Author Archives: Andrew Thompson

Visiting the Sick: How We Participate in Our Own Salvation

Around the time the Methodist revival in England completed its first decade, John Wesley penned an essay called A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists. His aim is to explain the Methodist movement to the larger world, which he does by describing the various internal components of the revival that had developed during Methodism’s first ten years.

One of the components Wesley focuses upon is the prominent place of lay leadership within Methodism. He makes it clear that the revival is not a clergy-driven enterprise. As Wesley tells it, Methodism has many roles for laity that allow them to serve in active ministry. He describes the roles of Lay Preachers and Stewards. He documents the contributions of Class Leaders and Visitors of the Sick. Each of these “offices” has a set of responsibilities attached to it. Each of them is also empowered to do ministry—shepherding the members of the local Methodist societies in ways designed to care for them, nurture their discipleship, and push them forward in mission.

The role of the group that Wesley calls “Visitors of the Sick” is particularly remarkable. As he describes their work, Wesley makes it clear that Methodists understand pastoral care to be something that all people should do. In other words, pastoral care is not just a responsibility of the ordained pastors!

The kinds of caring activities that Visitors of the Sick take on are aimed toward assisting sick people in both spiritual and practical ways. Wesley reports that when Visitors call on the sick, they “inquire into the state of their souls” as well as “inquire into their disorders.” They also give advice in both spiritual and physical areas, and they are responsible for obtaining any practical support or goods that the sick may need.

Wesley believes that the fruits of this part of Methodist practice will be obvious to any who care to take a look. He first describes the benefit that the ministry of visitation has had for the sick themselves: “Many lives have been saved, many sicknesses healed, much pain and want prevented or removed. Many heavy hearts have been made glad, many mourners comforted.” Then he adds a little coda: “And the visitors have found from him whom they serve a present reward for all their labour.”

It’s an intriguing comment, and one so brief you might skim over it. Wesley seems to be saying that something happens beyond an act of charity when a visitor spends time in conversation and prayer with someone who is ill. The benefits to the sick person are obvious enough. He receives support—emotional or practical—and is reminded of the love that both God and his neighbor bear toward him. But Wesley is suggesting that something else happens as well. The visitor herself receives a “present reward” from God through the work of visitation.

Visiting the Sick as a Means of Grace

Though he doesn’t elaborate on what he means by the “present reward” in the Plain Account, Wesley does go into more detail elsewhere. His sermon, “On Visiting the Sick,” is written to encourage Christians to embrace the calling to care for the broken and ill amongst them. As the sermon begins, Wesley notes that there are certain activities that all people agree are means of grace—the Lord’s Supper, prayer, hearing and reading the Scripture, and fasting. We all know that these practices of worship and devotion “convey the grace of God to the souls of men,” Wesley says. Then he stops us in our tracks with a question: “But are they the only means of grace?” Indeed, Wesley asks, are there not certain works of mercy that can serve as true means of grace as well?

At this point, Wesley presses the theology of the means of grace in a truly creative direction. Sure, we may not have detailed instruction from Jesus Christ about the works of mercy the way we do about those “instituted” means of grace like prayer and the Lord’s Supper. But we do have the general command from Jesus to care for the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, and the sick—in short, the teaching that is found in Matthew 25:31-41. By the exercise of our prudence (i.e., practical wisdom gained by experience), Wesley claims, we can find that such activities are also real means of grace.

As one of these “prudential” means of grace, visiting the sick increases our thankfulness to God. Being present with the suffering reminds us of the suffering of Jesus Christ for us; thusly, we are reminded of the promise of salvation both for the afflicted person and for ourselves. At the same time, our care of the sick increases our sense of sympathy and benevolence as well as “all social affections,” Wesley says.

Participating in Our Own Salvation

John Wesley’s counsel on visitation of the sick provides insight into a number of core Wesleyan convictions about both ministry and theology. We can draw out a number of them here. The first has to do with pastoral care. If all Christians are called to care for the sick and wounded, then pastoral care is a communal ministry. It isn’t just about the pastor individually going around and tending to the needy in one-on-one fashion.

Instead, the care of the community must be undertaken by all baptized Christians for one another. And this is more than a duty; it is a way to empower laymen and women for ministry. (While we have focused on the example of Visitors of the Sick here, we could make similar arguments for the other forms of lay ministry that Wesley cites, such as Class Leaders, Stewards, etc.)

Secondly, Wesley is expanding the concept of what a means of grace can be. The conventional understanding of the means of grace in Wesley’s context included what Wesley himself typically called the “works of piety.” These consisted of activities like prayer, hearing the Scriptures preached, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and public worship. Such things have always been understood (by people then and now) to draw us closer to God. By including the works of mercy as means of grace—as Wesley does with visiting the sick—he is saying that these, too, will draw us closer to God. So caring for the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden is not just about dispensing charity. It is a vital means for receiving God’s grace in our own lives. Loving our neighbor, in other words, increases our love of God.

Thirdly, Wesley is very subtly suggesting to us a point about what it means to participate in our own salvation. This connection may seem surprising at first, but it can be illuminated by comparing the Wesleyan view of salvation with the way Wesleyans have always understood the Calvinist alternative. The Calvinist tradition would have us believe that, in the final analysis, we have no meaningful part to play in salvation. We are counted among the elect or the reprobate according to God’s eternal decrees. If we have been predestined for salvation, there is nothing we can do to lose God’s blessing. If we have been chosen for damnation, on the other hand, there is nothing we can do to escape God’s wrath. Grace is irresistible according to this view, and therefore salvation is ultimately a passive experience.

The Wesleyan view of grace and salvation is decidedly different. To understand it, we must consider first the way God created human beings in the beginning. We were created in God’s image, with minds capable of understanding and hearts capable of self-giving love. As God is a being of ultimate freedom, God’s intention for us as his image-bearers has always been to enjoy freedom as well. But because we have been debilitated by sin, we’ve lost all these good gifts: our understanding is clouded, our hearts are broken, and our freedom is lost.

Grace is given to us both to forgive our guilt and to heal our brokenness. Grace, in other words, restores the image of God within us. As we receive grace through Jesus Christ, we find ourselves born again—a transformation that gives us new life. Now, here’s the rub: God’s desire is that our capacity for understanding and love be fully restored. But because real understanding and love are not constrained but rather free, we must freely receive them in order to receive them at all. In other words, we participate in our own salvation.

The word “salvation” means health. To be saved means to be made healthy in body, mind, and spirit. The first outpouring of grace into our lives comes to us unawares, and it begins to restore us just to the point that we can respond to God in faith. When we start making that faith response, we continue to receive grace upon grace. And so through an intimate relationship with God by the power of the Holy Spirit, we come to know what it means to be made whole.

Fine, you might say, but what does this process look like in an actual human life?

Here’s what it looks like: A forgiven sinner who knows how much Christ has done for her responds in faith by going to care for the sick and downtrodden. She prays for them, speaks with them, cares for them—in short, she visits them. And by doing these very active things her faith is increased all the more and she comes to have a greater share in God’s grace. By visiting the sick, she participates in her own salvation.

Wesleyan teaching affirms that all aspects of salvation come by the gift of God’s grace. Because grace conveys power to us, though, it gives us the ability—the freedom—to join in the very work God is doing for us. Ecclesiastes 11:1 says, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” It’s a verse often interpreted to mean that the good we do will be returned to us, even if it is at some unknown point in the future.

The Wesleyan conviction about loving our neighbor is similar, but the time frame is different. For if loving our neighbor is a real means of grace, we will have the reward for it in that moment. As we bear God’s love to another, we receive that love back again. And by this process, God shows to us the mystery of salvation.

Andrew C. Thompson ~ Want to Know More About John Wesley?

I received an e-mail from a pastor in Tennessee a few days ago posing this question:

A church member asked me to recommend a biography on John Wesley, and I didn’t know what to suggest. Wondering if you could suggest something?

That’s not an infrequent request to get for a seminary professor who teaches Methodist history. When I get an e-mail or a phone call along those lines, there are always a few book titles I suggest. We are living in a time where there are a lot of top-notch Wesleyan historians and theologians working on different aspects of the Wesleyan tradition. So fortunately, there are a number of good books you can pick up depending on the specific area of your interest.

Here are a few titles I’ve recommended in the past with some notes about how they can be used fruitfully:

A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Kenneth J. Collins)

  • Kenneth J. Collins’ book, A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Abingdon, 2000), is a relatively brief treatment of John Wesley’s life. It is a true biography in that its subject matter is the person of John Wesley, from his birth to his death. If you are looking for a relatively short book and one that focuses solely on the figure of Wesley, then this is probably the way to go.

Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Richard Heitzenrater)

  • Richard Heitzenrater’s book, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (2nd ed., Abingdon, 2013), is a longer work that focuses on Wesley in the context of the rise and development of early Methodism. Heitzenrater includes background material in an opening chapter on the English Reformation and the development of the Church of England in the late 16th and the 17th centuries. He also includes some material on the early development of American Methodism in the late 18th century as well. So this book is a biography as well, but it is more like a biography of early Methodism (with Wesley, of course, as the main character). Naturally, learning about the broader context of early Methodism is a very helpful way to understand Wesley himself better. For someone who wants to understand not just the man John Wesley but also the movement to which he committed himself for most of his adult life, this is the book to choose.

Both of the authors—Collins and Heitzenrater—are top-notch historians. Both also have a real gift for historical prose writing. The quality of their books is at an academic level, but both books are written so well that they are easily accessible by a lay audience. So if you are interested in a very readable account of John Wesley’s life and ministry, you can’t go wrong with either one!

Sometimes I’ll also get requests from people who are less interested in a biography than they are in a book that explains Wesleyan theology in a way that can be really embraced by a congregational audience. For people who are interested in the distinctives of the Wesleyan approach to spirituality and discipleship, I often recommend these books:

Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision (Paul W. Chilcote)

  • Paul W. Chilcote has written one of the most compelling books on Wesleyan theology for a popular audience with Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley (Intervarsity, 2004). He divides his subject matter up into broad topics that arise from the Wesleyan approach to the Christian life: Message, Community, Discipline, and Servanthood. If that sounds so broad that it’s hard to get your mind around what he’s talking about, I think you’ll find that the individual chapter titles explain where he’s going well enough. The section on “Message” includes chapters on the Wesleyan understanding of grace; “Community” has chapters on the importance of growing in discipleship within a fellowship of believers; etc. Chilcote has chosen an effective arrangement of his subject matter, which highlights the way in which the Wesleyan vision embraces the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” in various areas of the Christian life. So in the choice between faith or works, the Wesleyan approach is to hold both faith and works together. In the question of whether faith should be embraced rationally by the head or affectively by the heart, the Wesleyan approach is to say that it is both head and heart. (You can draw out such pairings at length: form and power, law and gospel, pulpit and altar, justification and sanctification, God’s grace and human response, etc.) Chilcote refers to these as the “conjunctions” in Wesleyan theology. Encountering the richness of such a holistic conception of the life of discipleship reveals why the Wesleyan tradition is so utterly compelling.

John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life (Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.)

  • Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.’s, John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life (Abingdon, 1996) is a book that covers a number of themes in Wesleyan discipleship. Yrigoyen’s opening chapter offers a short biographical background on Wesley’s life before moving into a series of chapters that focus on the framework of Wesley’s theology (grace, salvation, etc.) and the practices known as the means of grace (which Yrigoyen identifies by the Wesleyan terms “works of piety” and “works of mercy”). He then adds chapters on Methodism in the American context and on the possibility of Wesleyan renewal in the present. It is a book that has a little of everything, which makes it a good introduction for someone who doesn’t know much about Methodism. There is one caveat to mention, though, which is Yrigoyen has written the book from a self-consciously United Methodist perspective. Wesleyans from other denominational backgrounds might find all the references to the UMC a bit off-putting. A helpful feature of the book is that it includes a substantial study guide, prepared by Ruth A. Daugherty. The guide—which is somewhat misnamed and ought to be called a “teaching guide” in that it is designed for a teacher to use in preparing a series of lessons—could be used profitably in small group or Sunday school settings.

A Blueprint for Discipleship (Kevin M. Watson)

  • Kevin M. Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living (Discipleship Resources, 2009) is the best book available on the General Rules of early Methodism. These three rules—which consisted of doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon the “ordinances of God”—were developed by John Wesley to guide the life of the early Methodist Societies. They served both as the pattern for how Methodists understood their engagement with the means of grace and as a disciplinary mechanism that defined what was required to remain in the membership of a class meeting. There has been a great deal of interest in the General Rules in recent years because of their potential to help form mature Christian discipleship today, and Watson’s treatment of them is the best resource available.

I’m always encouraged when pastors and laypeople express an interest in finding out more about our tradition. Ultimately however, if we want not only to learn about Wesley but also to become Wesleyan, we should take John Wesley’s approach to the Christian life seriously. It isn’t just about becoming familiar with a fascinating figure in church history. It is about letting that figure serve as a guide to point us toward Jesus Christ and the salvation that he wants to give us. In that sense, I always hope that those who go off to buy books on Wesley or Wesleyan theology do so with the intention of using them as a resource for their own practice of discipleship.

Andrew C. Thompson ~ The Logic of Holiness

There is a phrase in Wesleyan theology that holds the key to understanding most everything about present salvation. The phrase is “holiness of heart and life.” This is one of those terms that seems simple at first glance and yet is packed with meaning on multiple levels.

It’s also a term worth exploring, and I want to explore it here. But first a little detour about theological language in general.

The language we use

Conventional wisdom from “experts” dictates that we should find ordinary or commonplace words to describe Christian concepts so we can avoid putting up barriers between the Church and would-be believers. Our evangelism can be hindered, so this thinking goes, by the vocabulary we use to talk about the Christian faith.

I’ve heard some version of this perspective many times over the course of my ministry. And I’ve always had questions about it. To what length should we take this advice? Are we talking about avoiding the technical vocabulary of theology, or should we avoid core biblical terms as well? I’ve heard people suggest that we shouldn’t use the language of sin and salvation, either because it is off-putting or because it conjures up lowbrow images that good, sophisticated Christians should want to avoid. Is that a good idea?

At times, I wonder whether this point-of-view is just a concession to mainstream consumer culture. Many churches have emptied their membership requirements of anything that actually looks like, well, a requirement. The idea is to attract more people to the churches in question by becoming “seeker sensitive”—but does the evidence show that such a strategy really results in congregations filled with mature disciples of Jesus Christ?

Maybe emptying our language of its robustly Christian inflections is just another version of the almost irresistible urge to mimic the larger culture in the hopes of getting that culture’s blessing for what we Christians are doing. I think that’s likely the case. I also think it is a reason to consider an alternative strategy: Namely, embracing with gusto the vocabulary of both the Bible and the historic Wesleyan tradition. Such a strategy would seem particularly important if certain words or phrases themselves have great explanatory power for how we understand the nature of God, human beings, salvation, and discipleship.

The meaning of holiness

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul explains the nature of sanctification as a life of holiness. He describes it to the church at Thessalonica in this way: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified … For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7-8; NIV).

John Wesley was captivated by the biblical notion of holiness. He equated the life of holiness with present salvation. In one sense, holiness is that state of being purified from wickedness—in thought, word, and deed. But for Wesley, to understand the root meaning of holiness for us, we have to understand what God’s holiness really means first.

We can see the character of divine holiness, according to Wesley, in the First Letter of John. (This is the book of the Bible that Wesley once called “the deepest part of the Holy Scripture.”) It is 1 John that connects how we are to love one another with how God loves us. 1 John 4:7-8 reads, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (NRSV).

In his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Wesley keys on this passage in 1 John as capturing the real substance of biblical holiness. His comment on verse 8 reads in part, “God is often characterized as holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that shed an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

Thus, to become holy is to have your heart so transformed by God’s love that love itself becomes the defining mark of your very person. Wesley paints an image of what he means by this transformation in the 1741 sermon, “The Almost Christian.” He writes, “Such a love of God is this as engrosses the whole heart, as takes up all the affections, as fills the entire capacity of the soul, and employs the utmost extent of all its faculties.”

So holiness is not a static concept. It isn’t a condition where a Christian desperately tries to avoid thinking the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, lest his spotless purity be marred by sin. Instead, it is the dynamic reality of love—transforming the believer’s life and giving the believer a new set of values and commitments that are in harmony with God’s desires for his children.

On Wesley’s account, this is the heart of the Christian life. Those who are growing in holiness are experiencing what we mean by salvation in this present life.

Holiness … from heart to life

The Wesleyan conception of holiness requires one more element in order to adequately explain how it takes root in the lives of Christian believers. This element is wrapped up in the phrase, “of heart and life” that we attach to the core term “holiness.”

When reading John Wesley’s writing on salvation, you’ll encounter some version of the phrase “holiness of heart and life” over and over again. A related phrase is “inward and outward holiness” by which Wesley means essentially the same thing.

The “heart and life” and the “inward and outward” act as qualifiers on the core term “holiness.” One way to grasp why they are important is to recognize that we never see them in the reverse order: it is never holiness of life and heart, for instance, but always holiness of heart and life.

In the church today, we often shy away from anything that emphasizes the need to experience something inwardly that we do not have any control over. We like the language of discipleship, because discipleship strikes us as something you go out “there” and “do.” What does it mean to be a Christian, we ask? And the answer is always something about getting outside the four walls of the church, making a difference, transforming the world, etc.

There is a Wesleyan critique to make to this approach to discipleship that is found in the view that holiness always moves from heart to life. Wesley himself was always highly skeptical of Christians who thought that their good works were the substance of their faith. He thought that such a view relied on what he called the “outward form of religion” while denying religion’s true power.

To put the matter another way: Wesley does not believe that you can work your way into faith, hope, and love. He rather believes that these core Christian virtues are “wrought in us (be it swiftly or slowly) by the Spirit of God,” as he puts it in a 1745 letter. And thus it is crucial that we have our hearts transformed inwardly in order for anything we do outwardly to be pleasing in God’s sight.

Commenting on Jesus’ teaching that “blessed are the pure in heart,” Wesley says that God is always well pleased with “a pure and holy heart” but “he is also well pleased with all that outward service which arises from the heart” (“Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, IV”). The logic of this movement from heart to life Wesley states in this way: the “latter naturally [results] from the former; for a good tree will bring forth good fruit” (“Heaviness through Manifold Temptations”). This is all simply a way of saying that salvation is something God does—not us.

If we want to live in this present life as God desires us to live, then we need an outpouring of his grace into our lives. We will never be able to fake true holiness through the mechanical actions of daily life—even when those actions have a religious character to them. And who we truly are inwardly will finally be shown by our outward attitudes, words, and deeds in the world. So if you want your life to be marked by holiness in an honest and authentic way, it must be lived out of a holy heart that has been made holy by the action of the Holy Spirit.

All of this means that we can’t discard a phrase like holiness of heart and life only to replace it with something more pedestrian: “learning to be more loving,” or “becoming a better person,” or some such collection of words that seems less intimidating. The phrase itself communicates a powerful message. It is about holiness—biblical holiness—that we should be concerned. That holiness only comes about in us in a particular kind of way, and it is a way that calls for us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

Those recent trends to give up the traditional language of both the Bible and the Christian tradition in order to make the faith more palatable to outsiders are deeply misguided. When we go that route, we inevitably present Christianity as something less than it really is. So perhaps what we need to do is not change our language but rather repent and recognize that becoming a Christian involves a conversion—in every aspect of heart and life.

Andrew C. Thompson ~ John Wesley: Theological Mentor

How should we “read” John Wesley? And why is he important for people today?

These are important questions for Methodists, most of whom consider themselves to be Wesleyans in some sense.

Focusing on the actual theology of John Wesley has not always been emphasized in American Methodism. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Wesley was treated in “hagiographic” terms—meaning that he was seen as a kind of founding saint. But his actual theological views were often overlooked.

Another way Wesley has been used (both past and present) is for “proof-texting.” Just as people are tempted sometimes to lift a single verse out of the Bible and use it out-of-context, Methodists have fallen into the same temptation in relation to Wesley. If you’ve ever heard phrases bandied about like “heart strangely warmed,” or “catholic spirit,” or “think and let think,” you’ve probably been subject to Wesley proof-texting that may well suggest views that Wesley himself wouldn’t have agreed with.

The way Wesley was read by Methodists began to change in the 1960s, under the influence of Albert C. Outler and other scholars. These leaders in both church and academy saw Wesley as a practical theologian whose thought merited serious attention. From his reading of Wesley’s works and his involvement with the ecumenical movement, Outler became convinced that Wesley’s actual theology had much to contribute to the people called Methodists of his own day.

Outler called Wesley a “folk theologian,” meaning that his diverse writings—in sermons, letters, journals and treatises—were all intended to provide practical teaching and guidance for people in the church as they sought to live faithfully.

Wesley himself had said that he aimed at offering “practical divinity” rather than “speculative divinity.” He wasn’t interested in spending his time tracing new ideas about how to conceive of God, and he never attempted to develop his theology in a systematic way. He believed his task was to interpret biblical teaching for men and women who were attempting to respond to the gospel through committed discipleship—a primary reason why so much of Wesley’s published work is focused on grace and salvation. Wesley was satisfied that the teaching of his own Church of England offered a faithful summary of God’s revelation on the broad range of Christian doctrine. He saw his own task as presenting evangelical teachings about justification by faith, the new birth, the means of grace, and sanctification in a way that was accessible to a broad audience. Of course, as Wesley did so, he made his own contributions in how such realities of the Christian life ought to be understood and received.

In recent years, Randy L. Maddox of Duke Divinity School has advanced Outler’s understanding of Wesley’s importance to the present. Dr. Maddox favors the term “practical theologian” for Wesley, and he connects the kind of theological work Wesley did with the theology of the early church fathers. Like Wesley, their writing often took the form of sermons, liturgies and apologetic treatises meant to explain the Christian faith to the people of their day.

Dr. Maddox has also developed another important theme of Outler’s: The conviction that the best way to “read” Wesley in the contemporary church is as a theological mentor. This idea sounds simple on its surface, but when taken seriously it can shape the very way that Methodists understand our own calling and the ministry our church should take.

Wesley was not perfect. He never claimed to be, even in the technical theological sense that he would want us to use the term “perfection.” But Wesley was an outstanding practical theologian, whose lifelong reflection gave him a keen sense of what should matter most for disciples of Jesus Christ. His theology was intended to help men and women come to a vibrant faith that expressed itself in a graced, transformed life. Put in the language of the Great Commission, Wesley was interested in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Much of what Wesley wrote is directly relevant for us. And even in those parts of our 21st-century context that seem very different from Wesley’s, we can see ways that his teaching informs our situation by analogy. The problem of sin, the significance of Jesus Christ, the nature of God’s grace, the shape of mature discipleship, and the importance of the church’s mission are all enduring Wesleyan themes that the church today should focus upon.

Viewing Wesley as a theological mentor in this way shows us why his theology is significant for contemporary Christian ministry. Hagiography and proof-texting are—ironically enough—very un-Wesleyan ways to read Wesley. But when we see him as a guide to our own ministry and discipleship, we’ll find that Wesley’s practical theology holds great promise for latter-day Methodists and others.



(This essay originally appeared in a different form in the United Methodist Reporter. Used by permission.)

Andrew C. Thompson ~ Salvation: The Church’s First Mission

H. Richard Niebuhr summed up the mainline Protestant view on the coming kingdom of God with the statement: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Sharp words. Niebuhr was writing in the 1930s. But it might as well have been yesterday. Many Christians in our culture still get queasy about the stark biblical picture of salvation, preferring to focus on things like human betterment and societal progress.

Methodists in America have long bought into the “progress” approach that Niebuhr lamented, not only ignoring the fact that such progress is a myth but also watching their churches decay as a result.

My own denomination is the United Methodist Church, but it is only one of many Wesleyan or Methodist churches in our society. Alongside the UMC are the Nazarenes, the Free Methodists, the Wesleyan Church, the AME, the CME, and the AMEZ Churches, along with many others. For any of them that want to have a real and vibrant future, I would say this: Take heed of Niebuhr’s criticism and take a long look in the mirror.

I’m suggesting that the path to renewal is theological and doctrinal. And I think it will require a lot of repentance on the part of ourselves and our churches. This won’t be easy. But here’s the good news: We already have the resources in our tradition to do it.

Once upon a time, the mission of Methodism was about salvation. When John Wesley was giving advice to his junior preachers, he told them, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.”

It’s a wonderful statement. But for it to mean anything, you have to first believe that people have souls that need saving.

Wesley also believed that the reason the Methodist movement had been raised up by God in the first place was “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Spreading scriptural holiness is what salvation looks like when it is embodied in local congregations. Through lives transformed by the power of God’s grace, whole communities can begin to look and act differently.

Again, a wonderful idea. But for it to mean anything, you have to believe that the church is full of broken people who need to be healed.

We now live in a society marked by two great forces: our economic system of consumer capitalism and our political system of liberal democracy. The former focuses on meeting the “felt needs” of individual consumers; the latter centers on the rights and liberties of individual citizens.

Put together, the result is a culture that lionizes the individual. And the influence of that on the life of the church cannot be overstated.

In a society where the individual reigns supreme, the one thing to avoid at all costs is calling an individual’s choices, values and “needs” into question. That means personal sin is out, because sin manifests itself first in the lives and actions of individuals. So the idea of a necessary transformation of the person through grace is taboo.

What does missional outreach look like in such a culture?

Not what it used to. Take the individual out of the picture and you’re left with trying to mimic the best of what is going on in the larger society.

In my own denomination, that mimicry is found in the slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It says to anyone who will listen that our church will never threaten you. You can come and worship with us without fear that you’re risking anything in the process. We’ve made tolerance into the supreme virtue, so don’t worry about anyone pressuring you to deny yourself and take up your cross.

It’s a brilliant marketing ploy in a society defined by consumer individualism. There’s nothing scriptural about it, of course. But in a secular society where everyone’s worth hinges on being accepted as is, the church that defines itself by its “openness” sounds like it’s on the cutting edge.

Social activism then becomes the flip side of the church’s refusal to engage in calling individual sinners to repentance. We know we should be doing something for Jesus, so we look to what enlightened people in society at large are doing and focus our attention there. That usually results in a list consisting of ending poverty, stopping genocide, fighting AIDS and reversing global warming. So we join in, usually from the comfort of our living room by writing a check and joining a Facebook group.

Nowadays everybody wants to “make Methodism a movement again.” Nice thought, but it isn’t going anywhere until we come to grips with what we’ve lost. Circuit riders once held convictions about sin and salvation so dearly that they braved any risk to preach the gospel to isolated communities that others couldn’t reach. They often died as young men from their labors.

And yet, what they knew firsthand has been largely forgotten by us.

Relearning it means reclaiming the first task of the church as proclaiming salvation—a salvation that is about an inward change of the heart and that results in an outwardly changed life.

To receive that salvation, we must by God’s grace recognize our utter sinfulness and repent. The humility that comes through such contrition opens our hearts to receive God’s saving grace. And through the reality of the new birth we can start on the path of sanctification.

Thereafter, our participation in the means of grace God has provided us will so transform us that we will naturally show our faith through our works. Holiness will increase throughout our lives, as we move toward perfection in Christ.

Wesley called this journey the “Scripture way of salvation.” Though experienced by individuals, it is not individualistic. It’s always social and always occurs in the community we call church.

Moreover, the kind of social action that Methodists get excited about will also follow. But it will be something other than a psychological salve, because it will be personally engaged by a sanctified people and will be rooted in their own local communities. That’s the only real way scriptural holiness ever spreads.

God doesn’t need another lumbering denomination with an identity crisis. But what God could use is a people who understand that their first calling remains their sole reason for existence: to proclaim the evangelical gospel of God’s saving grace to needy sinners, so that they might be transformed in holiness and led to share the good news with a broken and hurting world.



(This essay originally appeared in a different form in the United Methodist Reporter. Used by permission.)