This is a continuation of my previous post: “How I Still Think Like a Methodist.”
First, I need to explain this: when I say “Methodist” I don’t mean it in any denominational sense at all. Yes, I served for many years as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. And, at that time I was quite loyal. I came to Christ long ago at a holiness camp-meeting. But, I really don’t mean to speak of this in any sectarian sense at all.
I know many people who experienced the holiness denominations as spiritually oppressive and legalistic. This has not been my experience, but I know that it has been for many.
It may seem strange — since I am very far from being a legalistic person myself — that I find the teachings of the early Methodists and the preachers of the Holiness Movement so interesting. For many, the often over-stated claims of the Holiness movement are an embarrassment. Yet, I find these writings a helpful corrective to the casual “Christians Aren’t Perfect They’re Just Forgiven” attitude of so much of contemporary Christian culture. It’s a helpful corrective to a church that has come to peaceful terms with the injustices of this world — rather than challenging and correcting them.
I am glad I came to Christ in the context of a group of people who believed that faith in Christ made a real difference in a person’s life. I am thankful for a message — however difficult — that challenged me to fully open my life to the power of God’s Spirit. I am glad I heard a Gospel that still held to a message, not only of forgiveness, but also of change and new life.
John Wesley’s writings and the commentaries of Adam Clarke were formative influences on me in the development of my faith — and my understanding of the meaning and relevance of the Bible’s teachings.
Every once in a while I run across something that reminds me why I’m glad I used to read this material — and the value I have always found in it.
For example, consider this summary statement about the gospel message that Wesley preached, which was written in the early 1900’s by Bishop W. F. Mallalieu:
The Gospel as preached by Wesley and those who imitate him, appeals with peculiar force to the intelligent common-sense of all unconverted men. All such men feel that under the circumstances and conditions of human life, it was incumbent upon God to make salvation possible to every soul. It has been the mission of Methodism to destroy the unreasonable and illogical and unscriptural dogmas of Calvinistic fatalism, and show how God could be just and yet the justifier of every believing soul that in real penitence accepts the Lord Jesus Christ; and, also, how God can save all infants and irresponsible persons, and how in every nation all who fear God and work righteousness, though they have never heard the Gospel, are accepted by Him. These fundamental truths as set forth by John Wesley, have never failed to commend themselves to the favorable consideration of all unprejudiced minds, for they at once glorify the Divine justice and compassion, and throw wide open the door of hope to every soul. But Wesley was thorough and exhaustive in his treatment of whatever was the subject of his investigations. For many long and weary years he groped in the thick darkness of the times in which he lived, seeking for the simplest experience of salvation. He abounded in all manner of self-denials and self-sacrifices; his morality was [of] the most exalted character; he was diligent in prayer and in the study of God’s word; he was most strict in all the outward forms and services of religion; but until he reached his thirty-fifth year he had not attained the consciousness of pardon in his own soul; he could not testify that God for Christ’s sake had forgiven him his sins. From that auspicious and ever-memorable, as well as glorious hour, when, listening to the reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he felt his heart strangely warmed with the love of God, and knew himself to be a pardoned sinner, he went straight forward as the Spirit of God directed his steps, till he came to the experience of perfect love in his own soul.
Notice the power of what Mallalieu says. He is expounding a point of view that has become largely forgotten. Salvation is available to all — it is not withheld from any. Determinism is denied. Atonement is available for all who will have it. God is fair and will judge all people fairly — taking consideration for the knowledge that had in this life. Emphasis is placed on the experience of forgiveness and the witness of the Spirit. The life of the Spirit is held up as a life of love: devoted to God’s will and to the best interests of all people. The goal of the spiritual life is taught as being perfected love.
And, people so changed by the Spirit of God, also believe that their world can be changed for the better: it can become a more fair and humane place.
A new generation of Christians need to arise — I think they are arising! — who will challenge the assumptions under which today’s church operates. Someone needs to challenge the notion that there is no genuine cure for sin. Someone needs to challenge the idea that the world must always go from bad to worse until Jesus returns. If, though the life, death and resurrection of Christ God’s Kingdom has come in the here-and-now then there is hope for people and there is hope for the world. It is time to recover this Wesleyan optimism of grace!
And, I don’t really care if people call it Wesleyan Theology. I don’t care if people use the term “Methodist” or decide to discard it. That is not the point. In fact, John Wesley isn’t the point. It’s the gospel to which he pointed: the message of hope in Jesus Christ. This can still change people. Yes, and it can change the world.