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.


gayandevangelical said...

In reading what Methodist theologian Lawrence W. Wood has to say about sanctification, I stumbled upon this excerpt:

"Christian perfectionism, furthermore, is to be distinguished from psychological perfection. It is helpful to remember that psychologically repressed complexes (and not necessarily a sinful heart) are often the sources of misconduct and imperfect behavior. ...[The one desire of the entirely sanctified] is to be wholly committed to Jesus. With this loving and non-threatening relationship to Christ, believers are enable to be honest and open about themselves and the Holy Spirit is able to provide valuable insights."

I've heard Dr. Rod Rosenbladt discuss previously about how Wesley's initial definition of Christian perfection was altered from 'perfect love' to 'perfect love in the heart.' I have not tracked down a citation in the literature, but it would be interesting to study if there is an internal consistency in Methodism as articulated by Wesley. It seems like there is a desire to have one's cake (perfect holiness) and eat it too (identify violations of God's law as a repressed complex). I understand the validity of wanting a sanctification that actually plays itself out...but am kind of at a loss when it comes to that sort of love being in my heart. I've already sinned this morning...deliberately...multiple times...and I slept in this morning to boot!

Jay Miklovic said...

Dave- I have another post scheduled on this topic for next Thursday. What Lawrence W. Wood calls "psychologically repressed complexes" I would call the flesh! I agree that we have been given new hearts as prophesied in Ezekiel, but to move sin into some psychological framework so as to remove responsibility seems crazy.

I DO believe in sinless perfect by the way. I am in Christ who is my sinless perfection. My sinless perfection is the person of Christ, not my action.

Good stuff Dave.