Dead, not sick

Since I was thinking about George Whitefield the other day, I went back and read the sermon John Wesley delivered in 1770 upon Whitefield’s death.

In the sermon, he summarized Whitefield’s fundamental point in all preaching as this:

“Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man;” and “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.” With this point, he and his friends at Oxford, the original Methodists, so called, set out. Their grand principle was, There is no power (by nature) and no merit in man. They insisted, all power to think, speak, or act aright, is in and from the Spirit of Christ; and all merit is (not in man, how high soever in grace, but merely) in the blood of Christ. So he and they taught: There is no power in man, till it is given him from above, to do one good work, to speak one good word, or to form one good desire.

If it not clear from the text, Wesley was one of those original Methodists. He is writing and speaking about his own doctrine here as much as Whitefield’s. If we miss this point about Wesley’s doctrine, we misunderstand the nature and power of preventing grace. For Wesley – just as for the Calvinist Whitefield – human beings are devoid of any power or desire to do good. We are fallen utterly, and left to our own devices are rude, selfish, and brutal.

But Wesley always insisted that there is no such thing as a human being totally devoid of grace. In his sermon “On Conscience” he explains that no human being we ever meet is in an entirely graceless state because preventing grace (what we United Methodists call prevenient grace) has been poured out already. We recognize it when we urge each other to listen to our conscience. What we sometimes think of as that universal human intuition about right and wrong is – according to Wesley – God’s grace tutoring us toward holiness.

But – and this cannot be emphasized enough as we read Wesley today – preventing grace is not saving grace. It lures and draws us toward God, but it is not itself grace that will save us. In other words, being a person who is guided by conscience or who is a “good person” by the world’s standards is not a sign of being right with God.

Indeed, in his sermon on Whitefield’s death, Wesley overturns one of the most common ways we like to talk about church, a turn of phrase we use, perhaps, because we want to think that all people are more or less good people and just need some support to live upright and holy lives.

Here is how Wesley put it:

For it is not enough to say all men are sick of sin: No, we all are “dead in trespasses and sins.” It follows that all the children of men are, “by nature, children of wrath.” We are all “guilty before God,” liable to death temporal and eternal.

Church is not a hospital for sinners, Wesley might say, but a slaughterhouse for the old Adam. We are not basically healthy people who just need to be cared for and nurtured back to full health. We are dead people, spiritual corpses, in need of a miracle.

This is the message George Whitefield preached, according to his spiritual friend John Wesley. It is the message John Wesley himself preached, despite our attempts to soften the edges of his doctrine. Is it or will it be the doctrine that we preach?

Dead, not sick

When grammar changes theology

John Wesley loved 1 John. He wrote that it contained the essence of biblical faith, and many of his particular doctrinal emphases can be found in that book.

It is one of those books where translation versions make important differences in what you read. For instance, here is 1 John 3:6 in the NIV:

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

And here it is in the NRSV:

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

I’ve heard a preacher using the NIV text to argue that the point being made by the apostle is that if we persist in sinning we do not live in Christ. Of course, the preacher said, we all sin. The important issue is whether we make a habit of it or whether we keep on sinning.

This is not John Wesley’s take on this text, which reads in the King James much more like the NRSV than the NIV. For Wesley, here and elsewhere the point of the apostle is that being in Christ is incompatible with any sin. As it says in 1 John 1:5, God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

For Wesley, abiding in Christ is a moment by moment thing sustained by the active co-operation of the Spirit entering the believer and believer breathing out love and prayer in the Spirit. While we abide in Christ we cannot sin.

I don’t know whether the grammar of the Greek supports the Wesleyan reading or the NIV translation. The verb tense here, though, carries a lot of meaning. Or it seems to.

When grammar changes theology

Out of the isolation room

This summer working at the hospital, I’ve had several visits with people in isolation rooms. To go visit them, I have to put on a gown and rubber gloves and sometimes a mask. When I leave the room, I throw all these things away and wash my hands again.

I do all this because the person is infected and diseased and cannot be let out of the room.

Now, by one way of thinking, the doctor’s work is to kill off the infection, so the patient will be saved. But thought of another way, the real problem the patient has here is that he is dangerous to everyone around him and can’t leave that room. The ultimate bad result is that he will die and never leave that room again. What he needs to be liberated from is that isolated room and freed to be back in the world again. In order to do that, his infection has to be purged from him. Killing the infection is a means by which his liberation from isolation is made possible.

By way of analogy, sin is a contamination and disease. So long as we are so infected, we cannot get out of the isolation cell know as the world, both because we are too weak to do it but not inconsequentially because we are dangerous to those on the outside. Granted, it is a spacious and often comfortable isolation room, but we are trapped and unable to enter the world that is without sin and corruption so long as we are tainted.

Jesus came to usher us into that holy, pure, and beautiful kingdom. But first, our sins must be purged by the means of cross and forgiveness. Our sin must be dealt with as a necessary step to salvation, but that is not salvation itself. Salvation is getting out of the room.

Like all analogies, this is clumsy and limited, but I think there is something useful here.

Out of the isolation room

I see a broken world

This week, I listened to a presentation that included as one of its main points the argument that the Western tradition has gone terribly wrong because it is too focused on fixing problems. The concern is that this puts an emphasis on seeing people as broken or fallen in need of saving rather than as whole and healthy in need of — well, not much really except encouragement.

As  I listened, I recalled the opening pages of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In my presentation and in much of contemporary theology — so far as I can tell — the fact that human beings are radically out of alignment with God simply does not register. Awareness of this fact — which Chesterton memorably calls the only part of Christian theology that can be empirically proven — is described as a kind of morbid negativity about humanity.

I have a hard time reflecting over the arc of Scripture — Torah, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, and revelation — and finding much foothold for the notion that we — when left to ourselves — are well-grounded and responsive to God’s will for our lives.

I have a hard time looking at the world — especially beyond the little bubble of security that we all try to hard to wrap around ourselves — and seeing that people are generally happy, joyful, peaceful, just, merciful, and righteous.

I have a hard time looking in my own heart and seeing the image of Christ stamped there without any blemish or blot.

I’ve been accused of being a gloomy Gus many times in my life, so I’m aware that there may be people with a much more positive theology running around. But I don’t see the world looking much like the Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.

The world looks like a place that needs God to me, not just for some encouragement on the way but for rescue, healing, and salvation. God, of course, is at work already. All good comes from God. But the work is not done. The world is broken in need of healing. It is fallen in need of lifting up. It is captive in need of liberation.

This is how it looks to me. If I am wrong, God help me to see rightly.

I see a broken world

Seeking to be a good shepherd

Tom Oden in his book Pastoral Theology describes the vocation of a pastor this way:

to know the parish territory, its dangers, its green pastures, its steep precipices, its seasons and possibilities. The pastor leads the flock to spring water and safe vegetation.

This is not the only way he describes the pastoral vocation — and it is worth noting that I do not qualify as a pastor according to his book as I have not been ordained — but it is one that both resonates with me and highlights some of my struggles with our debates in the United Methodist Church.

I am vexed by questions over sexual behavior because I worry about my responsibility to help the people I serve remain safe and to be nourished. I worry about leading them to foul waters and feeding them poisonous herbs rather than life-giving food.

For the better part of 2,000 years, the shepherds who have gone before have pointed to certain inviting pools and warned us that they are not the waters of life, but of death. Now, we are told that the waters they avoided were safe and life-giving all along. The shepherds of the past were wrong. They misunderstood Jesus and the apostles. Drink and be filled.

My prayer is to be a good pastor one day. I seek to learn from the masters of the craft who have come before me. Mostly, I don’t want to lead the sheep to slaughter because I listened to the wrong voices. I want to serve them and help them live as Jesus would have them live.

It would be pastoral malpractice for me to tell the people something is not a sin that is, in fact, one. It would damaging as well to declare something sinful that is not. I am trying to avoid both errors.

Seeking to be a good shepherd

‘Finish, then, thy new creation’

Talbot Davis asks whether conversion or childhood has more of a shaping effect of who we are as Christians.

[I]n more than a few of those “new creation” situations, I’ve watched with despair as people fall back into unhealthy patterns of ungodly living.

The same folks who emerge triumphantly from baptismal waters later descend painfully into cycles of addiction and abuse.

The same people who pray for salvation in my office end up paying a bail bondsman to free them from a DUI arrest.

And people who come forward in a rush of commitment sometimes fall away in a haze of apathy.

The thread that connects those instances I cite?  Childhood.  People develop patterns of behavior as adults that — knowingly and unknowingly — serve as coping mechanisms for traumas they endured as children.  

Davis’ post reminds me of all the ink and energy John Wesley spent getting people to watch over each other in love and to watch over themselves, being constantly aware that the sin that no longer reigns in them still remains in them.

The old Wesleyan-Methodist wisdom was that we could slide back into old patterns and ways if we did not continue going on to perfection. To read a sermon such as “On Zeal” is to see Wesley’s concern for creating new habits in us to counter the bad old ones that Davis sees.

Justification — as Davis’ experience confirms — is the start of something not the end. It is a birth — a new creation. We have much growing to do and there is much danger if we abandon the new creation to the not-so-tender mercies of the sin that is jealous for its old place in our hearts and lives.

This is why Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn the plea “finish, then, thy new creation.” Being new and being finished are not the same thing.

‘Finish, then, thy new creation’