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Christ & Nonchristians

questioningQuestion: What do we do with the fact that there have been billions of people who died before Christ came to be among us on this earth? Or what about those who never learned about the saving power of Christ? How is it fair that these never had a chance for salvation? What guidance do the Scriptures give us on this issue, and what has the historic Church said about it?

For many years I have been fascinated by the Wesleyan theological tradition — which happens to be the theological tradition of the United Methodist Church and many other denominations. And in studying this, I discovered that the historic Methodist approach to this issue is a bit different from the ideas commonly heard in the evangelical world today.

Bishop Willard F. Mallallieu (1828-1911)

Bishop Willard F. Mallallieu (1828-1911)

As evidence I point to these paragraphs from Bishop Mallalieu’s article “Some Things That Methodism Stands For” published in 1903. He is discussing Methodist beliefs about the atonement. Bear in mind that Bishop Mallalieu’s whole thesis in this article (and the book from which it was drawn) is “back to the Bible and the Wesleys”. In the second paragraph he addresses these issues. (The bold type was added by me.)

Again, Methodism has always had a theory of the atonement. At least it has steadfastly believed that in the fall of Adam all his posterity has been disastrously affected; that moral depravity has touched every soul; that this depravity has been universal rather than total. Then it has held that the atonement is coextensive with the needs of man, and that the claims of Divine justice have been so fully satisfied that God can be just, the moral government of the universe vindicated, and at the same time all can be saved who comply with the easy terms of redemption’s plan. All prison doors are open, all chains and shackles unloosed, so that any soul may be delivered from the bondage of Satan, and come to enjoy the freedom of the sons of God.

Experimentally, Methodism, from the very first, has had a plain, practical, Scriptural faith. Starting on the assumption that salvation was possible for every redeemed soul, and that all souls are redeemed, it has held fast to the fundamental doctrine that repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ are the divinely-ordained conditions upon which all complying therewith may be saved, who are intelligent enough to be morally responsible, and have heard the glad tidings of salvation. At the same time Methodism has insisted that all children who are not willing transgressors, and all irresponsible persons, are saved by the grace of God manifest in the atoning work of Christ; and, further, that all in every nation, who fear God and work righteousness, are accepted of him, through the Christ that died for them, though they have not heard of him. This view of the atonement has been held and defended by Methodist theologians from the very first. And it may be said with ever-increasing emphasis that it commends itself to all sensible and unprejudiced thinkers, for this, that it is rational and Scriptural, and at the same time honorable to God and gracious and merciful to man.

The basis for this view is here: (more…)

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Theology as Provisional

Conservative-Evangelicals-Misunderstood-MillennialsTheology is always an interim report. It is always learning, always growing, always being revised in light of new information.

The only knowledge of the world that is available to us is probable knowledge. Everything in the world we live in is based on probability. We are forced to base our day to day decisions on what is probably true, what will probably happen, and so forth. I’m sitting in a chair. I suppose it might collapse. Any number of things might happen. A meteorite might come crashing through the window and kill me in the next few minutes. But, since neither of these things are the least bit probable, I need not worry about them — or even think about them.

I can’t wait for absolute certainty. I must act based on what I believe is likely to be true, what is likely to happen, and so forth. The Cartesian reconstruction (or Lockean reconstruction) of knowledge — arriving at certainty based on “sense experience” — is a mistaken quest. That kind of certainty is simply not available. (more…)

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Expecting the Guidance of the Holy Spirit

I think that many times in the past I prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit — but without a clear expectation in my mind that I would have it in the course of the day.

But, I have learned to expect the Spirit’s guidance — if, indeed, I have prayed for it.

F. B. Meyer (1847–1929)

F. B. Meyer (1847–1929)

The great preacher F. B. Meyer expresses it well:

Expect the Holy Ghost to work in, with and for you. When a man is right with God, God will freely use him. There will rise up within him impulses and inspirations, strong strivings, strange resolves. These must be tested by Scripture and prayer, and if evidently of God they must be obeyed. But there is this perennial source of comfort: God’s commands are enablings. He will never give us a work to do without showing exactly how and when to do it, and He will give the precise strength and wisdom we need. Do not dread to enter this life because you fear that God will ask you to do something you cannot do. He will never do that. If He lays aught on your heart, He will do so uninvited; as you pray about it the impression will continue to grow, so that presently, as you look up to know what He wills you to say or do, the way will suddenly open, and you will probably have said the word or done the deed almost unconsciously. Rely on the Holy Ghost to go before you to make the crooked places straight and the rough places smooth. Do not bring the legal spirit of ‘must’ into God’s free service. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ Let your life be as effortless as theirs, because your faith shall constantly hand over all difficulties and responsibilities to your ever-present Lord. There is no effort to the branch in putting forth the swelling clusters of grapes — the effort would be to keep them back.

— F. B. Meyer, quoted by Daniel Steele here: TESTINGS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. (more…)

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How Does God Think of Us? – Psalm 25:6,7

How would we want other people to think of you? Wouldn’t you want them to think the best?

For some people it becomes an obsession: wondering what other people think of them. It is a source of anxiety and shame. Most of the time the truth of the matter is: they don’t spend much time thinking about us at all. And, how much does it matter anyway? Should it?

Hebrew_bible_4How do we want God to think of us?

That can be a disturbing line of thought. Many people I know were raised in a hellfire and brimstone religion, where the angry judgement of God was a prominent theme. Human sinfulness & depravity was held up as the basic fact of human nature. We are sinners. And, God is holy. God is offended and angry over our sin. God must condemn us. It is only right.

And, this message, resonates with something deep inside us. We know we are not the people we should be. We are often ashamed of ourselves. And, God must know of flaws and errors that we don’t. We are quick to condemn ourselves. Why wouldn’t God condemn us?

In fact, it is hard for us to imagine that God would think more highly of us than we think of ourselves. Isn’t it?

That is why the message of God’s love is always so hard to believe. If we are sometimes tempted to worry about what other people think of us — how much more worrisome the thought of what God might think of us. (more…)

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On the Grace of Holy Scripture

bible-crossWords from one of the early Church Fathers:

Study your heart in the light of the Holy Scriptures, and you will know therein who you were, who you are, and who you ought to be. If you approach the Scriptures in meekness and humility, you will really discover there both the prevenient grace by which it is possible to be inspired to a beginning, and the concomitant grace, by which it is possible to continue a journey on the right path, as well as the subsequent grace, by which one is enabled to achieve the blessedness of the heavenly kingdom.

St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (ca. 465-533) Letter to Senator Theodore 6.12. Found here.

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What John Wesley Actually Said About the Bible

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

John Wesley saw the Methodist movement as a return to the original life & faith & experience of Christianity. He wanted to return to the faith of the apostles and the early church — to find that same dynamic quality of faith and life that the early Christians had. So, Scripture had a place of central importance in Wesley’s teaching and preaching.

In Wesley’s view, devotion to the teachings of the Scripture is absolutely essential for the task of keeping and renewing the Christian faith.

So, in light of this, I’ve gathered together on this page everything substantive that John Wesley said about the Bible. I have not attempted to “tone down” or alter any of his opinions — though I have updated the language in the first quote. My goal here has been completeness.

Yes, there is some room for argument about what he may have meant by some of these remarks — of course. And, I certainly wouldn’t say the man was in any way infallible.

But, here is what he actually said. (more…)

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John Wesley: On Being Open to Correction

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

It seems to me that John  Wesley had a very good attitude toward being corrected for his beliefs and convictions:

But some may say, I have mistaken the way myself, although I take upon me to teach it to others. It is probable many will think this, and it is very possible that I have. But I trust, whereinsoever I have mistaken, my mind is open to conviction. I sincerely desire to be better informed. I say to God and man, ‘What I know not, teach then me!’

Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labor with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in ordeal to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and so get more and more out of the way.

Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arise, ηυτε καπνος, (as Homer somewhere expresses it,) this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul, that I shall be able to see nothing clearly. For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love! We may die without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But, if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels!

The God of love forbid we should ever make the trial! May he prepare us for the knowledge of all truth, by filling our hearts with all his love, and with all joy and peace in believing!

 

— Preface to the Standard Sermons.

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Henri Nouwen on Theological Reflection

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

A Facebook friend posted a shorter version of this quote on his wall today:

Few ministers and priests think theologically. Most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological and sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking … is hard to find in the practice of ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers. They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living. But that has little to do with Christian leadership because the Christian leader thinks, speaks and acts in the name of Jesus, who came to free humanity from the power of death and open the way to eternal life. To be such a leader it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how the personal, communal, national and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection…

— Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (1993) pp. 65-66.

Obviously, Nouwen felt that this was true at the time he wrote it, but I wonder: how true is this today? (more…)

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A Prayer for Today

prayer&candle“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” — 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NRSV)

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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