Popularity vs. plain dealing

John Fletcher died before John Wesley. Had he outlived Wesley, he might have taken over leadership of the movement upon Wesley’s death.

His Five Checks to Antinomianism was at one time essential reading for all Methodist preachers.

In this little passage, he laments the fact that too many preachers raise up Christians who ignore the law of God.

Some prefer popularity to plain dealing. We love to see a crowd of worldly-minded hearers, rather than a “little flock, a peculiar people zealous of good works.” We dare not shake our congregations to purpose, lest our five thousand should, in three years time, be reduced to a hundred and twenty. …

The old Puritans strongly insisted upon personal holiness, and the first Methodists upon the new birth; but these doctrines now seem to grow out of date. The Gospel is cast into another mould. People, it seems, may now be “in Christ,” without being “new creatures,” and “new creatures” without casting “old things” away. They may be God’s children without God’s image; and “born of the Spirit” without “the fruits of the Spirit.”

When I read these old out-of-date writers, I’m always amazed how little has changed over time.


‘Take heed to your doctrine’

I’ve been reading John Fletcher’s Five Checks to Antinomianism this morning. At one time, the Five Checks were as dearly held by Methodist preachers as John Wesley’s sermons. The Checks speak to the problem, rampant today as then, of Christianity that amounts to little more than baptized heathenism. People go by the name Christian, but their lives show little or no change.

Fletcher’s concern was with Antinomianism, a teaching that since we are saved by faith without any works, we should set aside the moral laws of God and/or religious practices such as praying, Scripture study, or visiting the sick. Fletcher wrote that the Methodists and Anglican clergy ran astray when they stopped preaching repentance. When they did not preach to convict men and women of sin and exhort them to “take up their cross” daily and to live in conformity with the law, they nurtured shallow-rooted and false Christians who could well be described as whitewashed tombs.

His word to clergy was to “take heed to your doctrine.”

Let it be Scripturally evangelical: give not the children’s bread unto dogs; comfort not people that do not mourn. When you should give emetics do not administer cordials, and by that means strengthen the hands of the slothful and unprofitable servant. I repeat once more, warp not to Antinomianism, and in order to this, take heed, O! take heed to your doctrine.

These words stand out to me this day, in part, because we lectionary preachers will be spending the next two weeks with John the Baptist. Here was a preacher not afraid to step on the pious toes of his congregation. His boldness grew out of his conviction that people’s very lives were at stake. His words do not show up in many Christmas carols: repent, brood of vipers, unquenchable fire.

So now as Christmas approaches, how do we preach from his words? At no time of the year is the impulse to please people and churn up warm feelings stronger. People crave “cordials.” Do we give them what they crave? They will like us if we do. But is our task to please people?

Early Methodists were a mess, too

Do we sometimes look back at early Methodism with rose-colored glasses? Do we see cadres of spiritual green berets out knocking the devil on his hind parts at every turn? Do we wonder why our congregations can’t be as zealous as those early Methodist societies?

A passage in John Fletcher’s Five Checks to Antinomianism might set some of this in perspective. In defending John Wesley’s preaching and teaching about the necessity of good works and continual seeking after righteousness, Fletcher points out that the Methodist societies were prone to outbreaks of antinomianism — the belief that since Christians were justified and sanctified they no longer needed to worry about following the laws of God. Fletcher provides one specific example of what he writes was a problem that demanded Wesley’s constant attention:

In one of his societies, not many miles form my parish, a married man, who professed being in a state of justification and sanctification, growing wise above what is written, despised, his brethren as legalists, and his teachers as persons not clear in the Gospel. He instilled his principles into a serious young woman; and what was the consequence? Why they talked about “finished salvation in Christ,” and “the absurdity of perfection in the flesh,” till a perfect child was conceived and born; and, to save appearances, the mother swore it to a travelling man that cannot be heard of. Thus to avoid legality, the plunged into hypocrisy, fornication, adultery, perjury, and the depth of Ranterism.

I had to look up what Ranterism was. That was interesting, as was the realization that those storied ancestors of ours in the early Methodist societies could make just as much a mess of things as the people in our congregations.