all things, they would say. Seek first the kingdom. Or they might quote our Lord and Savior:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the mark of becoming a Christian is to be able to hear the Bible read and not react with anger or defensiveness or evasion. In our day as in Law’s, we are much in need of God’s grace if we would become not just praying heathens but altogether Christians.

Waiting for Tatooine

“Are you going on to perfection?” A Wesleyan question.

It is a question, though, that makes an assumption, namely that we are not there yet. While we desire, long for, and strive to be made perfect in love, we must admit that if we are still going on, we have not arrived.

This makes pastoral work a messy thing because we so rarely meet anyone — including that clergy person in the mirror — who has leaned fully on the power Christ gives us to conquer sin. We are constantly greeted with the question of how best to nurture further growth. Do we place our eye on the weeds or the wheat in the life of the person before us? Again, I ask this question about myself as well as others.

In John Wesley’s sermon “The Repentance of Believers,” he describes the state of the soul of those who have been justified but are still going on to perfection.

[A] deep conviction that we are not yet whole; that our hearts are not fully purified; that there is yet in us a “carnal mind,” which is still in its nature “enmity against God;” that a whole body of sin remains in our heart, weakened indeed, but not destroyed; shows, beyond all possibility of doubt, the absolute necessity of a farther change. We allow, that at the very moment of justification, we are born again: In that instant we experience that inward change from “darkness into marvellous light;” from the image of the brute and the devil, into the image of God; from the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind which was in Christ Jesus. But are we then entirely changed? Are we wholly transformed into the image of him that created us? Far from it: we still retain a depth of sin; and it is the consciousness of this which constrains us to groan, for a full deliverance, to him that is mighty to save.

Wesley urged Methodists to attend closely to the “inbred monster’s face” within. He warns that we not forget that nothing in our worthiness led Christ to shed his blood for us, and nothing in our power can overcome the darkness that still lingers within. It is only obedience to and trust in Christ that will move us along the way.

And so, as a United Methodist pastor, I find myself wondering how to live this doctrine out in the midst of the messy not-yet-there church in which I serve.

I wonder — and am convicted by the thought — whether I have failed as a pastor to describe what “there” looks like. Have the outlines of holiness been drawn by me with enough clarity that people can see and feel for themselves the gap between where we are and where God promises to lead us? (Is that why Hell is so much easier to describe? We have lots of at-hand reference points to help us imagine Hell. We have so few to help us anticipate heaven.)

I was talking the other day with someone who — like me — is excited about the upcoming release of the new Star Wars movie. We had both seen a video about the movie that was released at a comic convention. What we shared was how excited and eager we were for the release date to arrive. It makes you ache to have to wait for it arrive. Take our money, now, we joked.

Do we ever, ever, ever get close to describing the future God has in store for us with enough clarity to make us ache that way at the gap between the world to come and the one that is?

Unlike waiting for a movie release date, of course, the gap we live in is not just about time. We do wait. But we also know we are not ready for the day to arrive. It is like we are movie fans who have not yet grown ears or whose eyes cannot see the images on the screen. And even more than that. There is a gap within our hearts. Wesley’s inbred monster whispers to us that we should not even long for such a day to arrive. It is an illusion or the mirage conjured up by people who want to oppress or stifle us. The movie studio is just in it for the merchandising and the money, after all. The church is just about power.

How do you reach people in such a world? How do you sort through the messiness of pilgrims who still have far to go? What do you do with those who would rather stay in Egypt than imagine Israel? And yes, you are sometimes, like Aaron, among the ringleaders.