In the “late unpleasantness” which has some of our Methodist congregations in turmoil, many have their reasons for going or staying. As one born into the Methodist Church, who spent a portion of my life looking for a “better god” before God called me back home, I have some experience with faith. I’ve had it, lost it, and received it once again. My privilege in seminary to work along side the Wesley librarian allowed me to touch authentic Wesley letters. I also had the blessing of being the late Dr. Billy Abraham’s assistant for the Evangelism Chair. When I think of faith, Romans 12:3 comes to mind:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Here Paul’s word for faith is the Greek word pistis, which is always a gift from God, never something that can be produced by people. In short, faith for the believer is always “God’s divine persuasion” and therefore distinct from confidence or human belief. The Spirit continuously births faith in the yielded believer so they can know God’s will (1 Jn 5:4).
The former UMC Bishop Mike Lowery wrote in his notice of withdrawal from the Council of Bishops as he surrendered his elder’s orders: “I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all.” (Jude 3, CEB).
I’m not picking on the former bishop. I knew him from my Emmaus community days in Southwest Texas. But his posted letter, which can be read at the link below, charges the United Methodist Church has lost her Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. This piqued my interest, so I decided to focus my own thoughts, as well as to inform others, on this matter of faith.
Faith as Doctrine of Assent vs Doctrine of Assurance:
Today we often think of faith as a set of beliefs, or the Doctrine of Assent. In Wesley’s time, he understood faith as the Doctrine of Assurance, a unique gift to the Christian church, whereby believers can know with certainty they are truly beloved of God with a steadfast love which endures forever.
This love is unconditional and saves us from the tragic consequences of the law of sin and death by bringing us into the law of life and love through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That descriptive mouthful is John Wesley’s heartwarming experience he had at Aldersgate in 1738 on the fateful evening when he attended a meeting very unwillingly, yet had the heart changing event that set his life on a different path.
Historic Wesleyan Faith is a Gift of Grace
We need to ask, “What is the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith, anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior?” Is it located in regeneration, aka the new birth, or is it located in human morality as proof of righteousness in Jesus Christ? This probably means nothing to people in the pews, but if we’re going to claim the mantle of John Wesley, or the argument from tradition, we must get Wesley’s understanding of faith down pat. We find Wesley’s thoughts in his Notes on the New Testament and in his Standard Sermons, both of which are part of our Methodist teaching.
In the sermon OF EVIL ANGELS, Wesley reminds us faith is “our evidence of things unseen.”
“Faith is the life of the soul; and if ye have this life abiding in you, ye want no marks to evidence it to yourself: but [elencos pneumatos/Spirit control] that divine consciousness, that witness of God, which is more and greater than ten thousand human witnesses,” is Wesley’s explanation of faith in AWAKE, O SLEEPER.
Faith as the Spirit of Adoption
Another way of saying this is Romans 8:15-17,
“When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
For Wesley, faith is a gift of salvation, our trust in the saving work of Christ. As he says in the sermon AWAKE OH SLEEPER:
“Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is His gift, by the operation of His Spirit.”
Then Wesley gives his altar call:
“In what state is thy soul? Was God, while I am yet speaking to require it of thee, art thou ready to meet death and judgement? Canst thou stand in His sight, who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity’? Art thou ‘meet to be partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light’? Hast thou ‘fought a good fight, and kept the faith’? Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed upon with Christ?”
“Hast thou oil in thy lamp? grace in thy heart? Dost thou ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength’? Is that mind in thee, which was also in Christ Jesus? Art thou a Christian indeed that is, a new creature? Are old things passed away, and all things become new?”
Faith comes as a Gift. Our good works respond to Christ’s work.
Most of us are in agreement Wesley’s initial understanding of FAITH having to do with accepting Christ’s work for us as the only precondition for our salvation. There is no good deed or accumulation of good deeds needed to earn our salvation from God. What many of us have difficulty is accepting we also don’t earn our perfection in holiness by our own power.
Our Christian perfection is always a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit. As the Spirit works in us, we respond to work toward the complete renewal into the original image of God in which we were created. While it’s possible we might attain this perfect state in this lifetime, most Christians will attain completion in the purity of love of God and neighbor at the moment of death by God’s work, not by our own accomplishments.
Do the Born Again Christians Sin?
In Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” he quotes 1 John 3:9—
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.”
Wesley admits people who are born again can err or make mistakes, but they don’t sin. That’s a bridge too far for many to accept today, for many of us are prone to judging others. We have a dysfunctional understanding of “perfection.” We think it’s like a Martha Stewart design, forgetting she has a whole staff of helpers to carry out her ideas. As one of my professors once explained it, “Once you’ve been to Waxahachie, you’ve always been to Waxahachie.”
If you don’t know Waxahachie, it’s a midsized Texas town about the size of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was known for cotton in its hey day, and now hosts a crepe myrtle festival. Once you’ve been there, you can’t lose that experience. In the same way, you can’t lose your status of new birth. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, given by faith through Christ.
But some of us will try to throw it away anyhow. Wesley wrote in that same sermon, The Great Privilege, “Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.”
The Outward Appearance vs. The Inward Attributes
So, one who has faith doesn’t sin, since we have to lose faith in God to sin. In other words, we have to reject the gift freely given to us without price. As he also says in his great sermon on Christian Perfection, “Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” [Gal 2:20]— Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
For Wesley, the goal of Christian perfection, or the recovery of the image of God, was to love God and neighbor with one’s whole heart until nothing else could exist inside. No favoritism for a group, no exclusion for a group, no yearning to be better than others, no desiring a better place at the table, no hoarding of resources for selfish purposes, no fear of tomorrow, nor any other anxiety that strikes the human heart.
We give our resources away so we can have room for new blessings. God always provides for those who give with generous hearts. We open our doors to the least, the last, the lost, and the unloved, because Jesus and Wesley went out into the fields and met the people where they were. Those are our people out there, and they aren’t “living moral lives,” any more than the imperfect people within our churches are. But we all can and do live lives of faith. We all can learn to trust a savior who loves every sinew of our wounded and broken bodies. We can love a God who never gives up on us even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
We United Methodists might be messy, but we surely can love God and neighbor. Moreover, we’re all going on to perfection, even if some of us are moving more slowly than others. We’re still a community of faith, a people who trust God’s grace and one another to get through this thing called life together. We’ll bring each other along, for we’re not leaving anyone behind. We include in the great worldwide Body of Christ the body of Christ whom we meet outside our doors. After all, the race isn’t to the swift, but to the ones who help their brothers and sisters to the finish line, where we have a finishing medal for everyone, along with a big potluck dinner with enough food for folks to take home leftovers. That’s the never ending banquet table to which we invite all who hunger and thirst for community—both spiritual and personal.
Trusting Faith for a Risky Love in Unsettled Times
All we have to do is ask ourselves in this unsettled time: “Do I have Wesley’s trusting faith to live this risky love? Are these the people with whom I want to experience God’s steadfast love and share the grace of Christ? This is our heritage in the United Methodist Church, for we’re a people of faithfulness, who believe the “Bible has everything sufficient for salvation.”
I can only hope for those who leave, whether they become global Methodists, independents, or community congregations, that they will provide a large enough tent for our big God and big Christ, for the Spirit always is seeking people and places to fill completely with the gift of God’s extraordinary love and power.
My prayer is our United Methodist churches will receive a fresh rush of the Spirit to become even more of what we are today, for
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?“
Joy, peace, and faith,
Strong’s Greek: 4102. πίστις (pistis) — faith, faithfulness
Crossing the Rubicon: A Bishop Says Goodbye to the United Methodist Church
Of Evil Angels, sermon by John Wesley
Awake, Thou that Sleepest, sermon by John Wesley
The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God, sermon by John Wesley
“Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).”
Theological Guidelines: Scripture
On Christian Perfection, sermon by John Wesley
NOTE: For a longer discussion on “Love thy neighbor,” see—
Kierkegaard, D. Anthony Storm’s Commentary on—Works Of Love
John Wesley’s Notes on the Old and New Testaments. http://bible.christiansunite.com/wesindex.shtml
Sermons of John Wesley, 1872 edition