Back to the Basics: Love, Sin, Salvation, and the #NextMethodism

A few good posts have popped up about the “Next Methodism” and what that might look like. Kevin Watson, Scott Fritzsche, and Stephen Fife have taken up this topic, and I made my own contribution as well. Now I’d like to continue the conversation with a bit of reflection on what it might mean for Wesleyan/Methodist types to get “back to the basics” of Christian faith.

These suggestions are not about the structure of The United Methodist Church going forward, but about what I believe a successful Wesleyan movement will teach and do.

Wesley

Okay… First, some technical stuff: theologically, John Wesley was not particularly original. He was deeply formed by the Book of Common Prayer. He drew heavily on Augustine and Luther and wove in ideas from the Eastern Fathers. He insisted on an Arminian notion of free will and election. (In other words, he held that (a) we have free will and (b) we are not individually predestined for heaven or hell.) He drew upon the “heart theology” of German Pietists. His system of belief was an amalgamation of ideas from traditional Christian thinkers. In no way did he depart from what he called “primitive Christianity,” or the Christianity of the first five centuries.

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John Wesley, clearly having an awesome day

Wesley proclaimed what is sometimes called the “old, old story.” Christianity is, at its heart, about the love of God for us, our rebellion against God, and God’s work through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to overcome our rebellion and its consequences. Love, sin, salvation… these together are the essence of Christian proclamation.

We often try to make Christianity about other things—about social justice, good works, receiving blessing, or going to heaven when we die. All of these, though, are derivative of Christianity’s three most basic claims: love, sin, and salvation. I believe that a renewed commitment to these claims will be essential for the Next Methodism.

To put a finer point on it, we are going to have to get clear about what “Methodist” proclamation means and why it matters. And if we are Wesleyan in any discernable sense, love, sin, and salvation will become the hallmarks of our preaching and teaching.

Love

Yep, God loves you. He really does, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you may as well just accept it.

In fact, God is love. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). God created us out of love. God made covenant with Israel out of love. God gave the law out of love and came to us in Jesus Christ out of love. Out of love, God sent the Holy Spirit to abide with us until Christ returns.

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Photo by Wingchi Poon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For many people, the idea of being loved like this is an almost impossible idea. How many people have you met who feel unworthy of love? How many feel that love is something that one must earn, or that they can never really have? Some people see God only as a judge, some as a taskmaster. The idea that the God of the universe would really love them—enough to come in person and die for them–is unfathomable.

The media-saturated world in which we live constantly tells us that we are not enough, we cannot measure up, we need more, we are unworthy. We connect with more people than ever before via social media, but our relationships are more superficial, and the opportunity for truly meaningful connections is ever more difficult. If we have not experienced love in our lives, especially as children, it is very difficult to receive God’s love.

So we really have to drive this one home: God loves each of us immeasurably and unconditionally. The only question is whether we will receive this love and return it to God.

Nothing else in Christianity makes sense without the love of God. Everything is predicated upon this idea. It is the bedrock concept of Christian faith.

Sin

Saying that God is love necessarily means that God is not morally neutral. God cares how we live, what we do, what we say, and even what we think. This is clear from the earliest chapters of the Bible through its very last.

In spite of God’s great love for us, however, we separate ourselves from God by our thoughts, words, and deeds. In other words, we sin. Human beings are good by nature, but we are fallen. Some people prefer the language of “broken,” but the point is that sin is an inescapable part of human life.

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Face it: we all screw up. Paul writes about this in Romans 7 using a Greek rhetorical device called a “speech in character” (or, if you want the fancy Greek word, prosopopoeia). He speaks on behalf of all of fallen humanity:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me (Rom 7:14-20).

In Romans, Paul is much more concerned with sin than sins (plural). He sees sin as a kind of cosmic force exerting itself on the human will. Even if we know what is right, we can’t do it, at least not consistently.

After lamenting the state of the human condition, he seems to throw up his hands in frustration: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

The answer, however, comes in the next breath: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25).

We can’t escape from sin, but we can be rescued from it. And that’s where salvation comes in.

Salvation

Because of the love of God, we don’t have to remain in sin. John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (3:16). God’s love for us is so great that, despite all the terrible things human beings have done, we can still be free—really free—of the guilt of sin, and we can deny sin power over our lives.

God came to us in Jesus Christ, who atoned for our sins on the cross. Think of atonement as at-one-ment. Sin separates us from God, but on the cross Jesus made it possible for us to be in communion with God again. Jesus broke the death grip of sin upon our lives and freed us from the guilt of our rebellion against God. Now God abides with us in the Holy Spirit, empowering us to think, speak, and act as we were always meant to.

As Paul puts it, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor 5:19, and we’ll get back to the “entrusting the message to us” part later).

 

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Jesus has saved us. The language of “being saved” may sound hackneyed to many Christians, like something out of “The Apostle.” Nevertheless, it is perhaps the best language available for thinking about what Jesus has done for us. He has saved us—from sin, Satan, death, ego, and meaninglessness. Jesus saves us, and boy do we need saving.

Here’s another way of putting it: Jesus makes it possible for us to be who we were always intended to be. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). Have you done things you’re ashamed of? Well, now you’re a new creation. Do you believe your sins can’t be forgiven? Guess what? You’re not the same person you used to be. You’re a new creation. Do you wish you could change the past? You can’t do that, but God is making you into someone new. You’re a new creation. Let that sink in.

Sometimes we think of salvation as equivalent to “going to heaven.” Salvation is much more than this, though. In his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” Wesley describes salvation as follows:

It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.” It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, “Ye have been saved”: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.

To be clear, Wesley did believe that we would live eternally with God, but that “salvation” involved much more than this. Salvation is something happening in our lives now. It is the change that God creates in the hearts of those who seek him.

Or, here’s still another way of putting it: the salvation that we have in Jesus means that we will be filled with God’s love to the point of overflowing, and that same love will pour out of our lives.

Our salvation means we are never alone. God is always present. We may not feel God’s presence all the time. We may not understand that God is moving or what God is doing, but God is present. And that means that we have at our disposal the power of the Holy Spirit, who is a giver of gifts. The Spirit may give us gifts of preaching, teaching, healing, or prophecy. The Spirit may give many other gifts, too. But rest assured, if we ask, the Spirit will empower us with gifts for the building up of the church.

Now, back to “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” God has given us the great privilege of telling other people about love, sin, and redemption. He gives us the opportunity to tell other people how our lives have been saved, how we have been rescued, and how God is making us into a new creation. In the next Methodism, let’s keep the main thing the main thing, and tell people about the love of God, human sin, and the redemption we have through Jesus Christ.

29 thoughts on “Back to the Basics: Love, Sin, Salvation, and the #NextMethodism

  1. In Rejecting my brothers and sisters for their God given sexuality, you reject me. I fail to see love expressed in so doing.

    • Rejecting people who have decided to act, or not to act, while still loving them is entirely normal and happens all the time.
      If my son hits a girl I will punish him but I will also love him. It won’t feel loving to him but that is not necessary nor the point at that time.

      God loves everybody but that doesn’t mean that we can sin away and assume that his love means a license to “sin away.” Romans 6.

    • I agree, Mr. Anderson, and to me the basis of all religions is love. The love of all humans, no matter their race, color, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or nation of origin. We are all God’s children.
      The church turns off thinking, cogent people when it speaks of “born in sin,” or “you are a sinner and need salvation.” We, all of us, are an evolving species, not sinners in need of salvation.
      Jesus was not “sent by God, his “father” to suffer on a cross for our sins.” What father would send his son a cross for crucifixion? Jesus was human, with a Godlike message for us to love one another. He was crucified, and died. Why? He was a political dissident. Political dissidents were killed, and in that time and place, crucifixion was the method of punishing those who acted against those in power.

  2. We can’t keep the “main thing” the main thing because there’s always “one more thing” we want to add to the gospel. These accretions to the gospel soon burden the message to such an extent that we can never clear our throats to preach Christ without doubling down on our favorite added clause. Reading through the summations from the latest annual conference cycle reveals we are a church that can’t bring people to Christ, but we’re sure good at boasting about ourselves.

  3. In the section under Sin it is written, “In spite of God’s great love for us, however, we separate ourselves from God by our thoughts, words, and deeds. In other words, we sin. Human beings are good by nature, but we are fallen. Some people prefer the language of “broken,” but the point is that sin is an inescapable part of human life.”

    I agree with most of this statement, but I am not sure I agree with the phrase “human beings are good by nature, but we are fallen.” Yes, we are fallen, but that falleness is part of our nature. Have you ever taken a toy away from a two year old who really wants to keep it, or who does something explicitly after telling him/her not to do so. It may not have been part of the orginal prototypes, but they acquired, had imposed upon them, and/or both a flaw that carried over to the production models. Instead of starting over at the drawing board, the production line models have been allowed to be continued to be produced with the flaw, but the producer has issued a remedy/fix to and for his creation. If we are good or very good by nature, to me at least, that implies there is no need for a fix. I think it also opens the door up for the possibility of being saved exclusively by works or the possibility of someone other than Jesus going through life as sinless and becoming the savior, much like it has been alluded by some I have heard and in articles by others I have read.

    Just my thoughts. I will probably post this reply on a UMClergy facebook page that is discussing your article. The production line analogy may not be the best. I know we are not a disposable commodity. Have a great day

    • We are evolving, not “fallen.” We evolve, and I hope become better persons along the way. We, as a species, are evolving.

  4. I should have read the post itself instead of just weighing in on the comment thread. I agree with everything you’ve said here. It’s simple and accessible without any distracting contentiousness. I’ll try to do a better job of giving you a fair hearing.

  5. David, while I basically agree with you threefold summary of the Christian gospel, I would like to share a few ways in which my own views differ from your explication of the major points, though not with the points themselves.

    LOVE: Whenever i preach, teach, or write about God’s love, I try to remember that it is not limited to humans, but includes all of Creation. Indeed, the signature verse on the topic (John 3:16) tells us that “God so loved the world,” not just humanity. The Gospel has cosmic implications. God’s goal is to heal, redeem, restore, save (whatever term one prefers) all of Creation, not just people. Or, as Paul says in one of the few statements of his that I count among my favorite verses (I have lots of issues with Paul, but that’s another matter), which you quoted, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). Whenever we are “in Christ” that part of the Creation we occupy and influence is made new, not just us.

    SIN: I have lived in this world long enough, interacted with enough people, and taken stock of my own life frequently enough that I have no problem acknowledging the presence of sin in our world, or the damage it does to our relationship with God and with others. But I truly believe our thinking about sin has been led into less-than-helpful paths by the very passage you quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans (as I said, I have issues with Paul and wish his perspective on the faith weren’t as prominent and influential as it has been). To begin with, I reject the spirit/flesh duality–in either us or in the Creation–on which this passage is based. In this sense, I’m probably more “Jewish” than Paul was, because I am totally convinced that we are nepheshoth, psychosomatic unities in which “the soul bone is connected to the body bone.” Because I view us in this way, I simply don’t buy the idea that sin is “a kind of cosmic force exerting itself on the human will.” Our wills are sufficiently bent and broken to account for the sinful acts we commit. When I sin, it is because I have chosen to do so. And I choose to do so because I am broken and in need of healing.

    SALVATION: Because of my Creation-wide view of God’s love and because I am willing to take ownership of my own sinfulness, I also tend to view the salvation God accomplished in Christ somewhat differently. God didn’t need a victim, so we didn’t need someone to take our place. The cross is certainly part of it, but so are the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Without them, the crucifixion alone would have accomplished nothing other than showing us the extent of God’s love and how dangerous it is to manifest that love in a sinful world.

    So, as you see, I agree and disagree with you, but that’s not what really matters. Throughout my career, I preached God’s love, our sin, and our need for salvation, and I agree that we must always keep these three foremost–not only in the “next Methodism,” but also in the one we have right now.

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