‘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.

Methodism as a spiritual order?

A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection upon the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology.

This is how Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells begins. I am still trying to figure out whether I agree with him.

Is theology what emerges when we reflect on the experience of following Jesus?

In Gutierrez’s book, he describes the various schools of the Spirit within the Roman Catholic Church — Dominicans, Franciscans, Ignatians, and so on — as arising out of particular experiences that become theologized. The experience comes before the theology.

Gutierrez argues that liberation theology is the theology that emerges when people seek both to be followers of Jesus and committed workers for liberation from material and political oppression. Liberation theology is what you get when you have the experience of following Jesus in the midst of the struggle.

If I am understanding his argument, then we might conceive of Methodism as the theology and practice that emerged as followers of Jesus sought after an experience of total sanctification — perfection in love — in the context of early industrial Britain. Although John Wesley would argue that Methodism represented true Christianity, Gutierrez would argue that it represents a way of being Christian.

Here is what I find appealing in this — assuming I am understanding Gutierrez at all.

First, it helps me think through the continuing ecclesiastical and vocational problems presented to United Methodist clergy by the fact that our church emerged as a holiness movement within the Church of England.

I can envision in this a bifurcated role in which the pastor is both leader of a church body committed to the broadly ecumenical and orthodox — the small ‘c’ church catholic if you will — expression of the faith and shepherd of distinct groups within the larger body of those who wish to delve into Methodist spirituality. (I see here something of the two kinds of Christian Wesley describes in “The More Excellent Way.”)

The United Methodist pastor would not have to be so troubled or defeated by the fact that so many in our congregations do not opt to pursue Methodist spirituality, so long as they do attend to the orthodox faith, but we would continue to provide and even view our role as being guardians of a Methodist spirituality that aims at a perfection in love, a holiness of heart and life, as the Holy Spirit’s promise to all who seek it.

Second, Gutierrez’s approach puts life in front of books. Theology is usually taught and presented as a collection of ideas and concepts knit together into elegant systems by brilliant thinkers. As a rather bookish guy myself, I don’t begrudge theologians any of this, but I do find that it can lead to theology that has no connection to life as lived and experienced by people.

I also find in my own life that theology only gets developed when it becomes the focal point of some lived problem or joy. The areas where I have thought through and wrestled theology to the ground the hardest are those places where experience makes those theological questions pressing.

Now, for all that, I am wary of making experience the touch stone of theology. I’ve seen first hand how we can use experience to justify anything we want to gut the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of tradition. And so, I’m wary of the prominence Gutierrez gives to experience as the crucible of theology. Perhaps this is why it is important that all these various spiritualities and ways of being Christian remain linked under the broader umbrella of the body of Christ.

Cautions noted, I do find myself coming back to this book again and again. I keep wondering if these words are not the best way to understand the nature of Methodism within the wider church:

Every great spirituality begins with the attainment of a certain level of experience. Then follows reflection on this experience, thus making it possible to propose it to the Christian community as a way of following Christ.

The devil’s scorecard

Have you cast out any devils recently?

This is a very Wesleyan question.

John Wesley, in his oft-cited sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” suggests our standard for judging the ministry of another be that question. Does the preaching of the person destroy the work of the devil?

In his sermon, Wesley points out that all the sins and evils of this world are the sign of the devil’s dominion.

Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience?

To this list, Wesley adds liars, slanderers, oppressors, extortioners, perjurers, and traitors. He even mentions the genocidal actions of his own colonizing countrymen. But the important point here is that all these manifestations of sin are signs of people under the power of Satan. A sinner is a captive. To bring a sinner to repentance is to drive the devil out. Conversion itself is a miracle of God. As Wesley writes elsewhere, it is no less a miracle to bring back to life a soul dead in sin than it is to bring back to a life a body dead in the ground.

We are locked in a spiritual war, Wesley writes in the sermon. We need all the allies we can get.

He that gathereth not men into the kingdom of God, assuredly scatters them from it. For there can be no neuter in this war. Every one is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side? Then you will not only not forbid any man that casts out devils, but you will labour, to the uttermost of you power, to forward him in the work.

Wesley suggests a three-part test to see if a person has driven out devils.

  1. Find a person who once was an open sinner.
  2. Notice that this person is no longer such and instead is living a Christian life.
  3. Fix the impetus for this change in attending the preaching of this or that person.

If you can do all three, than you can assume that God has driven out the devil through the work of that preacher.

This is more important than any disagreements over doctrine or practice. Wesley — in the part of the sermon that tends to get quoted most often — goes on to say that even if the person doing the preaching is an Arian or a Muslim or a Jew or Deist, if the fruit of the preaching is the driving out of Satan, then we should applaud and support that preacher’s work.

Wesley does not explain exactly how a Muslim imam might lead someone to live “a Christian life,” but his point remains. Perhaps in our internal denominational conversations and our interfaith dialogue we would be served well if we asked Wesley’s question rather than got bogged down on other matters.

Have you driven out devils? Yes? Then let us praise God together for that.