More on sin

Here is how John Wesley consistently defined sin:

By sin, I here understand outward sin, according to the plain, common acceptation of the word; an actual, voluntary transgression of the law; of the revealed, written law of God; of any commandment of God, acknowledged to be such at the time that it is transgressed. (“The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God“)

The criticism I’ve heard of this definition is that it does not take account of unintentional or accidental sins. Wesley’s response to such questions was that those things might be consider wrongs we commit, but not properly sin. They do not damage our relationship with God.

The complication here is that the Old Testament clearly describes sacrifices for unknown sins. In the first covenant, there is such a thing as a sin committed in ignorance of the law. If such at thing is possible, then why would those no longer be considered sins under the covenant of Christ?

My thinking — and I do not pretend to be a brilliant thinker here — has to do with the once-for-all sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ. In other words, on the cross Jesus covered by his blood all sins of ignorance and accident. Such things are still sins in the sense that they are actions that void the law of God, but they are not sins in that they have already been atoned for and without our conscious participation in them do not represent a deliberate turning away from God, for which we would need to repent. Under the new covenant, such sins of ignorance have been paid for in advance and therefore do not damage our relationship with God. Of course, all our actual sins have been paid for as well, but since these involve a deliberate act of will, we must engage in an act of will to redeem the promise already made. We must repent and seek forgiveness to mend the rupture in our relationship with God.

That is not as elegant as I would like, but it is my attempt to be faithful to the biblical witness.

What do you think? What have your read or heard that helps you work through such questions?


Pray like Christians, live like heathens

Should Christians live differently than non-Christians?

Even in my limited role as a part-time local pastor, I come across this question quite often. The question is not about whether Christians should be drug dealers or murderers but whether they should be typical Americans. Should our lives, interests, entertainments, and ambitions look pretty much like everyone else’s or should following Christ change more about our lives than what we do on Sunday morning? The most frequent way I hear this question emerge is in the unsettled voices of members of the church who wonder if it is — after all — a problem to love expensive luxuries or whether God will pardon them for lavish vacations or days spent in idleness while other humans live in misery and constant suffering.

These are not new questions. William Law wrote an influential book in the 18th century that gives a decisive answer. Here is a representative excerpt:

You may see them different from other people, so far as times and places of prayer, but generally like the rest of the world in all the other parts of their lives: that is, adding Christian devotion to a Heathen life. … they who add devotion to such a life, must be said to pray as Christians, but live as Heathens.

Law was hugely influential on the young John Wesley, whose sermon “The Almost Christian” makes the very distinction Law does between living according to the general morality of the world and practicing real Christianity. And so, these pastoral questions also raise questions about our very notion of what it means to be a Christian in the United Methodist tradition.

In the days of Law and Wesley, critics found their approach to border on lunacy. It was too much to expect men and women to forgo the pleasures of this world simply because their fellow creatures suffered. The idea of such a “serious” approach to life seemed to them to be morbid and joyless. Isn’t it okay for a man to gamble a bit on Friday night and buy a sports car in his forties so long as he shows up for church on Sunday and puts his check in the offering plate?

As a pastor, the great temptation is to soothe the worry behind such questions. “Of course, God wants you to enjoy your life. Just try to be good and do good most of the time. It is okay.”

Law argues that such answers and questions miss the entire point. What we need, he writes, is to reframe our whole point of view. The question is not what God will pardon or forgive, but what will God honor. The Christian seeks to please God in all aspects of life, and so the questions that we often ask are turned on their heads.

He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praiseworthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether they are appointed for the gaining of His favour? He does not inquire, whether it be pardonable to hoard up money, to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and to gild our chariots, whilst the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner, want to be relieved; but he asks, whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them; because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for aught we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.

The question that Law poses strikes hard: Do we intend to please God?

The question exposes for me the misguided mindset with which we often approach our faith. We often view religion as another product or service that we buy. Here is a little dose of relief from anxiety about death. Here is a lovely gathering to celebrate a wedding. Here is some uplifting music and a pretty little talk by a pastor on Sunday morning. We want these things, but we want them with as little cost as possible. God is a merchant peddling some wares and we want to strike as good a deal as we can for what he offers.

Law — and Wesley after him — argue that this attitude not only misses the point but falls outside the bounds of actual Christianity. It is heathenism dressed up for Sunday morning.

Honor God in all things, they would say. Seek first the kingdom. Or they might quote our Lord and Savior:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the mark of becoming a Christian is to be able to hear the Bible read and not react with anger or defensiveness or evasion. In our day as in Law’s, we are much in need of God’s grace if we would become not just praying heathens but altogether Christians.

The Wesleys were better at this

This is not news. John and Charles Wesley were better at this Methodist thing than I am. Here are a few specific things that I appreciate about their ministry.

Purpose drove everything

Early in his ministry — even before his own conversion experience at Aldersgate — John Wesley became convinced that to be a Christian was not a half-way affair. You either were going on to complete holiness of heart and life or your were falling away. And so, his purpose became to find the means to nurture that spiritual growth, first in himself and then in all who would hear his message. Everything Wesley did was animated by this purpose.

How he and his brother organized their movement, how they preached, and even what points of theology they emphasized were all organized around a single, clear-eyed vision of their purpose as ministers of the gospel.

We see this most clearly in the creation of the class meetings and bands. These were not novelties in England. Such small groups had met before and did meet outside of the Methodist movement, but Wesley made them a signature of the movement because he found they were uniquely fitted to the task of fostering holiness. If they had not been so fitted, he would have discarded them. And so it was with every other aspect of the movement. If it did not serve the purpose, it was not necessary. If it did serve the purpose, he would hold on to it come what may.

Multi-media mattered

The Wesleys were multi-media before multi-media was cool. They used every method they could to get their message out. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to teach and gird up the theological foundation of the movement. People liked to sing, so he gave them songs. John Wesley took on the practice of field preaching — which he did not relish — because it was the only way to get the gospel to the people. If they will not come to us, the minutes of the Methodist Conference remind us , we must go to them. In addition, Wesley produced a huge array of written materials to support the movement. The Wesleys used every mode of communication they could get their hands on to support the work they were about.

Dodging rocks was part of the job

One of my favorite John Wesley stories comes from an account in one of his journals. He writes about getting ready to preach in an open field one day when he was expecting a mob to show up and try to disrupt things. As he peered around the field, he noticed a large quantity of rocks and dirt clods that would be ideal for throwing, so he move over to a different field where his assailants would have a less amply supply of ammunition. He expected opposition.

For all the success of the Methodist movement, it did not during the life of John and Charles ever grow to be more than a tiny fraction of the population of England or Ireland and barely gained any foothold at all in Scotland. Not everyone would hear it and not everyone would receive it. The Wesleys and other leaders of the movement did not obsess over the ones who rejected their message. They set about, instead, doing everything they could to make connection with those who would receive it. They believed it was a message for all people, but they did not despair that many would oppose it.

These are just some of the ways John and Charles challenge and inspire me when I think of the state of our denomination. What about you?

Encouraging cross bearing

I’ve been thinking about the necessity of cross bearing the last few days.

As I often do when pondering such things, I’ve been reading John Wesley. Here is his word on the topic from his sermon “Self-Denial.”

The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him.

I’ve been thinking about these words and thinking about being a pastor.

When someone comes to me as a pastor and shares a word about how hard it is to follow Jesus, to really follow, do I lose faith in the virtues of cross bearing? Often, I fear, I do. I am good at extending a word of consolation and solidarity. Yes, yes, that is difficult. I struggle with that, too.

But what I fail to say is that, yes, God is calling you and me to do this very thing we find so hard. It is in taking those steps that we discover that we have faith. God will give you grace to bear this burden. Trust him.

I fear my failure in this area is a sign of my own need for spiritual growth. I cannot encourage a practice that I avoid.

Sometimes I just like to be reminded

John Wesley on Free Grace:

It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in anywise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God; they are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it. Thus is his grace free in all; that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but on God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and “with him freely giveth us all things.

No matter who you are, grace is not just offered but already at work in you.

Every good thing in the world — even the good done by the most dastardly people — is a work of God’s grace.

Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline could be more precise in its statements about the place of John Wesley’s sermons in our doctrinal panoply. In ¶103 it explains that the Plan of Union for the UMC understood Wesley’s sermons and notes to be established standards of doctrine for the church. In other places, however, the Discipline appears to treat Wesley as a model or example rather than as a measuring stick for our doctrine.

This is relevant to me because my conversion to Christianity was followed by immersion into the works of Wesley. Early in that process, I was continually struck by how far the United Methodist Church as I knew it strayed from the vision of Christian life and the church as I encountered in the works of Wesley. I found myself asking at times whether John Wesley could even get ordained among us if he were a candidate today. Our responses to him often are often more in keeping with his critics than his co-workers.

These thoughts arose again for me as I was reading John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he introduces what will be a 13-sermon series on those three chapters in Matthew and considers the first two beatitudes. In discussing the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit, tilts into what would later be called revival preaching.

He calls out for sinners to know themselves and wake up to their state.

Know and feel, that thou wert “shapen in wickedness,” and that “in sin did thy mother conceive thee;” and that thou thyself hast been heaping sin upon sin, ever since thou couldst discern good from evil! Sink under the mighty hand of God, as guilty of death eternal; and cast off, renounce, abhor, all imagination of ever being able to help thyself!

To those he calls to wake up, he offers Christ as the cure for their ailments, making no scruple at the mention of being washed in the blood. He then describes in three paragraphs the righteousness, peace, and joy that are offered to us as the inward kingdom of heaven.

Finally, he shifts to an exhortation worthy of any sawdust trail preaching of the century following Wesley’s death.

Thou art on the brink of heaven! Another step, and thou enterest into the kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy! Art thou all sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!” – all unholy? See thy “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous!” – Art thou unable to atone for the least of thy sins? “He is the propitiation for” all thy “sins.” Now believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all thy sins are blotted out! Art thou totally unclean in soul and body? Here is the “fountain for sin and uncleanliness!” “Arise and wash away thy sins!” Stagger no more at the promise through unbelief! Give glory to God! Dare to believe! Now cry out, from the ground of thy heart – “Yes, I yield, I yield at last, Listen to thy speaking blood; Me, with all my sins, I cast On my atoning God.” (This last is a quote from a Charles Wesley hymn.)

So the question I have is this: Are United Methodists called to treat such preaching by Wesley as mere “models of doctrinal exposition” or as standards by which we can judge our own interpretation and preaching of the Bible?

In other words, if what I preach is incongruous with what Wesley preached – or a direct contradiction of it – am I failing to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church? If the answer to that question is “no,” then what place does Wesley’s preaching have among us and why is it mentioned as a standard of doctrine in our Discipline?