Is Confidence in Sola Fide Dropping or Is the Wesleyan Tide Rising?

I recently read an article with the following question as a title: “Are We Justified by Faith Alone?” The question in the title was asked in this precise form because it was intended to resonate with one of the great themes of the sixteenth-century Reformation: sola fide (faith alone!). The meaning is that we are justified by faith alone in Christ and no amount of good works can accomplish one’s justification before God. Trust me, whenever I hear any of the five great solas of the Reformation—faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, glory of God alone—I want to shout Amen and Hallelujah.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the article may have missed something. The article was written in response to a Lifeway and Ligonier Ministries survey as a part of their State of Theology Project. The survey found that only 84 percent of evangelicals agree with the following statement: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.” Only two years ago, the article points out, 91 percent of evangelicals agreed with the same statement. The author laments this slippage from and writes the following summary of his anguish: “This shows that there has been an alarming decrease in the percentage of evangelicals who express clear views on how sinful man can be justified before God.” But, does this conclusion necessarily follow the results of the survey? Let’s just say, I have doubts. The question posed never uses the word justification. The question asked about whether God “counting a person as righteous” is related to “one’s works” or only “one’s faith.” If the question had been posed, Is a person justified only by one’s faith, or is it also by one’s works? then I would share the author’s concern about the slipping percentage, because when framed this way the question is more narrowly focused on what it means to be justified before God. That is not what the question actually asked. Therefore, to conclude that this slippage represents an “alarming decrease” in “how sinful man can be justified” is not warranted.

So, what is the difference between the question and the interpretation of the response? The difference is bound up with the biblical view of salvation. To put it bluntly and plainly, biblical salvation is about more than justification. Salvation involves our salvation by faith alone in the completed work of Jesus Christ, but it also involves our sanctification which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, makes us holy and actually produces fruit in us. In other words, as much as we laud the good news of alien righteousness (i.e., that our righteousness does not belong to us, but to Jesus Christ alone), no biblical Christian believes that this is the only thing we teach about righteousness. Yes, we are condemned sinners who flee to the cross with no hope in ourselves apart from Christ. Yet, and this is the point, once we flee to the cross, God begins a good work in us to conform us to the life of Christ and to make us holy.

In other words, sanctification is about making us holy—in our thoughts, our actions, or dispositions, our heart orientation. This process will not be complete until we come to yet another stage of salvation, namely, glorification when we will be made like Christ and fully conformed to his glorious image in the final Eschaton. But, the point is this: When God looks upon us who are on this side of the cross he should definitely see two forms of righteousness—the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the emerging righteousness of the increasingly sanctified believer. John Wesley’s theology was built around the confidence that salvation must involve both the work of Jesus Christ who alone justifies and the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. Even Martin Luther’s theology of righteousness is built around the distinction between the coram deo (passive righteousness before God) and the corum mundo (active righteousness in the world).

Thus, back to the original question, When God looks at us should he not see righteousness that is not merely passive righteousness received from Christ, but also active righteousness that is based on the work of the Holy Spirit which joyfully and daily includes our wills and our actions? Thus, the dropping percentage by evangelicals is likely not a sign of the loss of sola fide and the sole centrality of Jesus Christ in justifying us, but, rather, a growing percentage of evangelicals who realize that when God looks upon us, he had better see both kinds of righteousness. As someone once humorously put it, as a play on the famous “Just as I Am” hymn: “God loves you just as you am, but he don’t want you to stay the way you am!” What we are experiencing among evangelicals is not the alarming loss of the Reformation message, but the growing realization that in an increasingly post-Christian world, not only must the world see our transformed lives, but God had better see it too!

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): From Religious Service Provider to Agent of Awakening

Read Part I of my convocation address here.
Read Part II of my convocation address here.
Read Part III of my convocation address here.

Paradigm Shift #3: Moving from Being a Religious Service Provider to an Agent of Awakening

The third storm, the COVID-19 pandemic, has disrupted one of the key features of Christian, and, indeed, human identity; namely, the life-giving power of gathered, human community reflecting the very nature of the communal nature of our triune God. On the one hand, we fully understand and embrace that the wearing of masks and keeping social distance is an expression of compassion for one another, and, in particular, our more vulnerable citizens as well as the well-being of our health care workers who serve on the front lines in this pandemic. Let me repeat, we affirm and resonate with this message. But, it is not the only message that Christians need to hear. Safety is a good value, but, for the Christian, it is not the ultimate value for us or, in our view, for a healthy society.

A culture that takes down diving boards from swimming pools because someone might get hurt is also a culture that will never send a man or woman to the moon. A culture that shines ultra-violet light on the bedsheets of 5-star hotels to show us what is lurking there is a culture that has lost touch with the real sufferings of this world. The church must get its hands dirty in the world. As I tell our new students every year, we are called to be street lights, not sanctuary lights. Millions around the world, and in our own land, struggle against what African theologian Akintude Akinade has called the “multi-headed Hydra” of poverty, illiteracy, ethnic tensions, colonialism, dictatorship, illness, disenfranchisement, and suffering. As a Christian, if my wife and I were to accept the prevailing culture’s hierarchy of values we would never have sent our daughter to live among the Alagwa in central Tanzania. She is five hours from any health care and even if she managed to get there, the clinic often has no attending staff and only meager medical supplies. It’s just too risky to bring the gospel to an unreached people’s group. As Christians we must understand that our culture is driven to make safety the highest good precisely because of their loss of the Eschaton and any eternal hope beyond the grave. If all you have is this life and the farthest extent of your vision is ninety years, then it is an expression of perfect cultural logic to end up where we are today as a society.

But our vision goes beyond the grave. Death has been defeated. We are an eschatological people. The early church understood, even in the face of immense dangers, that they stood in a sacred space, which is Jesus Christ. When Jesus saw the leper, he did not step back in fear, though it was the most infectious and transmittable disease of his day. He stepped forward, and touched the leper. COVID-19 is a call for us to reclaim the power of the gospel . . . not just the doctrines of it, but the spirit of it—to reoccupy that sacred space as we walk in confidence through the world, even as we wear masks and keep social distance. Fear is not a Christian virtue. We are not a people of fear, but of joy. For us, joy is an act of corporate resistance against despair. We walk through a COVID-19 world knowing that Jesus has the final word. He has defeated death, with all of its signatures: fear, disease, poverty, racism, etc. The world is a dangerous, risky place where we as Christians must learn again to walk into daily trusting the providence of God.

COVID-19 is, as noted earlier, a strangely wrapped gift of disruptive grace. It could be the very change agent to move us toward several important changes in how we understand ecclesiology. First, we should accept as a gift that we need to move from facility-focused ministry models to smaller, community-based churches. For too long we have nurtured and even promoted the idea of Christians commuting out of their own communities to attend large churches, many of whom have no meaningful connection to the communities they are in. For too long we have touted the size of a church as a measure of its health: the church with the most programs to meet our needs wins. However, what if COVID-19, racial unrest, and economic fragility call us to move toward smaller, community-based churches that serve as the primary agent of healing for the communities they are in? Second, what if COVID-19 breaks us from a Sunday-based ministry and gives way to a full-week engagement of the church in the world? Sunday morning gatherings for worship are wonderful, but we are not the church if our faith only finds a home one day a week. The church has always thrived the most when its members saw themselves as the church as they walked through the whole week in all of their various contexts. We must recapture our public witness, not just our private faith. Third, COVID-19 could have a transformative impact on how we understand seminary education. We have long lived and operated on the university model, which functions as a separate institution of learning that often is insulated from the churches we are pledged to serve. One of the most exciting ways Asbury is meeting this challenge is the launch of Asbury Global, which brings together our hybrid learning model, our online education, and our contextual sites that meet in local churches. It is not intended to replace our vibrant residential model, which emphasizes embodied communities of learning, but it supplements it by the whole of Asbury being reminded that we exist to serve the church and the church is a vital partner in the future of theological education.

I want to close with a story from my own family. My sixth great-grandfather was William Tennent. He was born in Scotland in 1673, went to the University of Edinburgh, as I later did, and migrated to the new world in 1718. In 1727 he founded a theological college known as the Log College, which provided pastors for the First Great Awakening (1730–1740). The Log College eventually became renamed the College of New Jersey and finally it was relocated in the first town that each merchant in the town would put up twenty dollars to support the university. A little town name Princeton rose to the challenge, and the rest is history.

William Tennent’s children all became part of what was known at that time as the New Lights, as opposed to the Old Lights. These were Great Awakening preachers and they were denouncing religious formalism, promoting revival, conversion experiences, direct experience with God, and pietism. These, of course, are themes we are familiar in the ministry of John Wesley, another one of the great streams of the Great Awakening.

William Tennent Jr. (my fifth great-grandfather) had just graduated from the Log College and was preparing to take his ordination exams. In those days, it was a deeply classical training and he was conversing in Latin with his theological tutor when suddenly, with a big heave and cry, he collapsed to the ground and died, though he was only twenty-six years old. In the eighteenth century there were four main ways to determine if someone was dead, and you are probably familiar with all four of these: pulse, death pallor, death dew, and rigor mortis.

William Tennent Jr. experienced all of this and so he was pronounced dead and the funeral was set for the next day. Later that day, another doctor came and examined the body and thought he felt a slight warmth underneath his armpits, so he called in another doctor. The other doctor examined him and couldn’t feel any warmth at all. This was a time before such things as EKGs, so he used the methods he had: no pulse, death pallor, stiff as a board . . . again, declared dead for the second time. The next day was the day of the funeral. People gathered for the funeral and just minutes before they were going to close the casket and bring him out for burial, another doctor said he wanted to examine him again. William Sr. (his father) and Gilbert (his brother) didn’t want to allow for it, because everyone had already gathered for the funeral and William Jr. had now been officially declared dead by two different doctors. But, there was a fifth test that was done—that was to shine a very bright light into someone’s eyes and see if their pupils restricted. They did this and the pupils remained dilated, but he saw at the last minute a little shimmer of the eye, and for just a second William Tennent’s body shivered, then fell dead again. They called off the funeral, took him out of the casket, wrapped the body in warm towels, and eventually he came to. He could not speak. He had to learn everything all over again over the next two years, though his Latin came back before his English. I am alive this morning because William Tennent woke up! Praise God. I was less than ten to fifteen minutes from not existing! If William Tennent Jr. had not woken up, I would not be here today, because he went on to get married, have a family (including my fourth great-grandfather), and serve a church for the next forty-three years until his actual death. I am here this morning five generations later because William Tennent Jr. woke up.

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you”

The culture has declared the church dead and has already called for our funeral service, but the God of resurrection is still at work. The culture is ready to close the casket on the church and declare that the Christian gospel is irrelevant to the needs of this world, but the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation and our God is still on the throne! The culture sees the church not as the solution to the culture’s dilemma, but part of the problem, but Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” This is our great hope. God is not finished with us and He has called us into the world, with all of its dangers and frightening problems that all seem unsurmountable. Be the agent of healing for our communities. Never forget the distinctive voice of God’s revelation to us. And, remember, even though Nebuchadnezzar heats up his furnace seven times hotter, God still has his Meshacks, Shadracks, and Abenegos who will not bow to the idols of this world. So, wake up, O church, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! Get out of your caskets and get into the world—that’s why Asbury Seminary exists. Let us awaken to a new great awakening! Amen.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): From Cultural Echo Chamber to the Distinct Voice of the Church

Read Part I of my convocation address here.

We come now to the second storm, that of racial unrest in our country. The tragic death of forty-six-year-old George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis on May 25th with his last words, “I can’t breathe” on his lips has highlighted a long-standing wound in our land, which should not be ignored. There is a deepening despair that has brought our black citizens in fifty-seven years from the hopeful phrase of MLK in 1963, “I have a dream” to the desperate plea “I can’t breathe.” Willie James Jennings, former professor from Duke Divinity School, now Yale, has called this wound a “diseased social imagination.” Its roots are in our hearts. But, while sin is personal, it is never satisfied to stay there. It longs to infect all our institutions and social arrangements. Sin is personal and systemic; it is private and public; it is internal and societal; it is individual and corporate.

There is nothing wrong with our participating in peaceful protests to demand attention to this deep wound in our society. We share many of the same frustrations and anger that have erupted in our streets. Our message is not one promoting the destruction of communities, but the rebuilding of communities on the foundation of reconciliation. This is why we must reclaim our Christian voice in the midst of this crisis of our day, which addresses this “diseased social imagination” in deeper and more transformative ways. My 2019 Convocation Address focused on the work of Alsdair MacIntyre, who rightly argues that our society has lost the moral foundation to produce true transformation and we are only left with what he calls “emotivism” where we just shout at one another. It is the loss of the Christian worldview which is the very gap between the stirring hopefulness of Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream” and the desperate plea of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” It is a loss that the culture cannot name.

However, we have a message that is the only hope for our nation, or any nation, which seeks to honestly face up to a diseased social imagination. Our distinctive voice should not be silent. Four examples will be noted.

First, we affirm that Scripture teaches us that every person is created in the image of God. This is the great creational foundation stone that gives dignity and infinite value to all people everywhere.

Second, the Bible also teaches us that all of humanity, apart from Christ, is under the bondage of sin and needs to receive the grace of forgiveness. Apart from Christ, we are all “in Adam.” This is a universally shared experience because of the fall.

The culture does not recognize sin as sin, but only the effects of the sin nature, and seems unable to have the capacity to offer, or receive, forgiveness. We, as the people of God, know that we are the joyful recipients of the grace of God. Our culture needs to see forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace manifested in the church and offered freely to the world.

Third, as Wesleyans we believe in the power of Jesus Christ and His indwelling Spirit to transform and redirect hearts toward perfect love. His victory over death was also His victory over all sin, including the sin of racism, since He has “torn down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) and has created a new redeemed people, made up of every race, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). Our theology has enormous implications that are both private and public; internal and societal; individual and corporate.

Fourth, we believe that the new creation is coming when God will present us in complete unity as the spotless bride of Christ. The future to which we are headed is not one of division and hatred, but of shared unity around the glory of God and of His redemption that has made us all adoptive children. There is no greater diversity in unity than the vision of John in Revelation 7:9 of people from every tribe, people, and nation worshipping the Lord. The church has not always been faithful to this vision. Albert Tate, the African American lead pastor of the multi-racial Fellowship Church in Monrovia, California, made the insightful comment that the evangelical church was far better in envisioning a multi-racial multitude “standing before the throne” in the new creation (Rev. 7:9), than they were with the races of the world “sitting around the table” in the here and now. We clearly have important unfinished business as a Christian community. Some sectors of the church resisted the biblical vision during the years of racial segregation in our country. We have not always been prepared to accept the systemic ramifications of sin. We must be honest about this and ask forgiveness for this. A new window of opportunity is before us as a community, and God’s grace has provided the possibility of this new engagement framed by being true to the Christian message.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): From Privatized Church to Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Read Part I of my convocation address here.

I hear in this hymn fragment a call to an awakening involving three paradigm shifts for the people of God, all related to the three disruptions we are facing.

Paradigm Shift #1: Moving from an Insulated, Privatized Church to the Church as a Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who now serves as professor of theology at Yale University and formerly, where I first met him, of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia. Volf’s award-winning book Exclusion and Embrace captures the violence of three cities. (1) Sarajevo in the grip of the Bosnian war and the birth of modern-day ethnic cleaning; (2) the Los Angeles race riots in the wake of the beating of Rodney King; and (3) the rise of modern-day neo-Nazis on the streets of Berlin. Those particular conflicts are not in the headlines today, but you could easily substitute them for the conflicts of our day. He argues that today’s cultural conflicts cannot be understood unless we first understand the impact of post-modernity on modern thought. He points out that post-modernity embraces an autonomous self, which turns away from the values and identities that connect us and, instead, focuses on social arrangements rather than people as social agents. Identity politics becomes a new form of tribalism, spawning endless conflicts and power struggles. Volf argues that we tend to shift moral responsibility away from ourselves as moral agents and, instead, shift blame onto socially constructed and managed agencies that allows us to escape from our own moral responsibilities. This is where Volf introduces his famous double exclusion.

Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans, even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the Crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous into the sphere of shared humanity and herself/himself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

This is why the cross of Jesus Christ must be reclaimed as the central defining reality of Christian identity, because only there do exclusion and embrace meet. Christ does not exclude Himself from the company of sinners. He stands with the company of sinners at His baptism all the way to the cross. In that very refusal to exclude Himself from sinners, He freely embraces a world which has reviled and rejected Him. The arms of the cross create that sacred space, which alone makes forgiveness and true reconciliation possible. Volf goes on to say,

The difference between justice and forgiveness is this: to be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That’s what the forgiving God does.

But, this is not a cheap, “I forgive you.” This is not just justice, but actual reconciliation borne out of the full embrace of the pain of the other. The contemporary church in the West has insulated itself from the pain and suffering that is at the heart of the gospel and a crucified Savior. We need a wake-up call. We have embraced what Gregg Okesson in his book A Public Missiology calls a thin reading of Scripture and, therefore, we have been left with a thin Christian narrative, which has become, and I quote, “easy prey to the dominant narratives of this world, such as nationalism, tribalism, global capitalism, and progress.” I had the privilege of being in former Yugoslavia on many occasions in the 1990’s. I was in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia. The wars brought the entire economy to a halt, with little left but street bartering. Millions either had their home destroyed or became refugees. The church found the strength and grace to minister in the midst of a culture in great pain and the loss of hope written on their faces. I met dozens of men and women who were training for ministry in that context. My first trip there the Mostar Bible College met in a bombed-out building. I was inspired by their deep commitment to the hope of the gospel in the face of what seemed hopeless. The global economic downturn has unleashed despair and loss of hope, and every church in every community should relearn how to be a public outpost of grace, healing, and hope to their community. This is not the time to escape the world’s mess, but to wade into it and embrace it with the transforming power of the gospel! Your generation can awaken to this great call to be missional agents of healing.

Read Part III of my convocation address here.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part I): Wake Up, O Sleeper!

The year 2020 will go down as one of the most momentous years in a generation. Some years are shy and unassuming and easily blend into the others. But, there are some years that stand out as defining markers, challenging our assumptions, calling us to lean in to what God might be saying to us, and summoning us afresh to new discoveries about who God has called us to be as His church in the midst of a fallen world. 2020 is such a year. This year will not be easily forgotten, nor should it. This year is not about “business as usual.” This year is not about “steady as she goes.” Three events have converged on this year with an almost hurricane force. First, the COVID-19 pandemic bringing with it disease, masking, social distancing, and a major disruption of our life together as a community. Second, the global economic downturn, which has unleashed untold despair and loss of hope around the world. And, thirdly, the stark reminder of the festering wound of racial injustices in our country, which has been represented to us in poignant and tragic ways. The question before us at Asbury Theological Seminary is this: What does it mean for Spirit-filled, sanctified men and women to “spread scriptural holiness” in our day? Or, to put it another way, What does the mission of Asbury seminary look like for our time—this time, for our generation, in the midst of the challenges of racial disparity, economic instability, and a global pandemic?

As your president, I submit to you on this solemn occasion of our ninety-seventh opening convocation at Asbury Theological Seminary that the 2020 disruptions should serve as a wake-up call to the church of Jesus Christ! “Wake up, O Sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” This verse is a little fragment of poetry right in the New Testament. The language of this hymn fragment draws upon themes in the Old Testament. Perhaps you hear echoes of that great text in Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” Or, perhaps, you faintly hear Isaiah 26:19, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”

Put them together and you begin to see something of the power of this fragment from what is surely one of the earliest Christian hymns. Since this fragment has been found attached to the earliest Eucharistic liturgies, some of the Church Fathers concluded that this verse should be viewed through a spiritual lens: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, but through the gospel you have been awakened.

Clement of Alexandria wrote that this admonition was about the church being awakened from heresy. He says “He awakens us from the sleep of darkness and raises up those who have wandered in error.”

Archelaus said that this text was the transition between the law of Moses and the light of the gospel. Moses, he writes, was the guardian of law until the sun came up in Jesus Christ.

Hippolytus saw it as referring to the final call of Jesus on the day of general resurrection at His second coming. “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” is envisioned as the call that accompanies the great angelic trumpet at the return of Christ. He reminds us of that great truth that someday we are literally going to be raised from the dead. Like all good hymns, I am sure it has many facets of meaning. But, somehow, all of these meanings come together in harmonic resonance in a year like 2020.

Indeed, this verse just might be the call to the church of Jesus Christ in 2020 to awaken from our spiritual slumber. To realize afresh that He is Lord over death itself. It is a call to awake and rediscover afresh the power of the gospel for our time: the call to be a Spirit-filled church; a supernaturally empowered church. The wider culture has lost its way and is desperate for a word of hope in the midst of this crisis. But, the greater problem is that the church is asleep. The church must to awaken to the great harvest that is before us. Brothers and sisters, the crisis of a global pandemic, social unrest due to painful racial disparities, and economic fragility is nothing less than a call to a great awakening. This is our moment. This is our summons. This is our wake-up call!

The Case for Theological Education in the Post-United Methodist Church Rebirth

A well-trained clergy has always been at the heart of the Wesleyan vision of pastoral leadership. Wesley was deeply committed to theological training. He produced a steady array of serious training materials and insisted that they be mastered before someone could become a certified Methodist preacher. His Notes on the New Testament and his canonical sermons are still in print today. Wesley knew the biblical languages, was conversant with the patristic writers, and all of his writings reflect his commitment to the deep roots of historic faith. Proper theological education was the driving force behind the whole structure of the Methodist movement’s commitment to sanctification of both heart and mind. It involved trained clergy and a network of class meetings, bands, and societies, which were built on this foundation. Indeed, serious theological reflection stands as one of the hallmarks of Wesley’s capacity to unleash a new Christian movement.

Tragically, the contemporary church is awash with spiritual superficiality, biblical illiteracy, and theological confusion. It is vital that any new denomination that emerges out of the likely breakup of the United Methodist Church make this problem central to their vision. A few simple questions will clarify this point. Are pastors entering seminary with less biblical and theological literacy than they had thirty years ago? The answer is clearly yes. Are the theological and biblical challenges those same pastors are facing greater than they were thirty years ago? Again, the answer is yes. Therefore, it would be wise to not reduce our commitment to proper theological training. Indeed, precisely because we are entering a post-Christendom, post-Christian phase in our nation, there has never been a more urgent time to reclaim biblical and theological thinking and living.

Whenever a new denomination is formed it is not unusual to react against that which has caused so much dysfunction. Liberal theological education has wreaked havoc on our pastors. James Heidinger II’s landmark book The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodist (Seedbed, 2017) demonstrates profoundly how modern-day United Methodism has been ruined by faulty theological education. The answer, however, is not to diminish our historic commitment to theological education, but to strengthen it and put it on proper grounds. We have inherited poor theological education. The answer is not less theological education, but better theological education.

There is no better case study for this than the determination of so many United Methodists to normalize same-sex behavior and gender reassignment in the life of the church. I am sometimes asked if I am weary of our church’s seemingly endless debates over this issue for forty-seven years. I sometimes respond, “No, what amazes me is that as a denomination we have never actually had a proper discussion about it.” We have argued endlessly about it on cultural, and sometimes, pastoral grounds, but we have never had a proper biblical and theological discussion about it as a church. The reason for this is that we had already abandoned our commitment to biblical and theological moorings decades earlier, so we were left without the necessary grounds and language to properly assess the impact of these new proposals on our Christian witness. The debate could have entailed a serious discussion of the precise meaning of a range of Greek words, but, alas, no such discussion ever arose. If a new movement is launched without solid theological grounding, we will be easily vanquished by the next several waves of the latest cultural ideas which, supposedly, place us on the wrong side of history. We have been defeated once by our poor theological rootedness. Why would we plant the seeds for our future demise before we even get a new denomination started?

I would go so far as to say that while I am struck by the loss of Wesleyan distinctives in our movement, I am even more struck by the loss of our Christian identity. In other words, we have embraced only a domesticated caricature of Christianity, and central to any new denomination must be a vigorous reclaiming of historic Christian grounds. The watered-down pabulum of mainline Protestantism will not provide the nourishment we need to face what the rising generation needs to proclaim and defend the historic faith. I have argued for years that unless our movement reclaims our Christian identity, there will be no hope in our reclaiming our rich Wesleyan heritage. We must be attentive to the foundations upon which any new denomination will be built in the post-UMC witness of the “people called Methodist.”

Today, there is a door opening for a distinctive Wesleyan voice to bring leadership to theological education in North America in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. There is a something stirring in the church that could unite Christians around a deeper consensus, which is more ancient, more patristic, more conciliar, yet rooted in historic Christian confessions. In short, what is before us in August of 2021 is not merely an ecclesial moment, it is a profoundly theological moment. This is our opportunity to recapture our own history, as well as our place as leaders in the theological vision which could unfold in the twenty-first century and beyond. If we move into a kind of easy, generic, experienced-based evangelicalism, we will not have the ballast necessary to bring effective, global leadership to the church.

Let’s be honest, many of the contemporary forms of user friendly, minimalistic Christianity have not demonstrably proven that the faith is being effectively transferred to the next generation. However, if we recapture a deeper commitment to embody a truly transformative Christian worldview, which can only happen with a concomitant commitment to theological education, then will be poised to dramatically shape the future contours of Christian identity. This also means that theological education itself needs renovation to more adequately address the unique challenges of pastoral formation in a post-Christian society. But, we should not relinquish our historic vision for a well-trained clergy. The rebirth of class meetings, small band accountability, the emergence of thousands of new church plants, and a more articulate, faithful church can only be accomplished if our future clergy are prepared and trained at the highest level. To relinquish our commitment to theological education out of fear of students incurring debt is to name a problem and miss the obvious solution. We must actually stand with and financially support those who are called into full-time ministry. The answer to the problem is scholarships, not reducing our commitment to theological education. If we do, we will lose our most capable leaders who will, quite rightly, be attracted to other, more robust movements.

We must not forget the observation George Whitefield made as he looked back on his ministry and compared it to the ministry of John Wesley. Whitefield said, “The souls that were awakened under [Wesley’s] ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” There are no Whitefieldian societies now. But there are tens of millions of Wesleyan believers around the world. Let us not create a new rope of sand. I believe that the vast majority of those who will join a new denomination understand the importance of theological education. So, as we think and prepare for the future, let us join together and give birth to a well-organized, disciplined, theologically trained church with deep roots in our historic faith and rich theological heritage.

Christian Identity and Ethical Boundaries: The Case of Redeemer University

Are you a Christian just because you say you are? This question was actually at the heart of both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the later eighteenth-century Wesleyan revivals. We sometimes have the mistaken notion that the revivals and awakenings of these amazing chapters in church history were primarily directed to all of the unbelievers in the society who explicitly did not believe in, or follow, Jesus Christ. While this is undoubtedly true for certain groups of people, the far larger groups that were awakened in both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the eighteenth-century Great Awakening already belonged to the church. If asked, they would have considered themselves Christians. It was the genius of the Reformation to join experience, doctrine, and ethics into one seamless message to help people who happened to already belong to the church (and who claimed to be Christians) to actually hear the gospel and become true Christians. The broad road of nominalism is one of the specters that looms over any culture where Christianity is the culturally approved faith.

Now that this is evaporating in the West, we are forced to remember the true nature of Christian identity. The point is this: Being a Christian was specifically tied to real beliefs, historic confessions, and shared ethics that related the believer properly to Jesus Christ. As one early church father rightly commented after the post-Constantine influx of Christians into the church: “You cannot be ‘born’ a Christian, you have to ‘become’ a Christian.”

Various ecclesiastical bodies may disagree on exactly where these lines are drawn, but all churches have the right and responsibility to uphold their own boundaries and, if necessary, exercise church discipline. In fact, when the Reformation was pressed to define the church, they stated that the true church would be marked by three things: the gospel was preached, the sacraments administered, and church discipline was exercised, (See, for example, Belgic Confession, article 29.)

This may seem like a discussion from a distant era, but it all rushed back this week when I read about the dispute between a Christian university in Canada and the Canadian legal system. The dispute involves Redeemer University, which is a private, Christian liberal arts college located in Hamilton, Ontario. It is like hundreds of Christian colleges that are located all across the United States. Like most evangelical colleges across our nation they have an ethos, or community life statement, which provides ethical parameters to the community. Like countless private schools, no one can be admitted into the community unless they agree to abide by these community standards. This has long been a normative and accepted practice for all Christian universities, as well as churches, when they determine whether to admit someone into membership or enroll someone as a student.

However, the Canadian Bar Association is bringing a case against the University for discrimination against LGBTQ students. The statement by Susan Ursel, the lawyer who represents the Canadian Bar Association, is very telling. She said, “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Christian, they’re discriminating against them because they’re LGBTQ by this code of conduct.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Christians, sure, but once you’re inside your Christian community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who are gay or straight. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”

The underlying assumption of the legal statement is that being a Christian is self-defined, i.e. if someone claims to be a Christian, then that person automatically is one, with all the privileges which may come with that identity. Therefore, a Christian university must accommodate that person as a Christian insider. However, the gospel defines the community of those who are called by the name Christian as those who have submitted to his lordship. This is defined historically, through the revelation of the New Testament, the creeds and confessions, the ethical parameters of the faith, and so forth. The New Testament regularly exercised discipline against members who violated the ethical standards of the church (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1–5).

As a community, we must be prepared to counter this post-modern approach, which somehow thinks that even the word “Christian” can be autonomously defined. We must recognize the inherent problem if this line of reasoning is accepted. If, for example, a person employed by Wendy’s were to decide that he or she can autonomously decide what it means to be a “Wendy’s employee” and they, for example, refused to wear a uniform, or thought that it was acceptable to make racial slurs against a customer, we would rightly expect that Wendy’s has the right to “uphold their borders” and apply their own standards to the workplace. They retain the right to define the terms of employment and, from a free speech perspective, no one can be compelled to become a Wendy’s employee. They are free to not accept the terms of employment. This very scenario happened in a McDonalds in 2019. A McDonald’s employee got into an argument with a customer and the employee used a racial slur (which was captured on video). After the incident, McDonald’s issued the following statement: “The disturbance with the customer prompted our management team to call the police right away; and we did an immediate investigation on this matter. This behavior goes against the values and standards that I expect from employees in my restaurants. This employee displayed improper and unacceptable conduct and is no longer with the company.” This has happened hundreds of times across this nation, even including employees who make offensive posts on their private Facebook or Twitter accounts from their own homes.

Let’s take a religious example to drive the point home. If a young man gains entrance into an Orthodox Jewish training program within the Yemenite tradition of Judaism, they are required to maintain a “payot,” which is to allow the lock of hair growing on the sides of their heads to remain uncut. For this religious community, this is an ethical matter that serves as a sign of their obedience to the Torah as well as one of the distinguishing marks which sets them apart as a community from non-Jews. Suppose a young man from this tradition wanted to cut his payot off, yet still insisted that he be granted entrance into a Yemenite training program on the grounds that he was being unfairly discriminated against because he still considered himself a Yemenite Jew. But, is it not the right of the Yemenite community to determine what constitutes the boundaries of that particular community? To illustrate the absurdity of the argument, let’s restate Susan Ursel’s point, but use my example: “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Jewish, they’re discriminating against them because the Yemenite code of conduct forbids them from cutting the sides of their hair.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Jews, sure, but once you’re inside your Jewish community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who wear a payot or not. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”

It should raise serious concerns if a company like McDonald’s is allowed to apply ethical standards in defining someone who is called an “employee of McDonald’s” and yet the church or a Christian university is prohibited from defining who can be a member of their respective communities. Redeemer University has every right to uphold their community life statement as one of the defining parameters of what it means to be a member of the Redeemer University community. In short, Christian identity is both doctrinal and moral. If the Canadian government prevails over Redeemer University, then it will, in effect, be forcing Christians to accept a reductionistic faith which puts our entire identity into the small thimble of privatized beliefs that we are required to keep hidden in our hearts with no public, ethical witness.

Holy Desperation for Justice

In Christianity the phrase “holy desperation” refers to that tipping point in the process of sanctification when you become so discontent with your spiritual state, and so utterly desperate for change that you finally enter into a true surrender to God. These are rare moments and they become symbolic markers for transformation and change.

I think that this is a rough analogy to where our nation is today in regard to racial justice. We just may be entering into a state of such desperation that we finally accept the kind of deep change that is required. I want to highlight three racial moments, all in my lifetime, that gave us three iconic phrases, which collectively demonstrate the point of “holy desperation” we are in today.

Racial Moment #1: “I Have a Dream” This is, of course, the iconic phrase from the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. It is a hopeful speech. He called upon Americans to remember our own founding documents that “all men are created equal.” King was blunt about the racial problems and the speech speaks openly about the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Yet, the speech calls the nation to “not wallow in the valley of despair.” King optimistically said that he did not believe that the “bank of justice is bankrupt” and the speech ended with a seven-fold cry “I have a dream” which resonates as faith in a more hopeful future. In 1963 Americans dared to believe that we would pass down to our children a more just America, one which lived up to “the true meaning of its creed.”

Racial Moment #2: “Hands Up-Don’t Shoot!” This is the famous rallying cry which arose from the death of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Several witnesses testified (later unproven in the trial) that at the moment he was shot (twelve times) he had his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” Despite the lack of clarity about what actually happened, the phrase “hands up” became a rallying cry for racial justice. Raised hands are a symbol of submission and a posture of vulnerability. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech spoke of “soul power,” but by 2014, many were feeling powerless to affect change in the face of injustice. The dream is dimming, and the posture is more of powerlessness than of hope. King told us to lift our heads high and hope. Now, we can only lift our hands up and say, “Don’t shoot.”

Racial Moment #3: “I Can’t Breathe.” This is the most recent rallying cry echoing those heard from the lips of George Floyd during the eight minutes and forty-six seconds Derek Chauvin, the arresting police officer, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020. As Floyd lay dying on the streets of Minneapolis he said, “I can’t breathe.” This cry had already been heard around the nation since the time Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York policeman back in July 2014. But, Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe” seems to have struck an even deeper chord of hopelessness. “I can’t breathe” is the symbolic cry of a people who feel that the smothering bonds of injustice have nearly snuffed out their hope.

Our nation has symbolically gone from “I have a dream” to “Hands up” to “I can’t breathe.” This might be the moment of holy desperation where we finally realize that the normal resources we draw upon for hope are bankrupt. The challenge of racism in our country cannot be solved by a political solution. The challenge of racism cannot be resolved by a new set of laws. The challenge of racism cannot be resolved by hoping that this whole incident will blow over and we can get back to normal. We, of course, need political courage. We may need new laws. But, none of that will address the depth of this wound. This is the opportunity which summons the church of Jesus Christ to rise up and be the church in the midst of human brokenness. It is the church that proclaims to the world that this is not merely a political problem, or a legal problem, or a problem of some bad cops. This is a heart problem. “This kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). The bent knee of Derek Chauvin, as it turns out, is actually a sign for us. It serves as a kind of anti-sacrament. In other words, it was an outward and visible sign of death, rather than the true nature of a sacrament which is an outward and visible sign of a deep spiritual truth.

We have, as a society, been placing our knees on the necks of some of our most vulnerable citizens. It is now time—that moment of holy desperation—where we gather the courage to bend our knees, not in hatred, but in prayer. We need to bend our knees before the living God and cry out for him to change our own hearts. Of course we need to change police protocols. But that is mere window dressing if we do not get to the core problem, which is our own hearts. We need a great awakening in this country. We need a spiritual rebirth. We need to be changed from within. If the truth is told, George Floyd spoke for the whole human race when he said, “I can’t breathe.” There is no life in any of us unless and until we receive the breath of the Lord Jesus giving us new hope for a new birth and a new heart.

Lord, we are at that tipping point of holy desperation.

Was Andrew Cuomo Right When He Said, “God Did Not Do That. We Did That”?

Our hearts go out to the wonderful people of New York City who have been particularly challenged by the COVID-19 crisis. We were all delighted when we heard that New York was finally starting to “flatten the curve.” But, what startled me was Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statement about it. At his daily briefing, he was talking about how New York had flattened the curve and moved beyond the worst part of the crisis. In responding to the falling number of positive COVID-19 cases in New York he said (and this is a quote), “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that. We did that.”

Even by today’s degraded standards, that was a stunning public admission from a sitting governor. It is even more telling considering the strong Christian upbringing of Governor Cuomo. He was baptized as a newborn into the Roman Catholic Church by his faithful Roman Catholic parents (his father Mario was, of course, also the governor of New York). Andrew Cuomo graduated from a Roman Catholic high school named Archbishop Molly High School in Queens. He then went to a Roman Catholic Jesuit university in the Bronx, Fordham University. In short, Cuomo’s entire education has been shaped by the Roman Catholic tradition, and yet he says, “God did not do that. We did that.”

What does this say about how God is understood today? It says that in our day God is just one of many causative actors in the world. There are doctors and nurses and first responders and Jewish rabbis (this is New York), and congressmen/women and the police, and so forth. In the popular mind, God is just one being above all the other beings. Cuomo seems to think that God is the highest being who enters the cultural stage to do the really big things that no one else can do. Therefore, Cuomo reasons since God didn’t seem to show up in the emergency rooms, or labs, but nurses and first responders did, then he means no disrespect when he says, “God did not do that. We did that.” But, God is not competing for space in the great chain of being. God is not a being in the chain of being who is simply above the gnat, the grasshopper, the beaver, the horse, the tiger, the soaring eagle, the lion, and humankind. God is above the chain as the highest being not part of the created chain of being. But God is more than “being” as we understand it, since all of creation is contingent upon his being, whereas God is dependent upon no one.

God is not just a higher being who we insert into the gaps to explain things we can’t explain, or the man upstairs we call in when we find ourselves in over our heads. God is the very ground of all being. He is not just the highest being, he is being itself. He is the Great “I AM.” This is where Wesleyan theology is so rich. We do not view the world with the classic distinction, “We do our part; God does his part.” We do not say, “We do the stuff we can do, and God does the stuff only He can do.” Rather, we say, “Whatever work I am doing, God is at work in and through me.” This frames all of life—all of our hard work, including our Christian work—within the larger framework of God’s grace. To put it bluntly, without Him, nothing happens. All things are upheld by the word of His power! (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17). Even the nails that hung Jesus to the cross were themselves being held together by the word of his power! Whatever we do in life can be beautifully summed up by the words of the prophet Isaiah when he says, “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Isa. 26:12). That is the biblical view. He accomplishes what we have done. It is His work in and through us, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we know Him or not.

The next time you meet someone who is an atheist and they began to pontificate how they do not believe in God, before you start any defense, ask them first to tell you what they mean by God. What comes out of their mouth will not be the God of biblical revelation, but some shocking caricature formed in the fires of a popular culture that needs a so-called God, which they create out of their own minds and that they can then dismiss as unbelievable. When you hear this, you should say to your atheist friend, “I do not believe in that god either.” We simply do not believe in the caricatured god of popular imaginations. It is the Roman Catholic Bishop and popular writer Robert Barron who pointed out that the modern view of God is a lot like that Russian cosmonaut in the 1960’s who went to space and then famously declared he had looked around and “there is no God out there.” It revealed how tepid and weak the modern understanding of God is. They think He is some being somewhere out there in our solar system. But all gods fashioned out of our minds are known in the Bible as idols. Modern atheism serves the higher purpose of showing us the latest array of idols that the current culture confusingly thinks is God.

Andrew Cuomo was simply stating (without realizing it) that idols did not help flatten the curve in New York. In that sense, Andrew Cuomo was right. The God of his conception did not flatten the curve, because idols cannot flatten New York’s curve, or any other. The deeper question is this: Is Andrew Cuomo, or your atheist friends, or anyone else you meet, interested in knowing the true God who has self-disclosed himself in Holy Scripture? That God is much bigger, and grander, and more glorious than anything they have ever imagined. If any curve is ever flattened, or antidote discovered, it will be by the grace of God working in and through His image-bearers working in the midst of a fallen world.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part IV)

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.

Despite the fact that it is Holy Week, all the news still seems to be about the coronavirus called COVID-19. Everything else has faded from view. No NCAA tournament, the US election all but forgotten, fights over healthcare, climate change, or the impeachment all seem like distant memories. As Christians, we have to intentionally remind ourselves that this is Holy Week. It is times like this that people throw the problem of evil in our faces. How can God be both all-powerful and all loving? How could a loving God allow something like COVID-19 encircle the world? He must either be not all powerful, or not all loving; he cannot be both.

Scripture has long testified to the twin truths that God is both all loving and all powerful. Psalm 62:11 says, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love” (emphasis added). In the Hebrew it is oz and hesed—both power and love belong to him. But the psalm goes on to remember the other free agent in the world when it concludes, “for you will render to a man according to his work” (Ps. 62:11–12). Our actions are brought into the picture. The problem of evil is not just about God’s character, it’s about our own: the use of our power and the extension of our own goodness through the image of God and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit through us.

God’s answer to the problem of evil is not to give us some amazing theological resolution or an intricate philosophical formula. God responds to evil by entering into the world, not in a show of power, but in a show of weakness and vulnerability. That’s the other mystery of God’s power and love. Sometimes his greatest power is manifested in weakness, and sometimes his love allows hard lessons to come our way that we might turn our hearts more fully to him and give up our false idols. In the incarnation, we remember that Jesus became a man and entered into this broken, sinful world. Jesus addresses the root of the problem: us. We are in rebellion against God and the whole world is reeling with groans. Jesus alone has taken on all this sin and pain, evil, and shame. If you want to understand the heart of God in the face of a world trapped by sin, then look into the face of the crucified Jesus. The cross is God’s answer to human pain for Jesus is the only truly innocent sufferer.

He doesn’t give us an answer; he bears it. Holy Week is one long caravan of sin: betrayal, cowardice, indifference, mockery, cruelty, and death, whether seen in Judas or the disciples or the soldiers, or Pilate . . . sin upon sin. Then, there is Easter. Easter Sunday reminds us that Jesus is victorious over all! Easter is God’s final victory over a lost and broken world. It is the risen Lord and the community of those who are called by his name who herald the victory of God over a broken world because we, too, have put our own fingers into the nail scarred hands of the risen one.