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.

Preparing the soil

I’ve had the opportunity this summer to lead three people in prayer to ask Christ to be their Lord and Savior. These numbers won’t show up on my official United Methodist vitality statistics because they were not at the church I served. Two of them were not closely tied to churches at all. (I urged them in strong terms to find a church and get into a community of Christians.)

So here is the question.

How much “education” do you do before you lead someone to Christ?

In these cases, I talked with them about the story of salvation. God created us to be good, happy, and at peace. We are fallen. All of us fall short of the glory of God. Jesus Christ came to save us. By belief in him and by the power of his resurrection we can have new life. By the pouring out of the Holy Spirit we can have the assurance of our salvation. By working with the Holy Spirit we can be returned to that lost vision that God had for us in creation.

This, obviously, takes some time, but it is not like a full-on twelve-week catechism class.

So, I’m curious. What is your practice?

(In case you are interested, my training in the area has come not from other pastors or at seminary, but from this book by Eddie Fox and George Morris. William J. Abraham’s little book on evangelism has also been instructive to me.)

Covenant: Crown or curse?

Have you ever read the full statement from which the Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition is adapted?

Directions for Renewing Our Covenant with God

In the second section of the pamphlet, Wesley lays out the choice in clear terms:

Turn either to the right-hand or the left; lay both parts before you, with every link of each; Christ with his yoke, this cross and his crown; or the Devil with his wealth, his pleasure and curse: and then put yourselves to thus: “Soul, thou sees what is before thee, what wilt thou do? Which will thou have, either the crown or the curse? If thou chose the crown, remember that the day  thou take this, thou must be content to submit to the cross and yoke, the service and sufferings of Christ, which are linked to it. What sayest thou? Hadst thou rather take the gains and pleasures of sin, and venture on the curse? Or will thou yield thyself a servant to Christ, and so make sure the crown?

Suffice it to say, Wesley was not schooled in seeker sensitive ministry.

Read the entire pamphlet for the full scope of the meaning of covenant in the Wesleyan tradition that is suggested and hinted at in the prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal.

‘He that committeth sin is of the devil’

I used to ask this question all the time, and so here it is again. Could John Wesley actually preach in any of our pulpits if he were a young seminarian today?

This hit home when I was reading his sermon “The First Fruits of the Spirit.” The sermon is largely taken up with questions about sin and the freedom from condemnation that comes from Jesus Christ. At one point, he considers the case of a person who had a “come to Jesus” experience at some point in the past, but is now living in willful sin. Wesley says he can make no judgment about whether or not the hypothetical person really was justified in the past.

But this I know, with the utmost degree of certainty, “he that committeth sin is of the devil.” Therefore, thou art of thy father the devil. It cannot be denied: for the works of thy father thou doest. O flatter not thyself with vain hopes! Say not to thy soul, “Peace peace!” For there is no peace.

And he does not hold back are suggesting a cure.

Cry aloud! Cry unto God out of the deep; if haply he may hear thy voice. Come unto him as at first, as wretched and poor, as sinful, miserable, blind and naked! And beware thou suffer thy soul to take no rest, till his pardoning love be again revealed; till he “heal thy backslidings,” and fill thee again with the “faith that worketh by love.”

This preaching was not popular in Wesley’s day. The most common reaction to his preaching in a church pulpit, especially in the early years, was to be told not to bother ever coming back to that church.

So, of course, we should not expect him to be popular in today’s church. So the question I find myself struggling with is whether this kind of preaching is necessary, whether it is popular or not.