Posts Tagged ‘Wesleyan theology’

Do you want to be holy? Don’t neglect the life of the mind!

September 7, 2017

I did not arrange these books for this blog post. They were on a table in my office, in this order, completely randomly.

Facebook informed me that it’s been exactly five years today since my first trip to Kenya. I went there to teach theology and doctrine, church history, and polity to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I love theology and doctrine, as readers of my blog know. I think about this stuff a lot; it’s important to me. Obviously, I get passionate writing about it, talking about it, arguing about it. I’m also sensitive to the charge—often put forward by United Methodist colleagues—that theology and doctrine are of far lesser importance than (to use a buzzword) “spiritual formation,” or spiritual disciplines, or the pursuit of holiness.

Several years ago, I blogged about a popular United Methodist pastor who “crossed the Tiber” and converted to Roman Catholicism. He did so in part, he said, because he met a group of nuns whose lives exuded a kind of holiness that he had never seen before. He wanted what they had, and he attributed this quality of life to their Catholicism.

Not that plenty of Protestants don’t cross the Tiber every week for any number of reasons (and they pass plenty of Catholics swimming the other way as they do so), but given the Methodist emphasis on holiness, sanctification, and personal experience—sometimes at the expense, at least unwittingly, of a more intellectual emphasis on theology and doctrine—it’s natural that a United Methodist would be susceptible to this kind conversion.

Not me! I “live in my head,” as one professor at Candler affectionately pointed out. No matter how appealing the spirituality of some Catholics, I can’t get past at least a half-dozen serious theological objections. For me, nothing less than the gospel is at stake.

But these are intellectual objections, of course. And in our Methodist tradition, when heart and mind compete with one another, we tend to side with the heart. (Isn’t this one reason our denomination is in crisis about our doctrines associated with marriage and sexuality?)

Regardless, the apostle Paul believed that for the sake of holiness, heart and mind must be in harmony. They need one another.

We saw this in last night’s Bible study in Galatians—in chapter 4, verses 17 to 20. The Galatians are in serious spiritual danger. Although they had gratefully received the gospel and were converted when Paul first preached to them a year or two earlier, Paul says he is “in the anguish of childbirth” all over again. From his perspective, nothing less than their salvation is at stake. It’s as if they need to be “born again” again, Paul says. Christ needs to be “formed in them” again. Whether they are, at that moment, still saved or not, they have at least “backslidden” enough to place their souls in jeopardy. (As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe in the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

Is their problem related to sin and immorality? Are they acting like hypocrites? Are they failing to love God and neighbor sufficiently?

No. Their problem is that their theology is wrong.

They’re flirting with a seductive idea put forward by false teachers that they need to add just a few small “requirements” to the gospel in order to be saved. Paul has warned them that if they embrace a “gospel plus” anything else, they have lost the gospel entirely.

For the purpose of this blog post, however, the nature of their theological problem is less important than one principle that this problem illustrates: getting one’s theology right is, in Paul’s mind, an essential gospel issue. 

Last night, I challenged the class to consider how much value they place on the life of the mind versus the life of the spirit. They must go together! Paul implies that we should be as committed to theology and doctrine, to Bible study, and to scripture memorization as we are, for instance, to prayer, to worship, and to Christian service.

Are we? If not, why not?

God’s grace from beginning to end

July 16, 2012

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

In my sermon on Noah a couple of Sundays ago, I concluded the sermon, as I usually do, with a word about God’s grace. I wanted to make the point—already made beautifully well by John Goldingay in his Genesis for Everyone commentary—that God’s choice of Noah to carry forward the human project after the flood was a powerful example of God’s grace. Noah “found favor” (i.e., received God’s grace) and this finding of favor is always undeserved. The nature of grace didn’t change between the Old and New Testaments.

In the sermon, I said the following:

God’s love and grace aren’t conditional, based on your good behavior. God’s love and grace just are… a free gift, offered without condition or price.

I thought this was uncontroversial, at least in the Protestant waters in which I swim. I borrowed the phrase, “offered without condition or price,” from United Methodist baptism liturgy, which (without bothering to look it up) is probably also in the liturgies of other Christian traditions.

My friend Tom, a Southern Baptist, very helpfully challenged my assertion about God’s grace and love. I mean this sincerely: I simply take for granted my understanding of God’s grace and love. Tom forced me to think through its implications when he wrote the following:

With respect to “grace is free, not earned,” what I would say is that grace is God’s willingness to accept less than perfection to receive a relationship with him (since Jesus “paid the difference”). I am not sure I can go so far as to say, “grace is free.” We have no claim to have God’s love or relationship extended to us, but that does not mean God requires nothing from us to receive that. In the first instance, we have to have faith to be saved. And James says that faith without works is dead. Also, we have to repent. Neither of these “merits” God’s favor, but they are still indispensable to receiving it. We cannot be saved by “works” because that would require perfection. But we cannot be saved without faith and repentance either, and those are not “nothing.” God’s grace is “freely given,” without compulsion to do so, but it, like (or as a manifestation of) love, is still conditional.

If I’m reading Tom right, he’s saying, among other things, that faith and repentance are prerequisites for receiving God’s justifying grace. They are two necessary conditions by which we are saved. As he says, faith and repentance are “not nothing” (I love that phrase!). Therefore, we can’t assert God’s unconditional love or grace.

Hmm Read the rest of this entry »

Can God “retract our pardon”? Wesley thought so

October 21, 2011

Statue at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia

In last Sunday’s sermon, while discussing the very difficult Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, I put up a slide that drew a couple of questions from the congregation. The slide said that as Methodists we believe that it’s possible to lose our salvation, but that God always stands ready to forgive us and reconcile us back to himself.

A couple further comments: I realize it’s a bit optimistic to talk about “what Methodists believe,” because we often don’t know, in general, what we believe. We’re not a “confessional” church. The Wesleyan movement never defined itself in opposition to other Christian bodies. Wesley was himself a happy Anglican, for the most part. His problem with church was not orthodoxy but orthopraxy—how we live out our faith. He took for granted that we Methodists would stand squarely within the realm of orthodox Christianity as expressed by the Church of England.

Because of this legacy, we Methodists are known to be more laid-back, theologically, than many other parts of the universal Church. But this is not to say that theology isn’t important, or that we don’t have distinctive Wesleyan theological emphases.

One of these emphases is that we can fall from grace, even after we experience justification (forgiveness for sins) and rebirth (an inward spiritual change that enables us to live the Christian life). Salvation is a process that isn’t complete until the other side of death and resurrection, when we arrive safely in God’s kingdom. This is the point at which we are fully and finally saved. We may properly speak of “being saved” as a past event—because of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection in the past—but, theologically, our salvation always points to a future event.

With this in mind, we Wesleyan Christians believe that through faith we “get on the bus,” which is surely headed to salvation, but we may choose through sin and unbelief to get off at any time. We are that free, Wesley believed.

We Methodists, in other words, don’t believe in a doctrine that’s often called “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I wish we could believe in it, but not at the expense of being faithful to our best understanding of scripture. When we consider Jesus’ words in this parable, and especially Matthew 18:35, not to mention many other passages of scripture, the burden of proof, I would argue, lies with those Christians who believe in it.

Obviously, Wesley’s view was controversial among evangelical Protestants of his day. He sounds a polemical note in his commentary on v. 35:

And shall we still say, but when we are once freely and fully forgiven, our pardon can never be retracted? Verily, verily, I say unto you, So likewise will my heavenly Father do to you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

As I told a friend who struggled with the issue of eternal security versus falling from grace: It shouldn’t make much difference. It’s a good idea, even if we believe in the doctrine, to live as if we don’t! Right?