What one choice lies at the core of Methodism?

In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley traces his own thinking about holiness and spiritual life over the course of his ministry.

He writes that in 1725 he became convinced that our lives are lived in the light of a single choice. From moment to moment we either live as a sacrifice to God or we live as a sacrifice to the devil. There is no third option or middle ground or gray zone.

As I recall, Wesley elsewhere does acknowledge the existence of matters of indifference. God does not care, for instance, if you prefer grape or strawberry jelly on your toast.

But, in the end, Wesley insists, our lives are either turned toward God or away from God. He does not recognize the vast space we carve out under the name “my time.” For Wesley, time dedicated to our own inclinations is time given over to the devil.

Yes, there is a strongly pessimistic view of human nature at the very core of Wesleyan theology. John Wesley was no romantic.

When I ponder this, I sense in my self a resistance. I have lived my whole life in a culture that tells me to trust myself and lifts up as the authentic life not one lived as a sacrifice to God but one lived in harmony with my own inner impulses. The very first step, the first conviction, of Wesley’s theology is at odds with the animating spirit of the culture in which I have lived my whole life.

And so, I find myself forced to decide whether I share Wesley’s conviction. Is my life at this very moment being lived either in darkness or in light, with no room for any option between these two? Is doing my own thing the devil’s invitation?

The biblical place my mind goes to here is Revelation and the great judgment. I notice that there is only one choice: lake of fire or life.

I also recall one of my favorite verses, 1 John 5: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

It feels like an impossible standard. I despair over being able to reach it and understand why Wesley’s contemporaries accused him of making the standard of true Christianity to high for people to attain.

The great purity of intention and action held out as necessary seems unreachable because it is. Wesley would teach over and over that we can only have the kind of holiness he sought by the grace of God, which we must seek and expect.

And so I find myself with my Bible in my hand wanting the chance to talk with Rev. Wesley of 1725. Show me how this conviction came to take hold of your heart do firmly. I want to see whether my heart beats in a similar manner.

What one choice lies at the core of Methodism?

It made me say ‘whoa’

From John Wesley’s journal August 10, 1788:

I was engaged in a very unpleasing work, the discharge of an old servant. She had been my housekeeper at West-Street for many years, and was one of the best housekeepers I had had there; but her husband was so notorious a drunkard, that I could not keep them in the house any longer. She received her dismission in an excellent spirit, praying God to bless us all.

Of all the things I’ve read in Wesley’s journals and other works, this is one of the hardest ones for me to swallow. To put this woman and her husband out of his house must surely have meant she would soon be near starvation. Her notorious drunkard husband surely would not be caring for her or earning money to buy them food. I infer from the wording that Wesley had tried to avoid taking this step for a time.

This summer, I’ve seen up close in CPE the carnage inflicted on families by drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve seen families forced to say to their sons and daughters that they cannot come home if they can’t get clean. So, I understand this aspect of it.

The short entry in Wesley’s journal reminds me that discipleship in the flesh is often not nearly so sanitary as the intellectual exercises in which bloggers, authors, and scholars so often engage.

It made me say ‘whoa’

More than faith, hope & love

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:3, NIV)

I’m not sure why this caught my attention recently. I noticed the 1 Corinthians 13 triad of faith, hope, and love while reading 1 Thessalonians. And then I saw how Paul here connected each one with an outcome. Faith produces work. Love prompts labor. Hope inspires endurance. Here is a portrait of the church that Paul celebrates.

Faith, hope, and love are all great and wonderful. But isn’t Paul here pointing out the true indications of these three things? Show me your faith separate from works. Show me your love that does not result in labor. Tell me of your hope that does not give you the endurance to walk through trials. You cannot. If you have not endurance, then your hope is fragile. If you do not labor then you do not love. If you do no work, you have no true faith.

Paul pairs these terms in offering praise, but heard rightly they are a challenge to us as Christians.

More than faith, hope & love

Christ, doctrine, & holiness

Joel Watts writes that matters of sexuality are not about Christ or doctrine, but holiness.

For me, the via media focuses on Christ. As a subset of this, it focuses on orthodox doctrines of the Church. For most of us, the issue of homosexuality is not a doctrinal matter (i.e., Trinity, baptism, episcopal authority) but is a matter (in Wesleyan terms) of holiness. That is why I can focus on episcopal authority even while arguing for inclusion. I can focus on orthodoxy, hold to prima scripture, and attempt to be a part of the Great Tradition while arguing for inclusion.

The way his words flow here, it reads to me as if he is saying orthodox doctrine is “a subset” of a focus on Christ but that holiness is not. Perhaps he is merely saying holiness is a different subset of the focus on Christ. Or maybe he is saying holiness is a subset of doctrine. I’m not entirely sure.

In any event, he has me puzzling a bit about the relationship between doctrine and holiness. I’ve always taken holiness — which is another word for sanctification which for Wesley is another word for salvation — to be itself part of the doctrine of the Christian Church. Holiness is what it means to live out our baptismal vows. It is what it means to be saved.

I don’t see how we can disagree about what it means to be holy and say we agree on the doctrines of justification and sanctification, for instance. Furthermore, if pressed, I’d argue that holiness comes before doctrine.

First, we focus on Christ. In this focus, what we notice overwhelmingly is his holiness. It is only after this that we begin to develop the superstructure of doctrine that gives shape and stability to our beliefs and practices. The Church was the church when all it had before it was the holiness of Christ. It did not have to wait for Nicea to become the church. All we needed was Christ and his holiness.

This is why questions about food laws and circumcision were existential issues for the church. They cut to the meaning of holiness.

Which is all a way of saying that I find matters of holiness more important than doctrine when it comes to Christian unity. And I think Wesley would agree.

This has little to do with the main point that Watts was trying to make about United Methodism and schism and so on, but it his post got my gears moving.

When it comes to questions of doctrine vs. questions of holiness, which do you think is more crucial for the unity of the church and the life of the Christian?

Christ, doctrine, & holiness

No holiness, no glory

From John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I”:

I not only allow, but vehemently contend, that none shall enter into glory who is not holy on earth, as well as in heart, as “in all manner of conversation.” I cry aloud, “Let all that have believed, be careful to maintain good works;” and “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from all iniquity.” I exhort even those who are conscious they do not believe: “Cease to do evil, learn to do well: The kingdom of heaven is at hand;” therefore, “repent, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”

Wesley offered these words as defense against the charge that his preaching of justification by faith alone undermined good works. I think most people who read my blog probably hear his words with a degree of resistance to the first line. We are not comfortable — for the most part — with the assertion that those who are not entirely holy will not enter into glory. It smacks of the most hated thing among us — exclusion.

And so, it is important for Methodists of all stripes to come to terms with Wesley on this point. We like to trot him out to reinforce our messages about love and works of mercy. But we tend to keep him in the basement when he talks about holiness.

Talking about being a Methodist or quoting John Wesley without understanding the central importance of holiness — complete and total holiness — to his theology is a bit like saying you are playing the game of baseball but removing home plate from the field. You can describe a lot of the action that goes on, but the point of the whole enterprise has been removed.

And this is why some of us are so vexed by what appears to be a cavalier attitude about questions regarding the meaning of holiness. People offer proposals to rewrite our understanding of Christian morality but reject all questions about what those proposals mean for closely related questions of Christian holiness. If we believe with Wesley that holiness of heart and life is essential to salvation, then we have to understand what holiness is and does and looks like.

At least, some of us feel that to be true.

No holiness, no glory

Everything?

By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. (2 Peter 1:3, CEB)

The last couple of days I have been deeply challenged by this verse.

Do we believe — do I believe in the sense of deep trust — that the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness? Everything?

Everything?