A person not a self-help program

This is an old blog post, but it came across my Facebook feed this morning, so it is new to me.

United Methodist Communications shared this post connecting a song by Tim McGraw with the teaching of 19th century British Methodism. The gist of the short article is that McGraw’s song, which calls people to “always stay humble and kind” mirrors the advice of Methodist devotional writers in the 19th century.

Of course, on the surface, this is probably true. Humility and kindness are fruits of the Spirit, and so it is not at all out of place for a Christian writer to praise them. But in making this connection, the article misses a rather large and important point.

What is the point?

Well, for Christians the point is Jesus Christ.

We are Christians because of Jesus. Our faith is in a person not a set of values or character traits. If we focus on the outward things — the character traits — we can discover that we have the surface but none of the depth.

The truth is this: People are capable of being humble and kind without knowing Jesus Christ. There are kind atheists and humble Muslims. There are generous Buddhists and peaceful Hindus. We worship Jesus Christ, we follow him, we pray to him because he is the Son of God, the Word, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the Savior of all humanity. Through him we are forgiven and saved from the power of the devil and grasp of evil.

Christianity is not a set of socially valuable character traits. It is about a person.

Does this mean praising humility and kindness is a bad thing? Well, of course not. But my sense of American Christianity is that we are very good at looking at the outward things and confusing them for the real thing. We point to humility and kindness and fail to seek Jesus. We point with pride at never missing a Sunday worship service and always putting our tithe in the offering plate and ignore the fact that we have no living relationship with the one we worship. We put up posters in our churches of “The Three Simple Rules” and rarely look each other in the eye and ask “Do you know the Lord?”

I am sure I am not being entirely fair to the writer of the post that prompted this blog post of mine, but I do hope my concern is clear. Let us as the church make sure that we never confuse the main point of what we do and who we are. Let us always err on the side of too much Jesus and not enough of everything else. He is the reason we exist.

What holds us back?

In his sermon, “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley considers some ways people hold themselves back from seeking the forgiveness of God.

The first mistake is to believe that before we can be forgiven we must first do certain things. We must first conquer sin or break off from every evil work. We must do good to all our neighbors. We must first go to church or hear more sermons or take the Lord’s Supper.

To this, Wesley says, “First believe!” and then you will find the power to do.

The second mistake is to harbor the thought in our heart that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. To this Wesley responds that not one of us is good enough to deserve acceptance by God, but that should be no barrier because we are invited into the cleansing waters. “Then delay not,” Wesley says. “The fountain is open.”

The third mistake that hinders us from seeking the forgiveness of God is the idea that we are not sufficiently wracked by the pain of our own sins. We are not contrite enough, so therefore we are not ready to be pardoned.  Wesley responds that we should be more contrite than we are, more aware of our own deep sinfulness, but we should not let that delay us.

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! What could he have done more for thee which he hath not done?

These are all words of spiritual counsel to those who are mindful that they are in need of pardon and reconciliation with God. They are not words offered to those who blissfully go along as if all were well.

These three hindering notions — that we must do certain things, that we must achieve certain degrees of holiness, or that we must feel certain things before we can find pardon in Jesus Christ — are familiar to me. I think Wesley is perceptive about the ways we talk ourselves out of seeking what is freely offered.

Can you think of other ways people who know they need redemption hold themselves back from seeking pardon, from faith in Christ?

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.