By J. Oliver Jones
Many of you life-long Methodists have just had a mild coronary! “What do you mean by such a statement? Of course Methodism is not a dead sect. Why would you even ask such a thing?” Now, before you write me off entirely let me state that I, too, am a life-long Methodist, born and raised in a Methodist home by two Methodist parents who had also been life-long Methodists, as had their parents before them. So don’t look at me as some “Johnny-come-lately.” I have earned the right to ask such a question, and I trust you will journey with me as we seek to discover the answer.
If you are recent to Methodism, you may have only heard of John Wesley (1703-1791). If you have been around for a couple of generations you probably know some of the history of John Wesley and Methodism. But unless you have actually read some of Wesley’s writings, you may not be familiar with his take on this subject. Yes, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, saw fit to set the standard by which we could judge when Methodism could be considered a “dead sect.” Read carefully his words below:
“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.” (Works of John Wesley, Vol. 13, Letters & Writings, P. 320)
In a conversation with Robert Miller in 1783 Wesley was asked what must be done to keep Methodism alive when he was dead, to which he immediately answered:
“The Methodists must take heed to their doctrine, their experience, their practice, and their discipline. If they attend to their doctrines only, they will make the people antinomians; if to the experimental part of religion only, they will make them enthusiasts; if to the practical part only, they will make them Pharisees; and if they do not attend to their discipline, they will be like persons who bestow much pains in cultivating their garden, and put no fence round it, to save it from the wild boar of the forest.”
There is an obvious similarity in these two quotes. Wesley replaces the “hold fast the spirit” in the first quote with “take heed to their experience and their practice” in the latter. Dr. Vic Reasoner observed that, as it relates to spirit, “experience is more personal while practice is more corporate.” So, while this article will use the former quote in its examination, both experience and practice will be covered.
Therefore, according to Wesley’s own words, there are three areas in which we as Methodists should be concerned. Our application of these three areas will determine, according to its founder, when Methodism ceases to be a viable and living movement of God and simply exists as an organization of man “having the form of religion without the power.” Therefore, it is necessary that we examine closely these three areas to discover in what condition Methodism exists today. Again, these three areas are our doctrine, our spirit, and our discipline.
I. We must hold fast to our doctrine
The first and logical question is, “What is the doctrine of which Wesley speaks?” Is he referring to the entire spectrum of Biblical doctrines to which he so strongly held in his personal beliefs? Or is he speaking of the specific doctrines of Arminianism as opposed to those doctrines of Calvinism? Is it possible he has in mind distinctive Methodist doctrines such as Prevenient Grace, Sacramental Theology, and the conditional perseverance of the Saints? Are all of these important? Most definitely! Many of us who are pastors and teachers love to proclaim the truth of our Methodist doctrines that we hold to be proper Biblical interpretation. Still, I perceive Wesley was concerned about even more basic “doctrines” to which we must hold fast.
Consider the following statement from Wesley: “The foundation of true religion stands upon the oracles of God. It is built upon the prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. Now of what excellent use is reason if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles! And how is it possible without it to understand the essential truths contained therein? A beautiful summary of which we have in that which is called the Apostles’ Creed”(The Case of Reason Impartially Considered, Sermon #70).
You are most likely familiar with the Apostle’s Creed. Many denominations and churches in addition to Methodists use the Apostle’s Creed as a statement of faith. Methodists have long used it in the worship service, and for those of us who are Southern Methodist it is still repeated in most of our churches weekly. Let us look briefly at what it says to see if perhaps this may be what John Wesley had in mind when he spoke of “holding fast our doctrine.”
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth;
(The Doctrine of God)
This beginning proclamation of “I believe” involves the doctrine of faith – the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). The writer of Hebrews tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God, for those who come to Him must believe that He is and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). God is the object of our belief and our faith. God is! Or, as He told Moses, “I Am” (Exodus 3:14). He does not need to prove Himself to man. He is the “Almighty God” which speaks of His omnipotence, but He is also “God the Father” which speaks of His desire and willingness to have a loving relationship with the crown of His creation – man. Lest we be tempted to credit His creation to the impersonal forces of naturalism we are reminded in Genesis 1 that He is the Creator – “the maker of heaven and earth.” All of mankind who deny this truth are without excuse (Romans 1:20). He spoke, “Let there be…” and the material substance of the universe came into being. He formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath (spirit) of life (Genesis 2:7). All of “science falsely so called” (I Timothy 6:20) will one day bow at His feet and acknowledge that he is the Almighty Creator God, the King of kings and the Lord of lords (I Timothy 6:15; Rev. 17:14; Rev. 19:16). This was John Wesley’s doctrine of God. What is yours?
And in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
(The Doctrine of Christ)
Jesus is the “Logos” (the Word) of God, the second Person of the Trinity who is called both God the Son and the Son of God. As such He is indeed our Lord. This Jesus, who was with God from the beginning, and who is Himself God, left the glory of heaven and became as one of His creation (John 1:1-3,14). Mary, the young virgin who found grace in the eyes of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to a Savior who was Christ the Lord (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:10-11). Being born of the Virgin Mary and having no earthly father, Jesus was born without the nature of sin, being both fully God and fully man. His name, Jesus, declared that He was to save His people from their sin (Matthew 1:21). The process by which He would save them was to be physically condemned and to suffer under Pontius Pilate, to be cruelly beaten and then crucified on the cross of Calvary. His physical suffering was great, but His death was much more than physical. While on the cross He took the sin of the world upon Himself and experienced separation from the Father for the first and only time in all eternity (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). The required punishment for sin had been paid. He had taken our place. Our Atonement (both physical and spiritual) has been accomplished (Romans 5:11). Surely He was bruised for our iniquities and certainly He bore our sorrows and our griefs. Our punishment was placed upon Him, and by His suffering we are healed (Isaiah53:3-5). Because the wages of sin is death, He died for us that we might receive the gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23). And as with all who die, He was buried. No, Jesus did not just swoon. He did not merely faint in the heat of the sun to be revived in the coolness of the tomb. Jesus was dead (John 19:33; Acts 4:10), and He was buried in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:59-60).
But on the third day the greatest miracle of all took place; Jesus arose from the dead and was resurrected to life just as He had said (Matthew 28:6). The sign the Jews sought after had been given – the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39-41). After three days and three nights in the heart of the earth He lay aside His burial clothes and left forever the tomb of death (John 20:3-9). For the next forty days He appeared to hundreds of His followers (I Cor.15:8) and then, before their very eyes, He ascended into heaven (Acts 1:3-11) where He was seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty (I Peter 3:22). There He remains making intercession for us (Romans 8:34) – pleading our case before the Father as our Advocate (I John 2:1).
But not for much longer! From there He will come again, this time not as a suffering lamb, but as the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5), to judge both the living and the dead. All judgment has been given unto Him (John 5:26-27), and all who have not accepted His sacrifice, His righteousness, His forgiveness, will be judged according to their own righteousness, and sentenced to the Lake of Fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Rev 20:12-15). There is only one way to the Father (John 14:6) as there was but one perfect sacrifice made for the sin of man (Hebrews 9:26-28). This was John Wesley’s doctrine of Christ. Is it also yours?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
(The Doctrine of the Spirit)
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, and as such He is also God (Acts 5:1-5). He is not an “it,” a force, or the will of the Father. He is as much a person as is the Father and the Son. He is called in the Greek our Paraclete, meaning our Helper, our Comforter, and our Counselor (John 14:16&26; John 15:26; John 16:16). He is the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Holiness, the Spirit of Glory, the Spirit of Grace and the Spirit of Life (John 16:13; Romans 1:4; I Peter 4:14; Hebrews 10:29; Romans 8:2). He is the one who bestows gifts, bears fruit, reproves of sin, and seals our inheritance (I Cor. 12:4; Gal 5:22; John 16:8; Eph 1:3). While there is much more that can be said of the Holy Spirit this was the doctrine of the Spirit held by John Wesley. Again, is the Spirit all of these things to you?
– – – the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
(Doctrine of the Universal Church)
This concluding section begins with our belief in the Universal Church (the word “catholic’ here refers to the whole body of the invisible and universal church, and is making no reference to the ‘Roman Catholic Church’). This holy universal church consists of all who are born again of the Spirit of God (John 3:3-6), holy by position in Christ, and striving for personal holiness by the power of the indwelling Spirit. The forgiveness of sins is achieved through the shed blood of Christ as our substitute, for without the shedding of blood there is no remission (forgiveness) of sin (Hebrews 9:22). The communion of saints teaches of our oneness in Christ, all true believers being heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ (Romans 8:17), making us truly brothers and sisters in the family of God.
(Doctrine of the Resurrection)
The resurrection is central to the whole Gospel of Christ and salvation. “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:5). Just as Christ was resurrected bodily from the dead to live eternally in the presence of His Father, so we too shall experience the resurrection of the body, receiving our glorified bodies to live eternally in the presence of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (resurrection chapter – I Cor. 15). Just as Paul said, “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (I Cor. 15:20-23). And so we shall have the life everlasting (John 3:16)!
If we are not to become a dead sect, we must hold fast our doctrine. Sadly, too much of Methodism, along with much of Christendom, has forsaken many if not most of these “doctrines.” But gladly I can proclaim that we who are Southern Methodist are holding fast. So at least in this first area of examination there is hope that Wesley’s fear has not yet come to pass, at least not for all Methodists.
Now that we have concluded the first area of our examination,
that of our doctrine, let us move on to the second area of examination . . .
II. We must hold fast to our spirit.
How are we to understand Wesley’s intent in this statement? Again, we must examine the possibilities and conclude that which seems most obvious. Certainly we must hold fast to our doctrine of the Holy Spirit as stated above. Likewise, we must hold fast to our own spirits, being certain they are always under the influence and control of the Spirit of God. But here Wesley is speaking on a broader sense. He is addressing Methodism, specifically stating that “they must hold fast to the spirit with which they first set out.” So what then was the spirit of Methodism in its early days, in the days of John Wesley? In other words, what was its driving force; what was its declared purpose; and what was its desired goal? It is in the answers to these questions that we will find the spirit of Methodism. But once discovered we must be prepared to hold them fast. And if they have already been laid aside, we must be willing to pick them up again, whatever the cost. If not we have willingly rejected the spirit with which Methodism first set out, and in so doing, we can no longer consider ourselves to be “true Methodists” according to Wesley’s thinking.
The Driving Force of Early Methodism:
John Wesley stated, “I look on all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.” This sounds much like what Paul stated in Romans 1:14-16. “I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” I believe the driving force for John Wesley and the early Methodist movement was a world filled with people who did not know the salvation of Jesus Christ. Both John Wesley and the Apostle Paul considered themselves as debtors and judged it their duty to declare the good news to the lost multitudes. They were ready to proclaim its message, and they were not ashamed of the Gospel. It was the love of people that became their driving force. But this is not hard to imagine for those who are surrendered to Christ, for was it not the love of lost humanity that drove Jesus to the cross?
The Declared Purpose of Early Methodism:
Concerning salvation Wesley declared, “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.” Too many Christians view salvation as merely insurance – fire insurance, allowing them to escape hell. Wesley understood that salvation was not just about the future, but about the present. True salvation brings deliverance from sin and allows God to restore His image into the spirit of man. Christ came to set man free from the bondage of sin now, not just in the future (Romans 6:1). People bound by Satan can be set free, and those whom the Son makes free are free indeed (John 8:36). Listen once again to the words of the Apostle Paul as found in Romans 6:5-14.
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
Yes, the message of early Methodism was that through the shed blood of Christ man can be set free from the burden of sin and the bondage of Satan. This message of salvation burned in the hearts of Wesley and the early Methodists – salvation by grace through faith. Wesley declared the purpose for Methodism was to “reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (Works, 8:299). Sharing this message was their declared purpose!
The Desired Goal of Early Methodism:
Wesley wrote, “The perfection I teach is perfect love; loving God with all the heart, receiving Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, to reign alone over all our thoughts, words and actions. That we are to expect it, not at death, but every moment; that now is the accepted time, now is the day of this salvation.” There has been so much confusion and misunderstanding concerning Wesley’s doctrine of Perfect Love. It is often referred to as “Christian Perfection,” or even called by some “sinless perfection.” Still others have used a much more theological sounding term – “Entire Sanctification.” What was it Wesley was trying to teach the followers of this early movement? After all, does the Bible not say that we are to be holy because He is holy (I Peter 1:6)? Are we not told to awake to righteousness and sin not (I Cor. 15:34)? Does Paul not tell us that we have died to sin and should no longer live in it (Romans 6)? Is it not the plan of God to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29) who is holy, sinless, and loves perfectly? Has not the law of the Spirit of life in Christ set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2)?
We could go on and on quoting Biblical references to the truth that God desires His people to be holy, that He hates sin, that we have been saved from the power and dominion of sin, and that God has already ordained that we will conform to the image of His Son. There is no dispute among God’s people concerning these truths. The problem arises in that these truths are so seldom realized in the lives of the vast majority of God’s people. Since it seems to be most difficult, if not impossible, to live up to these expectations, we conclude these promises must be for the future, not for the present. After all, we are just sinners saved by grace who are living on an earth ruled by the “prince of the power of the air” (Satan – Ephesians 2:2) and having to deal with our sinful, depraved, and fallen natures. What can one expect? We are only human! The thought of being “perfect,” “sinless,” and “entirely sanctified” sounds wonderful, but seems impossible, at least in this life. Anyone who would dare say that he or she has reached such a plateau is usually considered to be either, 1) a liar, 2) a phony, 3) arrogant and conceited. After all, are we not to be humble? And where is the humility in proclaiming such lofty accomplishments about oneself? So, alas, we can see the difficulty faced with this most difficult teaching of being perfect in love.
Having said all of this we must still return to Wesley’s teaching (and what seems to be the teaching of the Bible) that as one born of the Spirit of God we are indeed a new creation. Old things have passed away and all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17). As believers we have the power of God indwelling us (through the Holy Spirit), a new nature influencing us (which is of Christ), and the law of God guiding us (which is now written on our hearts and minds). It would certainly appear that God has done His part to make it possible for the believer to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh. So could it be that Wesley was right? Does God actually expect us to be holy as He is holy, and if so how is this to be accomplished?
Certainly Wesley was not advocating that we could ever become holy through our own efforts. Neither did he claim that one could reach a position of “perfection” from which he could not fall, nor to a degree in this life that would make him immune from mistakes, errors, or momentary passions. Wesley wrote concerning these things in his treatise titled, A Plain Account of Christian Perfectionism. The following quotes are taken from this work.
“(Christian perfectionism is) that habitual disposition of the soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies being cleansed from sin, ‘from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit’; and, by consequence, being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus; being so ‘renewed in the image of our mind,’ as to be ‘perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.’”
“Perhaps the general prejudice against Christian perfection may chiefly arise from a misapprehension of the nature of it. We willingly allow, and continually declare there is no such perfection in this life as implies either a dispensation from doing good and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood.”
“They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination…”
“But what is the perfection here spoken of? It is not only a deliverance from doubts and fears, but from sin; from all inward as well as outward sin; from evil desires and evil tempers, as well as from evil words and works.”
“In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: the royal law of heaven and earth is this, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.’”
John Wesley taught that sanctification (being conformed to the image of Christ) was obtainable after justification by faith, and that this sanctification could occur prior to death. Contrary to the opinion of many, Wesley never taught “sinless perfection,” but rather he contended that a Christian could be made “perfect in love.” This perfect love would manifest itself in a believer by a hunger and thirst for righteousness and the deep desire to please God. Such a person would be able to keep himself from the intentional and willful breaking of God’s law. Such a person would still be able to sin, but intentional or willful sin could be avoided. This love for God would be the central focus of a person’s life, and would be what Wesley referred to as “a fulfillment of the law of Christ.” Wesley desired that this doctrine should be constantly preached, especially among the people known as Methodists. He believed the goal of the Methodist movement was to teach God’s people how to live in Scriptural holiness. In a letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury (15 September 1790), Wesley declared that “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to raise us up.”
As I consider the current “spirit of Methodism” there is a concern that in too many instances our driving force is not people, our declared purpose is not the preaching of salvation, and our desired goal is not to love God “perfectly.” Again, speaking as a Southern Methodist, I can see that we have not totally departed from this spirit of early Methodism, but we are in danger of allowing it to slip from our hands. I believe the key to holding fast in this area of our examination is to take to heart the message to the church of Ephesus found in Revelation 2:4-5
Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.
We must repent and return to our “first love.” By observation it is obvious that we do not love people as God loves them. People who are lost surround us, yet we fail to be a witness. While we still preach eternal salvation, our message is usually proclaimed to those sitting in our pews that are already saved. Seldom is true Scriptural holiness and salvation from sin in this present life taught to our people, and when it is taught, it too often contains a “watered down” version of God’s holiness! Without doubt, we love God. But it does not take close observation of others, or sincere introspection of oneself, to know that we do not love Him perfectly. Shall we continue to hold fast our doctrine while at the same time we allow the glorious message of salvation – salvation from God’s judgment for the lost and salvation from sin for the saints – to be laid aside? And are we to be satisfied with our doctrine while our love for God grows cold? How did we come to this state, and what must we do to recover?
To discover this we must examine the third area about which Wesley was concerned –
that of our “discipline”
III. We must hold fast to our discipline.
Unfortunately, our examination in this area may not go too well. So perhaps a little levity at the beginning would be appropriate. To what “discipline” was Wesley referring? I do not know of any Methodist group that does not have a book in some form called a “Methodist Discipline.” In the tradition of Methodism of which I am a part we have “The Southern Methodist Church Discipline.” It currently consists of 231 pages and 946 paragraphs of instructions concerning the life, ministry, political structure, doctrines, and rituals of those who are Southern Methodist. It is a good book and quite helpful in suggesting both the standards and the boundaries we should follow. But, no, this is not the “discipline” of which Wesley spoke. I believe the discipline of which Wesley was referring is much more personal in nature. While a corporate discipline is desirable, it is instead “personal discipline” that I will address here.
Let us begin by defining the word discipline. As a noun the word discipline is defined by Webster’s On-line Dictionary as: a field of study; training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character; control gained by enforcing obedience or order; orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior (self-control). As a verb the word discipline is defined as: to train or develop by instruction and exercise especially in self-control; to bring under control; to impose order upon. When we speak of personal discipline we are of necessity talking about the practice of self-control. Self-control is a double-edged sword. It involves not doing those things we know not to do, but it also requires the doing of those things that we know are right to do. Ultimately, personal Christian discipline is bringing oneself into subjection through both the learning of Godly principles followed by the application of those principles through the regular exercise of faith and practice. In other words, it requires instruction and study in righteousness on the one hand, and then exercising self-control to apply righteousness in one’s life on the other.
Have you ever stopped to consider why Wesley and his early small band of followers were called “Methodists”? Around the year 1729 at Oxford University, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, led a small group of students who were devoted to the study of the Bible and concerned with holy living, godly love, and personal spiritual growth into Christ-likeness. Wesley sought to understand religion “by rule and method” and to put into practice his religion as consistently and systematically as possible. As a result his fellow students called this group the “Holy Club,” the “Godly Club,” and eventually the “Methodists.” John Wesley liked the later and wrote that the name “Methodist” was first given to the group “by way of reproach” by those who were “observing a more regular method of study and behavior than was usual with those of their age and station.” The early members of this “holy club” or “Methodists” planned their activities for each day by arranging a rigorous daily schedule which was said to include specific hours for visiting the sick, teaching the poor, and observing religious services in church. In addition, they prayed out loud three times each day and stopped for a silent prayer every hour. In other words they learned through instruction and study what they perceived the life of a Christian should look like, and then they established a routine of conforming to those very things.
Wesley developed a personal, definitive, method of life and activity that would bring about what he conceived the Christian life should be. Like the Apostle Paul, Wesley brought the practical aspects of his daily life under subjection to what he believed was the greater purpose of life – doing the will of God. Even if you disagree with some of Wesley’s personal convictions, you have to appreciate his commitment to doing what was right, and the self-control he exhibited to accomplish these things in his life. Without any doubt John Wesley lived a life of discipline!
I’m not sure about you, but I certainly feel some pangs of conviction. Life today in our society and in our culture does not lend itself well to discipline and self-control. Rather, we live in a day of immediate gratification and self-indulgence. This is true in most every area of our natural appetites. Let’s say we are really hungry (which to our discredit, we seldom are). We can choose to use the microwave (even if it takes three minutes to heat a frozen dinner) or else we can dash to McDonalds for a burger and fries (no, it really isn’t very good, but it is filling and best of all – it’s quick). After a few years of this the doctor tells us we need to loose weight because our blood pressure is high, our cholesterol is higher, and our chance of an early death is highest of all. He strongly suggests we eat less and exercise more. But it will take much too long to lose all the weight it has taken years to gain. But this guy on TV said if we would take this pill our blood pressure will go down – immediately. And in an advertisement on the back of the Hostess Cupcake box it says this other pill will help bring down our cholesterol in just ten days. And as for exercise, well who has time to walk for an hour every day? But there is this mechanical devise we can wear for five minutes in the morning and at night, and it will just magically melt the pounds off. So we place an order on-line (takes too long to call on the phone and have to wait on hold for an operator) and it says the magic belt will be delivered in about four weeks. That is perfect, because this guy at the donut shop told us about this new diet guaranteed to make you lose forty pounds in just four weeks – all you eat is chocolate! Boy, that sounds too good to be true, but it’s worth a try. And so it goes. As a result of this type of lifestyle, many of us have grown fat, lazy, and physically unhealthy. But this is a physical thing; surely it doesn’t apply to our spiritual lives as well!
Spiritually there is nothing funny about our condition. So rather than using humor, I will just give some “observations” about our spiritual condition. I will not use statistics or percentages; I will not differentiate between conservatives and liberals; I will not distinguish between the varying groups that go by Methodist. These “observations” will vary in degree among differing groups, but I know of no group totally exempt from their truth. In fact, you need not be a Methodist for these to apply as they are indicative of most every Christian denomination and church with rare exceptions.
- Most Christians today know less about the Bible than their predecessors. This stems from spending less time in corporate Christian education programs at Church (not attending Sunday School, Sunday evening Bible study, mid-week programming, home small-group studies, etc.), and little if any real personal study and meditation on the Word of God. More than any other single factor, this has caused a rapid demise in the strength of the local church (2 Timothy 2:15; Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; Psalm 119:11,105; John 8:32 & John 17:17)
- As a result of the above, the messages preached from the pulpit and the classes taught in Bible study settings are becoming more and more “watered down.” As Paul stated, the people still need the milk of the Word when they should be ready for the meat (I Cor. 3:2). They still need to be taught when they should be teachers (Heb 5:12).
- Few Christians are willing to be involved in personal evangelism or intentional witnessing opportunities, and decline to take advantage of opportunities offered through their church to learn how to be more effective in this endeavor. This is a failure to carry out the Great Commission given by Jesus Himself (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47-48; Acts 1:8).
- Time spent in personal and meaningful private prayer is at an all time low among most believers. Many of those that do have a daily prayer time admit it often seems mechanical and one dimensional. Few believe their prayers actually change anything (Matthew 6:6; James 5:16).
- Younger generations find it easier to “leave” the church since they do not find any practical relevance to what goes on there, and often state they can see no real difference in adults in the church from those outside the church (personal lifestyles of those claiming to be Christian are becoming more difficult to differentiate from the lifestyles of those outside the church). Even among those attending evangelical churches the world’s influence is prevalent (2 Tim. 3:1-5; Matthew 24:24).
Most Christians can find the time to do those things that are important to them and those things that they enjoy. Unfortunately, what they enjoy is often outside the realm of the spiritual. Watching a four hour football game (or other TV programming) is pleasurable. Attending a two hour Bible study is unimaginable. Spending the day at the lake is relaxing. Spending the day at church in prayer, meditation, and fellowship is exhausting. Talking to a stranger about the weather is easy. Talking to a friend about Jesus is frightening. Why are these things so? Simple – it is a lack of personal discipline. We have not trained ourselves to love the things of God. We have not exercised our spiritual nature to rule over our depraved human nature. We have not chosen to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, but rather we have chosen to seek our own will and our own way. Just as with the flesh, many of us have become spiritually fat, spiritually lazy, and spiritually unhealthy. The bad news – there is no quick fix. The good news – the spiritual exercise and self control needed to correct this problem will restore us to spiritual health. Yes, we can become spiritually healthy again, if we are willing. But if we are not willing to do what is required, we will surely die a premature death.
Our examination is complete according to Wesley’s criteria. So what is our conclusion? Is Methodism a “dead sect” or not. Well, each division of Methodism will need to determine that for themselves. And even non-Methodists might want to use these same criteria. But what I conclude is for Southern Methodists only and it is as follows. In the first area of our examination, holding fast to our doctrine, I believe we pass with flying colors. Our doctrine is sound, and our church leaders are unified on this issue. As for the second area, holding fast to our spirit, we need to renew our commitment in this area. The full message of salvation must be proclaimed and our people challenged to a lifestyle of holiness. We must pursue the ideal of perfect love toward God – it must become our desired goal. In turn this will make us focus once more on the people for whom Christ died, and reaching people will again become our driving force. We have slipped in this area, but not so far that we cannot return. However, the return will not be easy, for we have failed tremendously in holding fast to our discipline. Of course, discipline is always the first area to go in any failure. This is where we must now focus, for continued failure in personal discipline will cause us to lose our spirit and eventually forsake our doctrine.
No, we are not a dead sect, but we are unhealthy. What we need now is a proper spiritual diet and plenty of exercise. And that will take some real discipline.
Are You a Methodist at Heart?
John Wesley was impressed by the sketch of a “Perfect Christian” written by Clement of
Alexandria around 200 A.D. In 1742 Wesley, borrowing from Clement’s work, wrote
“The Character of a Methodist” using the words of Scripture to describe Christian perfection.
Wesley’s total work is approximately four pages, but printed below is just the beginning.
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 art the strength of my heart and my portion forever!’