Remembering the Source of Aldersgate.

May 24, 1738 is an iconic date in the history of the Methodist movement. It is on that date that Rev. John Wesley went “unwillingly” to a Moravian prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and was powerfully converted. According to Wesley’s journal, it took place about a quarter till nine as he was listening to someone read Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. It was during the reading of Luther’s preface that John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed.” The rest, as they say, is history. The Methodist movement was born and the world was set ablaze with the gospel.

I have been moving in Methodist circles all my life. I think it is reasonable to say that a healthy percentage of the Methodists have heard of Aldersgate and know, even if vaguely, something about Wesley’s “heart-warming” experience there. But, here’s the snag. I don’t know of too many Methodists who have actually read Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. The fact that the heart-felt experience of Wesley is far more known than the textual source of that experience is significant. We can all too easily forget that our experience of God’s work does not come untethered from the truth of God’s word. When Christian “experience” becomes disconnected from God’s Word it drifts into mere emotionalism. When God’s Word is not united to our experience it drifts into cold legalism. It was the powerful uniting of word and experience which ignited the “people called Methodists” and changed the world.

I recently sat down and re-read afresh Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The wonderful thing about the preface is that it is a document brimming with clarity. One can never fault Luther for being muddled and vague in his proclamation of the gospel! Like Wesley, Luther had been born and raised in all the religious trappings, until Jesus Christ set him free. From that moment on, Luther, like Wesley two centuries later, became consumed with the gospel and never failed to set it forth in bold and clear terms.

One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow build up of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.

When an outside firm was hired some years ago to help the United Methodist church come up with a tag line to summarize its mission they came up with the phrase, “Open hearts, Open minds, Open Doors.” But, does this tagline capture the essence of the church’s message and mission with anything approaching the clarity of Luther’s Preface to the Romans? The phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” says absolutely nothing about Jesus Christ or the glorious gospel. It only speaks of our hearts, our minds and our buildings. Is that really the best we can do? As I have said before, if there were public relations consultants in the 19th century, the phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” could have just as easily emerged as a great tagline for a 19th century brothel.

This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, “Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.” It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as “seeker sensitive.” It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking” and the church. The list could go on and on.

Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s “heart-warming experience” must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or “non-denominational” means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ.

Be on the watch. Seedbed is making plans to publish a volume containing both Luther’s Preface to Romans and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on Romans. It will be one of the early releases of the newly launched John Wesley Collection. Take a look at the first release here.

Pope Francis, the Gospel and Theological Clarity

Pope Francis created quite a stir recently when he made the following statement:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” Someone then asked the Pope if this statement applied to the atheist. The Pope responded, “Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class!”

Now there has been a lot of hairsplitting about what the Pope intended to say, so let’s start by looking at the following three statements:

1. “Jesus Christ died for the elect, and all the elect will finally be saved.”
2. “Jesus Christ provides redemption for all (even the atheists).”
3. “Jesus Christ redeems all, even the atheists.”

The first statement reflects Reformed theology, especially the doctrine of unconditional election and limited atonement (The “U” and “L” in the famous TULIP five points of Calvinism). This first statement affirms that Jesus Christ died only for those who have been elected unto salvation. Those who are elect will be regenerated by the Holy Spirit and given the grace to respond in repentance and faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The second statement reflects Wesleyan theology which affirms universal provision, without diminishing or neglecting the role of human agency. In fact, in Wesleyan theology, prevenient grace “frees” the human will from bondage to sin so that a real response to the gospel is possible. The human will or agency is actually two-fold. It refers to those who make real decisions to share the gospel (through word and deed) as well as the real decisions people make in responding to the gospel in repentance and faith (or rejecting the gospel, thereby, preserving the dignity of unbelief).

The third statement is the one the Pope made. It is a statement of Christocentric universalism, sometimes known as inclusivism. This notion entered some Roman Catholic seminaries in the 20th century through the writings of the German Jesuit, Karl Rahner in his Theological Investigations. Inclusivism was primarily used to comfort those who may never have heard of Jesus Christ but who sincerely seek after God (which is why the question about atheists was asked to the Pope). The Pope’s reply seemed to push the theological envelope even beyond the inclusivism of Vatican II, but to develop this point would be to miss the central point of this blog. Let’s return to the three statements.

There is a big difference between saying “Jesus Christ provides redemption for all” and “Jesus Christ redeems all.” Why is this so important? This is important because. . . (continue reading on seedbed.com)

Three Gifts for the People of God

I would like to highlight three special gifts of God for Christians which I hope we can fully reclaim in our day. These are three gifts which the world does not possess but are graciously given to the people of God.

1. The Gift of Spending Time in God’s Presence.

The first gift is the power of spending time daily in God’s presence. There is nothing which re-orients your day, your faith and your practice more than spending time each day in prayer and in reading God’s Word. The world gets up in the morning and takes showers and eats breakfast just like we do. The world drives to work and fights traffic just like we do. There are so many ways our day is similar to anyone else’s. But, when we get up and spend time reading God’s Word and committing ourselves to God through prayer, this is a distinctive gift from God which revolutionizes the whole orientation of our lives. We sometimes forget how radical this is. We sometimes forget what a gift this is!

2. The Gift of Sabbath

The second gift is the gift of one day a week for rest or Sabbath. Our society values work, but has lost the value of rest and reflection. The Sabbath day is God’s way of reminding us what the world was like before the entrance of sin and toil. Work is, of course, a very good thing. We are created to do work. However, when we start trusting in our work and building our lives around our autonomous capacity to provide for our needs and the needs of our family, then work can become destructive and unhealthy for us. God gave us the gift of Sabbath to remind us that we can trust him for our lives. God has given us the Sabbath for renewal and regaining perspective on what is really important in life. We live in a world with nearly ceaseless work and endless labor. God reminds us that we do not need to live like that. We can enter into God’s rhythm of work and rest, of creative work and re-creative energy. Sabbath was never intended to be a restrictive “law” but a divine “gift” to us. What a gift this is!

3. The Gift of Holy Living.

The third gift is the gift of holy living. This is the gift most misunderstood by the world, and even by many Christians. The world sees holiness as ever-increasing restrictions on our lives. It is a list of things which we “can’t do.” In contrast, the lives of the world seem to be free and without boundaries, especially when contrasted with the constraints which we seem to advocate. However, this is an improper view of holiness. Holiness is actually the expansive life, because it is free from the bondages and shackles which the world can become so easily entrapped by. What appears to be the world’s “freedom” moves very quickly into “bondage.” Likewise, what appears to be narrow and restrictive turns out to be joyful and freeing because the world has no claims on our heart, our affections or our deepest longings. This is the power of sanctification. It is not merely that we are forgiven (that is justification), but that we are actually re-oriented to a whole new life and perspective.
Perhaps the most important task of the church in the coming decades is to become less concerned with the worldliness of the world and more concerned about the holiness of the church. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” If we spent more time shining our light and less time cursing the darkness, who knows how much the Kingdom of God might advance?