J. Oliver Jones
As most of you know I am very committed to the idea that every believer, regardless of age or length of time as a Christian, should be involved in a formal, conservative, systematic, and progressive Christian Education program such as The Wesley Institute of Bible and Ministry Training. Now please do not turn me off or tune me out yet, for this article is not about Christian education – well, most of it isn’t at least. But this investment of time and energy would preclude that every true believer has the desire to always be growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Unfortunately this is not the case – the majority of self-proclaimed Christians seem to be satisfied to remain right where they are. The only consistent desire I find in all believers is to escape hell and to gain heaven, and without any doubt, that is a worthy goal. John Wesley often stated that the only requirement for entrance into the Methodist society was a “desire to escape the wrath to come.”
But Wesley never considered that once a person had come to a saving faith in Christ they should be allowed to continue in a state of spiritual infancy until the day of their death, having never grown into maturity as a believer. In fact, he considered such a concept contrary to the very nature of salvation itself. So, to insure that people in the movement that became known as “Methodism” did not fall into this state of complacency and even apathy, Wesley developed the structure of regular weekly meetings called the society meeting, class meeting, band meeting, and where needed, the penitent band meeting. The society was structured for cognitive learning (thinking), the class for behavioral change (behavior), and finally it was the band that would redirect a person’s feelings (emotion). In other words, Wesley believed changed behavior will lead to a change in emotion or desire, not the other way around. D. Michael Henderson states in his book, A Model for Making Disciples,
The Wesleyan program had the goal of holiness in constant focus: The societies proclaimed and explained the doctrine, the class meeting was designed to implement the behavioral quest for holy lifestyle, and the bands facilitated the cultivation of inner purity and the purging of attitudes. It was an interlocking system, woven around a common theme. Each component depended on the others, and working together to accomplish different facets of the stated goal. (Page 115)
It is my desire to see such a concept once again implemented within Methodism. Currently the Wesley Institute program is an avenue for the first or cognitive aspect of discipleship. Its primary purpose is to teach the Word and give opportunities to apply what is learned through ministry training. Now we need to see the equivalent of the class meeting which deals with our change of behavior. I have already prepared a plan for what would parallel the class meeting, but as yet I have not implemented it. And the reason I have not yet asked any of you to “sign on” to this plan is simply because I have not yet signed on to it myself. It is strange, is it not, that a plan developed by a person might be difficult for that same person to actually accept and live by. But I can tell you that the thought of making a commitment to God that I cannot or will not do my very best to fulfill is a frightening concept. Did God not say that it is better not to vow than to vow and not keep it? (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6; Numbers 30:2). So I have proceeded here with caution, but the time grows near when, by the grace of God, I must and will take that next step. And once this is done, I will be looking for others who will join me on this exciting journey.
Of course, we have not yet dealt with the final “meeting” of Wesley – the Band Meeting. It was here that believers would become accountable to one another for the purpose off ‘going on to perfection.’ Now there is a strange term you do not hear very often. In fact it is so strange that most in Christendom today would deny the very possibility of such a journey. But we must remember that John Wesley did not teach sinless perfection as some accuse him of teaching. Rather he taught Christian perfection. Some of you are asking, “What’s the difference?”
When most people speak of sinless perfection they are implying a state in this life whereby a Christian cannot commit sin and from which he or she cannot fall. Wesley not only declined to teach this, he actually denied its possibility:
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. (John Wesley)
But what Wesley actually taught was Christian perfection, and that is something we must strive to obtain:
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. Yea, and it is not only a negative blessing, a deliverance from all evil dispositions, implied in that expression, “I will circumcise thy heart,” but a positive one likewise, even the planting all good dispositions in their place, clearly implied in that expression, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (John Wesley)
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.’ (John Wesley)
I ask, when is the last time you have heard any such thing preached from the pulpits of America? It is a message that implies, yea, demands, one’s total surrender to God, and that, dear friends, by today’s standards is simply asking too much! But have we not prayed to God for revival? Have we not asked God for renewal? Have we not sought God for restoration? How can we expect God to send such things when His people, who are called by His name, have failed to surrender to Him everything Christ died on the cross to purchase? We would do well to remember that we are not our own; we have been bought with a price, the very blood of Jesus.
What then are we to conclude from these words? Perhaps that depends on where each individual is in his or her Christian walk. I know where I am, and I know what I need to do. What about you?