Methodists are Mythical Creatures #1

While doing a little research on the internet I came across a tract written by John Wesley called The Character of a Methodist which I found in many places to be a bit disturbing and very much counter to my understanding of the scriptures.  If you do decide to follow that link, please note that what is written by Wesley is meant to point out what distinguishes Methodists, not requirements for salvation.  Also note that this document is not a denominational standard for what it means to be a United Methodist.  The following is an excerpt from the opening paragraph of this tract which will give you an idea of what it proposes to do.

SINCE the name first came abroad into the world, many have been at a loss to know what a Methodist is; what are the principles and the practice of those who are commonly called by that name; and what the distinguishing marks of this sect, "which is everywhere spoken against."
The rest of the tract seeks to answer question "what are the distinguishing marks of this sect?" Or as the title conveys, what is "The Character of a Methodist"?

This post really cuts straight to the heart of this blog.  It shows the difficulty and  tension of ministering within a body that finds guidance into the scripture from Wesley at its core of belief, while personally coming to a theology that is in numerous places at odds with Wesley.  Also realize you do not have to agree with Wesley to be a member of the United Methodist Church, the point is that our system is Wesleyan at its core so though our thinking diverges  at times from Wesley his theology still shapes ours significantly.

So without further introduction let's get into the body of this tract, which will take a few posts to deal with.  Please note that I attempt to be honest a fair to the context of this tract as I pull various statements from it.

The first 3 paragraphs of the tract deny that a Methodist is a legalist, and affirms unity with those outside of the Methodist sect, and then we are met with these words at the beginning of the fourth paragraph.

4. Nor, lastly, is [a Methodist] distinguished by laying the whole stress of religion on any single part of it. If you say, "Yes, he is; for he thinks 'we are saved by faith alone:'" I answer, You do not understand the terms. By salvation he means holiness of heart and life. And this he affirms to spring from true faith alone.
 This statement is troubling for a number of reasons.  The first being that it gets certain categories wrong.  I can certainly agree that Ephesians 2:4-10 express that much of the purpose of salvation is indeed to create a holy people, 'created for good works'.  Let us not deny sanctification is a very intentional by-product of justification on the part of God.  Let us also not deny the fact that our salvation is intended to have tangible results in this world, and it does not simply end with right standing before God.  However if salvation is defined as "holiness of heart and life" then the category is wrong.  Of course the true Wesleyan would say "holiness of heart and life" is a result of grace, but clearly "holiness of heart and life" is dependent in some measure upon the performance of man.  Therefore if salvation is truly defined as "holiness of heart and life" it is syncretism and not at all "apart from works" (Eph 2:8).  This also affects our assurance of salvation immensely.  If you strip salvation of grace and render it to be a state of practical holiness of heart and life then nobody... NOBODY... experiences salvation.  Essentially Wesley with this definition has said a Methodist is one who believes that salvation is the equivalent of Christian Perfection.

The reality is that salvation is our participation in the life death and resurrection of Christ by faith.  In other words, our salvation is rooted in what Christ has done for us.  Yes salvation does result in progressive sanctification and becoming holy in our heart and life, yet that is results of a finished action, not the action itself.

Another quote from this tract that I found disturbing (and there are many) was found in the very next paragraph. (#5)

Who is a Methodist, according to your own account?" I answer: A Methodist is one who has "the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;" one who "loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, "Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!"
 Essentially Wesley has said that a Methodist is one who perfectly keeps the Law of God, knowing that the sum of the Law is loving the Lord with ALL heart, ALL soul, ALL mind, and ALL strength.  Here we see that Wesley has a very different understanding of the purpose of the Law than the reformers did, and that the Apostle Paul did.  I believe this tract had its initial publication prior to Wesley's Aldersgate experience in 1738 but I am not sure.  However I know that the version of this tract which is linked to above was the final publishing of it in 1777 some 40 years after Aldersgate.  The reason I mention Aldersgate is that the above portion of this tract runs completely counter to Luther's preface on the Romans which Wesley was 'strangely warmed' upon hearing.  I would contend that, by Wesley's definition, other than Christ there has never been a Methodist on the face of the earth..  A Methodist (by Wesley's definition) is a mythical creature.

Essentially Wesley's argument is that a Methodist is one who has been perfected.  So to my Methodist friends who have read this far... I hope you are not reading this blog to kill time, or for simple recreation, because if you are... then ALL your mind has not been devoted to the love of God and you are no longer Methodist!! at least according to Wesley.  But don't worry, we still love you, and you are welcome to explore with us the possibilities of unmerited favor of God based on what he has done for you in Christ.  Even if you aren't living with perfect "holiness of heart and life".

I will continue this in coming weeks.  Expect updates to the blog on Mondays and Thursdays.  I am working at getting ahead and scheduling the posts to drop on those days.  By the time this posts I should be a week or two ahead.


Blog Plan 2011 - Missing Link Mondays

I am not preaching January 2nd or the 9th so I have a little bit of time freed up for blogging, and I have a plan for what to do with it.  I am going to start a new segment on this blog that works off of the revised common lectionary, and post every Monday regarding the previous Sunday’s two Old Testament readings.  The goal is not to give teaching on each text as that would be a far bigger endeavor than I care to undertake, but the goal will be to show the clear link from the lectionary reading to the work of Christ on our behalf.  Jesus made it clear on the Emmaus road that all scripture points to him, so it is safe for us to look for him in any and every segment of the word.  So each Monday (starting January 3rd) will be “Missing Link Monday”, and I will endeavor to make clear the link from the OT readings to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The reason I call it “missing link Monday” is that this practice of linking all OT scripture to Christ is sadly a practice that is missing in much of Christendom.  So often we will hear sermons from Nehemiah about rebuilding your life, or from Song of Solomon about spicing up you love life, or from Joshua about conquering life’s trials and so on, yet rarely do we look at any of these texts a passages fulfilled in Christ, and yet these passages offer little more that nice ethics unless they are used to proclaim Christ.  So that is what Missing link Monday will be all about.

My plan is to post other posts on Thursday, and those posts will be similar to the posts I have done recently.  Hopefully with two weeks out of the pulpit I can get ahead of the game and schedule the posts a couple weeks in advance so that I don’t have any problems keeping up.  Stop back and keep posted.


Funeral Assurance

The preaching assurance post from last week seemed to generate a little interest and I have been thinking much about this topic lately.  I thought I would go a step further in this post and up the ante a bit more.  It seems to some people absurd that you would ever preach in such a manner as to give your congregation assurance.  The objection is that the preacher has no way of knowing who believes and who does not so there is no way the preacher should ever give assurance, it is not his to give.  We talked about that in the last assurance post, and I don’t care to explain myself again.  I would say that the possibility of giving false assurance frightens many people, so they end up withholding assurance from everyone.

Like I said I am going to up the ante a bit.  I have had the privilege of officiating 7 funerals in my first 5 months as the Pastor of Delta UMC.  At funerals even if the one who has died apparently died in unbelief, and the majority of the family assembled seems to not be believers I still preach assurance.  Let me rephrase, I preach assurance at a funeral regardless of the circumstances surrounding the funeral, and regardless of who is in attendance.  This must bother a reader or two, but I cannot think of a better place to preach assurance.  I think that one of the great confusions that people have in this issue is that preaching assurance and pronouncing someone to be redeemed are two very different things.  I preach with full confidence at every funeral that Christ has lived, died, and rose for us, and that because of the work of Christ we can have confidence in sin forgiven.  I make no statement with regard to the eternal destiny of the dead, or the living, yet I do proclaim the sure work of Christ on the cross for those in attendance, and for the one who has died.
Of course the Calvinist asks how I can do that if I believe in a limited atonement.  My answer is pretty simple.  Christ died for all, the atonement is only applied to the Elect by faith.  The atonement is limited, the sacrifice was not.  I certainly do not go so far as to give full peace regarding the deceased, but I also do nothing to withhold peace.  Now the Arminian of all people should have no problem with this because of their staunch belief that Christ died for all.  Yet it seems that the Arminian is the first to shy away from this type of funeral proclamation.

So what of you?  How would you preach a funeral?  Would you dangle a carrot out and tell people if they only do this or that then they can be redeemed?  Or would you tell them that Christ has lived, died, and resurrected for them.  Again I ask the question, what are you afraid of?  Are you afraid that someone in faith would actually believe those words to be true and receive assurance?

(btw, see comment policy on right sidebar)


The Gospel is Old News

The Gospel is not happening as we speak.  Nobody in this world is being the Gospel, living the Gospel, or anything of the sort.  The Gospel is by definition good news of past events as well as the announcement of a future return of Christ.  None of the Gospel is in the present tense.  Getting this right might be the most important challenge the Church faces in our day.  The implications of a wrong view of the Gospel as history are wide and varied. 

To the individual mistaking the Gospel as something we participate in leads to despair.  Eventually we come to a point when we look at our lives and what we have done as Christians and realize that our actions are not “good news” in fact often times we find ourselves in struggles we had long before we believed.  We look to ourselves as an example of the Gospel and realize there is little good news there to celebrate.

To the church it leads to all sorts of strange concepts.  If we are to live the Gospel, then spreading the Gospel means either to bring people to us, or take ourselves to people.  We end up (though we would never say it) believing that what the world needs is more of ‘us’.  It is highly narcissistic.  A lot of Church growth, attractional mentality is built on the premise that exposing people to ourselves will expose them to the Gospel as long as our people are ‘living the Gospel’.  It also leads to this idea that “we need to be Christ for someone” or “the only Jesus some people may ever see is you.”  Again, I understand the motive here and it is not all bad, but at its heart it is narcissistic.  This confusion of the Gospel as something we do, has driven much of the church’s mission, and largely has caused us to lose our theology that is foundational to our mission.  That theology being that Christ has already done and completed a work for you.

To the world the implications of believing that the Gospel must be lived is enormous.  The Gospel ceases to be good news for a perishing world if it includes a mandate.  The greatest hope for a dying humanity is that a work has been done in history for them and that they can look back with assurance knowing that work (Christ’s life, death, resurrection) was completed for them.  If the Gospel is a new lifestyle of good works and service it offers wonderful ethics to a perishing world, but it offers nothing by way of salvation.

When the Gospel becomes a present tense activity it becomes reduced to humanism.  Humanism includes self sacrifice, it involves the golden rule, it includes honor, it includes caring for the poor, in includes all sorts of wonderful things that the scriptures include in its laws.  You do not need Jesus to have solid ethics.  As far as that is concerned I am not really “anti-humanist”, in fact I am pretty much good with humanism.  It is an attempt to live out the law which is already written on the heart of man, and it benefits society when people do that.  However, humanism always fails at the personal level.  No person lives to the ethics they espouse, all people commit the injustice they abhor, the real problem is sin and it cannot be labored away, and ethics do not cure it.  Only the Gospel offers salvation, yet if the Gospel gets confused with the ethics and good deeds even that “Gospel” ceases to offer anything more than despair and condemnation.

Yet, if we recall that the Gospel indeed is a historical transaction occurring in real time with a real body, and real blood, real wood on a real cross, and real tomb that was empty because our real savior rose from the dead... if we can recall what has been done for us we no longer need to approach the Gospel as what we must do, we approach it with gratefulness knowing we are redeemed.  We are freed for joyful obedience to a law that no longer has the power to condemn.


Preaching Assurance

It is a job of preachers of the Gospel to give their congregation assurance of sins forgiven.  A number of people have a huge problem with that statement, and I wonder why.  Of course the common objection is “only God can give assurance of sins forgiven”, or there is the fear that a preacher would give someone assurance who really should not have assurance.  Certainly I understand the objections, but I am not convinced that they are biblically founded.  The question comes up, “How can you know they are forgiven, or how can you know who to assure and not to assure?”  The simple answer is that I do not know, nor do I need to.  Yet this begs the question, “Jay, if you do not know who is redeemed and who is not, how can you attempt to give blanket assurance to an entire congregation?”  This is a reasonable question, but it is not a question that is scripturally informed.  Consider when Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Jesus, and three times he was met with “Feed my sheep”.  Question; who was Peter to determine who Christ’s sheep were?  Nonetheless he was give the command.  Or what about Paul’s blanket statements of blessing to the churches he wrote to?  Were there not bound to be unbelievers gathered in their midst?  If Paul can write words of assurance to a group of people he has not even met, how much more appropriate is it for preachers of the Gospel to seek assurance for their congregations!

Unfortunately a lot of preachers, many who are rising greatly in popularity are making a great name for themselves in doing the very opposite of what I propose here.  Now I have a great respect for men like Paul Washer and I certainly would agree that he possesses a great gift for preaching.  His stuff on marriage and manhood has been indispensible to me, his preaching on Song of Solomon is some of the most beautiful preaching I have ever heard.  Moreover when he preaches the Gospel, and paints a picture of the magnitude of the cross and the substitutionary work of Christ of Christ on behalf of the believer I would contend that there are few who are more gifted than him.  Nonetheless I greatly diverge from Washer and others like him when it comes to preaching assurance.  I am not sure if people would consider Washer reformed or not, he is certainly a Calvinist when it comes to his soteriology, but not sure beyond that.  He calls himself a “5 point Spurgeonist” which I think means a Baptist with a soteriology that mirrors Calvin.  You can, however, see that he diverges from reformation theology when it comes to assurance, and the role of ecclesiastical authority in giving assurance.

Now, whether you know of Washer or not, the issue at hand here is whether or not the church, specifically the preaching pastor, should attempt to give assurance to the congregation.  The reason this post is pertinent to this blog is that the conservative or ‘confessing’ Methodist is typically very Washeresque when it comes to giving assurance.  Of course the favorite passage is “examine yourself to see if you are in the faith, test yourselves, or do you not know this about yourself that Christ Jesus is in you, unless of course you fail the test.”  The very conclusion of that chapter, which is the last chapter in II Corinthians, is a passage of assurance.  When looking at this passage in context you will see that Paul is giving assurance to the weak, not calling to looking inwardly at the strength of your profession or the fruit of your life to determine whether or not you are really a believer.  The other text that seems to always come up when folks who hate to give people assurance take to the pulpit is the end of Matthew 7.  The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (which concludes at chapter 7) establishes assurance for the disciples who were listening.  The clear wording of Matthew 7 is ‘beware of false prophets’ and that passage qualifies the later words ‘many will say unto me Lord Lord... and I will say depart from me I never knew you.’   That passage in Matthew 7 is a very powerful means of making people question their assurance and I have preached that text myself to do just that.  However the force of the text has nothing to do with your personal assurance (which you should go to the beginning of Matthew 5 to get) instead it is to put you on your guard against false prophets.  Preaching that portion of Matthew 7 and making it about biblical assurance is out of bounds.

The point is that the role of the pastor is to shepherd the sheep, grow the sheep, and lead them to take comfort and refuge in their king.  It is about proclaiming grace to them, and ASSURING them of the work which Christ has done for them.  Pastor, your job is not to get into the pulpit and make people question their salvation, it is to get into the pulpit and remind them of the salvation which is in Christ for them.  Don't beat up the sheep by misappropriating 2 Corinthians 13:5 or Matthew 7:21-23 to be passages designed to cause believers to question assurance.

I am not sure why people fear giving false assurance.  What is it?  Are we afraid that someone might actually believe that Christ died for their sins and then trust him as their redeemer?  Isn’t that kind of the point?  The problem with preaching 2 Corinthians 13:5 and Matthew 7 as a means to bring us to question our assurance is that we are always left looking inwardly to determine whether or not we are saved.  We are always looking to our work, our desires, our evidence, to see if we indeed are Christian.  The only reason we have for assurance is an external work of God in Christ for us, that we are given belief in by the work of His Spirit.


Hymns the UMC Catechism

If there was ever a tradition that should have violently held to their traditional hymnody it would be the Wesleyan tradition.  Let me be clear, I am not a hyper-traditionalist, there are good a number of contemporary hymns, praise songs, and choruses that I like and think are valuable to the church.  This posting is in no way a rant against contemporary worship per se.  I’ll admit that I personally find myself annoyed with most contemporary worship, but I will be the first to admit that there really is some lyrically excellent music being produced in our day and being used in the contemporary setting.  Nonetheless the trend in the UMC toward using more contemporary popular worship songs is a huge problem for Methodism, larger than it would be for a Lutheran, Reformed, or even the Catholic Church.

Awhile back I posted regarding Creeds and Catechisms, and expressed my disappointment in the fact that the UMC is very sporadic (at best) in their use these historic statements.  I stand behind that post, especially in the way we see the UMC’s incredibly (dare I say fatally) broad theological spectrum.   Methodism has not always been that way.  The Wesley’s were adamant about ‘catechesis’ yet their method was music.  Consider the thousands of hymns written by the Wesleys alone all with the purpose of expressing doctrinal truth in a repetitive and memorable manner.  They wrote the hymns to the tune of familiar entertaining pieces of the day which served to enhance the ability to memorize the key doctrine which the hymns were to communicate.  The Wesleys were specific in how hymns should be sung, and adamant about not taking artistic license to improve upon them, knowing that artistic license created individualism out of what was meant to be community worship and dare I say a form of covenantal catechesis.  In many ways this method of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs as a method of catechesis could be seen as having more biblical support than the standard question and answer format of the reformation and catholic traditions.  Clearly the Hebrews did this with their Psalms, and Timothy was commanded by Paul to continue in this vein.

The point is that in Methodism our entire ‘indoctrination system’ hinges upon hymnody.  Other traditions continue to recite creeds, catechisms, and so on, but we rarely do so.  Instead historically we have been a people who use hymns for that purpose.  Now as we see Methodism going contemporary and choosing songs based partly upon doctrine, partly upon singability, and largely upon popularity we have created a more appealing worship setting but have removed our primary method of indoctrination.  (I use the word indoctrination in the instruction sense, not the propaganda sense).  This is a serious problem for us.
Whenever you attempt to address this you will find Methodists telling you “we originated the contemporary scene when Charles and John started putting all their music to the tune of popular tunes sung in the pubs”, or they say something similar to that.  However they miss the original intent of this.  ‘Pub music’ was not used to make hymn singing popular and fun, in fact the Wesleys put very stringent guidelines as to how hymns could be sung, and it was clear they were not doing it just to be attractive.  The reason for using the bar tunes was because they provided an already clear framework for memory of doctrine.

Now that we have forgone an intentional hymnody and replaced it with a series of contemporary songs that people enjoy, we fail to commit our whole theology to memory.  Again, much of the new music is doctrinally excellent, but it is not intentional in the same way that the early hymns of Methodism were, and the newer music has not been written with the same intent that the original Methodist hymns were written.

Other traditions can survive being loose with their music because there is a consistent system for imparting their theology to their adherents.  Methodists’ music is our system, so we do not have the liberty to be loose with it.


Recent Reading

First, please understand the tenor of this post, I am not trying to show off a list of books that I have read, nor am I trying to impel you to read them.  When I read a book that I really enjoy or find insightful I always look in its bibliography, or make a note of the authors that are quoted in the book.  Then I chase the rabbits and read the other books.  I do the same with books I do not like.  I believe this is a good practice.  Now I wish that all bloggers would occasionally give a bibliography or a list of what they recently read which could give us insight into how there thoughts are being shaped.  Anyway, here is a list of books I have read or partially read over the last 12 months or so.  Again, this is not to make you think positive or negative about me, consider more of a bibliography for a blog.  These are in no particular order. And note that a few of these books I did not like at all.

Heaven Misplaced - Douglas Wilson
Law and Gospel - Walther (I have only read about 1/10th of this book)
Desiring God - John Piper
The Attributes of God - AW Pink
Christianity and Liberalism - J.Gresham Machen
The Heidleberg Catechism
Luther's Small Catechism
Spiritual Depression - Martyn Lloyd Jones
Exposition of Romans 6 - Martyn Lloyd Jones
Christless Christianity - Michael Horton
Attributes of God - Stephen Charnock (I have only read about 1/3)
Seeing with New Eyes - David Powlison
Preface to the Romans - Martin Luther
Concerning Christian Liberty - Martin Luther
The Deeper Journey - M. Robert Mulholland Jr.
The Certain Sound of the Trumpet - Samuel D. Proctor
The One True God - Paul Washer
The Truth about Man - Paul Washer
Justification and Regeneration - Charles Leiter
Institutes of Christian Religon - John Calvin (picking thru this on occasion probably read 3%)

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
Robby Braveheart - David Krewson
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck (got to bored about halfway and quit)
Les Miserables - Victor Hugo (read for about 8hrs on my iPod kindle app, realized it was the unabridged version which was 1600 pages and quit.)
Screwtape Letters - CS Lewis

Commentaries Used
Mathew Henry
JC Ryle - Expository Thoughts on the Gospels
John Wesley's notes on the bible
CH Spurgeon - Treasury of David
John Calvin - Commentary on the Psalms
John Calvin - Commentary on Philippians
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown
Alec Motyer - Commentary on Isaiah
John Oswalt - Commentary on Isaiah