Can Francis Asbury Help You Be a More Effective Communicator (Part 4)

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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:

This is the final post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous posts by clicking the traits listed above.)

The fourth trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was his organization of the Methodist church (8). According to his biographer, Asbury was “a brilliant administrator and a keen judge of human motivations” (8). As Asbury travelled constantly, he also paid careful attention to a variety of administrative details related to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Wigger further describes the significance of this aspect of Asbury’s leadership:

The system Asbury crafted made it possible to keep tabs on thousands of preachers and lay workers. Under his leadership, American Methodists anticipated the development of modern managerial styles. No merchant of the early nineteenth century could match Asbury’s nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, exhorters, local preachers, circuit riders, and presiding elders, or the movement’s system of class meetings, circuit preaching, quarterly meetings, annual conferences, and quadrennial general conferences, all churning out detailed statistical reports to be consolidated and published on a regular basis (8).

Wigger also highlights the importance of intinerant (travelling) preachers for his system. Interestingly, maintaing this system was also one of the major challenges of Asbury’s career. He fought to maintain it; however, because he was convinced of its significance for the success of American Methodism.

A “less obvious, but equally important” part of Asbury’s systemt was the “necessity of a culture of discipline.” Here, the early Methodist class meeting is discussed, including Asbury’s continuation of the requirement that in order to be a member one had to participate in a weekly class meeting.

Finally, Asbury realized his own limitations and delegated authority to others. He did this at a variety of levels, the most visible being traveling preachers and class leaders.

Asbury was an effective communicator because he instilled a culture of discipline in Methodism that allowed for a sense of cohesiveness throughout a rapidly growing church, and also ensured that membership in the newly constituted Methodist Episcopal Church actually meant something.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

Absolutely! In fact, of the four traits that Wigger identifies, I think this might be the most pressing need in twenty-first century American Christianity.

United Methodism puts a significant amount of time, energy, and resources into administrative functions and details. When I was the pastor of a local church, for example, I remember being almost overwhelmed by the number of reports I had to submit throughout the year. This was sometimes a frustrating experience because the reason for the reports was not always explained to me, and it wasn’t usually inherently obvious.

Contemporary United Methodism also has an array of boards and agencies that engage a wide variety of aspects of Christian ministry.

Outwardly, when one compares the structures of Asbury’s Methodism and the structures of contemporary United Methodism, there is quite a bit that looks similar. There is, however, one major change. The purpose of Asbury’s administrative work was to keep the Methodism movement going in the same direction, to cause there to be a recognizable unity among the “people called Methodists.” Oversight in early American Methodism played an important function because there was clarity about what the goals of Methodism (individually: justification by faith in Christ, the new birth, followed by holiness of heart and life; corporately: spreading scriptural holiness). In the contemporary context, I fear we have kept a passion for counting attendance, members, etc., without the common sense of purpose that originally made these things valuable.

My sense is that this aspect of Asbury’s leadership style would be most easily appropriated by local church pastors. At the level of the local church, someone can cast vision, delegate authority and responsibilities, and articulate expectations for those involved in the life of the church (and hold people accountable for meeting those expectations).

So what do you think? Is being an excellent organizer and administrator important for leaders in the church today? If so, how have you seen this done well? And, since this post concludes this series, what quality or characteristic would you add to being an effective communicator that Wigger did not discuss?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin': In your own sphere of influence, do you pay attention to the details of how an idea can actually come to reality? Does your church hold members accountable for keeping their membership vows in any meaningful way? If not, what are the implications of people making promises to God in the presence of the entire church and not keeping them?

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Can Francis Asbury Help You Become a More Effective Communicator? (Part 3)

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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:

This is the third post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous posts by clicking the traits listed above.)

The third trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was his understanding and use of popular culture (7). If the second aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator marked a difference between he and John Wesley, this is a trait that Asbury and Wesley shared. Wigger described the way this trait function for Asbury, particularly with regard to his relationship between John Wesley and Americans:

Asbury acted as a mediator between Wesley and common Americans. Wesley and Asbury came from significantly different backgrounds, but they shared a realization that the dominant religious institutions of their day were failing to reach most people. The great question they both addressed was how to make the gospel relevant in their time and place. The audience was never far from their minds (7).

One of the major challenges Asbury faced as a mediator between Wesley and the average American was which parts of popular American culture to embrace and which parts to reject. Asbury embraced the revivalistic atmosphere that was inseparable from early nineteenth-century camp meetings. As a result, American Methodism embraced the camp meeting early on, while many other denominations hesitated. Asbury initially took a firm stand against American Methodists holding slaves. However, he ultimately compromised on this stand.

The camp meeting and American slavery show the tension in engaging popular culture. Wigger ultimately argues that “this mediating impulse, transmitted from Wesley through Asbury, became a trademark of American Methodism” (7). It was certainly not without complication, but it is one of the reasons American Methodism grew exponentially during the decades that Asbury was the bishop of the newly created Methodist Episcopal Church.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

Yes, but the same tensions alluded to above are an unavoidable part of any engagement with popular culture. Wigger’s discussion of the broader implications of religious movements engaging the surrounding culture provides a helpful framework for thinking about the contemporary relevance of this aspect of Asbury’s leadership style:

All religious movements interact with the prevailing culture of their adherents. Popular religous movements like early American Methodism exist in a tension between religious values and the values of the dominant culture, alternately challenging and embracing the larger culture around them. To either completely accept or reject the larger culture is to cease to be either religious on the one hand, or popular on the other. Leaders like Asbury understand this tension and work within it (7).

Early American Methodism provides a fascinating example of a Christian tradition both changing the culture and being changed by it. Among other things, this example ought to chasten religious leaders or institutions that talk about cultural engagement in overly static or one-directional ways. If a person or institution succeeds in understanding and using popular culture, they will almost certainly be changed by that culture.

The very fear of being “converted” by popular culture has led some to avoid engaging popular culture at all. To use Wigger’s phrase, this is to cease to be popular. Wesley and Asbury were both unapologetically in favor of gathering a large audience.

The desire to be relevant (or sometimes for contemporary American Methodism to be popular once again) has led some to embrace popular culture with no hesitation. To the extent that this has happened in American Methodism, I think it is at least in part because there was a time that being American and being Methodist were nearly synonymous. Contemporary American Methodists who feel this temptation would do well to heed Wigger’s warning that to completely accept the larger culture is to cease to be religious, or more importantly, Christian.

Wigger argues that the success of any religious movement “hinges on maintaining contact with the culture around them” (7). I think he is right. The Church needs leaders who know Jesus, are committed to practicing their faith in consistent daily ways, can connect with ordinary people, and understand the culture around them and who seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance for how to best engage that culture.

[Note: I think Wigger’s description of culture could be a bit more nuanced. The idea that there is a popular culture (as opposed to a more complicated network of cultures that intersect in a variety of ways) that a community of faith decides to engage or not engage is a bit too straightforward.]

So what do you think? In order to be effective, does a leader in the church need to understand and use popular culture? Why or why not? How have you seen church leaders do this well? How do you think it could be done better?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin': My guess is that most people tend towards one of the extremes Wigger discusses, either embracing or rejecting popular culture uncritically. Do you tend to embrace or reject popular culture? How might you be able to engage popular culture more faithfully for the glory of God?

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Can Francis Asbury Help You Be a More Effective Communicator? (Part 2)

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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:

This is the second post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous post by clicking the first trait listed above.)

The second trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was, “his ability to connect with ordinary people” (6). John Wesley was not known for this characteristic. In fact, there are a few examples where Wesley’s interactions with people are shockingly insensitive. Asbury, however, was gifted at connecting with people he met throughout his travels, building relationships with them even during short stays.

My favorite part of this aspect of Asbury’s personality is that he was known for having a good sense of humor in a time when “Methodists didn’t generally consider joking and laughter compatible with religion” (Wigger, 6). Even better, Asbury’s sense of humor was self-effacing. Here is one particular story that Wigger relates that also shows that Asbury did not take himself too seriously:

Once, when Asbury was nearly sixty and had been a bishop for nearly two decades, he and the ‘venerable, portly’ preacher Benjaming Bidlack came to the home of a ‘respectable Methodist’ in the Genessee District of upstate New York. Seeing Asbury riding in front, the man mistook him for an assisstant and ordered him to dismount and open the gate for the bishop. Bidlack played along, and as he passed by, Asbury bowed low, offering to see to the bishop’s horse and bags. When their host realized his mistake, he was ‘mortified’ until he saw how much Asbury enjoyed the joke (6).

The way that Wigger concludes his summary of this second aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator is particularly intriguing: “People found Asbury approachable and willing to listen to their concerns more than they found him full of inspiring ideas” (7).

Asbury was an effective communicator and leader, then, because he was able to connect with people. He could make them laugh. He could even enjoy a good laugh at his own expense. People listened to him because they liked him, largely because they sensed that he liked them.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

Of course!

People will rarely follow someone they do not like or they do not believe likes them. And leaders in the contemporary church will be far more successful in leading if they are able to relate to the people in the churches to which they have been sent to provide leadership.

Here are a few quick thoughts on how church leaders can connect with ordinary people:

1. For those who are seminary, stay in contact with “normal people” (whatever that means!). Seminary is great, but it can also unintentionally become a kind of bubble, where you forget that most people would not be interested in having a three hour conversation about various theories of the atonement, the difference between imputed vs. imparted righteousness, etc. My point is not that these things are bad. In fact, they are essentially to a seminary education. But seminary can unintentionally deform you from being able to relate to the “people in the pews.” And if people who are attending seminary because they have been called to local church ministry can no longer relate to the people they will be serving when the graduate, well, that is a problem.

2. Spend time with people on their turf. When I was pastoring a church in rural Oklahoma, a significant number of men from the church would meet for coffee every morning at the co-op. Driving up to a grain elevator, walking into a room with fertilizer bags, horse troughs, and hundreds of tools I had never seen before was initially a jarring experience! But I learned to love that time. I learned more about those men sitting on folding chairs around that plastic table than I ever did within the walls of the church. I also laughed more there than any other place in that town. They are precious memories! And looking back, I am amazed at the hospitality that these men showed in welcoming me into their favorite place to spend time together.

3. Relax and don’t have an agenda. Just spend time with people because they have been created in the image of almighty God. Listen to them. Hear what they are trying to tell you. If you do this, you will be invited into people’s lives in incredible ways.

4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Leaders always win when they laugh at themselves. And they win when they share credit and build up other people.

5. Remember that more often than not people want to know whether you care and whether you can be trusted. This is a hard one for me. My instinct is to try to bowl people over by my ideas, by content. But Asbury’s example reminds us that before people can hear our ideas, they first need us to hear them – really hear them.

So what do you think? How important do you think it is for leaders in the church to be able to relate well to other people? What would you add to my list of ways that church leaders can better relate to others?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin': This post assumes that Christian leaders do genuinely love the people God has sent them to serve. I have been surprised at how often I have encountered pastors who are not good at listening at all. It is an area where I can always find room for growth myself. Are you a good listener? Do you habitually, maybe without even realizing it, interrupt people? Before you try to get others to hear you, how can you learn to better hear them?

If you are enjoying this series, be sure to subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss the next two posts. You can subscribe via e-mail by clicking here or via reader by clicking here.

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.

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