In yesterday’s post I introduced the following quote from John Wesley:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
Wesley argues that Methodism will become nothing more than a dead sect unless it holds fast to the “doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” In order to explore this in a bit more depth we need to ask first, what was the doctrine with which the early Methodists first set out? Lucky for us, Wesley answer this very question in “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:
That the Bible is the whole and sole rule both of Christian faith and practice. Hence they learned: (1). That religion is an inward principle; that it is no other than the mind that was in Christ; or in other words, the renewal of the soul after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness. (2). That this can never be wrought in us but by the power of the Holy Ghost. (3). That we receive this and every other blessing merely for the sake of Christ; and, (4), that whosoever hath the mind that was in Christ, the same is our brother, sister, and mother.
A few paragraphs later he summarizes his “constant doctrine” as “salvation by faith, preceded by repentance, and followed by holiness.”
Therefore, the foundation for Methodist doctrine, according to Wesley, is the Bible. It is the entire and only rule for both Christian faith and practice. That is one thing about the quadrilateral that seems to have the potential to confuse people. Wesley clearly did not place tradition, reason, and experience on equal footing with Scripture. If tradition, reason, or experience contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture, then Wesley would say, follow the Scriptures.
From searching the Scriptures, Wesley and the early Methodists learned that the goal of religion was the renewal of the soul after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness. This renewal comes by grace and not by works, by the work of Jesus Christ. And finally, that anyone who has the mind that was in Christ is our brother, sister, and mother. Or as he says in the second part of his description of Methodist doctrine; it is salvation by faith, preceded by repentance and followed by holiness.
So, contemporary Methodists? How are we doing with the first of the three keys Wesley mentions? My initial reaction is that technically we have preserved a Wesleyan doctrine in The Book of Discipline. However, my suspicion is that the actual beliefs that Methodists have depends more on what part of the country they live in, than on what the BOD says Methodists should believe. One extreme seems to be a general idea that being a Methodist means being open and tolerant. It is an oversimplification of Wesley’s sermon “The Catholic Spirit” where tolerance is advocated without remembering that there were essentials that were not negotiable for Wesley (like salvation by faith, preceded by repentance and followed by holiness). It is not that there is anything wrong with tolerance, it is just that simply accepting other people and their differences was not what brought the Methodist revival to life. It was not what gave the Methodist the form and power of godliness.
The other extreme seems to be one where there is a strong emphasis on justification by faith, on the need to be born again, but this emphasis is not followed up with an equally strong emphasis on holiness or sanctification. In this extreme, the journey of Christian discipleship has actually just begun, but the person who has been born again acts as if they just crossed the finish line.
Sadly, taking growth in holiness seriously seems like a novelty to many people today. It often feels like it is something that people today view as a quaint notion from a long time ago. Yet, you could make the argument that the focus on holiness and entire sanctification was the hallmark of Methodism. The idea that we can and should grow in grace, and the determination to be methodical in so doing was what made Methodists distinct from other Christians.
It may seem like I am painting a pretty bleak picture. But, I do have hope. It feels to me like there is an increasing awareness of the need to reclaim a doctrine that is recognizably Wesleyan. There seems to be building momentum among contemporary Methodists to learn what it means to be Methodist. My hope is that an awareness of the characteristics of our particular heritage will rekindle an excitement and zeal for living into our Wesleyan heritage.
What do you think?