The hope of the new birth

I was reading John Wesley’s sermon “The Marks of the New Birth” recently. It is an excellent sermon worthy of consideration by any Methodist preacher.

The thing I noticed in it — which, despite being obvious, had evaded my previous readings — was how Wesley here is arguing for the doctrine of new birth as a doctrine of hope. One of the arguments he is working against in this sermon comes, I assume, from Anglican critics of the Methodist movement who say that once a person is baptized they have been “born again by water and the Spirit” and so all the Methodist talk about new birth or being born again is some sort of misleading enthusiasm.

Wesley’s response to that argument tells us a few key things about Methodism, which we also simply call Scriptural Christianity.

First, Wesley clearly has no time for an argument that our status with God is determined by some event in our personal history. He is quite explicit about this. While he does not dispute the value of baptism or the regeneration that it provides, he wants to see more than a baptism certificate when inquiring about the status of our salvation. The key issue is not “were you once baptized?” The key question is this: Does you inward and outward life right now provide evidence that your are born of God?

Here is how Wesley puts it:

Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.”

It is not hard to see how such preaching would upset many Christians who had rested on the thought that since they were baptized and participated in the ordinances and sacraments of the church their salvation was secure. To them, Wesley says, show me the fruit of your salvation. Show me a holy heart and life, and then I will believe you are indeed born of God. For saying such things, many a congregation informed the Rev. Wesley he would not be invited back.

But this first point builds to his second, and the source of hope that can be found in the doctrine of the new birth.

Whether they would hear him preach or not, many Christians then — as today — struggle with the sense that something is not right in their faith. Yes, they were baptized. Yes, they came to the altar and accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord, but still they do not know the joy of the Holy Spirit that the Bible speaks about. They do not feel the power to overcome their sin. They do not know the blessed assurance of their salvation. Their Christian walk is a forced march not a dance of joy.

To such people, the doctrine of the new birth is a doctrine of hope.

The teaching that says baptism is the only new birth in the church, which Wesley appears to be arguing against, leaves Christians in a fairly desperate place if, like many, they do not presently find themselves experiencing the righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul writes about in Romans.

To such Christians, Wesley says, there is hope. There is more. There is a better way. If you look at your faith, if you examine your walk with Christ, and find it lacking, even absent, you can still be born again. You can still know the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. You can receive again the Spirit of that allows you to name God tenderly as Father.

This I find quite helpful, but what is its relevance to us today?

You will not find many in Methodist churches who argue that the only new birth is in baptism, but I do think you will find a great many Christians who are both struggling in their faith and relying too much on some version of baptism certificate salvation. A great many Christians have none of the joy and power of salvation, but cling to the thought that since they were baptized or saved once their salvation is solid. They trudge along to church every Sunday, finding there no real joy or peace with God, which makes them all the more insistent that following the rules and being a good church member will get them into heaven.

Methodists, starting with Wesley, have always said the Bible promises us more than this. You can know the joy and peace and power of salvation today. What’s more, if you do not know those things, your salvation itself may be at risk. Do not cling to your baptism certificate as proof that you are a child of God. Look to your heart. Look to your life. Do you bear the marks of someone who is born of God? Do you have the faith of one who has placed their whole trust in the redemption of Christ? Do you have the hope of eternal life that leads you to rejoicing? Do you have the love of God that wells up within you like a fountain and spills out as love of neighbor?

These are the marks of the new birth. If you do not see them in yourself, do not despair. Do not cling defensively to your baptism certificate, your church camp come-to-Jesus encounter, your church attendance record, or your ability to quote biblical verses. Cry out instead to God. Pray for the Holy Spirit to come again. Pray to be born anew. Do not cease praying and seeking until you can say, “I am a child of God, born of His Spirit. The old has passed away. The new creation is here.”

There is more. There is joy. There is peace. There is, in Jesus, new life.

A dry stump longing for water

A long time ago, I wrote a blog post asking whether we still have room for John Wesley in The United Methodist Church.

Here is a part of that post:

People tell me or write to me that the gospel of individual salvation from sin and hell is “not big enough.” But, in subtle and not so subtle ways, what I am often offered in its place is a gospel with no room for John and Charles Wesley. That’s okay for the Lutherans and Presbyterians, I suppose. But I cannot understand Methodists who are embarrassed by John Wesley or dismiss the thousands of lives who were changed by God through his ministry. I cannot understand Methodists who look at the world today and ridicule or dismiss the ministry of those who preach today the gospel Wesley preached.

A lot has happened in my personal life since I wrote those words. This blog has fallen largely silent in the last couple of years because of those personal issues, but the question that animated that blog post seven years ago is — if anything — more pressing today.

As The United Methodist Church creaks and cracks under the strain of dissolution and a global pandemic, the question of who we are presses upon us.

Has the movement within the church catholic that the Holy Spirit raised up in the coal fields and market squares of 18th century England run its course? Has the unique calling of Methodists within the broader church fallen silent? Are We Yet Alive?

One of my favorite passages from Scripture comes from the Book of Job. It comes from a place of deep lament and despair as Job is suffering for reasons he cannot fathom.

For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. (Job 14:7-9, NRSV)

It is hard to look at the broken state of Methodism in the United States and not see a tree that has been cut down, a stump dying in the ground, roots grown old and dry in the earth.

I won’t pretend to be able to say exactly how we got here. I’m just a small church pastor in a small town in Indiana. I don’t have the vision to see in whole what led us here. I’m certain any attempt I made to tell the story of how we got here would be riddled with errors and oversights.

But here is what I do know.

In the early days of my attempts to discern this call I felt on my life into ordained ministry, a wise and kind pastor leading my little class at license to preach school told us that our call story needed to be more than just a statement that we feel called. He said we need to be able to describe what God is calling us to do. Our description of our call does not stop with God calling “Moses, Moses” from the burning bush. It includes God saying “Go to Egypt and lead my people to the mountain.” Our call, he said, is more than just a “hey, you.” It is is a “go do.”

It took me time, prayer, and study to come up with a sense of my “go do,” but here is what I came to at last.

My call is to be a Methodist within the church catholic. My call is to preach, teach, and order the life of the church in the tradition and line of John Wesley, to preach the gospel of grace in my day in ways that are faithful to movement that the Holy Spirit stirred up through the ministry of John and Charles Wesley.

I do not know if the Holy Spirit will fall like water on the dry stump of Methodism in the United States. I don’t know if the scent of water is what is stirring into life this new shoot of Methodism that is struggling to be born as the pandemic delays a formal plan of separation for The United Methodist Church. I hope that is what I am seeing, but I want to remain humble about what I know and cannot know. I hope, but I do not claim to know.

Whatever the path ahead, I remain certain only of my call. God has called me to be a preacher and pastor among the people called Methodist. May there be hope for us yet.

Take all the victories we can get

In my previous two posts, we have looked at John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” which we will come to see now as an argument against those who were trying to argue that lay Methodist preaching was forbidden.

Methodism was a movement of laity. Yes, it had men such as Wesley providing important leadership, but most of the actual on-the-ground work of early Methodism was done by lay people who became class leaders and stewards and lay preachers. This rise of lay preaching created a great deal of controversy. Critics of the movement argued that no man should preach unless the inward call they sense is confirmed by the outward call and certification or ordination of the church.

Wesley’s sermon is a defense of Methodist practice.

To recap some of what I have already written, Wesley understood the work of gospel preaching as participation in a spiritual war between God and Satan. He terms it so explicitly near the end of the third section of the sermon where he writes, “For there can be no neuter in this war. Everyone is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side?”

He argues that you can identify the partisans of God in this struggle by the fruits of their ministry. The way to tell if someone is called by God to preach the gospel is to examine whether their preaching has the effect of calling sinners to repentance and a living faith that includes the breaking off of sins and the adoption of a Christian life. If a person preaches and the effect of that preaching is to bring sinners to Christ, then that person is sent by God. As Wesley argues, since only God can save sinners, such a preacher must be sent from God because merely human talk cannot do what only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.

And so the last portion of Wesley’s sermon is an appeal and admonition that no one should prevent anyone from preaching the gospel who does so with power and effect. Not only should we not restrain them by formal censure or punishment, Wesley writes, we should not speak ill of them, attempt to divert them from their work by argument, or even harbor in our hearts displeasure that such a person as this is being used by God. No, we should rejoice that God’s kingdom is going forward in power.

The bigotry that Wesley is cautioning against in this sermon is the bigotry that says that person must not really be doing God’s work if they do not agree with us on all points of faith and practice and order. Even if they are actively working to undermine our ministry, we should still rejoice when God uses them and work actively to help them increase the scope of their ministry.

Wesley’s sermon has obvious relevance to the moment in which it was written.

I think it raises a few points for us to ponder.

First, Wesley rightly lays out fruitfulness as the standard by which we judge our preachers. He endorses the practice that he saw at work in European Protestant churches of his day wherein people were evaluated for ministry on whether they actually had the gifts to “edify the Church of Christ.” In so doing, Wesley takes a not-so-subtle jab at the kind of clergy education he himself obtained.

Certainly, the practice and the direction of the Apostle Paul was, to prove a man before he be ordained at all … Proved, How? By setting them to construe a sentence of Greek, and asking them a few commonplace questions? O amazing proof of a minister of Christ! Nay; but by making a clear, open trial … not only whether their lives be holy and unblamable, but whether they have such gifts as are absolutely and indispensably necessary in order to edify the Church of Christ.

In the United Methodist Church, I’ve been aware of many conversations about how we order our ministry. As a former licensed local pastor and a recently ordained elder, I’ve seen several aspects of our clergy recruitment, training, and deployment processes. I think there is an argument to be made that we sometimes run the danger of falling too much to the side of valuing credentials over fruit when we evaluate people for the ministry. We also struggle to help people develop as fruitful pastors. Wesley’s defense of lay preachers might be read as a warning to us about the ways we forbid or hinder the ministry of those who do not have an M.Div. Perhaps we are guilty of the very bigotry that Wesley wrote his sermon to oppose.

Second, as I read this sermon, I am struck by how well Wesley predicted the mood of our coming denominational divorce. Ever a student of human nature, Wesley describes here the ways in which differences of opinion and conviction about matters of doctrine and the moral law can lead us into bitterness, and that bitterness leads us to speak ill of others and even dismiss that they could be the agents of God’s salvation.

If you have been paying attention to the rising rhetoric in the United Methodist Church the last couple of years, you will hear the very thing Wesley described in his day. The differences which are pulling us into separate churches have also left less and less space for us to speak well of each other across our divisions.

And so, we who follow in the tradition of Wesley might read again his words with caution.

Yes, I am aware that our disputing factions believe deeply that the other side is not just allowing but promoting evil. One side sees a abrogation of the moral law that means men and women are being condemned to eternal punishment because they are not being turned away from sin. The other side sees a abrogation of the law of love that banishes from the kingdom those whom God calls. I’m not trying to resolve that disagreement here.

But — if we follow Wesley — we should pay attention to the fruit of the ministry of those who stand across the aisle from us. If an evangelical sees a progressive Methodist able to reach a sinner and turn them to Christ, we should rejoice and celebrate and encourage that as much as we do for those with us. And, of course, to follow Wesley, the same should go for progressives who witness God’s salvation working out in evangelical churches.

I’m not saying we should do this because it will heal our denominational rift. That moment, it appears, is well past. We should do it because we claim to be Christians and rejoice any time a sinner is saved.

In my own ministry, I have seen just how daunting a job it is to move people to true repentance and living faith. It really does require God to move. I pray for the grace to be able to celebrate when God does that through the ministry of another — whether they follow my tribe or not.