The Wesleyan Catholic Spirit

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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We are told our fundamental principles are in jeopardy of destruction.  Arguments and accusations are cast haplessly, both sides demonizing one another.  Both parties sling mud at the opposition until nobody is left unscathed.  The liberal position unswervingly holds to its “truth” while the conservative adherents encamp behind their bastioned walls of defense.  It would seem there is little, if any, middle ground.  Bipartisanship and cooperation are not the typical modes of practice.  Each side is decidedly convinced they are in the right.  Delegates from each party fight tooth and nail to convince others to cast their ballots in the war against the evil that the opposing team is seeking to uphold.

This model does not employ dialogue and discussion as ways to open up communication between factions.  Both sides speak past one another, more concerned about proving a point than listening to the concerns that are raised.  Anger and resentment typically characterize these exchanges, thus driving the wedge of enmity deeper between each party.  Schism and division are the natural choice to “resolve” such heated conflicts.  Each position attributes ignorance as the primary problem for a lack of cooperation from their opponents.

This is not a description of politics as usual on Capitol Hill.  This is a depiction of what is often referred to as the “Protestant Problem”.  For nearly 500 years, the Church has become increasingly splintered.  Doctrinal disputes birth denomination after denomination.  We identify ourselves by what separates and categorizes us rather than what unites us.  Thus, the world too often sees a Church that is more similar to American political parties than it is to the early Church of the saints.

Enmity and division must not be the defining characteristics of the Church.  In fact, Jesus instructs his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35).  He does not indicate that his disciples are known because of their superior wisdom or understanding of Truth.  No, Jesus’ genuine followers are identified by their love for one another.  If Love is the distinctive mark of real faith, then there is a real need to recover those traditions that cultivate love in our lives!

The Church of the Nazarene has inherited a rich theological tradition from John Wesley; one that speaks profoundly to our current situation.  It is a holiness tradition that emphasizes purity in heart and life.  Wesley teaches that a person must not only be justified but also sanctified.  In other words, not only must someone be pardoned from sin but the power of sin must also be broken.  God calls us to be holy as He is holy, perfect as He is perfect.  Those that heed this call, yielding their whole heart to God, are said to be entirely sanctified.

For fear of being vague, let us clarify what is meant by entire sanctification.  In the tract A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley describes entire sanctification as “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” (Wesley 51).  When God entirely sanctifies us, love for God motivates and permeates everything we do.

Wesley believes that true faith is a religion of the heart, but he does not let it stop there.  Ultimately, true belief impacts one’s actions.  It is no idle faith we possess.  Love for God naturally flows out as love for our neighbors (including our enemies!).  Inward holiness becomes outward holiness.  Faith entails personal and social facets; it is never solitary.  Ironically, love for one another, not our doctrinal creeds, is a testimony to God’s transformative work in our lives.  It testifies to the Truth.  The element that separates the wheat from the chaff is not simply possessing orthodoxy (right beliefs), but it is primarily about loving God and loving others.

Far too often we have reduced Christianity to intellectual endeavors.  We construct systematic theologies, dogmatic doctrines, and complicated models of atonement theory.  Although there may not be anything as practical as a good theory, we often settle for a faith concerned only about possessing the right data sets.  We behave as if our knowledge and understanding of the Truth sets us free.

However, we must carefully consider the validity of this assumption.  Is it true that holding right belief equates with righteous living?  Wesley, who avidly pursues knowledge of Truth throughout his lifetime, denies this premise outright.  This is abundantly evident in Wesley’s words:

“For neither does religion consist in orthodoxy or right opinions; which, although they are not properly outward things, are not in the heart, but the understanding.  A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God.  He may assent to all the three creeds… and yet ‘tis possible he may have no religion at all… He may be almost as orthodox as the devil… and may all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart” (Maddox 201-02).

Reflecting the thoughts from the book of James, Wesley points out that “faith” is not true faith simply because one has full, correct knowledge of the Truth.  Rather, it is how one lives out of that knowledge that defines real faith.

Does right knowledge then have a purpose?  The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”  Right beliefs and thoughts act as guides and boundaries for our actions.  They set us on a trajectory.  Correct ideology falls far short of its purpose if love is not the byproduct.  We become a clanging cymbal or a resounding gong if we have all knowledge yet do not love.  If that is the case, we tend to behave far more contentiously than redemptively in our broken world.

That does not insinuate that we accept without discernment what anyone and everyone professes as true.  We are not to be blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.  Truth is to be preferred to falsehood.  Not to mention, Truth does exert a tremendous influence on our course.  Truth is not unimportant, but it is not the target of our faith.

Wesley demonstrates this principle in his interactions with those persuaded by John Calvin’s theology of irrefutable grace and limited atonement.  Wesley argues vehemently against these doctrines, citing them as especially detrimental to a holy lifestyle.  The argument is especially heated with Wesley’s friend, George Whitefield, a tremendous field preacher with Calvinist viewpoints.  After a very aggressive series of arguments, both men part company for some time.

Wesley and Whitefield eventually reconcile, although they never do fully see eye to eye theologically.  However, Wesley concedes being wrong in one point of thinking.  Despite viewing Calvinism as a deficient system of belief, Wesley later admits that it is conceivably less vicious than he had previously believed.  There were many good, faithful believers who led holy lives, despite adhering to Calvin’s theology.  This convinces Wesley that there is something far more fundamental to faith than obtaining and acknowledging correct information.  Thus, Wesley affirms the indispensable nature of sisterly and brotherly unity within the Church.

“By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labour to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ.  But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not attained.  No: ‘Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.’  And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves.  Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question.  If it be, give me thy hand.  For opinions, or terms let us not destroy the work of God.  Dost thou love and serve God?  It is enough.  I give thee the right hand of fellowship” (Lindstrӧm 193).

Love at work in the lives of disciples distinguishes them from the world.  But, while love may mark us different than the world; it unites us within the Church.

Wesley’s own ministry within the Anglican Church is not always well received.  Many look down upon field preaching and itinerant lay-preachers that Wesley employs.  Wesley is barred from preaching in pulpits, accused of heresy, and shunned by many of his peers within the Anglican Church.  Yet, Wesley remains an Anglican priest all of his life.  Methodism remains a movement within Anglicanism until after his death.  Wesley’s motivation is never to induce separation from the Church.  Rather, Methodism is constructed to revitalize the Church.

Although Wesley is not so naïve to believe that Methodists will remain Anglicans after his death, he earnestly seeks to live and work in communion with the Church.  He urges and encourages Methodists to attend regular services and communion in the Anglican Church in addition to their meetings.  Despite receiving a great deal of opposition from Anglican ministers, Wesley maintains his loyalty to the Church.  Wesley displays his love for God through his love for the Church, despite its apparently malfunctions.

This commitment to God and to the Church goes beyond what many believers exercise today.  The Church is in flux.  There are pressures both from within and without.  We visualize our problems as so insurmountable that we diminish and dismiss the power of God’s grace.  We put Him in a box because we believe that somehow He will let His Church succumb to the world (we might not say this, but our actions betray us in this matter).  We visualize starting a new church or denomination as the way to “preserve the true Church.”

We feel it is our duty to protect the Church.  So, we dig our trenches, throw up our armaments, fortify our doctrinal positions and prepare to shoot it out with any that dare tread upon our theological box.  We replace sanctification with sarcasm; holiness with haughtiness; love with lashing out.  This is the result of thinking that we have everything figured out (or at least most of it).

However, Wesley is quick to clarify that entire sanctification does not mean that we are not prone to mistakes!  He asserts quite the opposite.  Despite being perfected by love, we are still prone to the same infirmities of mind and body as any other mortal.  We do not have perfect knowledge and are liable to make mistakes (“sin, improperly so called”) despite being fully governed by love.  This problem is not totally resolved until we shed this mortal body and are clothed with immortality.

Thus, Wesley believes that even holy people are susceptible to lack of imagination, failure of insight, or shortage of knowledge.  A person really can make an honest mistake.  Yet, we like to believe that we have everything figured out because it gives us control and security.  We garner power from certainty.  As a result, we keep faith captive to the mind for fear that we might lose control.  Our hearts grow stagnant and cold, keeping Love from revitalizing the dead stone now in its place.

Until we put on immortality, we must wrestle with our imperfect knowledge.  It is imperative that we do this with all humility, acknowledging our limitations. Following through with this requires relying on God’s grace to lead us in every moment by His Spirit.  We must pray that God quickens our mind with discernment and our hearts with compassion.

Holiness is a journey in which we travel together, fighting the good fight of faith before that great cloud of witnesses.  It is a journey in which we are called to imitate the author and perfecter of our faith by throwing off the sin that so easily entangles.  Hebrews 12:14-15 warns us, “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled” (NRSV).

So, we must qualify what is most valuable in our journey of faith together.  Is it more important to confirm six literal days of creation or evolution?  Or, is the fact that God created the heavens and the earth the most vital truth?  Is style of worship really so pressing as to promote schism?  Or, is it more paramount that we are gathered together as the people of God, the redeemed, who have responded to His call?  Is it more imperative to be known by our political affiliations?  Or, is it more relevant that we are marked as a follower of Christ?  The question we are asking is simple.  Is it more critical to be right or in right relationship?

In a world that is scarred and torn by divisions, shouldn’t the Church be united through reconciliation?  Is our church characterized by what makes us distinct from other denominations or do we envision our call as a unique expression in the One Body of Christ?  Are the conversations and discussion we engage in seasoned by humility?  Is Love the embodied expression of the Gospel we preach?  Are we being perfected in Love?   If there was ever a doctrine which the contemporary Church must fan into flame, it is holiness that cultivates the fruit of love, both for God and for our neighbor!  We have been called unto holiness as children of God.  May it be our watchword and song both now and forever.

Works Cited

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the

Apocrypha.. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Lindstrӧm, Harald. Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation. Wilmore:

Francis Asbury Publishing Company, 1983.

Maddox, Randy L., and Jason E. Vickers. The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Wesley, John. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1966.

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