How failure led to fruit

When Philip Spener wanted to bring renewal to the Lutheran churches of Frankfurt, Germany, he started in the way that sounds familiar to me. He started by putting a focus on catechism and church discipline. He thought these measures might stir up the passive and nominal faith of the Christians in his charge.

They did not.

Frustrated by his failures to lead renewal from the top down, Spener eventually turned to the formation of small groups in response to a request from some of his more devout laity. They wanted a means of meeting with others who were longing for the kind of spiritual conversation and building up that they never could get in their world of work and secular relationships.

The groups that were formed in response to this request would set the model for devotional and edifying small groups that would be central to Pietism and later Methodism.

In the book where I read of this bit of history, the author did not mention this explicitly, but I assume those men came to Spener because his preaching and other actions had made it clear that he was passionate about a deeper and living faith. They came to him because they saw in him a kindred spirit.

As I think on that, I recall John Wesley’s account of the beginnings of Methodism. It was his preaching that led people to come to him seeking more opportunities to learn and grow in their faith. He formed the societies and classes as a response to those requests.

I hear two lessons in these examples.

First, if I want laity to reveal their longings for a renewed and vibrant faith, I should preach as if living faith is the norm or expectation of the Christian life.

Second, I cannot herd people into wanting a living faith, but I can remain attentive and open to those who show an interest or longing for it. It is okay to be reactive.

Neither Wesley nor Spener — nor for that matter Jesus — won everyone over to their views about Christianity. Indeed, they all made a number of enemies. But they also did help some people find a true and living faith that changed their lives.

I wonder if we can’t still do that.

I see a vision of United Methodist renewal that is worked out not from the top down but from the bottom up, a renewal based on scattered pockets where men and women are seeking a living faith in Jesus Christ. I see such a movement marked by preaching aimed at transformation and renewal of the heart, small groups with a focus on devotion and accountability, and the expectation of a living faith that shows forth in the outward lives of people.

The cause of social misery

Here is a brief Wesleyan account of the root causes of social evils. In a word, the cause is sin.

In his treatise on Original Sin, John Wesley gives the following example of the ways misery and poverty are ultimately traced back to sin.

Many families are miserable through want. They have not the conveniences, if the necessaries, of life. Why have they not? Because they will not work: Were they diligent, they would want nothing. Or, if not idle, they are wasteful; they squander away, in a short time, what might have served for many years. Others, indeed, are diligent and frugal too; but a treacherous friend, or a malicious enemy, has ruined them.; or they groan under the hand of an oppressor; or the extortioner has entered into their labours. You see, then, in all these cases, want (though in various ways) is the effect of sin. But is there no rich man near? none that could relieve these innocent sufferers, without impairing his own fortune? Yes; but he thinks of nothing less. They may rot and perish for him. See, more sin is implied in their suffering.

Wesley argues that miseries of many kinds — from that of individuals to that of nations — can be traced back to sin. And these sins are always a case of willful actions or omissions. Wesley did not look to impersonal or systematic causes of social evils. Sin was the cause and sinners were in one way or another the agents of misery.

The role of the church in the face of these things was to identify the sin, convict the sinner, and thereby relieve the suffering and redeem souls at the same time.

This is slow work, of course. And in a culture where people reject the gospel out of hand, it is a solution that many people cannot even contemplate. In such cases, it falls to the church to care for those who suffer, to continue to witness to the gospel, and to lay down its life for others so long as sin runs free.

This is what the church has done through the ages when it is at its best.

‘I neither know nor desire to know’

If John Wesley were among us today, I think he would be scoffed at for being anti-intellectual. No one would say he was not intelligent, I think. But reading his letters, journals, and sermons, I see time and again that he was not much interested in theological controversies and placed little trust in reason as a path to truth about divine things.

Here is just one instance of what I mean. In a letter he wrote in 1753 to a Dr. Robertson about a treatise Robertson had sent him, Wesley shows his reliance on revelation and distrust of the conclusions of natural reason. The treatise uses reason to show the true principles of religion without any dependence on divine revelation. Wesley’s letter is an extended rejection of the arguments of the treatise. As Wesley puts it:

The treatise itself gave me a stronger conviction than ever I had before, both of the fallaciousness and unsatisfactoriness of the mathematical method of reasoning on religious subjects. Extremely fallacious it is; for if we slip but in one line, a whole train of errors may follow: And utterly unsatisfactory, at least to me, because I can be sufficiently assured that this is not the case.

In some of his particular objections, Wesley shows his willingness to stand in ignorance about questions to which others feel compelled to devise answers. He admits that he cannot explain how God’s complete foreknowledge of our actions is consistent with the idea that we are free, and yet he finds both God’s absolute knowledge and our freedom in Scripture. For him, that is enough to hold to both.

When the treatise refutes commonly held theological notions about the way original sin is transmitted from generation to generation, Wesley waves his hand at the whole discussion. He writes that he would not care if every reasonable explanation for the way original sin is transmitted were shot down.

I care not if there were none. The fact I know, both by Scripture and by experience. I know it is transmitted; but how it is transmitted, I neither know nor desire to know.

If Wesley were among us today and responded to questions about tricky theological points in such a manner, I suspect many of us would not approve. The question then remains, whether God would approve now or did approve then of his ministry.

Skipping level 1

John Wesley had three categories he used to organize his thinking about how to best preach the gospel. We see these three nicely in his sermon “Scriptural Christianity.” Here he is describing his vision for how the first converts to Christianity engaged their neighbors and relations with the gospel.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

Did you notice the three groups?

  1. Those who don’t care about the wrath of God or imagine they are in need of a savior.
  2. Those who long earnestly for a word of grace in the midst of their sense of condemnation.
  3. Those who need to be encouraged and admonished to continue on toward full holiness.

Do you know why they threw rocks at Wesley and closed so many church doors to him? In large part it was because he preached that the vast majority of good Church of England members were in the first group. He told them that just because they showed up to church and sacrament every Sunday, it did not mean they were right with God. Indeed, he preached that so-called Christians who do not have any real experience of Christ were the hardest people to convert to real Christianity.

It feels as if we in the church today are overrun with people at whom Wesley would advise us to thunder “Awake!” But there is tremendous social and theological pressure to act as if all is well. There is pressure to treat everyone as if all they need is a gentle and inspiring version of the message designed for groups 2 and 3.

I feel that pressure.

I can hear the questions that it raises.

Why be so judgmental? Who are you to warn others? Aren’t you just a hypocrite?

Do you hear those questions? I suspect Wesley did. I wonder if it ever caused him to shrink back before climbing in the pulpit or mounting the market cross.

Can you be born again and not be saved?

This is one of those topics that will sound like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin to some, so please pardon me if you don’t care for these kinds of questions.

I have been reading RC Sproul’s excellent book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. It is the kind of book that I wish Methodists could produce. In it, Sproul provides overviews of 100 important theological concepts. Each entry is brief and written for lay readers. It is clear but not at all simplistic. Being written by Sproul, of course, it is decidedly Reformed in its theology.

As an Arminian, which makes me a close sibling our Reformed brothers and sisters, much of the book speaks to me. Where I part ways with Sproul are when he writes about predestination, perfection, and the order of salvation. The last is the topic I want to consider for the balance of this post.

Sproul writes that the order of salvation goes like this:

  • Regeneration
  • Faith
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

In other words, we must be born again before we can have the faith that saves us. And this regeneration has nothing to do with our own activity or action, of course. Faith is only possible once we have been regenerated or born again.

This is different than the Arminian understanding preached by John Wesley and Methodists after him.

We teach that it is not full regeneration but preventing (or prevenient) grace that comes before faith. Human beings — who would be utterly lost and hopeless without grace — have received the preventing grace that arouses in us those first desires to do good and to seek God. We often call this effect of grace our conscience. By cooperating and listening to the grace that precedes salvation, we are brought to conviction of our sin and saving faith in Jesus Christ.

We would list the stages in this way:

  • Awakening
  • Conviction
  • Justification & New Birth (regeneration)
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

For us, faith in Jesus Christ, justification, and new birth are all distinct things that occur at the same moment. When we have faith in Jesus Christ as our savior, we are justified. When we are justified, we are born again by the Holy Spirit.

Both ways of thinking about the matter center on justification by faith. We are saved by grace when we believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us. Both would say that once we are justified, we grow into sanctification. We work out our salvation. We differ significantly, however, on what happens prior to justification.

What had not been so clear to me before reading Sproul’s book was that he would say it is possible to be born again but not be saved. For Wesleyans, the one cannot happen without the other. In the instant we are set right with God we are born again. When we are born again, we are justified.

As a pastoral matter, I am not sure how much these differences matter to the way we preach and teach and counsel. I have not worked that out yet. It does remind me, though, that just because a person uses words such as “born again” or “regenerated” does not mean they mean the same thing I do when I use those words.

What Wesley got wrong

John Wesley’s sermon “On Faith” — the first to two by that name — is an interesting look at Wesley’s reflection on his own preaching and on questions about how God will judge non-Christians.

Indeed, nearly fifty years ago, when the Preachers, commonly called Methodists, began to preach that grand scriptural doctrine, salvation by faith, they were not sufficiently apprized of the difference between a servant and a child of God. They did not clearly understand, that even one “who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him.” In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, “Do you know that your sins are forgiven?” And upon their answering, “No,” immediately replied, “Then you are a child of the devil.” No; this does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety) “Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, ‘and you shall see greater things than these.’ “

Both regarding Christians who have not yet seen the greater things of faith and non-Christians who still seek after God according to the light they have received, the older Wesley put much more emphasis on praising what work God had already done and urging or inviting people into deeper faith. The young Wesley was more inclined to scold. The older Wesley was more apt to encourage.

At its heart, Wesley’s Methodism is a call to higher and deeper spiritual life, but it is extremely generous with regard to those forms of faith and non-Christian religion that do not share Methodism’s vision of holiness of heart and life.

This spirit is difficult to maintain if our impulse is self-aggrandizing. If we seek the full Methodist vision of holiness because we want to feel spiritually superior to others, then not only have we missed the mark, but we are defiling the very name of Christ.

This is why John Wesley always emphasized humility as the very first and essential characteristic of the Christian life. Pride of any form is incompatible with Methodism.