Now is the time to ask for faith

In the closing exhortation at the end of his sermon “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley addresses many of the artificial barriers we put in the way of saving faith.

The first parts of the sermon deal with the difference between righteousness based on our own good works and righteousness based on faith in Jesus Christ. Wesley’s point is that we cannot attain righteousness by anything we do because we are sinners through and through. The only means we have to rest in the favor of God and restore within ourselves the image of God is by believing in Jesus Christ.

That part of the sermon and that argument is well worth attention, but I wanted to focus more on how Wesley addresses what he proposes to be the objections that people raise when invited to believe in Christ.

It is important to note here that Wesley is addressing those who actually desire to be forgiven and reconciled. In other words, he was speaking and writing to people who were aware that their lack of peace and happiness was because they were out of line with God. He is not here offering arguments to those who have no regard for God at all or who do not believe themselves to be out of step with God.

To those who do desire peace with God but do not feel it, Wesley outlines some objections – no doubt ones he encountered in his own life and pastoral work.

The first objection is the sense that we must do certain things prior to believing in Christ. Wesley imagines someone saying, ” I must first conquer every sin; break off every evil word and work, and do all good to all men; or I must first go to church, receive the Lord’s Supper, hear more sermons, and say more prayers.”

No, Wesley says, you have it all backwards. Belief in Jesus is the foundation that allows us – with God’s help – to do the very things we imagine we need to do before we can believe.

The second objection Wesley shares comes from the heart that says “I cannot be accepted by Christ because I am not good enough.” To which Wesley responds: Of course we are not good enough. We never will be. Indeed, the harder we try to establish our own goodness the more of a mess we make. Delay no longer, Wesley urges. God will make you clean.

The third objection I was not quite expecting when I first read this sermon, but it is one I have seen expressed in various ways. The objection is “I am not contrite enough. I am not sensible enough of my sins.”

The version I hear of this in my own ministry is slightly different. I have encountered many Christians who have the sense that they need to draw closer to God but also feel like they are not in the right place to get on their knees or cry out for Jesus. They will acknowledge as true the statement that they are sinners, but they just don’t feel it. They are not at ease in their relationship with God but are reluctant to name and shed tears over their own sins. I interpret such spiritual conflicts as at least standing near the ground that Wesley was pointing out in his third objection.

Here is part of his answer to that concern. “I would to God that thou wert more sensible of them, more contrite a thousand fold than thou art. But do not stay for this. 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!”

I hear Wesley calling us here not to get hung up on having the right amount of grief or sorrow for our sins before we seek out the Lord. We don’t need to match our story or our faith journey up with someone else or some set of steps we’ve been taught. Are you aware that you need God and that you are not in line with him? Yes? Great. You are ready to believe.

The great catch — and one illustrated perfectly by Wesley’s own life — is that wanting to believe in Jesus and being able to believe in Jesus are not the same thing. Faith itself is a gift that God gives us. When Wesley says we are ready to believe, what he is really saying is that we are ready to cry out and ask God to help us believe. We are ready to “seek God while he is near” and not cease asking until we have been given what we seek.

For Wesley, that belief did not arrive until one night at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. For us, the same belief lies waiting for us to seek to have it.

Wesley’s sermon concludes in this way: “Unto thee saith the Lord, not, ‘Do this,’ — perfectly obey all my commands, — ‘and live;’ but, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.'”

Now, Wesley says, is the time. There is no reason to wait. Believe the good news and God will remember yours sins no more.

Now is the time.

Will we bend our knees?

I have been away from regular blogging for some time, and I am finding it difficult to get into the regular pattern once again. Such is the way with all things in life, yes?

As I try to pick up this habit and discipline again, I am going to return to something that has long sustained me in both my writing and my spiritual life: Reading and responding to the works of John Wesley.

In the past, I have written some on his 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. For a time, I am going to read through them again and write about some of the things I encounter in them. I hope it is useful for you.

And so, let us begin with his first sermon in this series, where I come across these words.

Let us observe, who it is that is here speaking, that we may take heed how we hear. It is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator of all; who, as such, has a right to dispose of all his creatures; the Lord our Governor, whose kingdom is from everlasting, and ruleth over all; the great Lawgiver, who can well enforce all his laws, being “able to save and to destroy,” yea, to punish with “everlasting destruction from his presence and from the glory of his power.”

In my notes in the margin of my book, I wrote in response to this: “our democratic instincts rebel against this.” And they do, do they not?

We Christians who have been born and raised in America have within us a deep passion and prejudice in favor of democracy. We consider it by reflex the only just way for a country to be organized and resist by instinct any suggestion otherwise. We expect our rulers to be responsive to the “will of the people” and for the laws of our land to be constantly adjusted to the changing — we always flatter ourselves by saying advancing — norms and values of our society.

All of this prepares us poorly to be people who understand what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” We use the words, but we do not really grasp what we say or we say it without really believing it. In some part of our soul, we do not bend the knee.

Of course, this problem did not start with us. Genesis 3 is the same story. Exodus 32 is the same story. And on and on.

We can recite the creeds as many times as we like, but we still must wrestle with the temptation to say in our heart: “Yes, Jesus is Lord, but …”

The simple truth is this. Jesus is Lord, the Creator of all, and he can therefore do whatever he wishes. We have no “rights” to invoke against him. If Jesus were to require our life right now, we have no room to protest. If Jesus lifts us up, we have no reason to boast at our achievements and if Jesus brings us low, we have no reason to complain at our treatment.

If we cannot say “amen” to this, then there is very little chance we will hear the rest of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount with proper ears.

And so, I am called to examine my heart. Do I say the words “Jesus is Lord” and truly mean what I say? Or do I reserve some of my democratic demands to press on God? Do I bend the knee? Do I say it is better to die on my feet? Am I ready to be taught or do I have things I want the teacher to agree to first?

I pray that Jesus gives me supple knees and a ready heart.

A few pretty ideas and nothing more

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)

Do you ever encounter this in church? Do you ever meet Christians who cling tightly to verses that promise life to those who believe in Christ and yet ignore the call that Christ puts on their lives? They act as if “belief” in Christ means nothing more than saying a few words with sincerity about his divine nature and his resurrection from the dead.

I find this attitude rather widespread and also quite difficult to change. Christians have been persuaded that this thin version of belief is all that is required for them to get to heaven, and so they rest happy in the delusion that Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, calls them to do nothing more than to hold a few pretty ideas in their head. They cling to John 3:16 and Romans 10:9 and look for loopholes in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The phrase I picked up from somewhere along the way goes like this: “The hardest people to convert to Jesus Christ are nominal Christians.”

Have you found this to be true? Do you have an experience with moving people deeper in their belief?