Author Archives: Kevin Watson

Kevin Watson ~ Christian Perfection: Problem or Promise?

John Wesley believed that Christian perfection, love excluding sin, was possible in this life – by the grace of God.

At the end of his life he even wrote in a letter that he believed that the doctrine of entire sanctification was “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”1

Is the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification a problem or a promise?

One of my favorite things to do as a seminary professor is talk with students and church folk about the Wesleyan understanding of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. People often have some understanding of the role that holiness played in John Wesley’s theology. However, they also often assume that he did not really mean that Christian perfection meant “love excluding sin,” which was, in fact, one of Wesley’s definitions of Christian perfection.

When I walk through what Wesley did and did not mean by Christian perfection, people sometimes seem to recoil from the doctrine. To some it seems naïve. To others it is discouraging. For those who have a negative reaction to the doctrine, the common reaction seems to be that it is a problem. What do we do with the fact that in order to be ordained in The United Methodist Church we have to say before God and our colleagues in ministry that we “are going on to perfection,” and that we “expect to be made perfect in love in this life”?

And what do we do about the fact that many of our colleagues in ministry who have already answered this question seem to have lagged in their zeal for going on to perfection?

At maybe the most basic level, how could we ever hope to make this “grand depositum” of Methodism credible in a context where one of the most popular clichés is that “nobody’s perfect”?

Christian perfection is a scandal to most 21st century Americans.

For better or worse, the doctrine of entire sanctification is not going to be purged from contemporary Methodism. In The United Methodist Church, for example, there is an article in the “Confession of Faith,” which is one of the key statements of official UM doctrine, that is specifically focused on Christian perfection. Here is Article XI from the “Confession of Faith” in its entirety:

We believe sanctification is the work of God’s grace through the Word and the Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will, and to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift may be received in this life both gradually and instantaneously, and should be sought earnestly by every child of God.

We believe this experience does not deliver us from the infirmities, ignorance, and mistakes common to man, nor from the possibilities of further sin. The Christian must continue on guard against spiritual pride and seek to gain victory over every temptation to sin. He must respond wholly to the will of God so that sin will lose its power over him; and the world, the flesh, and the devil are put under his feet. Thus he rules over these enemies with watchfulness through the power of the Holy Spirit.2

As we see, in Article XI sanctification is not about something that I either have to do to make myself better, or for which I have to feel guilty about not being good enough. It is a “work of God’s grace,” whereby those who have experienced new birth are “cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will.” Entire sanctification is really nothing more than sanctification happening to the uttermost. It is God’s grace freeing us from everything that has kept us chained to sin and death. It is God’s grace enabling our positive response.

Article XI of the “Confession of Faith” is solid Wesleyan theology because entire sanctification is focused on nothing more than God’s grace enabling us to fulfill the Greatest Commandment found in Matthew 22:37-38, love of God and neighbor.

The doctrine of entire sanctification is not a threat or a problem. It is a precious gift!

God has not only acted in Christ to make forgiveness and reconciliation with God possible. We are not forgiven, and still in bondage to the ways of sin and death. The Triune God has given his children everything they need to live the kind of life for which they were created, in this life.

And, as Article XI affirms, this is not only for spiritual elites or super Christians. Holiness, even to the exclusion of sin, is something that is available for every single person. If the possibility of living the life that God intends is a live option, shouldn’t we earnestly seek it? And encourage others to be made holy as well?

May the Holy Spirit renew the imaginations of Wesleyans, that we would be inspired and enlivened – not threatened – by the possibility of Christian perfection. May the same Spirit give us words to express what God the Father has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. May we see what is possible in this life because of God’s amazing grace. May we believe, know in our bones, that God’s grace is more powerful than the ways of sin, even death itself. May we, as a family of faith, see the promise of entire sanctification once again. Amen.

1 John Wesley, Letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, September 15, 1790; in The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.. 8 vols. Edited by John Telford, (London: Epworth Press, 1931) VIII: 238.
2 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012. (Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), 104, p. 73.

Kevin Watson ~ Toward Deeper Christian Community

There is a hunger in the church for meaningful community, where people can find support and comfort from others as they seek to grow in faith in the midst of the spectacular, tragic, and mundane events of real life. When I talk with church leaders about the importance of small group formation for Christian discipleship, people typically agree that small groups are important and that their churches would benefit from more small groups focused on life change. But they want to know how this kind of community can be created.

This question has come up repeatedly, for example, when I talk with church leaders about the role of class meetings in early Methodism, and my belief that they are of ongoing significance for contemporary Christianity. Class meetings were small groups that had seven to twelve people in them and met weekly to answer the question, “How does your soul prosper?” (Or, how is your life in God?) These groups were of such importance in early Methodism that for decades they were a basic requirement for membership. They were a key place where people learned about their need for salvation in Christ and the reality that salvation is freely offered to all through faith in the amazing grace of God. They also helped forge a deep sense of community as Methodists found faith in Christ and pursued a deeper relationship with the Triune God. (For more about the class meeting and how to start groups like these, check out my recent book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.)

Attending to basic tasks like training class leaders, gathering the critical mass needed to start a class meeting, and casting vision to start groups that are focused on a particularly Wesleyan approach to communal formation is essential. And I address these and other practical aspects of starting class meetings from the ground up in my recent book.

And yet, I’ve realized that when people ask questions about the basic process of starting class meetings, they are not just asking about the very practical details of how to start a class meeting. There often appear to be questions behind these questions. Do people really want this kind of community? Would others really want to be a part of my life in this way? And would they actually let me into their lives?

When people do get a taste of healthy Christian community, it is often like water in a dry land. It is quickly absorbed and serves to make one more aware of a deep longing to be known, seen, heard, cared for, and most of all loved. Many Christian are hungry for this kind of connection with others.

To be honest, creating this kind of community is also very difficult. It takes time – lots of time – and effort. It takes consistency and intentionality that are often only given to one’s immediate family. The challenge increases because many Christians aren’t used to talking to each other about their relationship with God at all, much less bringing major life decisions, or the things they are most ashamed of or struggle with to a group. Pastors and lay leaders, then, raise questions about the feasibility of groups like the class meeting because they are aware of just how wide the gap is between the ideal form of Christian community and the current reality of most of the people in their church.

The class meeting is ideally suited for just such a context. The class meeting helps people who are more comfortable keeping their faith to themselves than discussing it with others, but who do have a desire for deeper connection with other Christians to take a step. It is a step that a leader can reasonably expect someone to take without getting in over their heads. But it is also a step that will help the person begin to experience the kind of community for which God created each of us.

I am increasingly convinced that two essential ingredients to a successful small group are a willingness by all group members to be vulnerable with each other and a willingness to invest meaningful time in the group. Class meetings help people grow in significant ways in both areas. As people begin to learn to talk about their relationship with God with each other, they make themselves vulnerable. And as they commit to a weekly one hour meeting, they take a step toward investing time in others and allow others to invest in them.

The Christian life was never intended to be lived in isolation from others. I have found time and time again that God uses other people to bless my life and help me grow in my faith. This should not come as a surprise because the doctrine of the Trinity expresses the basic Christian belief that God’s essence is a community of self-giving love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Working towards this kind of community is challenging. But those who have experienced the benefits of healthy Christian community can testify that the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

My hope is that the church will increasingly pave the way for all Christians to experience deeper community with their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Kevin Watson ~ Having Nothing To Do with Sin

“You can do anything you put your mind to.”

Ever heard that before? I’d be shocked if you haven’t. I know I heard it from family, teachers, coaches, and friends throughout my childhood. This phrase has been a well-intended encouragement to American youth for the last few decades.

As I have worked with undergraduate students over the past three years, I have not been all that surprised when I encounter a young adult who not only believes they can do anything (sometimes despite all evidence to the contrary), but almost seems to feel that the world is obligated to ensure that they succeed. What has surprised me, given the persistence of the “you can do anything you put your mind to” myth, is how resistant people are to the possibility of real holiness in this life.

People seem to believe that we are capable, simply by deciding with our minds that we want to do something, of being able to do it. And people repeatedly affirm this, despite a lack of equally passionate insistence that “putting your mind to” means more than a sincere desire to do something, but determined and persistent effort.

But you know what I hear even more frequently than, “You can do anything you put your mind to?”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

I have heard this repeatedly in virtually every context you can think of: private conversation, analysis from reporters/pundits on television, preachers in sermons, and from my students. You know, the ones who have been told their entire lives that they can do anything that they put their minds to.

Indeed, the impossibility of perfection is so deeply embedded in us, that even when I read Wesley on Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, with students they almost always conclude that Wesley’s definition did not mean freedom from sin, or a perfect ability to avoid sin entirely.

Instead, they redefine Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection as a kind of love that has very strong intent and sincerity, but where abstaining from concrete sins is somehow irrelevant or not completely connected. And this despite the fact that Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection absolutely includes sinless perfection. Indeed, Wesley’s most succinct definition of Christian perfection is “love excluding sin.” And yet, time and time again people read these words and conclude that he must have meant something else. Because, well, you know, nobody’s perfect.

What’s going on here? How can Wesley be so certain that people can be completely freed not only from the guilt of sin (forgiveness), but also from the power of sin (holiness)? Or, how can we be so sure today both that you can do anything that you put your mind to and that nobody is perfect?

One of the reasons I think so many people are instinctively resistant to the possibility of complete freedom from sin is that they were offered a superficial and unrealistic vision for so long: “you can do anything you put your mind to.” That isn’t true, and discovering that can be very painful, particularly when the people who love you the most keep telling you it is. “Nobody’s perfect” can become a very comfortable alternative, a soothing relief from unrealistic expectations. But there is a more significant problem.

“You can do anything you put your mind to” does not take seriously the problem of sin and our inability to save ourselves. A key conviction of historical Christian orthodoxy is that we are not enough. We cannot ever be the source of our own salvation. Putting your mind to being a better person, from the Christian perspective will fail every time. It is pure works righteousness.

At some level, I think we all get this, which is why “nobody’s perfect” has such compelling explanatory power in our collective conversation. In fact, by ourselves we can’t even be truly good, much less perfect.

But Christianity is not about what we are able to accomplish. It is about what Jesus has already done and what that makes possible for us. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus not only offers us forgiveness and reconciliation with God the Father, we are also offered healing and wholeness. The atonement is most often connected with justification or pardon, but it is also related to sanctification or our ability to be made holy.

1 Peter 2:24 provides one such example from Scripture: “He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed.”

Because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, we can “live in righteousness” and have “nothing to do with sin.” Through the work of Christ, healing is offered to us. Or, as Charles Wesley so elegantly put it in “O for a Thousand Tongues,” “He breaks the power of canceled sin.”

So, you can’t do anything that you put your mind to. But, by God’s grace through faith, we can be freed from sin, entirely. The good news, the gospel, is that our past sins are canceled and that the power that those sins have over us is broken. We can hope for this because it isn’t a work that we do by putting our minds to it. It is something that God does in us as we have faith in the promises of God and cooperate with the work that God wants to do in our lives.

May the Lord increase our faith in what Jesus wants to do in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, even to the point of loving God so completely, so perfectly, that sin itself is excluded from our lives.

Kevin Watson ~ Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent: Wesleyan Discipline

In “Thoughts upon Methodism,” John Wesley wrote:

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, Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527)

This is the final post in a series that has explored the basics of Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent, especially focusing on the doctrine, spirit, and discipline that Wesley believed made Methodism a powerful movement of God. My first post emphasized that Wesleyans are more passionate about being Christian than about being Wesleyan, but that they do proclaim Christ with a recognizable accent. The second post discussed the doctrines that are at the heart of a Wesleyan proclamation of the gospel. The third post considered the spirit that was essential to early Methodism.

This post concludes this series by summarizing the most essential aspects of early Methodist discipline and their relevance for contemporary Christianity with a Wesleyan accent.

Perhaps the best way to introduce someone to early Methodist discipline would be to hand them a copy of the “General Rules.” (If you are interested in a thorough introduction to the “General Rules,” check out my book A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living.) The “General Rules” reveal three key aspects of early Methodist discipline.

First, anyone could join, as long as they were earnest in their desire to find salvation in Christ. In other words, Methodists invited people to belong before they fully believed long before post-modern Christians began criticizing contemporary Christians for excluding people until they had the right beliefs or experiences that made them fit to belong.

Second, all who joined with the Methodists, regardless of whether they had yet experienced saving faith in Christ, were expected to begin keeping the “General Rules.” These rules were both straightforward and specific, so it was easy to know whether you were keeping them or not. The first rule was to do no harm. The rule was focused on things that harmed others or your relationship with God. The second rule was to do good, with particular focus on concrete acts that express love for neighbor. The third rule was to “attend upon the ordinances of God,” or practice the means of grace. Wesley included the following under the practices that Methodists must “attend to”: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; and fasting or abstinence.

Finally, the “General Rules” reveal that Methodists believed that the Christian life could not be lived in isolation from others. And so, Methodists gathered together to “watch over one another in love” in small groups. Every Methodist was required to participate in a weekly class meeting where they talked about the present state of their relationship with God. In class meetings, Methodists held each other accountable for keeping the “General Rules.” Perhaps more importantly, they learned how to filter their lives through the lens of the gospel as they gathered together weekly to answer some form of the question: “How does your soul prosper?” (Check out my book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, if you are interested in learning more about this practice.)

Wesley was adamant that people could not make progress in following Christ apart from other people. This is what he meant by the often misused phrase, “no holiness but social holiness.” Here is the context in which Wesley used the quote:

Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. (Wesley, Works, 13:39)

Methodist discipline, then, is open to anyone who is willing to live by it. Right beliefs or experiences were not prerequisites for joining the “people called Methodists.” But, you did have to be willing to hold to some basic practices and commit to a common life together.

In my experience, contemporary Methodists are fairly good at making it easy for people to belong, but are largely unable or unwilling to help people to keep the promises they make to God and each other when they join a Methodist church.

In contemporary United Methodism, for example, when one joins a church they make a commitment to support the church by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. But how many churches actually hold their members accountable for keeping these vows? Not nearly enough.

In fact, the norm now is for churches to have membership that is significantly higher than their average attendance, a practice which upon reflection reveals a failure to live into our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In contrast, historians of American Methodism have often noted how difficult it is to quantify American Methodism’s influence from the 1780s to the mid 19th century, because there were so many more people who attended Methodist services than were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In this period, a member was – at a minimum – someone who attended a weekly class meeting. If you failed to attend regularly during one quarter of the year, you would be removed from the membership rolls of the church (you could join again as soon as you were willing to abide by Methodist discipline).

What difference does any of this make today?

Christianity’s days of being identified with dominant United States culture are over, or at least quickly passing. (I believe this is a good thing, but that is for another post.) People are increasingly asking whether Christianity really makes any difference in their lives. If they find that it doesn’t, they often simply choose to stay home rather than attend church.

In an increasingly post-Christian context, Wesleyans need to be effective and proactive in helping people see the difference that being a Christian makes for human flourishing.

The good news is that we already have a basic blueprint for how to help people embrace faith in Jesus and become his apprentices. Methodist discipline, or the method that gave Methodism its name, was focused on helping people become deeply committed Christians, to become mature followers of Jesus Christ. This does not usually happen by accident or without forethought or effort. As Dallas Willard has said, “grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” (Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship)

The biggest challenge contemporary Wesleyans may face is our own unwillingness to be a disciplined people. The idea that being a Christian involves a commitment to a way of life flies in the face of the mainline Christian sensibilities that have infected the Methodist movement. And so we worry that it is too invasive or impolite to ask someone about their life with God. Or we fear that no one will come to a church that asks people to commit to participating in a weekly small group.

The Methodist tradition has experience with being a God-breathed movement that has the form and power of God. And we also have experience with resembling a dead sect, struggling for life and a collective sense of God’s presence in our midst. Which one do you think the church most closely resembles today?

As an historian of Methodism, I am convinced that the times that the Wesleyan tradition has been the most effective at helping people experience deep and lasting conversion to a new life in the kingdom of God have been the times that it has been the most committed to a disciplined approach to the Christian life.

And, thanks be to God, I already see signs of God knitting together women and men who are most passionate about regaining the form and power of godliness, who are returning to the basics of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline that Wesley prophesied were essential to spiritual vitality.

It is, after all, precisely the collective commitment to a particular doctrine, spirit, and discipline (or method) that gives Wesleyan Christians their distinctive accent.

Photo credit: Mike Peel

Kevin Watson ~ Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent: Wesleyan Spirit

In “Thoughts upon Methodism,” John Wesley wrote:

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, Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527)

This post is the third in a series that explores the basics of Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent, especially focusing on the doctrine, spirit, and discipline that Wesley believed made Methodism a powerful movement of God. My first post emphasized that Wesleyans are more passionate about being Christian than about being Wesley, but that they do proclaim Christ with a recognizable accent. The second post discussed the doctrines that are at the heart of a Wesleyan proclamation of the gospel. This post considers the spirit that was essential to early Methodism.

So, what did Wesley mean when he urged Methodists to “hold fast” to the spirit with which they first set out?

Though it may seem to be the most difficult to define of the three, Wesley insists on including spirit with doctrine and discipline because right doctrine (belief) and right discipline (practice) are not enough in themselves. The key passage in “Thoughts upon Methodism” that gives insight into what Wesley meant by the spirit of Methodism is where he discusses the way that religion leads to increased productivity and frugalness, which leads to riches. He then turns from religion in general to Methodism in particular:

“How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, the religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay-tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionably increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away” (530).

In the last years of his life, Wesley was deeply concerned by the upward mobility of many Methodists, because he witnessed an increase in wealth leading to a transfer of loyalty from loving God and neighbor to riches.

But Methodists were people who were zealous, above all else, even to the exclusion of all else, for “holiness of heart and life” (529). Wesley worried about Methodists becoming rich because experience taught him that it was very rare that someone who became rich continued growing in love of God and neighbor. Instead, as people became rich, they tended to become more selfish and increasingly concerned with providing for themselves, instead of for others.

In “The Character of a Methodist”, Wesley described Methodism in a way that provides a nice description of his hopes for the spirit of a Methodist:

A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him’; one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength’. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is constantly crying out, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee!’ My God and my all! Thou are the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever! (BE, 9:35)

Christians who live and proclaim the gospel in a Wesleyan accent will do so in a way that evidences a deep and abiding love for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And we will do all that we can to help all people come to know and love the God who first loved them.

For Wesleyans, love of God instinctively leads to love of neighbor. And so, in the above essay, Wesley immediately moves from love of God to love of neighbor, “while he thus always exercises his love to God… he who loveth God, loves his brother also. And he accordingly ‘loves his neighbour as himself’; and loves every man as his own soul” (BE, 9:37).

Wesleyans not only believe in a God who wants to save us “to the uttermost,” we are desperate to know this God as fully and intimately as we can. Methodism is a “religion of the heart,” because it is not only beliefs and practices, but beliefs that are put into practice with the expectation that the living God can be known and experienced in our lives.

A Wesley spirit is an approach to Christianity that is enlivened moment by moment by the living God. Wesley described this in a moving passage in his sermon “The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God.” He described the “continual inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit,” where “God breathes into the soul, and the soul breathes back what it first receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, the re-action of the soul upon God; and unceasing presence of God.” (BE, 1:442)

Just as our physical lives are dependent on constantly breathing in oxygen, may the Holy Spirit breathe life into our souls each moment. And may this Spirit-breathed life enable us to respond with praise, thanksgiving, and faithful living.

Kevin Watson ~ Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent: Wesleyan Doctrine

Though Wesleyans are most committed to offering Christ, not to being distinct from other Christian traditions, there are differences in Christian traditions because various parts of the body of Christ articulate their faith with differing emphases or nuances. And although Wesley was primary focused on offering Christ, he was not indifferent to Christian beliefs or practice. The next three posts, then, will seek to understand Wesley’s call to “hold fast” to “the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (John Wesley, “Thoughts upon Methodism,” Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527)

As a reminder, my first post concluded as follows:

In short, Wesleyans believe that God wants to make us holy, now, in this life. This conviction is at the heart of Wesleyan doctrine, it infused the spirit of early Methodism, and a practical approach to becoming holy was traced out in early Methodist discipline. We do not have a monopoly on holiness within Christianity. But Wesleyans are sometimes so passionate about it that we sound almost as different to outsiders as an Irishman does in Oklahoma.

The goal of this post, then, is to describe the key ways that John Wesley articulated Christian doctrine with a particular accent. In 1746, Wesley used the image of a house to describe the “main doctrines” of Methodists. He wrote, “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.” (Wesley, “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained”; in Works 9:227)

In other words, repentance brings someone to the threshold of a relationship with the living God. Faith brings them across the threshold into a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And holiness is the way that a person, after beginning a relationship with God, is enabled to move all of their life into God’s house.

Wesley begins with repentance because he believed that we are lost and we can only be found by Christ. For Wesleyans, all are in need of rescue, and we cannot rescue ourselves. Repentance is important because often, consciously or not, we are trying to save ourselves by our own efforts. As Wesley put it, “none can trust in the merits of Christ till he has utterly renounced his own.” (Wesley, “Salvation by Faith”; in Works 1:127) When we have stopped looking at ourselves and attempt to turn our eyes to Christ, we find that we are, by God’s amazing grace, standing on the front porch of God’s house.

When Wesley proclaimed the gospel, faith in Christ was at the center of his message. Wesley defined faith as “a divine evidence and conviction, not only that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself’, but also that Christ ‘loved me, and gave himself for me’.” (Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation”; in Works 2: 161) Wesley believed that the two major moves in the Christian life, justification (pardon or forgiveness) and sanctification (being made like Christ), were both the result of faith. Indeed, he firmly stated that “faith is the condition, and the only condition, of justification.” And when he turned his attention to sanctification he repeated the emphasis on faith, stating that it “is the condition, and the only condition of sanctification, exactly as it is of justification.”

Wesleyans, then, are passionate that all people need to repent of their sins, their separation from God, and their tendency to rely on themselves instead of on God. The call for repentance is so that people can be offered Christ and invited to faith in Christ, which brings forgiveness of past sins, reconciles our relationship with God, and enables us to look to Christ as the source of our transformation. Faith, then, enables people to cross the threshold of God’s house.

To be fair, for the most part, what has been said so far really just represents basic affirmations of the Protestant Reformation. However, when Wesleyans speak about holiness, and the extent to which we can move all of our lives into God’s house in this life, our accent begins to become more pronounced.

In a letter Wesley wrote a year before his death, he described entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.” In other words, at the end of his life as Wesley looked back on the Methodist movement, he saw the doctrine of entire sanctification as the major reason God raised up the people called Methodists. So what is entire sanctification?

For Wesley, entire sanctification is the result of taking the possibilities of being made holy that are offered to us in Christ to its logical conclusion. How holy can we become in this life? Completely holy.

What is complete holiness? Here, I will let Wesley speak for himself: “Entire sanctification [is] a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief, or, as the Apostle expresses it, ‘Go on to perfection.’ But what is perfection? . . . Here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.” (John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” in Works, 2:160)

Full salvation from all our sins comes through faith in Christ. The ability to love to the exclusion of sin is also given through faith. Of course, much more could (and probably should) be said about Wesleyan doctrine. (Also, the next two posts will discuss the way in which the spirit and discipline of early Methodism were essential to bringing Methodist doctrine to life.) On Wesley’s own terms, however, one should not say less when discussing the doctrine that Wesley believed gave early Methodism the form and power of godliness.

When Wesleyans proclaim Christ they do so in a way that acknowledges the reality of the human condition and the extent of our separation from God, as well as the ways that we harm each other. But above all else, we proclaim salvation that brings not only forgiveness, but that also brings healing. In the words of Charles Wesley’s well-worn hymn, Jesus “breaks the power of canceled sin.” When we turn away from ourselves and put our faith in Christ, we are given forgiveness, a new start, and the power to live for Christ.

Praise the Lord!

Kevin Watson ~ Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent

I love accents! I could listen to someone from Boston say “Harvard” all day. I could hear someone from England say “Cheers” and never cease to be intrigued. Accents are interesting to people who speak the same language because they highlight real difference (someone sounds truly different, or I sound truly different to them) but there is also a meaningful sameness, because I can (for the most part) easily communicate with the person. English-speaking people from the United States and Ireland speak the same language, but they do so with clear difference.

Accents are also a helpful image for thinking about the differences between Christian denominations or theological traditions. This image provides a helpful reminder that there are real differences between theological traditions, but that these differences should not become so pronounced that people are proclaiming the founder of their particular tradition, rather than proclaiming Jesus Christ.

One of the themes of 1 Corinthians is the appearance of signs of disunity in the church, where people began emphasizing loyalty to contemporary leaders rather than to Jesus. In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul names this and calls the church in Corinth back to unity in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote:

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What it means is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? (1 Cor 1:10-13, CEB)

This passage provides a helpful reminder today that the first goal of any Christian tradition is to call people to follow Jesus, not someone else. Wesleyan Christians, then, should not proclaim a different faith than their Catholic, Calvinist, or Lutheran brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather, they should proclaim Christ in a way that is in the same language, but sounds a bit different to other parts of the body of Christ. Wesleyans speak the language of historic Christian orthodoxy with a Wesleyan accent.

And, indeed, John Wesley himself argued that Methodism was nothing more than basic Christianity. In “Thoughts upon Methodism,” an essay he wrote in the last years of his life, Wesley described what he saw as the keys to the ongoing spiritual vitality of the people called Methodists. Wesley wrote:

“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.” (John Wesley, “Thoughts upon Methodism,” Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527)

 Wesley was arguing (perhaps it could even be seen as a prophesy) that the Wesleyan movement would be a movement of the Spirit of God only as long as it held fast to its basic doctrine, spirit, and discipline. (This is the first of a four part series on Christianity in a Wesleyan accent. The next three posts will flesh out what Wesley meant by each of these.)  It would be a misunderstanding to view this passage as a call to be different from other Christians for its own sake. In fact, Wesley proactively addresses this potential misunderstanding towards the end of this brief essay. He wrote: “From this short sketch of Methodism (so called) any man of understanding may easily discern that it is only plain scriptural religion, guarded by a few prudential regulations” (“Thoughts upon Methodism,” 9:529).

John Wesley’s main priority, then, was not his accent! His main goal was to proclaim Christ and help people come to faith in Jesus and grow in holiness. Wesley was not trying to be distinctive, or to get people to follow him instead of Jesus. He was trying to point people to “plain scriptural religion.”

Wesley stated this even more clearly in another essay:

“These are the marks of a true Methodist. By these alone do [Methodists]… desire to be distinguished from other men. If any man say, ‘Why, these are only the common, fundamental principles of Christianity’ …. This is the very truth. I know they are no other, and I would to God both thou and all men knew that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men by any but the common principles of Christianity – the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.” (“The Character of a Methodist,” 9:41, emphasis mine)

Wesleyans, at our best, refuse to be distinguished from others by anything but basic Christianity. But within that “basic Christianity” there is an accent. When Wesleyans read the Bible (which for us is the main place where “basic Christianity” is found), we hear a call to be deeply renewed by the grace of God. We see that because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sin no longer reigns and is no longer necessary for those who are in Christ. Wesleyans, then, are most passionate about telling people about Jesus and helping them to live the kind of life that Jesus has made it possible for them to live.

In short, our Wesleyan accent can be seen and heard in the belief that God wants to make us holy, now, in this life. This conviction is at the heart of Wesleyan doctrine, it infused the spirit of early Methodism, and a practical approach to becoming holy was traced out in early Methodist discipline. We do not have a monopoly on holiness within Christianity. But Wesleyans are sometimes so passionate about it that we sound almost as different to outsiders as an Irishman does in Oklahoma.


The next post will discuss the way that Wesleyans preach, teach, and proclaim Christian doctrine with a particular accent.