Two simple words

I’m not sure how many posts this will entail, but I’m going to start a deep dive on John Wesley’s sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” This is one of John Wesley’s standard sermons, which are doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church.

As doctrinal standards, they should be key texts for helping us discern what it means to be Methodist today. These days in the United Methodist Church, it is quite fashionable to quote — and sadly often misquote — Wesley. What I want to do is take the time to actually read him, and, with God as my helper, hear him.

So, without further ado …

1. Nothing can be more intricate, complex, and hard to be understood, than religion, as it has been often described. And this is not only true concerning the religion of the Heathens, even many of the wisest of them, but concerning the religion of those also who were, in some sense, Christians; yea, and men of great name in the Christian world; men who seemed to be pillars thereof. He comes out swinging. That “as it has been often described” is doing so much work. Up until that point in the sentence, you could imagine lots of people nodding in agreement. Yes, yes. Religion is hard to understand and full of complicated ideas and practices. But then Wesley pivots. The man who said he was a plain preacher for plain people tosses much Christianity together with heathen paganism, even while barely granting it the status of Christianity. That reference to those “who were, in some sense, Christians” had clear targets in mind, as must have been his reference to those men who “seemed to be pillars” of the church.

Yet how easy to be understood, how plain and simple a thing, is the genuine religion of Jesus Christ; provided only that we take it in its native form, just as it is described in the oracles of God! Take note champions of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” The source of knowledge about the nature of Christianity is found in the Bible. And what’s more, that religion is plain, simple, and easy to understand. Now, Wesley has already shown us that he is well aware of all the ways that human beings make religion complicated and obscure, but he does not accept the fact that we make it a mess as an indication that it is a mess that Jesus has put in our hands.

It is exactly suited, by the wise Creator and Governor of the world, to the weak understanding and narrow capacity of man in his present state. I do not believe Wesley would object to the notion that God is well beyond our understanding and comprehension. His ways are higher than our ways. But Wesley did insist that the religion God has given us is simple. It has to be simple, because we are ignorant. The mystics are correct that there are depths to God that we cannot begin to grasp, but the religion of Jesus Christ is so simple that even we can get hold of it. How else could this be the case? Just as a parent or teacher of small children uses simple and plain examples to instruct, so God has done with us.

How observable is this, both with regard to the end it proposes, and the means to attain that end! The end is, in one word, salvation; the means to attain it, faith.

2. It is easily discerned, that these two little words, I mean faith and salvation, include the substance of all the Bible, the marrow, as it were, of the whole Scripture. So much the more should we take all possible care to avoid all mistake concerning them, and to form a true and accurate judgement concerning both the one and the other. And so here we see outline for the rest of the sermon. Wesley will first consider what we mean when we say the word “salvation” and then consider what we mean by “faith.” This method of preaching is one that Wesley uses a lot. He tells us what it means to be a Christian by giving clear meanings to words. We learn to “speak Christian” as a first step to learning how to be Christian. In this case, we must be clear about what we mean when we speak of salvation and faith.

This point feels as important today as it did in Wesley’s day. In the United Methodist Church today, it is not at all clear that we mean the same things when we use the same words. We appear, in my observation, to be much more interested in “our theology” and “my understanding” than we are in having a common vocabulary that unites us.

I think this is why it is so hard to say these days what makes a United Methodist a United Methodist. When someone says, “I was born and raised a United Methodist. The church I grew up in was as United Methodist as you can get” I’m not sure at all what they mean until they go on to explain it. Usually, what they explain are certain liturgical practices or features of our polity or some vague sense of being warm-hearted and socially concerned.

I’ve never heard any Methodist say anything like: “What makes me a Methodist is my conviction that the true religion of Jesus Christ is plain, simple, and easy to understand, and it can be summed up in just two words: salvation and faith.”

And yet, that is what the first Methodist insisted upon.

If you are at all interested, stay tuned as we move more deeply into this sermon and, perhaps, find a shared language to help us remember who we Methodists are.

Christ died for us. Christ lives in us

Every elder in the United Methodist Church has to write about their understanding of justification and sanctification in order to get ordained. Wesleyan Methodist preaching has always included both, or, at least, it was intended to include both.

We believe that all human beings are dead in sin and need to be made alive in Christ. Everyone falls short of the glory of God and needs to be receive the pardon that has already been won for us on the cross. But the story does not stop there. By the work of the Holy Spirit, all of those who are born from above are called to bear the fruit of their new life. A truly saved Christian cannot help but live out the love of God and neighbor, not from a sense of duty but because it is their very nature to do so. They are a new creation in Christ. Christians are called to expect and to seek to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus and to experience the renewal of the original image of God that we were created to bear.

Christ has died for us. Christ lives within us.

As a pastor in a local church, I have tried to teach and preach this faithfully, but people, even those who many would consider good Christians, put up many defenses against this message.

Some people, of course, resist even the notion that there is a God or that the Christian revelation is true or that we need to be forgiven. The cross still is a scandal and a stumbling block to a lot of people.

But even those who have come, by the grace of God, to a sense of conviction that they need Jesus, that they need to be forgiven, and that they need to accept him as their Lord, even these folks often have many ways to dodge the entire question of sanctification.

Some have been taught that “getting saved” is like a magic spell or an initiation ritual. If they say the right words, they get the secret handshake and the “get out of Hell” free card. They don’t actually seek or experience the justifying grace of God that frees us from sin and gives us power to resist and overcome it. They may confess Jesus Christ is lord with their lips, but their hearts have missed the lesson of the resurrection.

Of course, many people do experience a new birth that is deep and genuine. And yet, even among that group, there is often resistance to sanctification.

We believe God can raise the dead and create stars out of nothing, but we resist the idea that he can make us to be like Jesus Christ, not in power or in knowledge, but in perfect love for God and every person. We resist this idea. We say things like, “I’ll always be a sinner,” even though the Holy Spirit gives us the power to overcome sin. We say, “I can’t change,” even though God surely can do what we cannot. We settle for a less excellent way because we do not believe that God can do in us what he has promised.

The interesting thing to me about all of this is that what people most desperately want is that sense peace, power, and joy that justification and sanctification offer us. They want the very thing Christianity offers, but they want it from just about any other source. They want it on their terms. They will pay immense sums of money on false promises and burn up their days chasing lies, but they will not turn to God like little children and seek his pardon and his power. It is just too hard to give up our own sense of control. The serpent knew our weak spot perfectly in the garden.

And so, fractured and as broken as we are, I think that is why God keeps Methodists around. He keeps us around to continue to preach and teach and live out what John and Charles Wesley and a small band of others set out proclaim almost 300 years ago.

I have tried to preach Methodist Christianity, and I will continue to try to do so as well and faithfully as I can. I will continue to pray for my own entire sanctification, and I will continue to work with the Holy Spirit as he moves in my life.

To be honest, I don’t really know how I could call myself a Methodist if I did otherwise.

Methodist preaching is Spirit filled

This is the last of four posts trying to identify that makes Methodist preaching Methodist. In my mind, I have been narrowing the focus as I have gone, reducing the overlap at each step with other Christian traditions. In the widest claim, I wrote that Methodist preaching is orthodox. Then I wrote that it is also evangelical, marking it as distinct from all those forms of orthodox Christian preaching that do not place as much emphasis on a high view of biblical authority, the importance of the cross and conversion, and the translation of faith into action. Next, I distinguished Methodist preaching from Calvinistic strains of evangelicalism by pointing to the Arminian commitments that inform our preaching. In this post, finally, I assert hat the final distinctive of Methodist preaching is our powerful expectation that the Holy Spirit will bring to completion what begins when we are justified by grace.

I will discuss two examples of what we preach with regard to the Holy Spirit. First, we believe and preach that the Holy Spirit gives believers an assurance of their salvation in Christ. Second, we believe that the Holy Spirit will transform us into the image of Christ, provided we follow his leading in the work of grace.

Blessed Assurance

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Christian who was struggling with the fact that she had never had a Paul on the road to Damascus conversion. She remembered being led to pray a version of the sinner’s prayer as a child and young person, more than once. But she did not remember any experience of change. Was something missing, she wondered.

In the hit streaming show The Chosen there is a powerful example of the conversion experience told through an extra biblical embellishment of the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary has a powerful, redeeming, and liberating encounter with Jesus, who drives out the demons within her. Later, when she is recounting what happened, she is at a loss to explain it. She says, “I was one way, and now I am completely different. And in between, there was him.” *

This is what many people feel they lack in their Christian experience. We don’t often feel “completely different” after praying for Jesus to be our Savior and Lord. And we sometimes wonder if we did something wrong or if we are really saved.

We Methodists — along with many other Christians — believe that God does not want us to wonder such things. Indeed, we believe that the Holy Spirit longs to give us the assurance of our salvation that so many long for. One of our great hymn writers, Fanny Crosby, wrote one of our most popular hymns about this very thing.

Methodist preaching is grounded in the conviction that the Holy Spirit is active and present and moving. He speaks to our spirit that we are children of God. We do not have to limp along wondering if we are saved. We can know it.

Prior to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, a spiritual mentor asked him this simple question: “Do you know you are saved?” Wesley stumbled and fumbled around. He certainly hoped he was. He certainly had tried to live as if he was. He was intelligent, dedicated, and as hard a worker as the church could ever ask for, but faced with a simple question he was brought up short.

His mentor told him that he could know he was saved. He could have the assurance of his salvation. He did not have to wonder and stumble. Not long afterward, Wesley was given that assurance, and Methodist preachers have to this day continued to preach what we sing: Assurance is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who is active and ready to fill you with his presence.

This, I know, is not what we often think about when we write about Spirit-filled preaching. We usually mean by that signs and wonders and energetic and ecstatic experiences. We think of healing and people being slain in the Spirit and speaking in tongues. And none of these should be outside the bounds of our expectation as Methodists. The Holy Spirit is alive and active, and he will do what he will.

But these are not the essential hallmarks of the Spirit-filled preaching of Methodists. They are outward signs of the inner work of the Holy Spirit, work that can go on amid shouting and fire or in the quiet of a Bible study small group gathering. The essential thing is that Spirit gives you the assurance of your salvation and then leads you to work out the full sanctification of your soul. Methodist preaching should help people to understand that this gift is being offered to them by God. It should help them seek it. It should help them sing it.

In the conversation I had with the woman who was wondering if she had missed something in her conversion, I observed that her faith in Jesus seemed very solid to me. I asked her how that came to be. She told me about a summer when she came to have this firm sense of Jesus’ love and the peace she had in trusting in him. It was that summer that she found the unshakeable certainty of the love of Jesus.

I smiled when she recounted this story and told her she was more Methodist than she knew. That assurance of her salvation and the dissolving of her doubt was her Aldersgate. It is something the Holy Spirit will do for all believers, and something Methodist preachers should encourage Christians to seek, anticipate, and expect.

Going on to Perfection

The most controversial convictions of John Wesley’s teachings was a natural extension of his insistence that all the commands of God in Scripture are “covered promises.” In other words, God never commands us to do a thing that he will not also give us the grace to do. So, when God calls us to be as merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful, this is not an impossible hurdle for us to clear. It is a promise that if we seek it, God will give us the grace to become truly merciful.

Likewise, when God calls us to love God with all our soul, to love each other, to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus, he is also promising to work within us by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the sanctifying grace of God to become what he commands us to be.

In some Christian traditions, the Sermon on the Mount is taught as a tool God uses to crush our self-righteousness. We hear the commands of Christ in the sermon and — if we are honest — acknowledge that we are never going to be that good and so are driven to seek forgiveness for the sinful nature that we are powerless to rise above.

Methodists also believe that we are powerless, on our own, to rise above our sinful nature. But we believe that what is impossible for us is possible for God. When Jesus calls us to love perfectly and completely, he is also offering us the grace to do so, if we lean into that grace and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit within us. We will never be free of temptation, but in Jesus Christ we have the power to overcome what once held us fast in chains.

Methodist preaching gave rise to the holiness movements and pentecostalism precisely because it took on faith the idea that God really does intend to restore us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Spirit is active right now and the grace of God is capable of doing within us what we would never be able to do on our own.

When I attend non-Methodist churches, I sometimes hear some of our hymns sung in worship. I always take a small bit of joy that our gift to the church universal is music. It can also be a time that reminds me of how we Methodists do have our own place within the wider church. I recall a non-Methodist worship service that concluded with the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Exceling,” but it changed the words of the final verse. In that verse, we speak of God bring us into the full image of Christ, in which we were first made. It is a joyous verse, but one that must have rubbed our brothers and sisters in a related tradition as fanciful or just plain wrong. I don’t remember exactly the words that they sang that day, but I will conclude this post with the words as they appear in our hymnal, a confident plea that God do what he has promised he will do with us.

Finish then, thy new creation,
Pure and spotless, let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory
Til in heaven we take place,
Til we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

* We may quibble that a scene about an exorcism is not exactly an good example of what happens in our conversion, the line from that show has powerful resonance in evangelical imagination, so much so that this one scene has become the inspiration for a song by a popular Christian recording artist.