The question so few ask

This morning, I was re-reading John Wesley’s sermon “Justification by Faith,” but I did not make it very far before I was brought up short. Indeed, I only made it through the first two sentences.

How a sinner may be justified before God, the Lord and Judge of all, is a question of no common importance to every child of man. It contains the foundation of all our hope, inasmuch as while we are at enmity with God, there can be no true peace, no solid joy, either in time or in eternity.

Ask yourself for a moment: How many people spend any amount of time pre-occupied with this question? Do you know anyone? And yet, for Christians it is among the most important questions in the world.

Christianity starts from a place that the world does not. It starts by saying that the secret to peace, joy, and happiness in this world and the next is getting right with God. It starts by saying that we are unhappy and the world is full of horrors because human beings are in rebellion against God. We do not bend on our knees like Jesus in the garden and say “thy will be done,” but we say “my will be done,” and hence all manner of evils wash over the world.

In America, Christians live in a culture that has turned “my will be done” into the purpose of existence. A lot of this has been done by people who want to sell us things and have discovered that unbridled indulgence of our impulses and desires turns quite a profit. But it also goes deep into our political culture.

So as a Christian who lives in America, and as a pastor, I find it quite difficult to imagine how to move non-Christians and nominal Christians to the place where they can even comprehend the importance of this most basic question. What can I say or do? How do you persuade people that the first step toward joy and peace in their lives is to understand that they are sinners?

I have searched quite a while for an answer, and I have found many who will offer me answers. And yet, so many of them seem to suggest the thing can be done without God. If we hit upon the proper technique, work hard enough, and have enough talent, we can move human hearts. It feels ominously like we are saying we can do it on our own.

And so, I find myself driven to embrace what the church has taught for centuries. It is a work of grace. It is by grace — and not by human art — that a person comes to understand that the problems of the world are as old as Cain and Abel and rooted in the same cause. We are wretched wanderers far from God. It is grace that opens our eyes to the truth that we are far from God and therefore far from the happiness that we crave.

As pastors and Christians, we must speak truthfully about God, but we cannot be discouraged if we are not able to persuade. If the world rejects our diagnosis, we cannot become downcast. While we should work as hard as we can, we must work with the knowledge that it is grace and not our effort that moves the human heart.

And so, we keep asking the question, even if the world shows no interest. The Holy Spirit will do his work. We must do ours.

 

The sermon Wesley did not preach

If I understand the story properly, John Wesley never preached his sermon “True Christianity Defended.”

The manuscript of the sermon was found crumpled up among his papers after he died. I believe Methodist historian Richard Heitzenrater has argued that this was the sermon he planned to give at Oxford on the day he preached “The Almost Christian.” Some friends of his, however, talked him out of preaching “True Christianity Defended,” as it called out many of his fellow ministers — some by name — for corrupting the gospel and undermining the church by their preaching. Relenting to their counsel, he wrote and preached the better known sermon, which Methodists and United Methodists have regarded as a standard of doctrine for close to 300 years.

Even though it was not preached, “True Christianity Defended” does speak a challenging word to us still today. For instance, think of our common recitation of Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules — Do No Harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God — as you read what Wesley wrote about the nature of true holiness:

[M]any write and preach as if Christian holiness, or religion, were a purely negative thing; as if, not to curse or swear, not to speak or do evil, was religion enough to entitle a man to heaven! How many, if they go further than this, describe it as only an outward thing; as if it consisted chiefly, if not wholly, in doing good, (as it is called,) and using the means of grace! Or, should they go a little farther still, yet what do they add to this poor account of religion? Why, perhaps, that a man should be orthodox in his opinions, and have a zeal for the Constitution of the Church and state. And this is all: this is all the religion they can allow without degenerating into enthusiasm! So true it is, that the faith of a devil, and the life of a Heathen, make up what most men call a good Christian!

Do you hear him calling us out for making it sound as if the sum of Christianity is to do no harm, do good, and use the means of grace offered in worship, Scripture, and prayer?

Wesley was troubled — you might say outraged — by a dead formalism that he saw widely practiced as if it were true Christianity. What he argued for — throughout his life — was a religion that changed us from inside out. “Holiness of heart and life” was the phrase he used to describe the marks of true Christianity. This holiness did not consist of outward acts or restraint from evil, but in an actual transformation of our nature and heart. To be holy is to be a new creature, with a heart that is cleansed from all evil and a life that is animated by love of God and neighbor. Christianity, Wesley preached and taught, is an inward change of our very being.

Now, this inner change does lead to outward change. It is true that a person who is going on to perfection will refrain from all harm, will do good, and will be eager to worship God, pray, and read the Bible. But we err greatly, Wesley argued, if we mistake these outward things for the real thing.

In his sermon, he put it this way:

[T]he absence of the form [of Christianity] signifies much. It infallibly proves the absence of the power. For though the form may be without the power, yet the power cannot be without the form. Outward religion may be where inward is not; but if there is none without, there can be none within.

In other words, you can look like a Christian on the outside but not be one on the inside, but you cannot live like a heathen on the outside and truly be a Christian on the inside.

Although Wesley crumpled that sermon up, the spirit of it lived on throughout his ministry and challenges us still today. Do we preach a gospel of inward and outward holiness or a gospel of mere outward appearances?

Simple Methodism

In our ministry in the church, I know that our task is not to recreate what has come before. The Holy Spirit is not a cookie cutter, stamping out identical churches in every place and every time. But it is either my gift or my handicap that I am drawn to look at the root of things to discern what should be our central and animating principles today. So today, in the opening days of my ministry among a people new to me, I find myself looking again over John Wesley’s “Plain Account of a People Called Methodist.”

In that letter written in 1748, Wesley lists the four particulars about true Christianity that he and his brother Charles wished to persuade any who would hear them preach.

First, that the end of religion is that we become holy, happy, peaceful, and righteous people. It is about deep transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are the only way to that end.

Third, that Christ forgives, pardons, and frees from the power of sin and death all who have faith in him.

Fourth, that the fruits of this faith are not stored away to enjoy in heaven after we die, but are tasted even now in this moment and in this life.

What I take to be Wesley’s great target in this message is a kind of dead, formal, and cold religion that provides little comfort and little power. It was a religion that put a great emphasis on having the correct knowledge in your head about various theological topics, on being blameless in our outward conduct, and in doing all manner of good and pious things.

There is nothing wrong with orthodoxy. There is nothing bad about being good and pious people who show up to church every Sunday and the food pantry on Wednesday. Wesley did not disparage any of that, but he did not want people to confuse the means of religion with the end or purpose of it.

The purpose of it all is to restore to people the joy and peace that God intended for them from the Creation.

It seems to me, looking out over the church in America today, that we might benefit from this old idea if we can learn how to preach and teach it in a way that can be heard today.