Archive for August, 2011

27
Aug
11

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 4: Christian Perfection

John Wesley’s most distinctive theological theme was his emphasis on Christian perfection.  His ideas were controversial, and volumes upon volumes of books have been published to try to explain, defend, or dismiss Wesley’s position.

In a brief post like this I can’t really get into the details of the debates, but I can put forward my own interpretation of what I think Wesley was trying to say about holiness, and how it ought to shape a theology of the mission of God.

First, we need to make some clarifications about the word “perfection.”  In our culture we assume that perfection implies the complete absence of flaws of any kind.  Since we know that nobody is perfect (in this sense), it seems ridiculous to say speak of Christian perfection.

Wesley did not use the term “perfection” in a way that implied “flawlessness.”  In other words, he did not believe anyone could reach a state of sinless perfection in this life.  He did not teach that we should strive for absolute perfection, but for Christian perfection, a perfection which is fitting for a redeemed but flawed and frail human creature.  This kind of perfection is not static, but dynamic, personal, relational, and made possible by divine grace alone.  It is  a relative perfection, a perfecting perfection which always admits greater degrees.

Wesley was at his best when he defined Christian perfection as “perfect love”:

But what is perfection?  The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.  It is love ‘rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks’ (Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.9).

In other words, Wesley believed it was really possible for Christians to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbours as ourselves.   What this meant in a practical sense was that he believed we could be so filled with the love of God that we would not knowingly sin.  Even someone whose life was characterized by Christian perfection would continue to sin, and would continue to need the atoning blood of Christ at every moment.  But, Wesley believed, a Christian could be so overwhelmed by God’s love that their intentions would always be for the good.

These ideas are still controversial, and much more could be said.   I’ve said a bit more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.

An idea which was so central for Wesley and which continues to be a central aspect of Wesleyan theology today must have missional implications.  I would like to highlight three.

The first connects with my last post about the therapeutic nature of salvation.  Salvation is not simply about gaining a ticket to heaven, but about the healing of the sickness which has corrupted us.  Part of the church’s role in God’s mission is to be a community which cultivates the healing grace of God – that is, a community which moves its members towards Christian perfection.  Even if we disagree with Wesley on the degree to which this is possible in this life, we can still affirm that the Christian life ought to head in the direction of perfection.  Or perhaps it would be less of a stumbling block to say that the Christian life should head in the direction of maturity, or a kind of completeness that is fitting for sinners saved by grace.

Secondly, the church ought therefore, to demonstrate the salvation of God, not only in word, but in the manner of its life together.  The church is called to grow up into the fullness of Christ, personally and corporately.  Wesley was particularly fond of the Gospel of John and the epistles of John, and took quite seriously Jesus words in John 13:35 – “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”  The character of the church’s life together is part of our witness to the world.  Again, we think of Jesus’ great high priestly prayer in John 17 – “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”  Our unity, our love for one another, is intricately connected to God’s mission.  He established the church to be a living demonstration – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God – so that the world might know him.  Sadly, Christians often do a very poor job of this.

Again, this theme highlights the fact that the Church’s community life, including its various edifying and sanctifying practices, are themselves part of God’s mission.  Community life and mission should not be played off against one another.

11
Aug
11

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 3: A Therapeutic Understanding of Salvation

John Wesley’s theology of salvation is sometimes said to combine the best of both the Western and Eastern traditions, meaning he combines a forensic understanding of salvation with a therapeutic understanding of salvation.    Western Christianity has tended to focus on sin as a guilt problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of forgiveness (forensic/legal language).    The Eastern tradition has tended to focus on sin as a sickness problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of healing (therapeutic language).

Wesley was able to draw on both of these traditions by integrating the Western concern with guilt into an Eastern-influenced therapeutic understanding of salvation.   This meant that, overall, Wesley saw salvation as a dynamic, relational process of healing from all the sickness of sin, but included the classic protestant understanding of justification as an important aspect of this process.

Consider the following two quotes, illustrating these two aspects of salvation.

Forensic: Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.3

Justification is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and , what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God. The price whereby this hath been procured for us (commonly termed “the meritorious cause of our justification”), is the blood and righteousness of Christ; or, to express it a little more clearly, all that Christ hath done and suffered for us, till He “poured out His soul for the transgressors.” The immediate effects of justification are, the peace of God, a “peace that passeth all understanding,” and a “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God” “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

Therapeutic: Sermon 57, “On the Fall of Man,” §II.8

Hath he not then, seeing he alone is able, provided a remedy for all these evils? Yea, verily he hath! And a sufficient remedy; every way adequate to the disease… Here is a remedy provided for all our guilt: He “bore all our sins in his body on the tree.” And “if any one have sinned, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” And here is a remedy for all our disease, all the corruption of our nature. For God hath also, through the intercession of his Son, given us his Holy Spirit, to renew us both “in knowledge,” in his natural image; — opening the eyes of our understanding, and enlightening us with all such knowledge as is requisite to our pleasing God; — and also in his moral image, namely, “righteousness and true holiness.”

The point of what I’m trying to say is that salvation, for Wesley, is  not found simply in being “declared” righteous (justification), but in being healed of all the corruption of sin, and conformed to the likeness of Christ.   Therefore, the salvation that God has prepared for us is something which begins now, but extends to the resurrection.  People sometimes speak of receiving forgiveness of salvation as “being saved,” but this is not the whole story. Justification is one aspect of salvation, but properly speaking, salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.  These terms are ways of describing the initial, ongoing, and final deliverance from sin.

This has important implications for our understanding of the mission of God.  Mission is not simply about gaining “converts,” but also about cooperating with the Spirit’s healing work in people’s lives.   This also means that God’s mission is not only for those outside the church but for believers as well, who are currently experiencing the ongoing healing work of God in their lives.

In other words, mission is not only “outreach” but also includes the corporate life of the church.  Cultivating holiness, spurring one another on in our response to God’s ongoing work in our lives, teaching, catechizing, discipling – all these things which help to form people as disciples are part of the church’s mission

Wesley’s therapeutic understanding of salvation could be extended to other areas of “healing” (social, psychological, environmental), but I will leave that for another post.

04
Aug
11

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 2: Prevenient Grace

I began this series last week by talking about the importance of the image of God for John Wesley’s theology.    As an heir of the theological legacy of the protestant Reformation, Wesley also believed in total depravity.  This means, not that human beings are totally evil, but that sin has corrupted every aspect of the human person, such that there is no aspect of our existence which is not affected by the Fall.  Those who accuse Wesleyans of being “soft” on sin have misread Wesley’s theology at this point.

While it is true that Wesley was somewhat more “optimistic” about humanity, his optimism sprang not from a weak understanding of sin, but from a high view of grace – hence Wesleyans sometimes speak of the “optimism of grace” (more on that later).

In other words, while Wesley believed human beings to be completely depraved and helpless in and of themselves, he believed that God had not left anyone to merely fend for themselves.  God’s grace, for John Wesley, permeates all of creation, not only the Christian church.  As an unconditional benefit of the atonement, extended to all humanity, God’s Spirit is actively at work in all creation, drawing people to himself through his grace.   This is what Wesleyans call “prevenient,” “preventing,” or “preceding” grace – it is our experience of God’s grace “going before” us, enabling us to respond to God’s call on our lives.

The following quote from Wesley’s Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,”  §III.4, is illustrative of how Wesley used this concept:

… allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. Every one has, sooner or later, good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root, or produce any considerable fruit. Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.

Wesley used the idea of prevenient grace in “broad” sense to refer to the restraint of evil throughout the world (similar to the Calvinist idea of “common grace”), and in a more narrow sense to refer to grace drawing people to faith in Christ.

Because Wesley affirmed total depravity, he had to claim that any good action, no matter who performed it, must attributed to prevenient grace. In other words, “First. God worketh in you; therefore you can work: Otherwise it would be impossible” (Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” §III.3).

Again, we see the universal dimensions of God’s mission to the world shining through in Wesley’s thinking.  Just as all people were created in image of God and now suffer the debasement of that image by sin, so also God is actively pursuing all people by his prevenient grace.

This means that the church’s missional activity is always preceded by God’s prior gracious action.  God is already at work in the lives of every person we come into contact with.  The witness of the church remains essential, however, as God’s chosen means of spreading the message of salvation.

Prevenient grace also provides us with a way of affirming the good in people outside of the Church.   God’s grace is at work in all peoples, in all cultures.  Therefore we can affirm the good in people of other religions, without denying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only saviour; because whatever good is there is due to the grace of the triune God, and is ultimately a benefit of the universal atonement.

Prevenient grace therefore provides an essential piece of a Wesleyan theology of the mission of  God, which extends the hope of salvation to all people, not merely an elect few.




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