Can Francis Asbury help you be a more effective communicator?

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In his exceptional biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes the characteristics that made the father of American Methodism an effective communicator. These four traits were:

    1. legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience.

    2. ability to connect with ordinary people

    3. ability to understand and use popular culture.

    4. organization of the Methodist church.

Over the next four posts, I will consider each of these traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders.

The first trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was, in Wigger’s words, “his legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience” (5). Like John Wesley, Francis Asbury was nearly obsessed with growing in love of God and neighbor.

Asbury was also constantly traveling from one place to another, staying with thousands of different people over the course of his life. As a result, he had virtually no privacy at all. As his biographer puts it, “It is all the more revealing, then, that the closer people got to him, the more they tended to respect the integrity of his faith” (5) Even those with whom he had the deepest disagreements still recognized the sincerity and depth of his faith in Christ.

Asbury was an effective communicator and leader, then, because people could see that he was really “walking the walk.” People often listened to him because they knew he was a man who spent time in prayer and searching the Scriptures.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

I think it would be. And it would be significant for helping build relationships with non-Christians, not just leading other Christians. Over the last past decade, there has been quite a bit of conversation about the perception by non-Christians that Christians are hypocrites. (I’m thinking of unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, for example.) The earnestness and sincerity of a Christian leader who had “legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversation experience” might help them gain credibility with non-Christians who are wary that Christian leaders are selling something that they don’t use themselves.

The words of Jesus in Matthew, on the other hand, provide a reasons for caution. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns those who are pursuing righteousness, to “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt 6:1).

Asbury’s piety was visible because he basically had no private life. But today, privacy is such a high value that even people who travel frequently to speak in churches and at conferences rarely stay with families from the group that is hosting them.

A piety that is showy and boastful will not bring credibility. Nevertheless, it is important that Christian leaders “practice what they preach.” And Methodists should emphasize the importance of regular practice of the means of grace (prayer, searching the Scriptures, receiving communion, fasting, etc.).

So what do you think? Will a faith that is visible through basic practices in someone’s life tend to lead others to have a higher esteem for that person’s faith? And if so, how can Christian leaders appropriately make their own practice of their faith more visible or public?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin': This post assumes that Christian leaders are spending both quality and quantity time in prayer, searching the Scriptures, etc. But this is not necessarily a safe assumption. Are you spending consistent and meaningful time with God?

When Methodist Distinctives Aren’t

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Methodists, particularly United Methodists, have a very bad habit of making sweeping statements about what makes the Methodist tradition distinct or unique. The main reason this is a bad habit is because when Methodists do this they are often claiming ownership of things that are basic to Christianity or that are at least at the heart of the values or beliefs of other parts of the Body of Christ. When Methodists do this, it makes us look oblivious at best, and obnoxious and arrogant at worst.

Since joining the faculty at SPU two years ago, I have had more interactions with Christians who are not United Methodists than I had previously. More than once, I have heard someone ask why Methodists claim something as a distinctive of their tradition when it is a basic Christian affirmation. Just yesterday, a colleague pointed out that Methodists do not have the market cornered on holiness.

I am trying to do a better job of being more humble and accurate in what I claim as a distinctive of my own branch of the Christian family tree. I have also become more sensitive to just how often Methodists make rather grandiose claims about the marvels of our own tradition.

Here are the three most common ways I have heard people describe Methodism’s distinctiveness that are not unique to Methodism.

1. Methodists believe in grace.

Asserting that grace is a distinct belief of Methodism would understandably be offensive to other Christians, because they believe in grace too! Ask your brother or sister in Christ from a non-Methodist tradition whether they believe in grace and let me know when you find someone who says no.

John Calvin talks extensively about grace in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Here is one example, that is particularly important for Methodists to read because it refers to the role of grace in both justification and sanctification:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. (Institutes, III.XI.1)

Grace is very important to Methodism because it is very important to Christianity. When Methodists claim that we are distinct because we talk so much about grace, we look foolish to other parts of the Body of Christ and damage our own commitment to having a “Catholic Spirit.”

2. Methodists allow you to use your brain.

This affirmation, when I hear it, seems to do two things at once. It is a way that Methodists congratulate themselves on being so educated, open-minded, and tolerant. At the same time, it indirectly insults people whose views are less sophisticated than we perceive ours to be.

While there are some parts of Christianity that don’t affirm the role of theological education to the degree that most Methodists do, every classic Christian theologian I can think of would insist on using your mind to love God.

Faith seeking understanding did not originate with Methodism!

The way that I sometimes hear Methodists talk about our being unafraid to use our minds smacks of a kind of elitism and arrogance that is disappointing, particularly when coming from members of my own ecclesial family. And it is all the more problematic (and ironic) because it is sometimes used as a way to dismiss someone else’s beliefs without actually using one’s brain to make a reasoned argument as to why something is wrong and something else is right.

3. Methodists are connectional.

The ideas behind this are more complicated, but this is basically an assertion that Methodists are distinct because we are a church that is connected to each other in a variety of different ways (conferences, itinerant preachers, general boards and agencies, etc.).

Intentionally or not, this affirmation implies that other denominations are not interested in working together or connecting with each other. Though the polities are not the same, I imagine that the Roman Catholic Church, or the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Anglican Church (and others) would see themselves as a connectional church in a way quite similar to Methodists.

Could it be that a distinctive of Methodism is taking credit for things that belong to the legacy of the global church? I hope not. Maybe every tradition succumbs to this temptation. As a Methodist, I have found myself wrestling with the pretension of my own tradition over the last two years.

Have you noticed the tendency of Methodists to claim basic Christian beliefs, values, or practices as uniquely Methodist? What other claims of distinctiveness that aren’t actually distinctive of Methodism would you add?

What Does the Bible Say about Sanctification?

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When I teach Wesleyan theology, I usually ask how many people have heard a sermon on sanctification. I have rarely had a student raise their hand. The lack of preaching on sanctification, or holiness, may lead some to assume that the Bible doesn’t say much about the topic. But that is not the case!

photo courtesy of yahwehistruth.com

Here are ten passages (in no particular order) from Scripture that relate to sanctification or holiness:

1. Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16)

2. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

3. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

4. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. (John 17:17-19)

5. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

6. Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

7. For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. (Titus 2:11-12)

8. Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

9. Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy. (Leviticus 20:7)

10. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

And a bonus passage that I couldn’t leave out:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1-11)

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are many more passages on holiness in Christian Scripture. But these passage say a lot about the importance of sanctification for Christianity.

Have you heard a someone preach on holiness, sanctification, or even entire sanctification? What is your favorite Scripture passage on sanctification? And by all means, include passages on sanctification that I left out in the comments below!

Forgiveness and (not or) Holiness

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There was a time in my life when I remember feeling a lot of pressure to choose between the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or the importance of loving and serving other people. Around one group of people, I felt like talking about the need to read the Bible regularly and pray was seen as a form of escapism or navel gazing. Around the other group of people, I felt like concrete actions of love and service to others was fine, as long as it didn’t take away from the clear priority of spending one on one time with God. To be sure, I am oversimplifying the motivations of both groups. I don’t know about you, but I have felt at times like I was put in the awkward position of being asked to choose between cultivating a personal relationship with God or getting outside of myself and doing things for other people.

One day it occurred to me that this was a false choice. My faith calls me to say yes to both. Once I stopped wrestling with which one to pick, I started seeing how frequently Scripture emphasizes both a personal relationship with God and concrete actions that express love towards others. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, for example, he replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Sometimes Christians are asked to choose between two things when they should affirm both of them.

As I have continued thinking about the relationship between sin and the Christian life, it seems to me that the conversation often puts radical forgiveness of past sins in contrast with deep transformation by an encounter with the living God.

Will you tell someone about how gracious and forgiving God is, or will you tell them about the possibility for living a new life that comes because of God’s grace?

The question is sometimes phrased in a way that implies that it is either/or, not both/and because there is a concern to avoid the perceived problems of one of them.

If you emphasize the depths of forgiveness that are available to us through Christ, the concern is that you may minimize the horror of sin. This is why I don’t like the cliché, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” This can quickly turn into cheap grace that presumes on God’s forgiveness as a way of excusing continued sin. I don’t really have to change, because God is forgiving. This view is effectively illustrated by the bumper sticker at the beginning of this post.

If you emphasize the reality that deep and lasting transformation (holiness) should come from an encounter with the living God, the concern is that you may heap judgment on someone who is still actively struggling with sin. A group of Christians that take holiness seriously may begin to veer away from their initial emphasis on the need for a transforming encounter with the Holy Spirit to a list of rules that define who is holy and who isn’t. This can quickly turn into legalism and pretending to be transformed, where Christians are most concerned to follow the rules and act the right way around each other. Ironically, and sadly, this also makes actual transformation by the grace of God that much more difficult.

And so, well-meaning Christians sign up to promote and defend either license or legalism, though of course neither group intends to do so at the outset. But that seems to be where each leads, particularly when separated from the other.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that argued that Christians should not discount the possibility of real growth in holiness in this life, by the amazing grace of God. As I have thought about the conversation that followed, I have found myself coming back to the idea that Christians seem to feel pressure to choose between either believing that God forgives us when we make mistakes, or that God transforms us by the power of the Holy Spirit and makes us like his Son.

But, thanks be to God, Christians do not have to choose between forgiveness and transformation. The gospel offers us both. Indeed, we are sinners who are desperately in need of forgiveness. And holiness is not about what we can do for ourselves by our determined effort. Holiness is about what God is able and willing to do in us.

Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition ought to particularly refuse to choose between forgiveness (justification) and holiness (sanctification), as Wesley himself was adamant that both were part of the Christian life. In her recent book, Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology, Diane Leclerc suggests that over the last generation Wesleyans have not been very good stewards of the message of holiness. She points to a crisis, which is not a crisis over how to communicate holiness, but a more devastating crisis of silence, “the lack of articulation of holiness” (15). As a result, Leclerc finds that “the pendulum seems to have swung from legalism to pessimism about victory over sin. Many of my students believe that sin is inevitable, pervasive, and enduring in a Christian’s life. Sadly, they seem to be unaware of a different way to live” (17).

Leclerc beautifully summarizes Wesley’s optimism of grace:

Sin need no longer reign in the heart. An outpouring of God’s love into the heart ‘excludes sin.’ We can live truly holy lives. As Wesley would say, to deny such optimism would make the power of sin greater than the power of grace – an option that should be unthinkable for Wesleyan-Holiness theology. (27)

In emphasizing the possibility of a Christian becoming holy such that love “excludes sin,” Wesley did not deny our need for forgiveness. In fact, he insisted that justification by faith was logically prior to the new birth and growth in holiness. Wesley was adamant that we are all in desperate need of God’s gracious forgiveness. But he also insisted that God wants to free us not only from guilt and condemnation, but also from the very things that have power over our lives that bring guilt and condemnation.

Holiness is not about our power or strength. It is about God. Which do we believe is more powerful, sin or God’s grace?

The remedy the Great Physician offers is not a partial treatment that requires us to continue limping through the rest of life. Rather, he makes our joyful obedience possible. He makes it possible for us to not only be servants of God, but to be sons and daughters of God.

So, are you for forgiveness or holiness? The best answer for Christians is: “Yes!” The gospel is not complete if it is not a word of forgiveness and a word of new possibility.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

New Edition of Classic in Wesleyan/Methodist History

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If you are United Methodist and have attended seminary since 1995, you have (or should have) read Wesley and the People Called Methodists. This book is the standard history of John Wesley and early Methodism and it is required reading in every Methodist History course for which I have seen a syllabus. I have also used the book both times I have taught the Wesleyan Movement course in Course of Study.

Abingdon has just released a second edition of Wesley and the People Called Methodists. The new edition, according to the preface, “entails many significant revisions and emendations, based on twenty additional years of research, teaching, thinking, reading, publication, and lecturing” (ix). This is particularly significant when the author of the book is taken into account. Richard P. Heitzenrater occupied the William Kellon Quick chair of Church History and Wesley Studies at Duke Divinity School and is the General Editor of the Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley. Heitzenrater is considered by many to be the foremost expert on eighteenth-century Methodism.

In reading the second edition, I have been delightfully reminded of Heitzenrater’s beautiful prose, which makes Wesley’s life and the broader context of early Methodism accessible to the reader. It is a rare book that is both accessible to a novice to the topic and challenges and advances the understanding of more advanced readers. Wesley and the People Called Methodists pulls this off admirably.

In the preface to the first edition, Heitzenrater proposed to “tell the story of the rise of Methodism as a narrative of unfolding developments, without describing subsequent consequences until they occur” (xiii). He continued, “The history of early Methodism is best understood in terms of the emergence and interrelatedness of theological, organizational, and missional developments – each aspect is shaped over a period of many years, and none of these elements is fully understood without seeing its dependence upon the other two” (xiii). Heitzenrater is one of very few historians who has been able to narrate the significance of the connection of theological, organizational, and missional developments for the development of early Methodism. And he does so with an unsurpassed attention to detail.

Edgardo A. Colón-Emeric’s endorsement of the book provides another perspective on its contribution:

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Richard Heitzenrater for this book. Its elegant prose and presentation, supported by years of primary research, offer a clear and compelling picture of John Wesley and the spiritual renewal with which he is forever associated. Reading this book will help you understand Methodism better and, perhaps, even be caught up in its movement toward holiness.

The only criticism I have of the book relates to its production, which is beyond the author’s control. The print quality of the copy of the book I received is poor. The ink on several pages is much too light, as happens on a printer that is running out of ink. And even when this problem is not present, the combination of ink and paper makes the book feel like it is a photo-copied version of the original. Consistent with Heitzenrater’s attention to detail, the first edition contained dozens of illustrations that further illuminate key pieces of the history of early Methodism. The second edition is also illustrated, but the quality of the images is not as good as the first edition. It often feels like the resolution of the images is too low, or that the printer was not of high enough quality. In comparing the first and second editions of the book as a print volume, the first edition appears to me to be of significantly better quality. These are admittedly picky, but they are disappointing detractions from an exceptional book.

I would recommend the second edition of Wesley and the People Called Methodists even if you have already read the first edition. And if you haven’t read the first edition, this book should be moved to the top of your reading list. I could not recommend this book more highly for anyone who wants to better understand the beginnings of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Sin and the Christian life: A response to Rachel Held Evans

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In a recent blog post, popular writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans addressed the relationship of sin to the lives of Christians. Before I summarize my understanding of her argument, and why I disagree with her, I want to say that I really appreciate Rachel’s demeanor online. From my reading of her writing she is a good model of a Christian blogging and using social media. She avoids sarcasm, mischaracterizing positions she disagrees with to score cheap points, or writing misleading or inaccurate things simply to get hits. Rachel Held Evans is a gifted writer who comes across as doing the best that she can to fairly represent the various perspectives that she engages in her writing. I will do my best to accurately represent her position and to respond to her with charity and fairness. Ultimately, my concern is not to get in an argument with Rachel, but to articulate why holiness matters and is an essential part of the Christian life.

I think the best entry into the main argument of her post is the very beginning. She wrote:

How’s that working out for you?

The “go and sin no more” thing?

Because it’s not going so well for me.

I’ve known Jesus for as long as I’ve known my name, and still I use other people like capital to advance my own interest, still I gossip to make myself feel important, still I curse my brothers and sisters in one breath and sing praise songs in the next, still I sit in church with arms folded and cynicism coursing through my bloodstream, still I talk a big game about caring for the poor without doing much to change my own habits, still I indulge in food I’m not hungry for and jewelry I don’t need, still I obsess over what people say about me on the internet, still I forget my own privilege, still I talk more than I listen and complain more than I thank, still I commit acts of evil, still I make a great commenter on Christianity and a lousy practitioner of it.

But Jesus pours out his mercy, staying the hand of my accusers again and again and again. I go, stepping over scattered stones, forgiven, grateful, and free.

I go, but I do not sin no more.

In the post, she primarily interacts with the story of the woman caught in adultery from the Gospel of John (8:1-11). Here is what strikes me as her key interpretation of this passage:

It’s one of just two times in his recorded ministry that Jesus said this – “go and sin no more” – and I don’t believe for a second he expected this woman to do such a thing… at least not forever, at least not for good.

And the application of the story seems to primarily be that the woman will learn not to pick up a stone to throw at someone else the next time they commit a sin. She concludes by saying that “We’ve missed the point when we turn this story into a stone.”

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

I think Rachel gets several things right. I really appreciate her humility and honesty in admitting that she is an imperfect person who needs Jesus and his mercy. And for that matter, I really appreciate the way her faith and relationship with Jesus come through so clearly. I like that the post is incomprehensible without Jesus. And I agree with her that we miss the point of the story if we “turn it into a stone,” to repeat the beautiful phrase she concludes her post with. And perhaps most importantly, I think this is one of the best articulations of the impossibility of Christians living the kind of life Jesus calls them to live that I have recently come across. It is a beautiful articulation of the dominant American Christian belief that sin is inevitable.

I, however, strongly disagree with her post for a number of reasons.

First, Rachel appears to me to make sin necessary because she finds that she regularly sins. But she provides no reason for why it follows that because I often commit various sins; therefore, I must sin – that it is necessary and inevitable for Christians to sin.

I don’t believe it does follow. This is one of the reasons I cringe at the way that experience is used in contemporary popular Christian discourse. Christians too often survey their own experience, their preferences, their habits, or the people they know and whether they seem sincere. They then read those experiences back into the gospel. And so our experiences come to norm the gospel; the gospel does not have authority over our lives and experiences.

The consequences of such a move are disastrous for Christian discipleship, which insists that Jesus is lord and not us.

I want to be sure that I am not misunderstood here. I am in no way trying to throw Rachel’s honesty about her own struggle with sin in her face. I also struggle with sin. My own list of sins would be long and at least as devastating. I have a lot of room to grow. And I am in no position to throw stones at her or anyone else.

Second, it does not follow, however, that because we are both failing to currently live lives free from sin that sin is necessary or inevitable for Christians. This analysis doesn’t even make sense outside of the particularities of Christian living. It would strike me as ridiculous, and my guess is it would seem ridiculous to Rachel as well, if, instead of critiquing the idea of ceasing to sin, she had written a post defending the use of grammatical errors in published writing. The fact that people do often make mistakes in writing does not make that the norm for good writing. It is a failure and we can and should do better. Rachel exemplifies this in her own writing, as it is consistently of excellent quality.

As the well-worn cliche goes, “practice makes perfect.”

Related to this, to make an argument that sin is necessary for those who are “in Christ” would require a much more thorough survey of the writings of the New Testament. Rachel seems to have a hermeneutic of suspicion or at least skepticism towards the teachings of Jesus that is suspect. I am not sure Jesus saying, “Go and sin no more” is on the same level as Jesus saying to pluck out your right eye or cut off your hand if they cause you to sin. And even here, Jesus seems to be using hyperbole to emphasize the incompatibility of sin with the holiness of God.

Rachel’s analysis is not able to wrestle with the strong and repeated calls for followers of Jesus Christ to grow in holiness, not by their own inherent awesomeness – but by the grace and power of God.

Finally, and most importantly, I think Rachel unintentionally offered her audience cheap grace and not the audacious, ridiculous, almost unbelievably amazing grace that is offered to every person created in the image of God. The hope that Christians can have, on Rachel’s account, it seems to me is to not be condemned even though they are unfaithful. And to learn to not condemn others when they are unfaithful.

And yet, I find even Rachel’s own account confusing. One of the most potent lines of the piece is “I go, stepping over scattered stones, forgiven, grateful, and free.”

But she isn’t free, not really. Because she believes she will inevitably continue being a “lousy practitioner” of Christianity.

This is not the fullness of the gospel. The gospel proclaims that Jesus was the Son of God, he was crucified, died, and raised again on the third day. Jesus faced the very worse that sin and death could do. He entered fully into the reality of death. And he conquered sin, even the grave!

On this side of the resurrection, Christians have no basis for saying that sin is necessary. Christians have no basis for saying that sin is inevitable. On what grounds is it necessary for those who have been forgiven of their sins and been given new life by the grace of God to continue doing things that put distance between themselves and God? Does it happen? Yes. Does it happen a lot? Sadly, yes. Does this mean that it is God’s will? No. Does it mean that it has to happen? No.

In the list of sins that Rachel included in her post, which ones are unavoidable? Does she really believe that God’s grace has not given her any power over the discrepancy in her life between talking about caring for the poor and actually caring for the poor? Think about actual sins that you have committed. Do you really believe that in the moment that you committed them that you were powerless to do anything else?

When I look back on selfish actions in my own life, it is always clear to me that these actions were avoidable. They were bad decisions that I made. Decisions that make Jesus weep.

Here is what it comes down to: Which do you believe is more powerful: sin or God? If you believe that people are not able to “go and sin no more,” then you believe that sin is more powerful than God. If you believe that God is more powerful than sin, which I think is the conclusion Christians must come to, then you may need to take a closer look at the reflexive excusing of the reality of sin in the lives of those who have taken on the name of Christ that is prevalent in contemporary American Christianity.

Christians are able to stop sinning, not because of their own goodness, but because of the grace and power of God. It isn’t something that we can do for ourselves, but it is something that God is able and willing to do in us and for us.

Rachel is right. Jesus does pour out his mercy, he does stay the hand of our accusers. And by grace, we are forgiven. And by grace through faith, we can be free. Really free. Christians believe in the one, to use the beautiful lyrics of Charles Wesley, who “breaks the power of cancelled sin, sets the prisoner free.”

Rachel has offered her audience part of the gospel, forgiveness of our sins by faith in Christ. But she has withheld the other part, which is at least as good of news: we are not only forgiven, but the power that sin had on us has been broken. She has mistakenly put forgiveness and holiness in tension with each other. Jesus offers us both forgiveness and the freedom to live faithfully.

We do not free ourselves. Those who are in Christ are set free.

And Jesus says to those he has released, “Go and sin no more.”

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

New in Wesleyan Scholarship: The Sermons of John Wesley

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The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, edited by Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers is now in print. I have been anticipating the arrival of this book since I was asked to write an endorsement of it last fall. Here is the full endorsement I originally wrote:

Collins and Vickers have provided a collection of John Wesley’s sermons that is a gift to both the church and the academy. The organization according to the Wesleyan way of salvation appropriately emphasizes Christian formation and the potential for the sermons to function as a means of grace. The decisions about which ones to include (especially including all of the standard forty-four sermons) provides important continuity with Wesley’s own decisions about which of his sermons were the most essential for the “people called Methodists.”

This volume provides an alternative to the standard one volume collection of Wesley’s sermons, John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater. The Oulter and Heitzenrater volume is the one I read when I was in seminary and I expect that it will continue to be used in many seminary courses. John Wesley’s Sermons is an exceptional volume that uses the critical edition of Wesley’s sermons from the Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley and was edited by two heavy-weights of Wesleyan studies.

A reasonable question, then, would be: Why the need for a new collection of Wesley’s sermons?

Collins and Vickers anticipate this question in their introduction to the volume. The key contribution that the volume makes is that it contains all of the original forty-four sermons that were printed in the edition of Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions. These sermons were included in the “Model Deed” that stipulated that Methodist preachers must not preach or teach doctrine contrary to that which was contained in this collection. Collins and Vickers argue that “when Wesley drafted this disciplinary instrument, he obviously viewed these forty-four sermons, and not his entire sermon corpus, as being of remarkable and distinct value in the ongoing life of Methodism” (xiii). The Outler and Heitzenrater volume, on the other hand, omits nineteen of the forty-four sermons. A strength of this new collection, then, is that it contains all these sermons, which Wesley indicated were of particular value for the “people called Methodists,” in one volume.

The Collins and Vickers volume also contains eight of the nine sermons that Wesley added in 1771, omitting the sermon “On the Death of George Whitefield.”

This new volume has the advantage of presenting a (nearly) complete collection of the entirety of the sermons Wesley identified as having particular significance for early Methodism. It also includes an additional eight sermons that the editors felt were particularly helpful in “pass[ing] on the legacy of the Methodist tradition in a practical and relevant way to the current generation” (xix).

As indicated in my endorsement of the book, I think the most important contribution of this volume is that it is organized according to the Way of Salvation. The Outler and Heitzenrater volume was organized to focus on the development of Wesley’s thought over the course of his own life. This approach has significant value for seminars in Methodist history and doctrine. The main strength of the organization of the Collins and Vickers volume, on the other hand, is that it can readily function as a catechetical tool for helping form contemporary Wesleyans in their own theological tradition.

For more on The Sermons of John Wesley, including some insightful questions about the collection, see Fred Sanders’s interview with co-editor Jason Vickers at Patheos.

The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey will be an important resource for helping to form the next generation of Wesleyans in the Christian faith.

Holy Conferencing: What Did Wesley Mean? (Part 2)

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“Holy conferencing” seems to be one of the buzz words for contemporary United Methodism. This post is the second post on this topic. (It could be seen as the second of three posts, as an earlier post pointed out that Wesley himself did not use the phrase “holy conferencing.”) The first post discussed the contemporary use of “holy conferencing.” This post discusses what Wesley meant by the phrase “Christian Conference,” which is the phrase from Wesley that is usually connected to contemporary uses of holy conferencing.

What did Wesley mean by the phrase “holy conferencing”?

Well, he did not actually use the phrase. Nevertheless, most contemporary appeals to “holy conferencing” ground the phrase in the authority of John Wesley by suggesting that the phrase is synonymous with Wesley’s use of the phrase “Christian Conference.” So, this post is actually a discussion of Wesley’s use of the phrase “Christian Conference.”

In order to understand Wesley’s use of Christian Conference, it is helpful to think about how he uses the phrase as a general concept and how it functions as a practice. When Wesley talks about Christian Conference as a concept, he is generally talking about how Christians ought to converse with one another. However, when he talks about Christian Conference as a practice, it is located within his understanding of “social holiness” or communal formation. My argument here, then, is that Christian Conference should be understood to be a concept that is located within a particular understanding of communal formation. If you divorce the concept from the way it is located in a particular set of practices, you no longer have the full Wesleyan understanding of Christian Conference.

In order to understand Wesley’s use of Christian Conference, then, we will need to discuss the way he used the phrase as a general concept and the way he located it within a particular set of practices.

How did Wesley understand Christian Conference as a general concept? To start, I only found one use of the phrase in Wesley’s corpus. The passage where Wesley discusses Christian Conference is the “Large Minutes,” where it is listed as one of five instituted means of grace (meaning that it has a privileged position because it was instituted by Christ in scripture). The first four instituted means of grace are: Prayer, Searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and Fasting. Here is what Wesley says about Christian Conference:

5. Christian Conference.
Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?
Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough?
Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it? (Wesley, Works, 10: 856-857)

This passage is interesting because it consists entirely of questions. It does not clearly define what Christian Conference is. We can only discern what it is by inferring what the questions imply. For the most part, this is relatively easily done with these particularl questions. For example, Wesley believes that Christian Conferencing should usually be limited to an hour and it should be started and concluded with prayer. And yet, Wesley also seems to assume that there is clarity about the meaning of this phrase, so he doesn’t define it. Instead of talking about what Christian Conference is, he focuses on a few ways the practice could be improved.

The best passage that I am aware of where Wesley expands on this concept is in his sermon “The First-fruits of the Spirit.” (Thanks to Dr. Andrew C. Thompson for pointing me to this.)

5. They who ‘walk after the Spirit’ are also led by him into all holiness of conversation. Their speech is ‘always in grace, seasoned with salt’, with the love and fear of God. ‘No corrupt communication comes out of their mouth, but (only) that which is good; that which is ‘to the use of edifying’, which is ‘meet to minister grace to the hearers’. And herein likewise do they exercise themselves day and night to do only the things which please God; in all their outward behaviour to follow him who ‘left us an example that we might tread in his steps’; in all their intercourse with their neighbor to walk in justice, mercy, and truth; and ‘whatsoever they do’, in every circumstance of life, to ‘do all to the glory of God.’

6. These are they who indeed ‘walk after the Spirit’. Being filled with faith and with the Holy Ghost, they possess in their hearts, and show forth in their lives, in the whole course of their words and actions, the genuine fruits of the Spirit of God, namely, ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness, temperance’, and whatsoever else is lovely or praiseworthy. They ‘adorn in all things the gospel of God our Saviour’; and give full proof to all mankind that they are indeed actuated by the same Spirit ‘which raised up Jesus from the dead’. (Wesley, Works, 1:236-237)

Note that Wesley uses many of the same phrases here that he uses in the questions in the “Large Minutes.” It is also significant that Wesley ties “holiness of conversation” so closely to the rest of a holy life. He wrote, “herein likewise do they exercise themselves day and night to do only the things which please God; in all their outward behaviour to follow him [Jesus].”

It is also significant that the discussion of holy conversation occurs within a sermon about “walking after the Spirit.” Holy conversation, then, is a part of a greater whole, where people are “filled with faith and with the Holy Ghost” and “possess… the genuine fruits of the Spirit of God.” Moreover, “holy conversation” is the result of being led by the Holy Spirit. It isn’t something that we bring with us to difficult conversations, it is something God does for us and in us.

So, how was this concept situated within the particular practices of early Methodism?

This is where, in my view, there is a clear divergence from the way that “holy conferencing” is most often used or understood in contemporary United Methodism, where it largely remains an abstract concept that generally applies to talking to other people, particularly about difficult topics.

For Wesley, Christian Conference was grounded in his emphasis on the importance of Christian communal formation, or social holiness. Several of the questions where Wesley discusses Christian Conference as an instituted means of grace suggest that Wesley was thinking of something like the class and band meetings. Wesley believed that the class meeting served to “minister grace to the hearers” through talking about the state of each person’s soul. He also pointed to the need to limit the duration of the meetings. And the “Rules of the Band Societies” include instructions to begin and end the meetings with prayer.

Consider, for example, the following passage where Wesley discussed the benefits of the class meeting:

It can scarce be conceived what advantages have been reaped from this little prudential regulation. Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to “bear one another’s burdens,” and “naturally” to “care for each other.” As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for each other. And “speaking the truth in love, they grew up into him in all things which is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplied, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, increased unto the edifying itself in love.” (Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” Works 9: 262)

Scholars have argued that for Wesley Christian Conference and Christian fellowship are nearly synonymous. (Thanks, again, to Andrew Thompson for pointing me to this.) So, when Wesley talked about Christian Conference as an instituted means of grace, he most likely had in mind a way of conversing that occurred within a particular context, where something like “bearing one another’s burdens” or “speaking the truth in love” was happening for the sake of growing in holiness. The place where this kind of conversation was expected to happen in early Methodism would have been obvious: the class meeting and the band meeting.

My sense, then, is that the early Methodist classes and bands would have been in the back of Wesley’s mind when he talked about Christian Conference, and not merely generic polite conversation. This becomes even more plausible when it is noted that immediately following Wesley’s list of the instituted means of grace, Wesley lists the “prudential” means of grace (because they are prudent, even though not explicitly instituted by Christ). Under the prudential means of grace “As Methodists” Wesley asks: Do you never miss any meeting of the society? Neither your class or band?” (Wesley, Works 10: 857)

As I began working on this, I emailed Dr. Randy L. Maddox and asked him for his thoughts on Christian Conference. In his response he said, “When Wesley refers to Christian Conference as an instituted means of grace, I think the class meeting is the best example of what he has in mind. This is particularly the case if we assume his primary focus in ‘means of grace’ is sanctification” (quoted with permission).

But why is the class meeting listed explicitly as a prudential means of grace for Methodists, and not also as an instituted means of grace for all Christians?

Wesley clearly acknowledged that the class meeting was not prescribed by Jesus. However, he did believe that something like the class meeting was. So, Wesley did believe that the general idea of small groups focused on our lives as followers of Christ was a general principle for all Christians. The class meeting was simply the particular way that Methodists were living out this principle.

So, what did Wesley mean by Christian Conference?

Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness. These conversations were most obviously situated within the weekly class meetings and band meetings. This relates to the first post on the contemporary use of holy conferencing, then, because Christian Conferencing was not generally understood to be having a one-time polite conversation about a controversial subject. Rather, it was focused on the details of individual people’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness.

The goal of Christian Conference, then, is to “walk after the Spirit,” and to be “filled with faith and with the Holy Ghost.” The means to this end, then, was through weekly meetings for prayer and “watching over one another in love.”

Now that is a practice worth reclaiming!

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Holy Conferencing: What Is It? (Part 1)

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What is “holy conferencing”?

This phrase seems to be one of the buzz words for contemporary United Methodism. This post is the first of two posts on this topic. (It could be seen as the second of three posts, as yesterday’s post pointed out that Wesley himself did not use the phrase “holy conferencing.”) This post discusses the contemporary use of “holy conferencing.” The second post will discuss what Wesley meant by the phrase “Christian conference,” which is the phrase from Wesley that is usually connected to contemporary uses of holy conferencing.

At the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Tampa, FL “holy conferencing” was the explicit rationale for three scheduled times when delegates would break into thirteen groups for “holy conversation.”

Following General Conference, in the September/October 2012 issue of Interpreter the feature article was “Holy Conferencing: Bringing Grace to Touch Conversations.” I have to admit I was predisposed to be critical of the article by the subtitle, which to me suggested that we are the ones who bring grace to tough conversations because of our mastery of the skill of holy conferencing. I’m not exactly sure what the subtitle intended to convey, but it would be too easy of a target for outsiders who already suspect that Methodists are peddling works righteousness.

Nevertheless, I take this article as a good example of what many United Methodists mean today when they invoke the value of “holy conferencing.”

The article does not itself provide a clear definition of holy conferencing, but instead defines it by quoting a variety of church leaders. The main place where the article does interact with the concept is in this passage:

“Holy or Christian conferencing is a practice John Wesley included, along with prayer, Scripture reading, fasting and the Lord’s Supper, as a way of experiencing God’s grace. The roots are biblical. Leaders assert that every Christian should practice it, within and beyond the walls of the church.”

This is a helpful quote because it makes both moves that are typical in discussions of holy conferencing. 1) Its roots are in John Wesley. 2) It is important because Wesley included it as an “instituted” means of grace. So, similar to many of the other buzzwords in contemporary United Methodism, the grounding for the practice is – at least loosely – the authority of John Wesley.

But the above quote doesn’t tell us much about what holy conferencing is. From the above we know it is something that Wesley included with other basic Christian practices as a way of experiencing God’s grace (which, again, is in tension with the subtitle of the article). And that we should practice it in and out of church because the roots are biblical. This sounds important! So, again, what is it?

Here are a few quotes from the article where various United Methodist leaders use holy conferencing as a concept:

“Holy conferencing became really important as we gathered at the table to listen to all the reasons of why we should or shouldn’t move forward… When there would be a conflict or some tension or a variety of opinions, we would commit to listen to each other and approach each other with grace as much as possible. We always remembered that we have a place to stand together even if we don’t end up in the same place at the end of the conversation.” – Rev. Trudy Robinson, First UMC Littleton, CO

“Holy conferencing developed out of recognizing who people were, with a theological commitment that each person is a child of God and deserves to be treated as one.” – Rev. Stephen Cady, Kingston UMC, NJ

“In our culture today, there’s so much divisiveness that it’s really important to call ourselves to that means of grace… People, particularly in the United States, understand how uncivil conversation and discussion have become. People desire something different. In general society, there’s a fair amount of conversation about civil discourse. As Christians, (we have) a number of (Scripture) passages and admonitions in terms of how we treat one another.” – Bishop Sally Dyck, Chicago Area of The UMC

“It’s not just an exchange of opinions… but a real attempt to move toward a common understanding of God’s will and intention towards Christians. It’s a holy thing to be undertaken with seriousness and integrity. It’s an opportunity to build on the trust that is already there and to allow people to seek together for the truth.” – Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice-president, Good News

With the exception of the quote from Lambrecht, it seems like holy conferencing means being nice to each other when we disagree.

One gets a similar sense from the “Principles of Holy Conferencing” that are published as a sidebar in the same article. (Note: This is a condensed version of a longer paper Bishop Dyck wrote. The full paper can be accessed here.) Here are the eight principles:

1. Every person is a child of God
2. Listen before speaking
3. Strive to understand from another’s point of view
4. Strive to reflect accurately the views of others
5. Disagree without being disagreeable
6. Speak about issues; do not defame people
7. Pray, in silence or aloud, before decisions
8. Let prayer interrupt your busy-ness

This is a helpful list. And these principles are important to keep in mind when having difficult conversations. I have seen too many examples in person and (more often) online where these principles have not been practiced by contemporary Methodists. So, I think this is a well thought out and helpful guide to having difficult conversations. However, at the end of the day, it still looks like the focus is on being nice.

My sense from thinking about the use of “holy conferencing” in contemporary discourse over the past six months or so is that it is being appealed to so heavily because, during a time when there are areas of profound disagreement among Methodists, it is a way to find something we can agree on. We should be able to agree to be nice when we disagree with each other, to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

There are at least two problems with this approach. First, the areas of disagreement often go so deep that someone finds the clear statement of a particular position to itself be disagreeable. In other words, the use of “holy conferencing” presumes an ability to not take the beliefs and convictions of another as a personal attack. I am not sure we are currently in a place where people are always able to make a distinction between honest disagreement and intentionally being disagreeable, or intentionally hurtful.

The second problem with this approach is that it deemphasizes the importance of the beliefs themselves. At best, it does not provide a way to resolve any disagreement. The only solution offered is polite conversation. At worst, it implies that there are no right answers.

The use of holy conferencing seems naïve because the solution it appears to offer is that if enough people could just sit down long enough, be nice enough, and hear each other, agreement would come from clear and kind articulation of each perspective. I think this underestimates the depth of genuine disagreement that often exists. There also may be a subtle form of arrogance that believes that I can convince you that I am right if we can just talk about this long enough because you have never actually thought about this in a careful rational way (or, that my beliefs are in themselves rational and logical in some way that yours are not).

I do not think that is what people who are advocating for holy conferencing intend to be the outcome of this practice. I think they are rightly broken-hearted by the extent of disunity, even anger and bitterness, in contemporary Methodism. And so, leaders are rightly trying to come up with anything that will move Methodism in a better direction. From that perspective, I think polite conversation is a step in the right direction.

My concern is that what was likely initially intended as a step is coming to be seen as a solution. The process of coming to theological convictions seems to be valued above the convictions themselves.

William J. Abraham has argued that the quadrilateral was conceived as a way to create a big tent vision for Methodism when it could not agree on basic Christian doctrine. (See especially his Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia). So, instead of focusing on doctrine, Outler created a way of thinking about doctrine. The idea was that we may not agree on the outcomes, but we can agree on the method we use to come to our different conclusions.

Is “holy conferencing” another Act in this same play? Some of the quotes from the Interpreter article, in fact, emphasized that “standing together” was more important than “ending up in the same place at the end of the conversation.” Think about the imagery in that quote. The image itself shows how insufficient a vision this is. The goal is to stand together, even though we are not in the same place?!

Recall that the common rationale given for the importance of holy conferencing is that it was endorsed by John Wesley in the “Large Minutes” as one of five instituted means of grace (meaning that they were explicitly given to us by Christ). The other four instituted means of grace are: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting. These are rich, robust practices that have been a part of the Christian life from the early church. Could Wesley have really meant by “Christian conference” that Christ instituted the practice of “standing together, even though we are not in the same place” as just as reliable of a way of encountering God’s presence as prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting? Surely not!

The next post will answer the question: What did Wesley mean by the phrase “Christian conference”? It will also consider the role of “Christian conference” for contemporary Christianity, suggesting that it is much more than being nice when we disagree.

In the meantime, what do you think about the way that “holy conferencing” is used in contemporary Methodism?

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Wesley Didn’t Say It: “Holy Conferencing”

“Holy conferencing”

Wesley never said that.

This phrase has become a bit of a buzzword in contemporary Methodism and it is almost always connected to John Wesley. Wesley did use the phrase “Christian conference.” And most people who use “holy conferencing” make a connection to “Christian conference.”

In the “Large Minutes” Wesley listed “Christian conference” as one of five instituted means of grace (practices that were instituted by Christ). The instituted means of grace in the “Large Minutes” are: prayer, searching the Scripture, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conference.

Here is what is said about Christian conference in this context:

5. Christian Conference.
Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right?
It is always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?
Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough?
Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it?
[Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, edited by Henry D. Rack, 10:856-7.]

“Christian conference” is often used as a synonym for “holy conferencing,” which seems to mean polite conversation, or being nice when we disagree. But is that what Wesley meant by the phrase? I am writing a post that explores this question, which will be up in a day or two.

For now, there is no evidence that Wesley used the phrase “holy conferencing.” We can add it to the list of things he did not say:

“personal and social holiness” [Original post here.]

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” [Original post here.]

“I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” [Original post here.]

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.” [Original post here.]

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

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