A new bar needed?

“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead …” (From the Nicene Creed, UMH 880)

I preached on Sunday with a focus on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5: 9-10 about seeking to please Christ and being mindful of the fact that we will all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.

Someone mentioned to me later in the day that it was uncommon to hear the final judgement preached as an actual event as opposed to a metaphor.

The observation has me wondering how common it is for preachers of the gospel to downplay or side-step the clear biblical and creedal descriptions of a the judgement of Christ. It is one thing for us to argue among ourselves about whether Jesus will approve or condemn this or that behavior, but it is quite another thing — isn’t it — to deny that Jesus will judge at all.

It makes me wish that at our Annual Conferences and General Conference we would have a theological “bar” to match the physical one that we now use. At least in my conference, you must be seated inside the bar of the conference to vote on resolutions. I wish we could also have a bar that says you cannot offer petitions, speak up in debate, or vote if you will not publicly affirm the articles of the Nicene Creed (or our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith).

I don’t know how many — if any — clergy or laity in my own conference would have been barred from Annual Conference if they were required to affirm the Nicene Creed as non-metaphorical truth claims about God. But I don’t want the people deciding what we believe and what we should teach and who we should ordain to think the judgement of Christ is a metaphor. I want them to be awake to the fact that eternity is at stake in what we do.

The Methodist way of preaching

By 1751, John Wesley had become concerned about a new kind of preaching that was taking hold in some Methodist societies. The men who were preaching this new way called themselves “gospel” preachers. The preached only the promises of Christ and none of the law. In Wesley’s account, indeed, they even mocked the original style of Methodist preaching that was careful to preach both law and gospel as warranted by the state of the hearers.

In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” Wesley describes both the methods by which law and gospel were to be preached and decries the damaging effects of the gospel preaching. He points out that in several cities that once had thriving societies, the numbers had been seriously eroded by the gospel preachers. Without the starch of the law, Methodist zeal and discipline waned.

In contrast, Wesley highlighted the contrary example of a society in Yorkshire, which under the continued preaching of law and gospel had grown from 1,900 members to 3,000 even as other societies withered under pure gospel preaching.

Wesley described the Yorkshire preaching this way:

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore, live to God, till you live with him in glory. So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way. God grant that we never turn therefrom, to the right hand or the left.

I notice that in each of these statements the good news comes first. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him.” This is the way that Wesley said he would preach to established Christians, those who have already had an experience of conviction and justification. The law is preached here as a pattern for a life that bears the fruit of faith. To the unconverted, Wesley wrote earlier in the letter, he would counsel leading with law to break up the complacency of those who have not yet felt the true forgiveness of Christ.

As always, I’m struck in reading Wesley by how aware he was that the state of his audience should determine the shape of his preaching. This is not “felt needs” preaching. It is much more like a medical diagnosis. Wesley had a clear idea what spiritual health and wholeness looked like. He had strong opinions about the various maladies of the soul and the phases a person must pass through to be “cured.” His observations about the spiritual state of his hearers then shaped his approach in preaching and teaching.

The Methodist cure was not for everyone, of course. At the height of the Methodist movement, it accounted only for a small fraction of the population of England. Not even Wesley would have argued that non-Methodists were necessarily out of step with Christ. But for many people, the Methodist way was the true way to Christ.

Community without Christ

Ed Stetzer’s reflections after discovering that the son of progressive evangelical Tony Campolo has become an atheist chaplain contain several good points that are worth your time to read.

One of the one’s that caught my eye goes like this:

In this extremely informative and compelling talk Bart gave earlier this year to the SSA Annual Conference, he is quite clear that he embraced a Christian community, but not the Christian faith.

As parents, we need to work to ensure our children have a relationship with Jesus, not just a desire to be part of a loving community doing good. In other words, we need to ask, are we discipling or merely socializing our children in church?

One thing that has struck me about some the church talk I’ve been around since I started attending church on a regular basis is how much church is sold as a community. In some settings, this is so strongly emphasized that it can feel as if the community is more important that Jesus Christ himself.

John Wesley wrote that church is a body of believers who gather first to save their own souls, second to help each other in working out their own salvation, and third to roll back the kingdom of Satan and set up the kingdom of Christ. Community serves these ends and it may be the final result of these efforts, but community itself is not the point of it all.

It may just be the introvert in me speaking, but I do think we get that out of whack at times.