March 1, 2018
By Dr. Jeff Greenway
I went to college at two United Methodist institutions. As a Christ-follower, I attended the weekly Sunday morning worship service in the chapel and was involved in various on-campus ministries. I was also exposed to the religious studies faculty and pre-ministry students as I took my liberal arts requirements. During those four years, I was exposed to various streams of theological thought. As the child of an orthodox United Methodist clergyperson, I had been taught the historic doctrines of our faith and held a high view of Scripture. However, I soon learned that what was being taught by each school’s religion department and embraced by many of my fellow students did not appear to be the same faith I had been raised to believe and profess.
One of my classmates was especially antagonistic when attacking my “less-evolved” faith. After graduation, we went to different seminaries, but several years later found ourselves in the same Annual Conference. To my surprise, my former classmate and now clergy colleague had experienced a personal and theological conversion. He now embraced a thoroughly orthodox Wesleyan expression of faith in Jesus. When I asked him what led to his transformation, he said that his experience in seminary had brought him to a place of spiritual and theological crisis. He found the “faith” he had previously embraced was hollow and lifeless. He was dying spiritually and needed more. He came to the conclusion that either Jesus is who he said he is, and did everything he said he would do, or we have nothing to believe in that changes one’s life or our world. When I pressed him, he said it was his study of the Nicene Creed and its declarative statements about Jesus that brought him to a place of crisis and belief.
What we believe matters. The Nicene Creed captures the foundational beliefs we hold as followers of Jesus. It is not Scripture, but at the time of its writing, the Nicene Creed brought great clarity to the core of Christian doctrine in the face of heresies that were confronting the Church – like Arianism and Docetism – especially around the nature and divinity of Jesus. It has been embraced by Jesus followers and provided a source of unity that has transcended time, nationalities, languages and denominations for 1,700 years. It reminds us we are a part of something older than our cell phones, and it has stood the test of time and scrutiny. We would be well served to re-examine and reclaim these foundational beliefs in our time.
This series on the creed is being written because many of us believe the United Methodist Church is at a crisis of belief, and is precipitously close to forsaking the faith stewarded from generation to generation for the last 2,000 years.
I write to give focus to one phrase in the Nicene Creed:“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
These twenty words end the section of the creed that gives definition to who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he will do in the redemption of the world. This simple statement makes three declarations:
“He will come again…” reminds to us that this world is not all there is. Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, but the present age will come to a definitive end. We live in a fallen creation, and believe Jesus will come again to redeem all of creation into a new heaven and a new earth. He will make all things new.
“He will… judge the living and the dead…” reminds us there is a judgement coming for the life we live. In and of ourselves, we could not stand because of our sin, but because of our belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we will be counted among the righteous. Those who are in Christ – living or dead – have nothing to fear. As Charles Wesley wrote in the last verse of “And Can It Be that I Should Gain”:
“No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.”
“[A]nd his kingdom will have no end.” This reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is eternal. In his book, The Day the Revolution Began, NT Wright reminds us the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was not only for the forgiveness of our sin so that we can go to heaven someday, but rather so that God’s Kingdom might come now on earth as it is in heaven. The crucifixion of Jesus began a revolution establishing the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. However, there is an ultimate Kingdom coming that has no end where “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). This is the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
When I was younger, I used to think of heaven in abstract form and populated by nameless people, but the longer I live, the more I see heaven as being filled with people I know and love. Heaven is a real place, inhabited by real people, and a real Savior has prepared it for us. Sin ruined our eternal relationship with God, and Jesus has restored it. Heaven is our destination; our home country, what we were created for, and Jesus came to make it possible for us.
What we believe matters. Our beliefs shape our lives and moral conduct, and determine our worldview and destinies. What we believe is called doctrine in the Bible. Writing to Timothy, Paul said: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). He later urges Timothy to “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke and exhort… For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers who will tickle their ears” (2 Timothy 4:2-3).
What we believe matters!
Dr. Jeff Greenway is senior pastor at Reynoldsburg UMC in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. He is also chairman of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.