Wednesday, March 16, 2011
The sermon itself is kind of unique for Wesley, as noted in the introduction. Wesley is preaching to an unusual context, and his sermon is shaped by his audience (a courtroom setting). More importantly, Wesley seldom indulged in the level of speculation that we see in this sermon. He seems to have preferred more practical matters for most of his sermons, as we have seen in our reading up to this point. I want to look at a few points of interest for me in the sermon "The Great Assize" and what they tell us about Wesley.
First, I think it is important to recognize that even when speaking on a relatively speculative topic, Wesley was extremely practical. He clearly states at the beginning of his sermon and in its conclusion that he believes our understanding of final judgment should provide motivation for holy living in the present. Even Eschatology has a practical connection to holiness for Wesley.
Another point of interest for me in this sermon is Wesley's method of reading Scripture. That the Scriptures are the primary source material for Wesley's reflections on Eschatology can hardly be doubted given the copious amounts of Biblical material cited in the sermon. What I found to be interesting about this, however, was the literalism with which Wesley approached Biblical passages on the Final Judgment. Wesley clearly believes that every person who every lived will be gathered into a single place together and then God will try each case, one-by-one, until every person has given an account of their actions. Wesley goes into some detail describing the logistics of such an event, describing the fast numbers of people involved as well as the long years he supposes will be necessary to complete this event. There is not even a hint of metaphorical understanding of judgment in this sermon. One gets the sense in this sermon that the book mentioned in Scripture is a literal book for Wesley, that people genuinely are divided up to God's left and God's right, and that we will be standing around for thousands of years waiting for our turn on the hot seat. If I'm honest, I find this reading a bit too simplistic, perhaps problematic. I think that a metaphorical reading of these passages may be the more natural way to read them, and I'm afraid Wesley's understanding of Scripture on this point suffers from a certain lack of imagination.
I also found it interesting that Wesley definitely believed in a literal hell of eternal punishment. This understanding of the fate of those who are not saved is understandable. I do not know for sure, but I suspect his understanding was typical for his time period. It also fits well with his literalistic method of reading Scripture on this topic. I think I would also argue that this understanding may best fit Wesley's agenda of encouraging righteous living in the present. Fear is a powerful motivator, even if we would often rather find an alternative. Rob Bell would find no support and little sympathy in John Wesley's sermons.
Two other related issues concerning the content of Wesley's Eschatology. Wesley seems to favor a future eschatology, as well as an eschatology of destruction. There is no sense of continuity between this earth and the new, recreated earth for Wesley. His understanding seems to be that the physical world as we know it will be utterly destroyed by God and a new one will be created in its place. My concerns here are well known in our own day. I worry that a eschatology in which heaven and earth are burned up encourages a certain flippancy and disdain for the creation in which we life. I worry that such a future-oriented eschatology denies something of the power of God in the present (this doesn't fit well with other areas of Wesley's theology, does it?). I suspect I am being slightly unfair, making modern day accusations of an 18th century thinker. Regardless, even with the areas of concern, I thoroughly enjoyed this sermon as an example of something different for Wesley.
I see a good amount of continuity between many of the sermons we read this week. It feels as if Wesley meant for these sermons to be grouped together in order to allow them to be a continuation of thought from one to the other. I see, not progress, but continuation or expansion of his thought between ‘Original Sin,’ ‘The New Birth,’ and ‘On Sin in Believers.’
In ‘Original Sin,’ Wesley begins by describing humans as “atheists in the world” (p330). We are all prideful human beings and bear the image of Satan in our hearts within our self-will. If we somehow manage to leave the image of Satan behind, we run into love of the world. We cannot escape it, even if we think we despise these worldly pleasures. We are, by nature, beasts, and are captive to our sensual appetites. As he moves to the inferences at the end of the sermon, Wesley also notes the differences between Christianity and heathenism. The last of these inferences is Jesus as the Great Physician, who heals our sicknesses and restores our human nature from total corruption. By our faith we are healed. If humankind were not fallen, we would have no need for this. The sermon concludes with Wesley asserting the new birth as the solution to this fallen nature and struggle with our original sin. We are all born into sin, and therefore must be born again.
There is a continuation of the theme of humankind’s fallen nature in “The New Birth.” Wesley explains that humans were made to be immutable, are created to stand but are also liable to fall. In what seems like a very pessimistic and bold statement, Wesley proclaims that in eating the forbidden fruit, humankind ignored God’s command, and therefore died to God, lost the life of God within them, and were separated from God. The knowledge and love of God were both lost in that moment. This was a moment not of bodily death, but spiritual death. Therefore, everyone who comes into the world is spiritually dead, dead in sin, and void of the life of God and the image of God. This emphasizes many of the same themes expressed in “Original Sin.” This original sin, this spiritual death, is the foundation of the new birth. The first sermon lays the foundation for the need for a new birth. With new birth comes an opening of eyes that have been blind, and an opening of ears that were unable to hear. When a person if born of God, there is a total change that occurs. We are now able to hear the inward voice of God and feel the graces of the spirit at work in our hearts. Proceeding from this is an intercourse between God and the person. In this way, the life of God in the soul is sustained.
Lastly, in “On Sin in Believers,” Wesley seems to add some nuance to his understanding of sin. Wesley states that even following justification, there is sin in a person’s heart. He expresses this specifically in relation to Christ, when he explains that Christ can live in the same heart that also contains sin. If a heart contains sin and Christ also lives there, this must be the case because otherwise that heart could never be saved. Where there is sickness, there must be a physician. Where Wesley fully explains this distinction is on p.363, when he says, “Christ indeed cannot reign where sin reigns; neither will he dwell where any sin is allowed. But he is and dwells in the heart of every believer who is fighting against all sin.” When this is the case, when a sinner’s eyes have been opened to their sin and they are thus fighting against it because of their new birth, sin remains but does not reign. This is Wesley’s main point about sin within a believer, that it is able exist, but is unable to reign, because the sinner has been made aware of their sin through new birth and are actively fighting against it.
I appreciate that we read these sermons in conjunction and thus are able to track the progression of Wesley’s thought. I specifically needed to hear his distinction between sin existing within a believer and sin’s inability to reign in order to fully understand Wesley’s picture of sin. Much of his thought as expressed in this week’s reading was particularly informative for my understanding of his overall theology, and also contributed to my own memories of growing up in the United Methodist Church. I hear resonances of what I remember from childhood that are starting to come together and make more sense. Because I continue to go back to my home church and preach, this is important information for me to be clear on, so that I don’t say anything contrary to their theology in my sermons, especially because I am a guest preacher.
On a more serious note, I struggled to find something to write about this week. I found myself enjoying these sermons more than analyzing or critiquing them. While there were a few different things that caught my attention, nothing seemed to stand out. So, my post this week is going to be a compilation of brief thoughts, reflections and questions (a mash-up) pertaining to a few different themes emerging from the sermons for this week.
1. BAPTISM - In the sermon, "The New Birth" Wesley makes a clear distinction between the sacrament of baptism and the new birth. Wesley understands baptism to be a sacrament and therefore the outward sign of faith; whereas the new birth is understood as the inward grace effecting inward change. He further argues that since baptism and the new birth are not the same thing, they do not constantly go together. Wesley believes it is possible for a person to be baptized, and yet not be 'born again.' In what follows, Wesley seems to undermine the value and significance of baptism by allowing the new birth to supersede baptism as more important (see esp. pp. 343-45). While I understand that an outward ritual can be empty and meaningless without some deeper or inward spiritual reality, I remain uneasy with Wesley's implicit devaluation of baptism.
This is not the first time we have encountered this either. Logan drew our attention to the fact that baptism was completely absent in Wesley's listing of means of grace in his sermon of the same title. What can we make of this? What does Wesley really believe about the sacrament of baptism and it's role in the life of a believer? Is baptism merely outward and symbolic, or is there something more going on?
2. THE USE OF MONEY - I have long been familiar with Wesley's basic teaching in this sermon. I grew up hearing this three-point outline: "Earn all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can." What impressed me most about this sermon was the broader Christian ethics that emerged as a result of these financial concerns. Issues of developing a healthy work ethic that allows health for self, but also health for others. Wesley allows no room for extortion and dishonest gain. Reading this section (section I, pp. 350-53) caused me to see some possible connections and continuities between Wesley's teaching on the proper use of money for Christians and his commitment to the abolition of slavery. Slavery was not only about human rights, but also about significant economic factors. The slave trade was extremely lucrative and owning slaves allowed masters the opportunity to increase their productivity. For a master to gain greater profits through slave labor seems to land in the category of extortion and/or dishonest gain because it is gain that does cause harm to another, in this case, the slave/s. What do you think? Is this a viable link or connection to make?
3. QUALITATIVE vs. QUANTITATIVE - I am wrestling a little with Wesley's sermon, "On Sin in Believers." Like I said initially, I enjoyed reading this and found much that I appreciated and agreed with. Where my concern lies is in Wesley's use of quantitative arguments for the case of sin existing in the life of a believer after justification. While I fully affirm that sin is present in the life of the believer, I wonder whether using quantitative claims is the best way to go about describing it. For example, when discussing 2 Cor. 5:17, Wesley says, "Now certainly a man cannot be a new creature and an old creature at once. Yes, he may: he may be partly renewed, which was the very case with those at Corinth." (p. 365) It is this idea of being partly renewed that causes difficulty for me.
The trouble I sense is that these quantitative claims seem to confuse and distort/distract from his qualitative claims in this same sermon. For example, Wesley says, "He is saved from sin; yet not entirely: it remains, though it does not reign." (pp. 365-366) This statement seems to have both aspects included. On the one hand, to talk of sin as remaining and not being removed entirely sounds like quantitative-type language. On the other hand, to talk of sin no longer reigning speaks of a qualitative change that has occurred in the life of the believer - moving from one in whom sin did reign prior to justification, to one in whom sin no longer reigns after justification.
I'm not really sure what to make of this - maybe I'm missing something... (or pursuing another dead-end). What do you think? Is there anything here? If so, what is at stake?
Thursday, March 3, 2011
In the Sermon “The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law,” Wesley lays out a basic understanding of the progression of humanity in relation to God. He begins with God’s creation of the angels, which he supposes are subject the moral law in the same way as humans. The difference between the two is the necessity of faith for humanity, as Wesley explains in “The Law Established through Faith, II.” Then came humans, also under the moral law and able to understand and choose their own actions.
This was the first point of interest for me, because in “The Law Established through Faith, I,” Wesley talks about Adam as the only man to ever be under the “covenant of works”. Adam, for Wesley, represents the only human of which God ever “required perfect, universal obedience, as the one condition of acceptance.” This is interesting because it suggests that, after that fall, humanity was always under a covenant of grace in some ways. I’ll come back to this in a second.
After the fall, humanity enters a new phase of its relationship to God. Fallen humanity, “by breaking this glorious law [the moral law] wellnigh effaced it out of his heart.” So, humanity had lost the ability to know the moral law, at the very least. “The eyes of his understanding being darkened in the same measure as his soul was alienated from the life of God.” So, we now have two distinct phases for humanity: pre-fall humanity was fully aware of the moral law and post-fall humanity is completely unable to know the moral law.
This period of complete ignorance of the moral law seems, for Wesley, to have barely constituted any period of time at all, however. “God did not despise the work of his own hands; but being reconciled to man through the Son of his love, he in some measure re-inscribed the law on the heart of his dark, sinful creature.” This work of “re-inscribing” did not take place at the advent of the Mosaic law, but with Adam and Eve from the very outset. “This he showed… to our first parents.”
Fallen humanity, for Wesley, was given a sort of internal light by which they were supposed to be able to discern the moral law. This third stage is really the second historical stage for Wesley, since it begins just after the fall. I think this is a significant move because it repositions the Mosaic law as a continuation of the larger work and design of God in relation to humanity, rather than as the advent of something new. This is made explicit by Wesley’s next historical move.
The inner light given to people was ignored, “all flesh had in the process of time ‘corrupted their way before him.’” And so, God chose the Jewish people and gave them the Mosaic Law as a “more perfect knowledge of his law.” So now we have three basic stages: pre-fall, post-fall (in which humanity has the conscience but no more), and the Mosaic stage.
The final stage, the one in which humanity now finds itself according to Wesley, is instituted by the life and death of Jesus Christ. Since humanity from the time of Adam and Eve has been “reconciled… through the Son of his love,” it is unclear to me exactly what is different about this stage. Wesley is less obvious in his portrayal of the difference here, which is what initially intrigued me. Wesley clearly has some sense of there being successive dispensations of God’s relationship with humanity, but he also has a robust sense of continuity between dispensations. All of this leads me to ask two questions:
First, if all humanity after the fall has always been under the “covenant of grace” and has been reconciled through the Son in some sense, what is the real difference historically between the period of time before Christ and the period of time which came after Christ? I think that the answer to this question hearkens back to the Maddox and Collins chapters we read for this week: the Holy Spirit. Wesley claims that the Jewish people, even with the law, could not “comprehend the height and depth and length and breadth thereof. God alone can reveal this by his Spirit.” There is a further work needed, only possible through the Spirit, that goes beyond the Mosaic Law. If Wesley retroactively applies the work of Christ in some ways, perhaps the biggest difference after Christ’s coming is the availability and work of the Spirit.
Second, what is the significance of this system for Wesley? I think the answer to this question lies in the project with which Wesley is here concerned. By maintaining that there were various dispensations, a progression of relationship between God and humanity, Wesley can maintain his belief in salvation by faith alone, and all that follows (like the rejection of the ceremonial law, etc.). By retroactively applying the work of Christ and making the moral law the concern of each stage, Wesley is able to position the law as part of the focus of Christ’s work, rather than opposed to it. Wesley gives the law elevated, and still relevant, status in the course of salvation history.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Before I turn to the sermons for the week, I am curious about plenty of Wesley’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, and would like to touch on that a bit first. I am interested to hear what you think about Wesley’s explanation of the Holy Spirit’s work in conviction and repentance. According to Collins, the Holy Spirit plays a leading role in the process of repentance, leading the yet to be justified sinner toward conviction, and then continuing in illumination and teaching (p123). The Spirit plays this vital role in a person coming to repentance and justification. However, once the sinner has been brought to repentance, the Holy Spirit now sets to a different work of conviction, this time not of actual sin but of inbred sin. This is a second work of the Spirit, which is a brand of convincing grace Wesley calls ‘evangelical repentance.’ I don’t think I disagree with what Wesley is saying here, but for some reason I keep coming back to it. Something doesn’t sit right with me here. Perhaps I have not thought enough about this particular understanding of sin and repentance, but I think what is getting me stuck is this idea that repentance and sin are different on either side of justification (except for that obvious part of the before and after sin changing from unforgiven to forgiven). But, this idea that we repent differently before and after we are justified is interesting, and then out of that difference comes these dual roles of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that convicting people of sin would be the same on either side of justification, so how is the Holy Spirit engaged in two distinct facets of conviction and repentance? I think what I really want to understand is the scriptural backing for this. Is there any, or is this an idea Wesley conveys in order to make other pieces of his theology fit together more coherently? The only component that Collins sites as different between these two difference works of the Holy Spirit is the presence of the moral law in the evangelical repentance, where the use of the law is absent in conviction before justification. Where does this whole idea come from? Any thoughts?
Now to the sermons. I have to admit that I am struggling to find things I really need to dig into this week with Wesley. I feel like we are getting such a good grasp on the themes Wesley seeks to employ sermon after sermon, and thus it is becoming difficult to find a new idea he is exposing that I just need to settle into a bit longer.
The most difficult portion of our reading for this week came in A Caution Against Bigotry. At the very outset of the sermon, Wesley seeks to explain first the work of the devil before then moving on to how we seek to cast out devils. Beginning on p288, he discusses the dominion the devil has over the world. He claims that the devil has absolute dominion over the world, and cites Paul as describing the devil as ‘the god of this world,’ due to the devil’s uncontrolled power over worldly men. I am willing to concede that the devil exists, clearly works in this world, and has power over people. I am not debating the existence or works of the devil here. However, to say that the devil has power that is uncontrolled or has dominion over the world not only seems to overinflate the power of the devil, but also appears to seriously limit the power of God. Wesley claims that those who are not of God live and move in the evil one, in the same way those who are of God live and move in God. What are your thoughts on this? To eliminate the possibility of God’s working or dwelling in people who are of this world is a difficult sell for me. Then, to go so far as to claim that the devil first has a godly status, and second is in any way uncontrolled, this takes so much away from God. Sure, it eliminates those pesky questions of ‘where is God in pain or evil or natural disaster or tragedy’ etc. And as much as those questions are unanswerable, shouldn’t we have to wrestle with those? Isn’t there benefit to trying to find God in our tragedy and sadness? If God isn’t there, I’m not sure I want to be there.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
As we continue to read on, I am amazed by all of the themes which are frequently appearing in Wesley’s sermons. There are patterns to his thinking and familiar phrases of his which keep cropping up from sermon to sermon. The phrase ‘the one thing needful,’ or variations on the phrase, keeps appearing in sermons from week to week, which draws me back to the sermon of that title which was so intriguing to me. Wesley also continues to emphasize the difference between what is external and what is internal, drawing on these concepts to illuminate not only the goal of our actions but also of our inner thoughts and the direction in which our heart is aimed. So much of Wesley’s teaching seems to rest on the differences between the internal and the external, which I continue to see since our reading of ‘The Almost Christian.’ It seems that a great many texts in scripture point Wesley to this distinction, which I find intriguing. In addition to holy love, I can see this contrast between the internal and the external as a signature of Wesley’s.
I particularly appreciated what a different form these sermons on the Sermon on the Mount took. Whereas in other sermons, Wesley loosely references a Scripture to start and then often ends up far away from that beginning text, these four sermons hang closely to the text at hand and are very specific in their analysis and exegesis of Christ’s words. I liked this side of Wesley, and wonder if we will see more of this technique as his ministry evolves and as we move through the anthology of his sermons. I can only hope!
While I found the reading this week very interesting and enlivening, I didn’t come away with nagging issues as I have the last several weeks. This is perhaps the first time I have NOT needed to wrestle with Wesley, which is a nice feeling. I did, however, find myself very convicted by the fourth look at the Sermon on the Mount that we read, Discourse VIII. As Wesley digs into what it means to store up treasures on earth, he clearly explains what is acceptable in terms of wealth and possessions, and what is not acceptable, standing in opposition to God and God’s love. Below is the passage which particularly struck me, in a way that takes my breath away because of its clarity, its bold indictment, and its courage.
“May not this be another reason why rich men shall so hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven? A vast majority of them are under a curse, under the peculiar curse of God; inasmuch as in the general tenor of their lives they are not only robbing God continually, embezzling and wasting the Lord’s goods, and by that very means corrupting their own souls; but also robbing the poor, the hungry, the naked, wronging the widow and the fatherless, and making themselves accountable for all the want, affliction, and distress which they may but do not remove. Yea, doth not the blood of all those who perish for want of what they either lay up or lay out needlessly, cry against them from the earth? O what account will they give to him who is ready to judge both the quick and the dead!” (p251)
It is one thing to claim that the reason not to store up treasures on earth is because it is indicative of greed or lack of concern for others. But to say first that this is robbing God and embezzling from God is an incredibly strong statement which leaves a greater sting than just a proclamation against greed. What Christian can say that they are okay with the idea of robbing or embezzling from the saving God, from the God who loves us so profoundly? Who would sign on for this? But then also that in this same act of hoarding we are robbing the poor, the widow and the orphan? How can anyone continue to stand and let worldly possessions matter after hearing this take on treasures on earth? This makes one serious stewardship sermon, not to manipulate or entice people to give to the church, but rather to turn our human understandings of possession and wealth on its head. It is not simply the acquisition of goods which is problematic to our lives of faith, but what this external acquisition indicates of the inner workings of our faith. If we are willing to rob God and turn a blind eye to the poor and the orphan, how could we possibly expect to possess and to demonstrate the love of God which is so essential to Wesley’s understanding of faith? Storing up treasures on earth is like a tattoo on our foreheads that proclaims ‘I don’t get it! I have no idea what the love of God looks like!’
And yet…this is all easier said than done, as we all know. There are few ideas or statements more countercultural than this proclamation to steer clear of acquiring too many things. I am thankful for Wesley’s boldness here, because it reminds me and it stings me. It leaves me floundering and yet refreshed, because it gives such a strong reason and account for renouncing this worldly need for things. Few commercials are convincing enough to make me want to rob from God. No advertising or cultural pressure can withstand such a strong image. Thanks be to God. And to Wesley, for smacking me around a little.