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Our Doctrines

 
 

(preached at Church of St. Bride, Mississauga Ontario, May 25, 2008)

May 24th – Wesley Day

“Our Doctrines”

 

It would be difficult to imagine anyone more rigid, more defensive, more inflexible – in a word, more “uptight” – than Anglican clergyman John Wesley in Georgia , 1737. When day-old infants were brought to the church for baptism, Wesley insisted on immersing them completely three times over. As horrified mothers objected to this dangerous practice (wasn’t it enough that the infant-mortality rate was already 50%?) Wesley reacted by refusing to serve Holy Communion to the mothers themselves.

At this point in his life Wesley was a moralist. He thought the mission of the church to be that of improving the moral tone of the society. Like all moralists he was also a legalist; that is, he thought that people were admitted to God’s favour on the basis of rule-keeping.  Like moralists and legalists in general, he was a snob: superior, disdainful, autocratic, unbending – in a word, obnoxious.

Obnoxious he certainly was; stupid, however, he was not. A graduate of Oxford University , Wesley was proficient in the ancient languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew.   He knew philosophy, history, literature, logic, theology. French appears to have been the only modern language in which he was schooled formally. Still, on the three-month voyage to Georgia he taught himself German so thoroughly that years later he translated dozens of Paul Gerhardt’s hymns from German to English.  In the New World he came upon some Italian settlers who were without a clergyman.         Wesley conducted worship for them, reading the Anglican Prayer Book service to himself while translating it aloud into the Italian he had recently taught himself. In Frederica, a village a few miles from Savannah , Wesley came upon a Jewish community.   The Jewish people were from Portugal but spoke Spanish. Whereupon Wesley taught himself Spanish in order to converse with them.

Then disaster overtook him.  He was 34 years old and had become infatuated with an 18-year old woman, Sophy Hopkey. She rejected him in favour of another man whom she subsequently married, Mr. Williamson. Hurt, frustrated and angry all at once, Wesley found excuses to withhold Holy Communion from Sophy, thereby suggesting to the public that she was scandal-ridden. Her husband was outraged. He had the politically powerful summon a Grand Jury.  The Grand Jury indicted Wesley, and he took the next ship back to England in order to escape a lawsuit.

Why had he gone in the first place?   He had gone inasmuch as he was a spiritual groper.  He had thought that going to the wilderness in the New World would somehow translate into a fresh start for him in his spiritual quest. Candidly he said he’d gone in hope of saving his own soul.

Having returned to England a disillusioned man, haunted by his failure and tormented by his quest, he floundered for months until one Sunday evening he went to a service in London . He says he went “very unwillingly”, no doubt because he felt there was no point to going: his situation was hopeless and he himself helpless.  Listen to Wesley now in his own words:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street , where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine , while he

was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.         I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

 

It was 24th May, 1738 , the occasion of the long-awaited turn-around in his life.  His moralism and legalism were behind him forever.  Immediately his preaching shifted from moral exhortation to gospel-offer. His attitude to people, especially those beneath his social position, shifted from contempt to compassion. His rigorous self-discipline shifted from an achievement by which he sought to gain favour with God to a simple life-style that freed up everything about him and made it available to others.   It happened on May 24, 1738 , a day that his followers thereafter knew as “Wesley Day.”

Years later he and his people (Methodism at this time was still a renewal movement within Anglicanism) began to speak of “Our Doctrines.” Their doctrines, however, weren’t unique to them.   “Our Doctrines” were the doctrines of the church-at-large.   There was nothing novel about them.  Wesley abhorred theological novelty, insisting that anything novel had to be heretical. “Our doctrines” were Anglican, and Wesley considered them the doctrines of Christians everywhere. At the same time, Wesley insisted that his people own them, and own them with mind and heart, understanding and zeal.

 

[1] First among “Our Doctrines” is justification by faith. Justification or righteousness means right-relatedness to God.   Justification, right-relatedness by faith is always to be contrasted with justification by something else; namely, justification by achievement.   The issue is this: is our righted-relationship with God, our standing with God, a gift from God, or is it something we earn and therefore merit?  With the help of friends who were spiritual descendants of Luther, Wesley came to see that scripture clearly affirms our right-relationship to God to be God’s gift, a gift that we possess by faith.

To say that sinners are justified is to say that those in the wrong before God are put in the right with God.  It’s to say that they are pardoned, or forgiven, or acquitted, or freely accepted. All these terms mean the same. To say that this happens through the faith of the believing person is to say that such a person welcomes God’s forgiveness, endorses God’s acquittal, accepts God’s acceptance of oneself.   Needless to say, faith must never be construed as a virtue that God recognizes and rewards. Faith must never be construed as an achievement that merits pardon with God.

Faith is simply the bond that binds us to Jesus Christ. Isn’t Jesus Christ the Son with whom the Father is well-pleased?   Then as we are bound to Christ in faith, and bound so closely to him as to be identified with him, we are now the son or daughter with whom the Father is pleased. Isn’t Jesus Christ the only covenant-partner of God who keeps the covenant with his Father? Then as we are bound to Jesus Christ in faith and thereby identified with him, we who are covenant-breakers in ourselves are now deemed covenant-keepers in Christ. Isn’t Jesus Christ the one whose cross bore the sin of humankind?   Then as we are bound to him in faith and identified with him our sin is borne away.

The apostle Paul gloried in the truth of justification by faith. Yet we mustn’t think that Paul invented the doctrine.         He had found it everywhere in the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Our Lord told a parable of two men who went to church to pray. One fellow, indisputably a moral giant, tried to use his moral attainment as a bargaining-chip with God. The other fellow could only plead, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  “I tell you”, said Jesus, “this man went home justified.”

Justification by faith is the beginning of the Christian life; it’s the beginning of the Christian life and the stable basis for all else in the Christian life. Justification by faith is first among “Our Doctrines.”

 

[2]         Second is the new birth. Whereas justification is a change in the believer’s standing before God (from condemnation to acquittal, from rejection to acceptance, from expulsion to welcome), regeneration or new birth is a change within the believer herself. Wesley spoke of justification as a relative change (relative because of a changed relationship) and of new birth as a real change.

Through the prophet Ezekiel God had promised to create a new heart, a new spirit, within his people.   Ezekiel contrasts the new “heart of flesh” with the old “heart of stone.” The heart of flesh beats, pulsates, throbs.         It invigorates someone who is alive.  The heart of stone, on the other hand, is the heart of a corpse, a heart taken over by rigor mortis. The difference between the heart of flesh and the heart of stone is the difference between someone who is alive unto God and someone who is inert before God. It’s the difference between someone who is responsive to God, engaged with God, and someone who is insensitive, unresponsive, indifferent.

As glorious as justification is (the freely-bestowed forgiveness of God), Wesley knew it wasn’t enough.  He asked himself a question as simple as it was profound: can people be changed, really changed, changed from the inside out?         Everyone knew that behavioural conformity could be fostered.   (Moralists and legalists major in this.)  But could a change so very profound occur that someone was given new aspiration, new motivation, new obedience, in short a new nature?    Wesley knew that either God can make a real change in us or the most the gospel offers is a pronouncement of pardon upon our bondage to sin even as that bondage is unrelieved.  As glorious as he knew forgiveness of sin to be, Wesley knew that God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it. He insisted that the gospel not only relieved people of sin’s guilt; it also released them from sin’s grip.  Life could begin again.

People can change; better, people can be changed.  God will grant them a new heart.  God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it.  The person he forgives he also remakes.   Either this is true or the gospel isn’t good news.         It is true.  Deliverance can be experienced.   The relative change of the remission of sin is always accompanied by the real change of regeneration.  Believers have a genuine future.

 

[3]  Third in “Our Doctrines” is the witness of the Spirit (i.e., the witness of the Holy Spirit.)   The children of God can know themselves to be such. When people come to faith in Jesus Christ and are renewed at his hand they are no longer mere creatures of God but are now children of God.  God seals this truth upon them so as to leave them with every assurance that they are his.

Wesley was aware that the spiritually hungry look to our Lord in hope of being fed. Plainly a sense of need has impelled them to look to him.  Plainly the more urgent their sense of need, the more anxiously they look. If in looking to Jesus Christ they lack assurance that they have met him and are now fused to him, then their everyday bundle of anxieties remains unrelieved and is in fact swelled by a fearsome religious anxiety.  Then it’s crucial that those who have passed from death to life know it.

Wesley found the witness of the Spirit writ large in scripture, largest of all in Romans 8:15 where Paul exclaims, “The Spirit, God himself, constrains us to cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ As the Spirit pulls this cry out of us the Spirit himself bears witness to us that we are children of God.”

Wesley knew that one thing only relieved anxious people concerning their standing with God: the incursion of that Spirit who floods believing people so as to authenticate their adoption at God’s hand, and this indubitably.

The witness of God’s Spirit resembles happiness in one respect: if we pursue it, it forever escapes us.         Happiness, everyone knows, overtakes people when they aren’t looking for it but are getting on with what they have to do.  In the same way God’s Spirit assures us of our standing with him (“No condemnation now I dread” wrote Charles) as we are preoccupied with what God has given us to do.

 

[4]         Fourth among “Our Doctrines” is the declaration of the law to believers. Believers have to be guided on the road of discipleship.

Over and over throughout the history of the church, wherever the glorious truth of justification by faith has been declared, some people have drawn the wrong conclusion.  They say “If we are set right with God by our faith in the provision he has made for us in his Son, then it makes no difference what we do thereafter.” The apostle Paul had to contend with the same misunderstanding during his ministry. When he announced the good news of the gospel (we are justified by grace through faith, not on account of our conformity to law), some hearers assumed that the law of God had been overturned. “By no means”, the apostle expostulated.  “On the contrary, faith upholds the law.” The law of God is necessary if believers are to live out, live rightly, the new life they have received in Christ.

Once again, Wesley didn’t invent anything here. Apart from scripture’s insistence on the law of God as a guide to believers Wesley took it most immediately from the Puritans who had preceded him.   The Puritans took it from Calvin, who found it ultimately in Melanchthon, the fellow who “packaged” Luther’s theology.  Melanchthon called it “the third use of the law.”

The first use, Luther had said, was to order the society, to prevent social breakdown, even social chaos.  The second use was to convict people of their sinnership as they came to see that they violated the law of God and were therefore guilty before God. The third use of the law was to guide believers along the road of discipleship.

Think, for instance, of the prohibition concerning theft. The first use of the law forestalls a social chaos wherein nobody can survive.  The second use convicts people of their deep-down sinnership and points them to the gospel for relief.  After all, the prohibition against theft includes envy, greed, covetousness – sins of which everyone is guilty.         The third use guides believers along the road of discipleship as believers now know they must repudiate any envy, greed, covetousness that laps at them even as they must put everything they own at the disposal of their neighbour.

Did I say that the third use of the law is to help believers along the road of discipleship?  I did. But isn’t Jesus Christ our companion on the road?   He is. Then the law of God, for believers, is simply the claim of Jesus Christ upon our obedience. Our Lord himself insists that we obey him, obey him in person. Then the third use of the law is simply our Lord’s relentless insistence that we obey him and thereby walk in that newness of life which he has already bestowed on us.

“Our doctrines” included – and must ever include – the declaration of the law to believers.

 

[5]         Last, but no means least, is Christian Perfection.  Now don’t be put off because you’ve heard the word “perfection.” Wesley didn’t endorse a perfectionism that renders people neurotic. He didn’t endorse a religious superiority that leaves people snobbish and self-righteous. He did, however, encourage his people to look to God for deliverance from every vestige of selfism.

Wesley knew, as the church catholic has always known, that selfism is the essence of sin.  To be freed from sin profoundly is to be freed from a self-preoccupation that measures everything and everyone in terms of catering to the self and magnifying the self and promoting the self.  Since we all need to be freed from such self-preoccupation as we need nothing else, and since all of Christ’s people have been appointed to be delivered from it in heaven, why not look to God to be delivered from it now? Why set arbitrary limits to what God can do to free us in this life?

I know what you are going to tell me: you are going to say that any concern with deliverance from selfism is at bottom another form of self-preoccupation.  But not so for Wesley. For him Christian perfection was self-forgetfulness, self-forgetfulness that frees us for love of God and neighbour.  Self-forgetful love for God and neighbour entails a self-sacrifice that is so thoroughly selfless as not even to be aware of being a sacrifice. “Lost in wonder, love and praise”, wrote Charles Wesley.  Be sure to underline “lost”; self-abandoned to discerning and doing God’s will, self-abandoned to assisting the poor, the lonely, the outcast, the disadvantaged, the spiritually inert.

When Wesley saw the plight of the poor, sick people who first joined his Anglican renewal movement he gathered to himself a surgeon and an “apothecary”, and then scrounged the money to pay them. In the first five months of this program his apothecary distributed drugs to 500 people. The drugs cost 40 pounds. He raised the money himself. By 1746 he had established London ’s first free dispensary.

Wesley was distressed at the plight of aged widows. He purchased houses and refurbished them. Would the widows who had to live in them feel themselves demeaned as charity cases much beneath the social position of Wesley himself?  Every time he was in the neighbourhood he ate at their table and ate the same food.

When the banks refused to lend money to sobered-up, industrious converts who wanted to start up small businesses, Wesley scrabbled for 50 pounds and then handed out small loans. In the first year he helped 250 people make a fresh economic start.

When Anglican officialdom faulted Wesley for advocating Christian perfection he asked the bishops who faulted him, “When you were at Holy Communion this morning, did you pray the Collect, ‘…cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you…’? And when you prayed these words, did you mean them?  Then why are you faulting me now?”

 

May 24th. Most of us associate the date with the birth of Queen Victoria . It’s more profound to associate the day with the new birth of the Reverend John Wesley, Anglican clergyman, servant of God, leader of the Eighteenth Century Awakening. Because his heart was ‘strangely warmed’, the hearts of millions throughout the world have been set on fire to the glory of God, and to the edification of the neighbour, and, not least, to the relief of the sufferer.

Reverend Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                       May 2008