June 23, 2017
By Dr. David Watson
Dr. David Watson, Dean of Academics at United Theological Seminary and Wesleyan Covenant Association Council member pens this helpful piece bringing us back to the basics of our Wesleyan tradition. This is part of the Next Methodism!
A few good posts have popped up about the “Next Methodism” and what that might look like. Kevin Watson, Scott Fritzsche, and Stephen Fife have taken up this topic, and I made my own contribution as well. Now I’d like to continue the conversation with a bit of reflection on what it might mean for Wesleyan/Methodist types to get “back to the basics” of Christian faith.
These suggestions are not about the structure of The United Methodist Church going forward, but about what I believe a successful Wesleyan movement will teach and do.
Okay… First, some technical stuff: theologically, John Wesley was not particularly original. He was deeply formed by the Book of Common Prayer. He drew heavily on Augustine and Luther and wove in ideas from the Eastern Fathers. He insisted on an Arminian notion of free will and election. (In other words, he held that (a) we have free will and (b) we are not individually predestined for heaven or hell.) He drew upon the “heart theology” of German Pietists. His system of belief was an amalgamation of ideas from traditional Christian thinkers. In no way did he depart from what he called “primitive Christianity,” or the Christianity of the first five centuries.
Wesley proclaimed what is sometimes called the “old, old story.” Christianity is, at its heart, about the love of God for us, our rebellion against God, and God’s work through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to overcome our rebellion and its consequences. Love, sin, salvation… these together are the essence of Christian proclamation.
We often try to make Christianity about other things—about social justice, good works, receiving blessing, or going to heaven when we die. All of these, though, are derivative of Christianity’s three most basic claims: love, sin, and salvation. I believe that a renewed commitment to these claims will be essential for the Next Methodism.
To put a finer point on it, we are going to have to get clear about what “Methodist” proclamation means and why it matters. And if we are Wesleyan in any discernable sense, love, sin, and salvation will become the hallmarks of our preaching and teaching.
Yep, God loves you. He really does, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you may as well just accept it.
In fact, God is love. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). God created us out of love. God made covenant with Israel out of love. God gave the law out of love and came to us in Jesus Christ out of love. Out of love, God sent the Holy Spirit to abide with us until Christ returns.
For many people, the idea of being loved like this is an almost impossible idea. How many people have you met who feel unworthy of love? How many feel that love is something that one must earn, or that they can never really have? Some people see God only as a judge, some as a taskmaster. The idea that the God of the universe would really love them—enough to come in person and die for them–is unfathomable.
The media-saturated world in which we live constantly tells us that we are not enough, we cannot measure up, we need more, we are unworthy. We connect with more people than ever before via social media, but our relationships are more superficial, and the opportunity for truly meaningful connections is ever more difficult. If we have not experienced love in our lives, especially as children, it is very difficult to receive God’s love.
So we really have to drive this one home: God loves each of us immeasurably and unconditionally. The only question is whether we will receive this love and return it to God.
Nothing else in Christianity makes sense without the love of God. Everything is predicated upon this idea. It is the bedrock concept of Christian faith.
Saying that God is love necessarily means that God is not morally neutral. God cares how we live, what we do, what we say, and even what we think. This is clear from the earliest chapters of the Bible through its very last.
In spite of God’s great love for us, however, we separate ourselves from God by our thoughts, words, and deeds. In other words, we sin. Human beings are good by nature, but we are fallen. Some people prefer the language of “broken,” but the point is that sin is an inescapable part of human life.
Face it: we all screw up. Paul writes about this in Romans 7 using a Greek rhetorical device called a “speech in character” (or, if you want the fancy Greek word, prosopopoeia). He speaks on behalf of all of fallen humanity:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me (Rom 7:14-20).
In Romans, Paul is much more concerned with sin than sins (plural). He sees sin as a kind of cosmic force exerting itself on the human will. Even if we know what is right, we can’t do it, at least not consistently.
After lamenting the state of the human condition, he seems to throw up his hands in frustration: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
The answer, however, comes in the next breath: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25).
We can’t escape from sin, but we can be rescued from it. And that’s where salvation comes in.
Because of the love of God, we don’t have to remain in sin. John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (3:16). God’s love for us is so great that, despite all the terrible things human beings have done, we can still be free—really free—of the guilt of sin, and we can deny sin power over our lives.
God came to us in Jesus Christ, who atoned for our sins on the cross. Think of atonement as at-one-ment. Sin separates us from God, but on the cross Jesus made it possible for us to be in communion with God again. Jesus broke the death grip of sin upon our lives and freed us from the guilt of our rebellion against God. Now God abides with us in the Holy Spirit, empowering us to think, speak, and act as we were always meant to.
As Paul puts it, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor 5:19, and we’ll get back to the “entrusting the message to us” part later).
Jesus has saved us. The language of “being saved” may sound hackneyed to many Christians, like something out of “The Apostle.” Nevertheless, it is perhaps the best language available for thinking about what Jesus has done for us. He has saved us—from sin, Satan, death, ego, and meaninglessness. Jesus saves us, and boy do we need saving.
Here’s another way of putting it: Jesus makes it possible for us to be who we were always intended to be. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). Have you done things you’re ashamed of? Well, now you’re a new creation. Do you believe your sins can’t be forgiven? Guess what? You’re not the same person you used to be. You’re a new creation. Do you wish you could change the past? You can’t do that, but God is making you into someone new. You’re a new creation. Let that sink in.
Sometimes we think of salvation as equivalent to “going to heaven.” Salvation is much more than this, though. In his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” Wesley describes salvation as follows:
It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.” It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, “Ye have been saved”: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.
To be clear, Wesley did believe that we would live eternally with God, but that “salvation” involved much more than this. Salvation is something happening in our lives now. It is the change that God creates in the hearts of those who seek him.
Or, here’s still another way of putting it: the salvation that we have in Jesus means that we will be filled with God’s love to the point of overflowing, and that same love will pour out of our lives.
Our salvation means we are never alone. God is always present. We may not feel God’s presence all the time. We may not understand that God is moving or what God is doing, but God is present. And that means that we have at our disposal the power of the Holy Spirit, who is a giver of gifts. The Spirit may give us gifts of preaching, teaching, healing, or prophecy. The Spirit may give many other gifts, too. But rest assured, if we ask, the Spirit will empower us with gifts for the building up of the church.
Now, back to “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” God has given us the great privilege of telling other people about love, sin, and redemption. He gives us the opportunity to tell other people how our lives have been saved, how we have been rescued, and how God is making us into a new creation. In the next Methodism, let’s keep the main thing the main thing, and tell people about the love of God, human sin, and the redemption we have through Jesus Christ.