Posts tagged ‘Methodism’

The Roundup

Here is a quick roundup of some of what I’ve been reading lately. 2012RoundupFlyer_photo_small1

  • The subject of Biblical inerrancy versus plenary inspiration continues to be discussed within the Church of the Nazarene, despite the fact that the denomination’s acceptance of the latter has not changed since 1908. Al Truesdale contributes a fantastic article to the latest edition of Holiness Today on Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists.
  • John Meunier shares some nagging questions here about whether the Church truly spends enough time and energy proclaiming the message of the Gospel.
  • For those of who enjoyed my review of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell and want to dig deeper into the subject, Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has a review of Ed Fudge’s study Hell: The Final Word.
  • Through the BookSneeze program, I’ve recently acquired a copy of Miraculous: A Fascinating History of Signs, Wonders, and Miracles by Kevin Belmonte. I am finding it engaging thus far, so look for an upcoming review post in the near future.
  • Here’s an engaging post on why Methodists oppose the death penalty.
  • More reason to shop at Family Christian Bookstores.
  • The Wesleyan Church recently revised its vision and mission statements. What’s really impressive is this statement from Dr. Jo Ann Lyon, the sole General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church: “Our current statements use insider-language that assume too much from our audience. We are realigning our vision and mission to inspire our audience and clearly guide the organization.”
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Fridays are for John Wesley

Welcome to what I hope to make a regular weekly feature here on A Heart That Burns. Each Friday will be devoted to a brief look at some of Wesley’s journals, sermons, or other writings. Enjoy! 

As one reads through the journals of John Wesley, one is struck by the unflinching manner in which Wesley enforced standards among the early Methodist societies. Consider this entry from January 27, 1742:

After diligent inquiry made, I removed all those from the congregation of the faithful, whose behavior or spirit was not agreeable to the Gospel of Christ: Openly declaring the objections I had to each, that others might fear, and cry to God for them.

It’s notable that the standard used by Wesley was the Gospel. This entry is not untypical, and it’s also notable that throughout his journals, Wesley never dwells at length on such incidents.

I found, after the exclusion of some, who did not walk according to the Gospel, about eleven hundred, who are, I trust, of a more excellent spirit, remained in the society. — Monday, February 1, 1742.

I read over in the society, the Rules which all our members are to observe; and desired everyone seriously to consider, whether he was willing to conform thereto or no. That this would shake many of them, I knew well; and therefore, on Monday, 7, I began visiting the classes again, lest “that which is lame should be turned out of the way.” — Sunday, March 6, 1743

… The number of those who were expelled the society was sixty-four: — Two for cursing and swearing. Two for habitual Sabbath-breaking. Seventeen for drunkenness. Two for retailing spirituous liquors. Three for quarreling and brawling. One for beating his wife. Three for habitual, willful lying. Four for railing and evil-speaking. One for idleness and laziness.  And, Nine-and-twenty for lightness and carelessness.  — Saturday, March 12, 1743

Clearly, Wesley was not a man who saw any accomodation with sin. It causes me to think about whether this is true of our churches today, be it the Church of the Nazarene or other Wesleyan denominations. In fact I jokingly mentioned this to a United Methodist pastor friend, whose response was, “Try that in a church and tell me how it works out for you.”

Sadly, I think that we are far from the standards that Wesley held to, and that the Church suffers much for it. We have lost the concept of reproval — gentle criticism or correction — and we seem to have lost the ability to draw a line in the sand beyond which sinful behavior among the Church will be tolerated.

What do you think? Are our standards too low?

On Gossip

I started a new job recently, and during my orientation session a significant discussion was held on the subject of gossip. My orientation group was informed in no uncertain terms that employees who were found to be engaging in gossip would be disciplined, possibly even terminated from their position with the company. This certainly held no fears for me, as I staunchly detest gossip. Yet I found myself surprised to encounter a business that takes such a strong stand on the subject, and pleased to be part of an organization that values relationships so highly as to take a stance against gossip.

I’ve written previously on this blog on this subject, sharing how my grandfather chided me when I was a kid for gossiping about another child in the neigborhood. “When you gossip,” he told me, “you’re killing people! You’re killing yourself, you’re killing whoever listens to you, and you’re killing the person you gossip about.” I didn’t really understand what he meant until I was older, and was astounded to discover that my grandfather had actually been paraphrasing something from the Talmud.

In John Wesley’s sermon, The Cure of Evil Speaking, Wesley labeled gossip as a very common sin.

“… how extremely common is this sin, among all orders and degrees of men! How do high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish, learned and unlearned, run into it continually! Persons who differ from each other in all things else, nevertheless agree in this. How few are there that can testify before God, “I am clear in this matter; I have always set a watch before my mouth, and kept the door of my lips!” What conversation do you hear,of any considerable length, whereof evil speaking is not one ingredient? and that even among persons who, in the general, have the fear of God before their eyes, and do really desire to have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward man.”

 Wesley admitted that the very commonness of the sin of gossip made it almost unavoidable, yet he was greatly concerned that the early Methodists should avoid evil speech. His Scriptural guide in this was Matthew 18:15-17, a passage in which Christ laid forth a blueprint for transparent relationships between Christians.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

How well do you personally live out this passage? I think many of us come up with all sorts of excuses for not following the express command of our Lord Jesus — I’ve been guilty of it myself. One customary excuse seems to be something along the lines of, “I’m just not comfortable approaching that person.” That may seem reasonable to our 21st-century ears, but Matthew 18 doesn’t concern itself much with our personal comfort zone so much as it does seeking the repair of broken relationships in the Body of Christ.

Wesley most certainly understood that circumstances might prevent one from communicating in person, and offered such alternatives as a personal, trusted messenger or writing a letter. Yet he also noted that the first step — approaching the one who has sinned against you — must be seen as compulsory, stating,

“It should be well observed, not only that this is a step which our Lord absolutely commands us to take, but that he commands us to take this step first, before we attempt any other. No alternative is allowed, no choice of anything else: This is the way; walk thou in it. It is true, he enjoins us, if need require, to take two other steps; but they are to be taken successively after this step, and neither of them before it: Much less are we to take any other step, either before or beside this. To do anything else, or not to do this, is, therefore, equally inexcusable.”

Do you find it challenging to obey this command?

Altar Theology or Altered Theology? – Part Two

Theological differences become apparent swiftly when the teachings of Phoebe Palmer on entire sanctification are contrasted with John Wesley’s own. In stark contrast to Wesley’s vision of a lengthy, often difficult effort concluding with sanctification, Palmer expressed sanctification as a state of being that all believers could achieve in an instant. This was a viewpoint that Wesley had specifically warned against, as can be seen in the Minutes of the Methodist Conference (1771). Charles White has identified six primary areas in which Palmer departs from Wesleyan views of entire sanctification.

The first of these is that she equates entire sanctification with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Second, Palmer equated holiness with power. Palmer saw entire sanctification as a means by which the sanctified Christian was given power for a life of service in behalf of God and others.

Third, she focused on the instantaneousness of entire sanctification, having little or nothing to say about any progressive growth in grace either before or after sanctification. Palmer’s reasoning was that “whatever my former deficiencies may have been, God requires that I should now be holy … God requires present holiness.” Palmer’s logic was that this “shorter way” was not just possible but a reality, because God would not withhold something that he had required of the individual Christian. In her outlook, Palmer seems to have followed Charles G. Finney, whom Ivan Howard notes “held that entire sanctification could be received at any time, whenever one appropriated Christ by faith.”

The fourth way in which Palmer deviated from Wesley was that she taught sanctification as the beginning of the Christian life, not the goal of it as Wesley had done. Mark Mann notes that Palmer “came to view full holiness as the duty of all Christians, thereby substantially deflating the importance of justification and the new birth (against which Wesley himself had warned). Related to this, Palmer came to emphasize Christian perfection as a grace normally available early in one’s spiritual growth, even as early as a couple hours after one’s conversion.” Such a view of holiness inevitably would lead one to the conclusion that to doubt in entire sanctification would be amiss to sin, and Palmer certainly articulated such to her followers.

“What you need, in order to bring you into this state, is an offering up of yourself through this purifying medium. Now do you still ask, How soon may I expect to arrive at this state of perfection? Just so soon as you come believingly, and make the required sacrifice, it will be done unto you according to your faith….When the Savior said, “It is finished!” then this full salvation was wrought out for you. All that remains is for you to come complying with the conditions, and claim it…it is already yours. If you do not now receive it, the delay will not be on the part of God, but wholly with yourself. … And now my dear K, if you will resolve to let faith depend on the word of God, and not upon your uncertain feelings, your difficulties will all be at an end.”

The fifth difference which White identifies is Palmer’s promulgation of what became labeled as “altar theology,” a concept she drew from Exodus 29:37.

“The acceptance of the gift [of entire sanctification] does not depend on the worthiness of the offerer or the greatness of the gift, but upon the sanctity of the altar: Matt. 23:19, “For whether is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?” It is by virtue of the altar upon which the offering is laid that the gift is sanctified: Exod. 29:37, “And it shall be an altar most holy: whatsoever touches the altar shall be holy.” Christ is the Christian’s altar.”

This altar theology compacted entire sanctification into a process of three steps: an act of entire consecration in which one placed one’s all on the altar, faith in God’s promise of sanctification, and giving public testimony to sanctification. This last step Palmer viewed as a necessity due to the order of God not being fully met until confession was made with the mouth.

The sixth divergence from Wesley’s teachings that is noted by White is that Palmer posited that there was no further evidence needed for the assurance of entire sanctification than Scripture itself. She wrote, “God did not require … anything but what was thoroughly substantiated by the requirements of his written word.” Palmer eschewed any evidence of sanctification in the form of the witness of the Spirit (which Wesley had insisted was vital as an assurance of entire sanctification), writing, “What is the evidence of entire sanctification? … How might an offerer at the Jewish altar arrive at an evidence that his offering was sanctified? In the first place, God had explicitly made known just the sacrifice required, and the manner in which it should be presented. If the offerer had complied with these requirements, he, of course, knew he had done so.”

Although these differences in theology might seem trivial to some, Randy Maddox has demonstrated that John Wesley had spoken quite strongly against each one of the modifications that Phoebe Palmer would make to the doctrine of entire sanctification.  Hardly trivial, Palmer’s alterations in fact caused a theological dissonance in holiness teaching, one that has lasted to the present day and continues to cause serious problems for the Holiness movement. The crux of the problem is that the Holiness movement has since its inception been playing an internal tug-of-war over the matter of its own identity. Is it a Wesleyan identity, or a Palmerian identity? This tension of identity is likely to be one of the reasons for the loss of a laity truly educated in holiness; a problem that Keith Drury has argued has contributed to the death of the Holiness movement as a movement.

In Part Three, I will address the consequences of the identity crisis in the Holiness movement.

In Honor of John Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience

Today marks the anniversary of the day when John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed,” as he attended a bible study on Aldersgate Street. Many Wesleyan denominations make this “Aldersgate Day” a bit of a memorial, in acknowledgement of the transformation Wesley’s Aldersgate experience accomplished in him, and the ministry that resulted. For some good reflections on this, visit here and here.

Altar Theology or Altered Theology? – Part One

There is perhaps no doctrine as closely associated with the holiness movement as that of entire sanctification. It is undisputable that this is a teaching that the holiness movement owes to John Wesley. Entire sanctification – or Christian perfection, as Wesley referred to it – was central to Wesley’s personal spiritual growth and the development of the 18th-century Methodist movement. Thomas Jay Oord recently pointed out that more than eighty Christian denominations today – among them the United Methodist Church, the Salvation Army, the Free Methodist Church, the Church of God (Anderson), and the Church of the Nazarene – consider Wesley to be their primary theological ancestor, which makes it hugely important that entire sanctification be defined precisely.

When Methodism came to America in the late 18th-century, it grew numerically yet departed from perfectionist teaching as a priority, causing it to suffer spiritually as a denomination. During the 19th-century holiness revival, entire sanctification once more regained its status, due primarily to the ministry of Phoebe Worrall Palmer (whom I’ve previously written about here). Randall J. Stephens credits the success of the holiness movement, particularly in the pre-Civil War north, mostly to her efforts. Yet even as Palmer introduced thousands to the concept of entire sanctification (through her Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness and her prolific writings), she represented a divergence from pure Wesleyan teaching. Over the next few posts, I’ll be exploring the argument that Mrs. Palmer’s teaching on entire sanctification – her  “altar theology” – was in fact an altered theology of entire sanctification, to examine the consequences of that for the Holiness movement, and to briefly examine possible solutions for the problems caused by those consequences.

In this first post I’ll be discussing precisely what John Wesley taught regarding entire sanctification or, as he termed it, Christian perfection. By his own report, Wesley’s insights grew out of his readings of Jeremy Taylor, Thomas à Kempis, and William Law. Taylor and Kempis convinced Wesley of the importance of purity of intention and the giving all of one’s heart to God, but it was Law’s Treatise on Christian Perfection and Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life which had the greatest impact.

“Meeting now with Mr. Law’s Christian Perfection and Serious Call, although I was much offended at many parts of both, yet they convinced me more than ever of the exceeding height and breadth and depth of the law of God. The light flowed in upon my soul, that everything appeared in a new view. I cried to God for help, and resolved not to prolong the time of obeying Him as I had never done before. And by continued endeavor to keep His whole law, inward and outward, to the utmost of my power, I was persuaded that should be accepted of Him, and that I was even then in a state of salvation.”

Devotional material such as this, in addition to the Bible, was the source from which Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection was deduced. As early as 1733, it is possible to see the seeds of this had begun to sprout, particularly in Wesley’s sermon on “The Circumcision of the Heart.” Here Wesley begins to describe love as the essence of perfection, describing it as, “that habitual disposition of soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies, the being cleansed from sin, “from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit;” and, by consequence, the being endued with those virtues which were also in Christ Jesus; the being so “renewed in the spirit of our mind,” as to be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.”

Early in his career, Wesley viewed sanctification as something to be achieved instantaneously, yet later in life he would admit that he had confused the consequences of the new birth (i.e., justification) with those of perfection (i.e., entire sanctification). By the time he published the first edition of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection in 1766, Wesley’s views had solidified into the avowal that God had given the promise of salvation from willful sin. Wesley found this promise in passages such as Deuteronomy 30:6; Psalm 130:8; Ezekiel 36:25, 29; Matthew 5:48, 6:13, 22:37; John 3:8, 17:20-21, 23; Romans 8:3-4; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 3:14-19, 5:25, 27; and Thessalonians 5:23.  Further, Wesley held that Scriptures such as Luke 1:69-75, Titus 2:11-14, and 1 John 4:17 gave signs that this promise of sanctification was to take place within the lifetime of the individual Christian.

Melvin Dieter has noted that Wesley detailed features of this sanctification in his sermon “On Perfection,” which included:

1. To love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbors as oneself;

2. To have the mind that is in Christ;

3. To bear the fruit of the Spirit (in accordance with Gal. 5);

4. The restoration of the image of God in the soul, a recovery of man to the moral image of God, which consists of “righteousness and true holiness”;

5. Inward and outward righteousness, “holiness of life issuing from holiness of heart”;

6. God’s sanctifying of the person in spirit, soul, and body”;

7. The person’s own perfect consecration to God;

8. A continuous presentation through Jesus of the individual’s thoughts, words, and actions as a sacrifice to God of praise and thanksgiving;

9. Salvation from all sin.”

It is quite evident that Wesley saw entire sanctification as the conclusion of a developmental process, setting “a point after justification as a terminus a quo and a point, however indefinite, sometime before death as a terminus a quem.” Wesley at times had to combat his own earlier views on sanctification as occurring instantaneously with justification. In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection he clearly argues against this, saying, “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 he is perfect, he hath still need to ‘grow in grace,’ and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his savior.”

Wesley’s view on sanctification can be summarized as a gradual yet dynamic process, not as a state that once reached remained unchanged. His teaching did not disavow that sanctification could be instantaneous but he did not see it as typical based on his gathering of the testimonies of many who had claimed the experience. Wesleyan scholar Randy Maddox views this confirmation through the experience of the individual Christian, as well as the attestation of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer, as crucial to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection as being a relation of love for God and others. Ultimately, for Wesley entire sanctification was understood – as Paul Bassett has expressed it – as “the perfecting threshold. Now the life of Christian perfection begins. One does not seek to become more perfect. One seeks, by grace, to express more clearly the gift of perfection that has been given.

In Part Two, I’ll be exploring Phoebe Palmer’s theology of entire sanctification

Spreading Holiness

Wesleyan scholar Theodore Jennings has written, “Wesley was committed to the realization of  holiness of life…this was the aim of his life, the organizing center of his thought, the spring of all  action, his one abiding project. For Wesley, sanctification meant becoming a creature worthy of the  Creator, a finite representative and image of the divine subject.”

John Wesley believed that the process of sanctification – becoming more and more holy in one’s life  – should the main goal for those who followed Christ. Thus, the purpose which Methodism gained from its found was to “spread Scriptural holiness.” The means by which Wesley saw this as being achieved were complex. They involved:

  • bible study
  • regular, constant practice of the sacraments (God’s means of grace) – including prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Bible reading and study, fasting or abstinence, and
  • regular, constant practice of Christian conference – meeting with other Christians for the purpose of conversation, teaching, accountability, mutual encouragement, and support for discipleship
  • acts of mercy (i.e., visiting those in prison and giving food or clothing to the poor and needy)
  • intelligence/reading
  • accountability
  • intentionality
  • class meetings
  • missionary work

When Methodism spread to colonial America, initially the focus on holiness remained central. However, when the Methodist Church in America experienced numerical growth beyond what Wesley might ever have dreamed, it was accompanied by an abandonment of the teaching of holiness and entire sanctification. During the 19th-century holiness movement, there was a revival of Wesleyan teaching, and as holiness denominations formed in the post-Civil War period, they shared Wesley’s desire to see holiness spread.

The Church of the Nazarene was founded in this period, and it is interesting to examine the methods that  the Nazarene Church founded by Phineas F. Bresee in 1895 used to spread holiness. Some of the primary methods were:

  • publishing
  • public preaching
  • neighborhood evangelism
  • increasing membership

This last bullet point should not be confused with the church growth movement of today, where a focus on “increasing membership” equates almost solely to increase in attendance numbers (usually without regard to committment to the Christian life). Rather, the early Church of the Nazarene identified with the early Church in the Book of Acts, and sought an increase in numbers of those truly committed to following Christ and living holy lives.

So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47)

What methods are we using to spread holiness today?

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