Are You Almost Christian? – John Wesley

The Form of Christ

Do we display only the outward form of Christ or do we fully embody his faith?

The second of John Wesley’s Standard Sermons gets at the question of what it means to be Christian. He looks first at how one may be almost a Christian and then concludes with what it means to be a Christian altogether.

It is important to note that even Wesley lived for many years as “almost a Christian.” He is open to the idea that many who attend worship services and live and think of themselves in many ways as being a Christian are, instead, almost Christian. Wesley does not condemn the almost Christian, but encourages such a person to strive for the faith that makes one “altogether a Christian.”

I don’t know if I am quite altogether a Christian at this point. I certainly desire to be, but at times I feel that I am lacking even in the qualities of an almost Christian. The almost Christian is one whom Wesley says is “having a form of godliness.” The form of godliness is the outward appearance of being in right relationship with God and Christ. One with the form of godliness goes beyond the idea of being honest and committed to justice. There are many people who have no desire to be Christian who are honest, truthful and committed to justice. One needs to actually help other people as long as they are able if one desires to be almost a Christian.

Those in the form of godliness also avoid excesses, seek peace, and honestly seek to help even those who are considered enemies. Though almost Christians help their enemies, they still speak against evil and help those who need assistance in improving their lives. The almost Christian will even encourage others to repent of their sin and turn to God. They continue to have some sincerity of an “inward principle of religion” and a “real design to serve God.”

Wesley calls us to step further in order to be altogether a Christian. Wesley says we need to rejoice only in God our savior. That is, we must do ALL things for the glory of God. We must love God and love our neighbor. We need to love our neighbors, including our enemies, not just when it is convenient. The altogether a Christian is a “servant of all” and “thinketh no evil.” Most importantly, the Christian altogether trusts in God, knows that our sins are forgiven through Christ, and feels the love of God.

John Wesley was very interested in pushing people to turn more closely to Christ and not just play a role. He was not satisfied with being almost a Christian and hoped that all who heard his words would move forward toward being altogether a Christian. I desire this for myself. How are you doing?

John Wesley – Salvation by Faith

I have known for years that the Standard Sermons of John Wesley are a part of the official doctrine of the United Methodist Church. However, these sermons are not required reading for clergy or laity in the denomination. I have read many other parts of our church’s doctrine along with interpretations of John Wesley’s thoughts. However, it is about time that I pick up Wesley’s sermons and read what he preached.

First, I must acknowledge that there is some debate over how many sermons are included in the Standards. I am not an academic theologian, Wesley scholar or denominational official. I do not desire to enter that debate at this time, but I will begin my study with the 44 sermons that are not in question. The first of these is “Salvation by Faith.”

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“By grace are ye saved through faith. Ephesians 2:8.” John Wesley begins his sermon with this text. It is his belief that God has freely given grace to persons regardless of any sense of having deserved that grace and mercy. Indeed it is impossible for a sinful person to move beyond a corrupt life without God’s grace. Thus, we must give thanks to God for any sinful person who changes his or her life because of that grace. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation,” says Wesley.

John WesleyWesley then moves on to describe this faith through which salvation comes. His 18th century language is difficult to understand at times, so I would be glad to hear other people’s interpretation of these sermons. What does it mean that this faith is “not barely the faith of a heathen” or “not barely that which the Apostles themselves had while Christ was yet upon earth”? It seems Wesley is saying that we need a little bit more faith for salvation. We need a faith that “acknowledges the necessity and merit of [Christ’s] death, and the power of his resurrection.” We must move beyond accepting that God is God, the only God whom we are to follow. The entirety of Christ’s saving action (life, death and resurrection) must be in our hearts.

“What is the salvation which is through faith?” Wesley goes on to answer. Salvation is attainable on earth. There is no limit on who may receive this as long as they believe in Christ. This salvation saves us from the guilt of our sin. Thus, we do not need to fear. We will not be locked up forever because of our sin. God brings us into the household and adopts us as children. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Here, then, is my next question about the meaning of Wesley’s writing: How does one, “by faith, born of God sinneth not”? Wesley gives four points by which this one “sinneth not”: 1) sin cannot rule as a habit in one who believes, 2) one’s will is against sin, 3) desire is for God and not for the unholy, and 4) infirmities cannot lead to true sin since they are not connected to one’s will. Does this mean that if my habit, will and desire are for God that anything I do wrong is because of my “infirmities” and not really sin? Perhaps, because even if I have the slightest inkling that it may be a sin, I would surely root it out of my life. That is how I am treating those areas of my life that still feel sinful. I need to turn from them and move toward “the fullness of Christ.”

The last part of Wesley’s three-part sermon is the matter of “some objections.” First, it should be clear now that this is not a sermon against good works. Rather a holy life comes along with this faith. However, it is the faith that saves and not the works. Wesley does caution against pride with this faith, but this faith is of God and is unmerited. Therefore, what is there to be prideful of? Accept God’s goodness and move with a sincere heart toward repentance. It is this sincerity that has convinced thousands, and we must share the message of Salvation by Faith with all the world.

Mega-Church Presents Model of Connectional Congregations

Adam Hamilton

Adam Hamilton for bishop? (UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert)

A recent call to make bishops out of United Methodist mega-church pastors got me thinking about the role of bishops and superintendents in leading the ministry of local congregations. My writing here focuses on connecting online churches and physical locations. Both bishops and mega-church pastors could do this.

Already we are seeing many mega-church pastors broadcasting their sermons to multiple locations. Local congregational staff then take care of pastoral needs and other parts of the worship service and local programming. Central mega-church staff provide support in the manner of technology, start-up budget, staff support structure, larger programming and mission and other resources.

Imagine if the annual conference, district or other connectional church structure played this role. Instead of perpetuating the institution of the conference, the connectional church would focus on the disciple-formation happening in the local congregations. Indeed, this is what John Wesley and the early Methodists instituted. They created the connectional structure for the support of local ministry and not the other way around.

Therefore, the bishop or superintendent could become the leader of a regional connectional church where congregations come together for leadership and mission. The ideas, volunteers and resources come out of the membership, but are then shared with the wider connection. What an amazing sense of mission and ministry this could all bring.

Starting Online Churches the Methodist Way

Would it be possible for The United Methodist Church to reach its goal of planting 650 new congregations by 2012 through reaching online churches? I am finding several models of Web-based churches, but we need one that brings in the Wesleyan method and teachings of grace. This will be a way to start a movement again like the Wesleys more than two hundred years ago.

Previously I mentioned the Loving Church founded by John Girton of Nashville, Tenn. The Loving Church, while less than a year old, has already formed groups around the country and reached people in other nations. A more developed example of a Web-based church is LifeChurch.tv. This church did not originate online. It started as a plant in Edmond, Okla., and has since grown through the use of the Internet.

LifeChurch.tv is therefore much more developed. It has several physical locations as well as groups that meet outside of the church buildings, some only meet online. It has developed videos and curriculum available freely online.

I would like to see a similar program developed within the mainline theology of The United Methodist Church. The UMC already has many of the pieces, though some of them or being developed by local congregations or independent business founded by United Methodists. Working together we can do this? Here is a fascinating way to Rethink Church. Will we come together to share the message?

Connecting Faith from the Digital to the Physical

In the early days of Methodism, a group of people would gather to pray and support each other on their faith journey. These people did not leave the churches in which they were baptized, but the society formed a greater connection in which they may be strengthened while the world is in turmoil.

Our world is in turmoil today as well. A new society of Methodists would be a valuable thing. How are such like-minded people to connect and grow a society in the 21st century?

While planting new churches is becoming a popular idea, I propose a community that starts on the Web and moves into the physical world. Many people make their initial connections online today. They follow links from one Web destination to another, all the while learning which connections they find genuinely meet their spiritual needs.

Thus, the online faith community needs to be able to minister to this population before physical contact is made. An opportunity must be provided for worship, pastoral care, Christian education and overall growth of one’s discipleship. Nevertheless, it should not end there. It needs to bring together these seekers together in the physical realm so that they may see the reality of God’s power working through them as the physical community.

John Girton has shown one way for a faith community to form online with connections in the physical realm. Based in Nashville, Tenn., The Loving Church now has cell groups meeting throughout the United States and individuals participating from around the world.

Imagine the power of the United Society, today known as The United Methodist Church, if it would engage people around the world in a similar manner today. The large amount of resources and already established local connections would provide infinite ways for people connect. Who will join me in such an endeavor?

Knowing the Movie and the Future

On Friday I finally got around to seeing the movie Knowing starring Nicholas Cage. I was curious about it when it first hit the screens, but it took a broken air conditioner and a $1.50 movie theater to finally get me out of the house. It is not Cage’s best movie, though I think he did a fine job.

What bugged me most about the movie was the ending. I don’t want to go into details so as not to spoil it for others. What I will say is that the Cage’s character, John Koestler, is an astrophysicist struggling throughout the two hours about whether it is possible to know the future. He grew up in a strong Christian family, but when his wife died in a fire he gave up whatever remained of any faith.

This faith appears to be tied to a Calvinistic interpretation. According to John Calvin, God predestines people to be saved and taken to heaven, though God may also predestine some not to be saved. This view suggests a world already planned out.

I, on the other hand, follow in the path of John Wesley and Jacob Arminius. In this understanding, humanity has free will to choose or reject God. Now I believe God may already know what our choice is, but it is still our choice.

The movie, Knowing, was entertaining. I liked the general storyline, whereas it revolved around a strange list of numbers that appears to have predicted every major disaster in the past 50 years. As a former mathematics major, I enjoyed seeing numbers play a central role.

However, I do not think it developed the spiritual side of Koestler’s struggle or fully explained the religious imagery behind the list and the surrounding occurrences. This culminates in the strange ending where you cannot be certain if it is really about something religious after all. While Koestler felt peace at the end, I did not.