Great Wesleyan Distinctives, Part I

Beloved, we are facing the long and difficult work of rebuilding the church and remembering our heritage. Perhaps it might be helpful to dedicate a little mini series on four of the great themes of our Wesleyan heritage. We will start out with the Wesleyan view of grace.

Wesley accepted the Reformation emphasis on justifying grace, but lovingly reminded the church that to equate salvation with justification was a great loss to the biblical doctrine of salvation. Wesley saw God’s grace punctuating the whole of our lives within an expansive understanding of biblical salvation. God’s grace comes to us before we even become Christians. It is prevenient grace which enables us to respond to the gospel. This is why although we describe this as free will, we really mean freed will, i.e. God has taken the first step and sovereignly acted to free us from Adamic guilt and sinful depravity, thereby enabling the whole human race to hear the gospel and respond.

For Wesley, all spiritual formation begins with God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). This clearly refers to a drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Prevenient grace is God’s universal grace to the entire human race, situating Wesleyanism between Augustinian pessimism and Pelagian optimism. Because prevenient grace means that which comes “before,” some Wesleyans mistakenly think that this is grace which only comes to us prior to justifying grace. However, prevenient grace also includes all the ways God moves in sovereign prior action calling us to respond throughout our Christian experience. Again, Wesley manages to perfectly balance the classic tension between monergistic and synergistic views of salvation. Prevenient grace is a testimony to monergism, whereas the full collaboration with God through our freed wills is a testimony to syngergism.

In addition to prevenient grace, Wesley speaks of sanctifying grace. Just as God in Christ meets us to justify us, so the Spirit of God meets us to sanctify us and make us holy. Prevenient and justifying grace enables you to become a Christian, but it is sanctifying grace which enables you to be a Christian. We will dedicate a future article to saying more about this, but it is important for now to see how sanctification fits into Wesley’s larger view of grace. Finally, it is glorifying grace which enables you to be fully conformed to the image of Christ in the New Creation. So Wesley unfolds for us a great vision of God’s grace which is rich and textured and punctuates the whole of our pre-Christian and Christian lives stretching even into the New Creation.

Wesley developed a whole doctrine of the means of grace which he defined as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God . . . whereby he might convey preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16, Means of Grace). Like a trail of bread crumbs, Wesley saw that however far we stray God leaves little markers of his grace so we can find our way home and reorient ourselves to Jesus Christ. Wesley identified three primary “means of grace”: prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper. Now most Christians accept the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace” to help us grow in Christ. However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace. What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also prevenient, and justifying grace. In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith. This is why we practice open communion. Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” only have power because of Christ’s presence in them. Christ is the only true “means of grace” and He meets us at the Table, in prayer and in the reading of Scripture.

Reflections on General Conference

Here are a few of my reflections on the recently completed meeting of the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

First, we must be aware of how the wider global Christian movement who are not members of the United Methodist Church viewed this final vote. I realize that some may not fully appreciate the importance of these voices, but it is certainly part of our commitment to catholicity to remember that we are not just a struggling mainline denomination trying to become healthy—we are part of the glorious, indestructible body of Christ which stretches back through time and through space around the world. The global church has been overwhelmingly positive about what was decided at General Conference. The affirmation of an historic Christian view regarding marriage and the body is a huge encouragement to so many around the world who have become accustomed to the mainline churches seemingly inevitable march to re-position themselves outside the stream of historic faith.

Second, the vote was also an historic vote in the history of mainline Protestantism. There are five large “mainline” denominations in the USA: United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Episcopal Church (TEC), and the American Baptist Church (ABC). The United Methodist Church is the only mainline denomination, to date, which has managed to maintain the biblical ethic on the definition of Christian marriage and the sanctity of our bodies as created “male” or “female.” If this vote holds, and, more importantly, it stimulates deeper renewal in biblical fidelity, then we could be a beacon of hope for all of these older churches who are continuing their precipitous decline at alarming rates.

Third, we must listen to what God is teaching us through the pain of those who were so bitterly disappointed in this vote. This is no time for triumphalism. The church is still as deeply divided as it was the week before the General Conference. C. S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps we could agree on a slight amendment to the last phrase: Pain is also God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf church. We clearly have a lot of pastoral work to do to extend the love of Christ to those who struggle with their sexual identity or their assigned birth gender. It was right for the church to defend the biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman. To concede this point would have caused not only a fracturing division with the global church, but even more importantly, a serious erosion of the basic Christian commitment that the Scriptures will always be the authoritative and final witness to the faith, life and ethics of the church of Jesus Christ for all time. Nonetheless, the deep cries of anguish by those who were disappointed in the vote always remind us that we have much unfinished business in fully articulating a theology of the body and the grand vision of marriage which the Scriptures so nobly set forth, and to which we have not always been a vibrant witness.

Finally, we are all saddened by the divided nature of the United Methodist Church. I truly believe that this sadness is shared by the whole church. It seems intractable. In my view, it would be a mistake to simply return to General Conference in 2020 and re-fight this same issue all over again, though I have no role in those kind of decisions. However, as a United Methodist clergy person, The One Church Plan, called by different names, has now been voted down four times. I think it would be a poor strategy to expect different results in 2020, especially since the global delegates will have increased. A better approach would be to step back from this issue and try to focus on the underlying sources of our division as a church. From the perspective of how the United Methodist Church is situated within the Christian movement, it would be a tragedy if we were to accept de facto, as has been said quite a bit in recent weeks, that “the way forward” is to follow the teachings of Jesus and not the teachings of Paul and others in the epistles who set forth many of the ethical parameters which are being rejected by those who want to normalize same sex behavior. The idea that Jesus is timeless while Paul and the others are all culture bound and have no voice in the life of the church would be catastrophic in terms of our denominational future as a viable Christian movement. To separate “Jesus” from “Paul” in this way ends up not being true to Jesus or to Paul since both are now being used for our purposes rather than representing God’s revelation to us.

Let me be clear, there are no “winners” and “losers” in this struggle. It is the gospel which must prevail and call us all to die to ourselves and, through spiritual rebirth, be raised up and united with Christ. We all must do a better job listening to the whole of Scripture. We must all do a better job listening to our beloved Wesleyan heritage. We must all do a better job in listening to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ who is Lord of the Church and has summoned us all as sinners into His glorious presence. For I know that we all agree—the last thing we want to have ringing in our ears at the end of this struggle is that terrifying word of judgment from Christ when He comes to look for fruit on the tree called United Methodism and says, “may no one ever eat fruit from you again.” We all hope for a day when fruitfulness will, once again, be the hallmark of our beloved church.