Churches comfort after Ohio school tragedy – UMC.org

Words cannot express the sadness of this situation. Even though we live in a culture, that many times, has little need of the church, there are somethings that drive us back to God. Lord, we do need you. We need you now more than ever before.

Here’s an article from UMC.org telling how some United Methodist Churches opened their doors so the community could find strength during tragedy:

As twilight heralded the end of a long, difficult day, the community turned to prayer.

via Churches comfort after Ohio school tragedy – UMC.org.

Perfect Desire

Christian Perfection was one of the defining elements of John Wesley’s theology and also one of the most controversial. Beginning a sermon entitled Christian Perfection Wesley acknowledges how people respond to the idea of being perfected in this life.

There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches perfection (as the phrase is,) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.

I also have  sense of hesitation or resistance when I hear Wesley saying that I can be made perfect in this life. I can understand why those listening to Wesley might have had an adverse reaction to this part of his theology.

Yet, as I read through the various writings on Christian Perfection, I discover that what I have in mind may not be what Wesley had in mind. Wesley says that Christian perfection is not an absolute perfection. It doesn’t mean that someone has ‘arrived’ and is at a place where they will not grow, or are not in the need of God’s grace. In fact, Wesley says that even though one is cleansed from all inner and outer sin, there is the possibility for someone in the state of Christian Perfection to sin.

That seems contradictory until you read the following:

Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus every one that is perfect is holy, and every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect. Yet we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any man hath attained, or in how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need to “grow in grace,” [2 Pet. 3:18] and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour. [see Phil. 1:9] (From Christian Perfection)

“But we may carry this thought farther yet. A mistake in judgment may possibly occasion a mistake in practice. For instance: Mr. De Renty’s mistake touching the nature of mortification, arising from prejudice of education, occasioned that practical mistake, his wearing an iron girdle. And a thousand such instances there may be, even in those who are in the highest state of grace. Yet, Where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood. (From Questions and Answers on Christian Perfection)

Even though one is in a state of Christian Perfection, that does not mean that they have absolute perfect understandings, judgment, etc. Even in this state there will be mistakes in judgment and understanding which can lead to a mistake (or sin) in practice. Wesley says that these mistakes, however, all flow from a pure love.

If Christian Perfection is not some type of absolute perfect existence then what is it? Wesley says it is holiness. He says that those who are holy are perfect and those who are perfect are holy. In his Qs and As on Christian Perfection he says that it is “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.”

Pure love is how Wesley describes Christian Perfect and holiness. A love that isn’t marred by sinful intentions, thoughts, motivations, etc. It is a love whose focus is on God and God’s will. A love that is given as a gift by Grace. It isn’t something that we can manufacture or earn. It results when God cleanses us from all inward and outer sin and puts in its place holy tempers and dispositions. In On the Discoveries of Faith Wesley address this:

It is not only a deliverance from doubts and fears, but from sin; from all inward as well as outward sin; from evil desires and evil tempers, as well as from evil words and works. Yea, and it is not only a negative blessing, a deliverance from all evil dispositions implied in that expression, “I will circumcise thy heart;” but a positive one likewise; even the planting all good dispositions in their place; clearly implied in that other expression, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.”

I, for one, find this idea of a pure love desirable. After all, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with your whole being and the second (which flows from the first) was to love your neighbor as yourself. I believe this is to be the goal of the Christian life. I think that is what Wesley was saying to.

My concern is not only the fear that Christian Perfection is no longer taught or addressed (I for one have not done it and I have not heard others preach or teach it either!), but that we no longer even desire this gift of grace. We are too busy with other things, or, we are happy with our Christian experience just the way it is. We don’t have a desire for pure love. We preach God’s grace, but then we limit it and, at times, make it a license for sinful living and lack of love. Yet, God waits patiently yearning to give this gift of perfect love to all who desire it.

While we can’t earn this gift, Wesley said there are some things we can practice as we wait for it. Again, from Questions and Answers he writes this:

“Q. How are we to wait for this change?

“A. Not in careless indifference, or indolent inactivity; but in vigorous, universal obedience, in a zealous keeping of all the commandments, in watchfulness and painfulness, in denying ourselves, and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer and fasting and a close attendance on all the ordinances of God. And if any man dream of attaining it any other way, (yea, or of keeping it when it is attained, when he has received it even in the largest measure,) he deceive his own soul. It is true, we receive it by simple faith: But God does not, will not, give that faith, unless we seek it with all diligence, in the way which he hath ordained.

He goes on to say the reason why so few have received this gift is because of a lack of prayer:

“This consideration may satisfy those who inquire, why so few have received the blessing. Inquire, how many are seeking it in this way; and you have a sufficient answer.

“Prayer especially is wanting. Who continues instant therein? Who wrestles with God for this very thing? So,’ye have not, because ye ask not; or because ye ask amiss,’ namely, that you may be renewed before you die. Before you die! Will that content you? Nay, but ask that it may be done now; to-day, while it is called to-day. Do not call this ‘setting God a time.’ Certainly, to-day is his time as well as to- morrow. Make haste, man, make haste!

Not only is prayer missing, but so is our desire. Wesley seems to be saying that without desire, the gift will not come. After all, why would God give something we don’t even want? Is this pure love something we long for? Is it something we constantly ask God for? Is it something we wrestle with God about? Or are we content…perhaps too content? What has happened to our perfect desire?

Newer Mind

One of Wesley’s later sermons was “On God’s Vineyard” which was written in 1779. This sermon reads like a reflection of how God has worked through Wesley’s life and some observations Wesley made. One such observation was about the new birth.

Wesley was a man who wasn’t satisfied with ‘outward’ religion. Wesley believed that in order to be a “real” Christian, one needed to be changed inwardly. He writes:

“They know, the new birth implies as great a change in the soul, in him that is “born of the Spirit,” as was wrought in his body when he was born of a woman: Not an outward change only, as from drunkenness to sobriety, from robbery or theft to honesty; (this is the poor, dry, miserable conceit of those that know nothing of real religion;) but an inward change from all unholy, to all holy tempers, — from pride to humility, from passionateness to meekness, from peevishness and discontent to patience and resignation; in a word, from an earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind that was in Christ Jesus.”

Wesley compares the new birth to spiritual birth and at the same time contrasts it with merely an outward change (i.e. drunkenness to sobriety). Wesley’s point is that the “great change” is also a real change, not content with outward behavior only but a real transformation of one’s inner life (or world). Going from “pride to humility,” “passionateness to meekness” and “from peevishness and discontent to patience and resignation” is no small feat. It is such a great change that Wesley describes it as being changed from a “devilish mind” to the “mind that was in Christ.”

I find this a point to stop and reflect. In the UMC are we still preaching and teaching about this ‘inner’ change and this “mind of Christ” that the new birth bring? Do we really understand what Wesley is talking about here. He is not using figurative language it seems. In Wesley’s mind there is a real, complete, and substantial change in the individual. So substantial that he compares it to physical birth. This change is so real that it’s outflow is a life that is changed, not manufactured change, but real change; from pride to humility, etc.

I wonder if I am too content with manufactured changes; changes that look wonderful on the outside, but leave the inside unaffected. Wesley wasn’t satisfied with outward changes only. He was preaching for an inner transformational change. Should we be satisfied with less?

General Conference and Central Conferences

Ben Witherington has posted an article explaining a bit about General Conference (which is meeting as I write this). He discusses some of the issues that will be addressed. Perhaps the most important issue is the proposal to create a central conference in the US. This proposal says that US concerns would be addressed in the US central conference. Is this important? yes. Why? Actually there are several reasons. Ben Witherington discusses, in my opinion, the most important one noting that the central conferences currently provide a balancing to the American church. He writes:

For another thing, they provide something of a theological and ethical balance to the American church which is too subject to the major cultural shifts in North America, often at the expense of the Gospel and the Bible’s teachings. We not only need the two-thirds worlds voices at General Conference, we need their wisdom and votes as well. In an age when our church, and indeed most major denominations, are becoming more culturally inclusive and global in character, it sends the wrong signal entirely to not allow the Central Conferences to continue to participate fully and vote quadrennially with the rest of our church.

If this goes through, I believe the face of American Methodism will drastically change. Many of the ‘hot issues’ of the American church are seen as unbiblical overseas. Without the overseas conferences, it is difficult knowing what will happen here in the U. S. The proposal discusses that “U. S. Concerns” will be dealt with in the U. S. central conference. I’ve always believed scripture and Christianity are globally focused. It seems to me that by moving in this direction we could allow our expression of Christianity to be more culturally defined than what it already is.

Revisiting Holiness part 2

Here is the first article and third article in this series.

One of the mistakes I made when I viewed holiness was believing it was a matter of will power. Holiness seemed like something I could attain if I could work hard enough. Since I felt it was all about my will power, I found myself focusing on the ‘easier’ sins….language, stealing, killing, etc. I made sure not to do those. Yet, the more subtle sins, lust, anger, etc were more difficult. I found myself constantly going to God asking for forgiveness in a sin-repent, sin-repent cycle.

It didn’t help to observed those in the holiness traditions either. It seemed like holiness was about how you dressed, or that you didn’t drink or swear. It was this view of holiness I rejected and I even remember the day I rejected it.

I was pastoring a small United Methodist Church and my wife and I went out to a fast food restaurant after the service. As I stood in line some other people that had just finished their service came into the same restaurant. I didn’t know what church they were from, but I could tell from their dress it was some type of holiness church. I realize that this might sound judgmental, but as I looked at them that day, I did not see joy. I didn’t even see love.

I was already moving away from holiness and the realization that those who were much holier than I was didn’t have any more joy or love caused me to finally believe that there had to be some other way. That was over fifteen years ago. And to be honest, I kept trying to understand what would bring me joy and cause me to love. What I’ve discovered is holiness, at least the kind that Wesley preached about, is the very thing that can bring joy and love.

Wesley maintained that without holiness, one could not be happy. He writes in sermon 45 (The New Birth):

 

For the same reason, except he be born again, none can be happy even in this world. For it is not possible, in the nature of things, that a man should be happy who is not holy. Even the poor, ungodly poet could tell us, Nemo malus felix: “no wicked man is happy.” The reason is plain: All unholy tempers are uneasy tempers: Not only malice, hatred, envy jealousy, revenge, create a present hell in the breast; but even the softer passions, if not kept within due bounds, give a thousand times more pain than pleasure. Even “hope,” when “deferred,” (and how often must this be the case!) “maketh the heart sick;” and every desire which is not according to the will of God is liable to “pierce” us “through with many sorrows:” And all those general sources of sin — pride, self-will, and idolatry — are, in the same proportion as they prevail, general sources of misery. Therefore, as long as these reign in any soul, happiness has no place there. But they must reign till the bent of our nature is changed, that is, till we are born again; consequently, the new birth is absolutely necessary in order to happiness in this world, as well as in the world to come.

One of the things I had overlooked in my study of Wesley was how he connected justification with regeneration (The New Birth). Collins terms this regeneration “initial sanctification.” This is where holiness starts. Another thing I had overlooked was this regeneration and the subsequent holiness wasn’t something I had to work up, but rather something God gives as a gift. Just as justification is a gift, so is regeneration.

This was a huge omission for me. I will write more about it in part 3 of this series.