Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Modern Methodist Church and John Wesley's Theology

I. Introduction and Purpose
The current United Methodist church slogan is “Open hearts, Open minds, and Open doors.”   Contrast the slogan with the words of John Wesley on October 10, 1745 – “It is vain, therefore, for any that is called a Methodist ever to think of not giving offence.  And as much offence as you give by your name, you will give still more by your principles.”[1]  Whereas the context of Wesley’s statement was in giving his advice to “a people called Methodist,” and the historical setting is different from today, it can hardly go unnoticed how the modern Methodist’s church slogan implies a willingness and openness to embrace different principles; principles that are “open” – not timeless.  In addition, it almost, if not explicitly implies the Methodist church is a church body that celebrates diversity; an “open mind” is perhaps a virtue.    
The purpose of this paper will be to briefly examine Wesley’s theology, specifically his understanding of sanctification coupled with Justification by Faith alone, and why this doctrinal murkiness has lead to a modern day Methodist Church Wesley would hardly recognize; if not reluctant to have his name associated with.  The research will show the modern Methodist church has brilliantly capitalized on Wesley’s less than precise theology, adopted an un-Wesleyan theology of inclusiveness and diversity at the expense of scriptural truth and doctrine.  This will be evidenced in the November 3, 2009 document - “God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action”[2] signed by The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church (all fifty of them).  Further evidence will show that unlike Wesley, the modern Methodist church leadership has abandoned its willingness to scripturally distinguish between that which is holy and that which is profane, that which is temporal and that which is eternal.  It should also be noted that while the research focuses on a small sampling of Methodist leadership in general, there does remain a Methodist “body” of believers, laity and pastors alike, that are committed to scripture’s authority and to a Wesleyan model that teaches holy living, both in mind and act.    
II. Wesley’s Evolving Theology
            Wesley’s conversion experience and his later writings do appear to be a contradiction, especially in terms of how one is saved.  Wesley was on a return trip to England after an unsuccessful missionary journey in the new colony of Georgia, when he met Peter Bohler, a Moravian missionary.  A careful reading of Wesley’s journal from February 7 to May 24, 1738 establishes the great influence Bohler had upon Wesley’s early understanding of the instantaneous work of “Justification by Faith Alone”.[3]  While John Wesley was on this ship returning to England, amidst a great storm and fearing for his life, he observes the Moravian missionaries singing hymns of praise, apparently without fear of death.  Eventually after searching the New Testament, Wesley would be convinced that Bohler was correct and soon became committed to Luther’s understanding of this doctrine.  Wesley’s journal records his own words: 
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. [4]    
About a month later, John’s brother Charles had experienced a similar conviction, thus both men leaving behind their fundamental Romanism, to become Protestant Reformers,[5] at least for a short period of time. 
Approximately a year later, John Wesley’s view of justification by faith alone, would clearly be modified.  Wesley would eventually become highly critical of Luther’s “justification by Faith alone” because it did not give a proper place to sanctification.[6]   Dr. Cox argues that Wesley’s later criticism over Luther’s doctrine of “Justification by Faith Alone,” was not because he fundamentally disagreed with Luther, but much more likely that Wesley had subsequently discovered the doctrinal errors of the Moravians to be intolerable; specifically their willingness to deny the value of any good works.[7]  Nevertheless, neither Luther nor most of the Protestant Reformers would have accepted the Wesleyan idea of “Christian Perfection” (man may become perfect before his death); in John Wesley’s own words - “And I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it.”[8]  What is relevant here, is Wesley was responding theologically (doctrinally) to his own historical setting; the Moravians’ denial of good works and an eighteenth century church failing to “transform” the outward life of those professing the faith.  Where Wesley had previously searched the scripture to confirm or deny a particular doctrine, he was now implicitly establishing categories of Christians; “saved” and “almost saved” by outward signs of righteousness.  For instance, Wesley declares – “every inward working of every human soul: every appetite, passion, inclination, [and] affection” will be manifested and that will be the evidence of the one who is either righteous or unrighteous.[9]  Wesley’s understanding of Justification by Faith alone has indeed dramatically shifted.  In fact, his understanding had far reaching implications on Wesleyan theology as it is understood in the modern Methodist Church; keeping the law is necessary for salvation (or maintaining salvation), specifically loving God and neighbor.      
In Wesley’s sermon “On the Wedding Garment” he makes clear the necessity of personal holiness:
 Does not that expression, “the righteousness of the saints,” point out what is the “wedding garment” in the parable? It is the “holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.” The righteousness of Christ is doubtless necessary for any soul that enters into glory: But so is personal holiness too, for every child of man. But it is highly needful to be observed, that they are necessary in different respects. The former is necessary to entitle us to heaven; the latter to qualify us for it. Without the righteousness of Christ we could have no claim to glory; without holiness we could have no fitness for it. By the former we become members of Christ, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the latter “we are made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” [10]
Wesley unfortunately has missed a crucial point - the man without the wedding garment was not some “wedding crasher.”  The slaves on behalf of the King’s command invited and gathered both evil and good (Matthew 22:10).  The wedding garments are provided by the King, and the man who did not wear his garment had purposely rejected the King’s provision.[11]  There is no “qualification” that the guests must meet, it is precisely coming to the wedding party, being in the very presence of the King, and rejecting the wedding garment (the righteousness of Christ) that condemns the man. 
            To conclude this brief examination of Wesley’s theology, it must be noted that at the very heart of his theology was the idea that God desires to save all people.  His emphasis on sanctification and even Christian perfection orients his entire soteriology.[12]  Wesley understood at the very heart of being created in the image of God, is the image of love.[13]  Sin was not the primary problem with man’s condition; rather man no longer had a relationship with God because self had replaced God as the object of man’s love.[14]  In other words, justification no longer equates to salvation; rather sanctification means salvation and therefore salvation by necessity becomes a process, not a onetime divine act.  Wesley conceives of sanctification as holy affections, and chief among them are love for god and neighbor.[15]  It is here, the modern day Methodist church leadership has turned Wesley’s concern for holy living into a virtual buffet of “holy” affections.  Where Wesley may have had a contradictory and evolving theology, the modern day Methodist church (leadership specifically) would hardly be recognizable to him, if not outright offensive.            
III. God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action
            In 2009 the United Methodist Council of Bishops issued the following words in their foundational document for God’s Renewed Creation:
For many hundreds of years “The People of the Book,” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim have lived through hard times of draught, fire, floods, raging waters and tempestuous winds, sustained by the ancient wisdom of the Psalmists who over and over again sang of “the steadfast love of the Lord.”
Today, the human family is awakening to alarming news: after several thousand years of a stable climate that enabled us to thrive, the earth is heating up at an accelerating rate. Climate change poses a particular threat to the world’s poor because it increases the spread of diseases like malaria and causes conflicts over dwindling natural resources. Easy access to small arms ensures that such conflicts turn deadly, and the specter of a nuclear war that would destroy the earth continues to loom over us.[16]
Why is all this happening?  – “Because the peoples of the world are reading the signs carefully---we see clearly that God is doing a new thing, and that God is inviting the human family to participate in transformation.” [17]  The foundational verse, according to the bishops, rests in Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  This quoted from the pastoral letter to be read to all UMC congregations:  
First, let us orient our lives toward God’s holy vision. This vision of the future calls us to
hope and to action. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Christ’s resurrection assures us that this vision is indeed a promise of renewal and reconciliation. As disciples of Christ, we take God’s promise as the purpose for our lives. Let us, then, rededicate ourselves to God’s holy vision, living each day with awareness of the future that God extends to us and of the Spirit that leads us onward.[18]

It should be noted once again, all fifty United State’s bishops signed their name to this document.
            At first glance, this document may appear to be harmless, but with a closer inspection the bishops have failed miserably with their foundational scripture on at least two key points.  First, taking context into consideration, Jeremiah 29 is addressed to the Israelites in exile, not to Christians or even all people in a general sense.  Jeremiah 29:4 makes this unmistakably clear – “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…”  Secondly, and perhaps most important, the bishop’s general promise of “renewed hope” and welfare is utterly void of what happens to those who die without Christ as Lord and Savior.  Simply scrolling down a few more verses (v 17-18), the same “lord of hosts” issues His promise of judgment, curse, and terror; why these “judgment” verses are not also applicable to all peoples is not addressed by the bishops.  Clearly the bishops in advance have settled on what they want scripture to say, in order to lend justification for their own agenda; “social and environmental holiness”.[19]  This “holy” agenda goes so far as to include the promise “to measure the carbon footprint of our episcopal and denominational offices, determine how to reduce it, and implement those changes.”[20]        
            Since Wesley’s theology centered both on God’s desire to save all people and holy living (sanctification), the Methodist bishops have simply evolved his theology one step further to address whatever current social, and at the present, environmental issues that have arisen in modern times.  The politics of such pronouncements should be obvious; the letter is completely silent on protecting the unborn, protecting persecuted Christians in nations hostile to Christianity, or any mention that “global warming” is far from being a settled issue.  In fact, it appears the bishops have disregarded the clear teaching of scripture recorded in 2 Corinthians 6:14 – “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness”(NASB).  If the bishop’s claim – “God is already visibly at work in people and groups around the world” and “we rededicate ourselves to join these movements, the movements of the Spirit”[21] is true, then Paul’s word about being spiritually yoked with the unbelieving “world” would certainly be detrimental to a faithful Christian witness to a lost world in need.         
IV. Discernment within the Methodist Church
            United Methodist Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church & Society, wrote a letter in September 2009, entitled - "Word from Winkler - Congregational malpractice."[22]  Mr. Winkler states the following:
The provision of health care for all without regard to status or ability to pay is portrayed in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:24-35). In a conversation that began with the question of how one might obtain eternal life, Jesus asserted that one must love God and one’s neighbor. In response to the next question as to who one’s neighbor is, Jesus told of a Samaritan, an outsider, who coming upon a wounded traveler, provided him with health care. Jesus described the duty to provide health care as owed regardless of the merit or ethnicity of the person in need, and owed to the limit of one’s economic capacity. By the way, this is from #3201, “Health Care for All in the United States,” 2008 Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church.
Taking a closer look at Winkler’s use of scripture, it is evident that an agenda, not context guides his interpretation.  The question posed to Jesus was asked by a scribe, a legal expert in the law, and one of those “religious elites” that also included the Pharisees.  It should also be noted, it was the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus consistently confronted head on for their self righteousness.  Winkler either purposely or ignorantly obscures verse 29 – “But wishing to justify himself he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor’?”  At issue in this text, is not a health care issue, or even helping those in need.  The entire point of the parable rests in Jesus showing the scribe that he had no right to hate his enemy (the filthy Samaritan).  Winkler subtlety implies the Samaritan was an “outsider”, as if the outsider could also be one of those without health care.  Jesus specifically used a Samaritan for a spiritual lesson; furthermore, the Samaritan actually used his own money to provide the help.  The scribe had a spiritual problem, he hated his enemy (Samaritans); a lesson on character, not health care.  If leaders within the Methodist Church can no longer discern the clear meaning of scripture, then any significant hope to transform a lost world is diminished.  At stake is not just proper hermeneutics, but also a church’s ability to distinguish the holy from the profane; heresy from sound doctrine.    
            Perhaps there is no issue within “mainstream” Christianity more divisive than same-sex sexual relationships; the United Methodist Church’s current position states it is – “incompatible with Christian teaching.”[23]  How long this UMC position will remain in force remains a heavily debated topic within Methodism, particularly in the West (America).  In November of 2011, former Methodist pastor Jimmy Creech spoke to the students of Duke University Seminary (a Methodist Seminary).  According to Creech, homosexuals “suffer from a hideous violence called ‘Christian morality’ that attacks their very being, their very souls.” He further argues: “Gay people internalize these misconceptions…[and] pretend to be someone they are not or end their lives.”[24]  In 2005 Virginia Methodist Bishop Charlene Kammerer suspended a pastor for denying church membership to a practicing homosexual.[25]  John Wesley’s notes on Romans 1:27 could not be more diametrically opposed to the concepts being portrayed by Creech and Bishop Kammerer – “Receiving the just recompense of their error - Their idolatry being punished with that unnatural lust, which was as horrible a dishonour to the body, as their idolatry was to God.”[26]                  
            In the “spirit” of Open hearts, Open minds, and Open doors, Claremont Seminary in 2009 added clerical training for Muslims and Jews, thus straining the support it receives from the United Methodist Church.[27]  In addition, Wesleyan scholar Kenneth J. Collins goes as far to suggest that the obstacles to the Muslim receiving the gospel, are not doctrinal (the divinity of Christ and his crucifixion specifically mentioned),[28] but are in fact – “the lives of the Christians.”[29]  It is here that Collins attempts to compare Wesley’s own criticism of his Anglican Church as being a “stumbling block” to reaching the eightieth century Muslims. In addition, Collins strongly argues that all obstacles and stumbling blocks should be removed in order that the blessings of Christ can be received by all people; Christ died for not only Christians, but Muslims as well.[30]  Collins’ view begs the question – when historically has the Christian faith not been defined by its doctrines?      
            Setting aside the lengthy historical debates between Calvinist and Arminians, John Wesley appropriately places the differences of the two succinctly when he states – “Is predestination absolute or conditional? The Arminians believe, it is conditional; the Calvinists, that it is absolute.”[31]  Again, the Wesleyan emphasis remains on “conditional” election; holy affections and loving one’s neighbor being the foremost in Wesley’s theology.  Where Wesley was ready, willing, and able to draw a line between the “holy” and “profane”, the only thing “profane” in the Methodist church today, is actually drawing such a distinction.  Whether it is “environmental holiness” or punishing a local pastor’s stance on sexual purity and church membership, the implications are clear – the Methodist leadership is more concerned with worldly praise than submitting to God’s word.  In essence, the Methodist church has lost, or at best, is losing its ability to discern “good” from “evil”; diversity is the sacred calf that must be protected at all costs. 
Students at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. are required to sign a “Commitment to Diversity” which includes “sexual orientation”.[32]  The mere term “sexual orientation” would be foreign to John Wesley, and furthermore, it is a term of recent adoption, primarily to lend justification to a political movement, not religious.  Secondly, the term itself implies a powerlessness to change, and change is at the very heart of the gospel as the apostle Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 6:11- “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”  For a seminary claiming to represent the teachings of Christ Jesus to even use such a term, is evidence it values something far greater than God’s word; specifically inclusiveness, toleration, and diversity.  In other words, inclusiveness, tolerance, and diversity have become modern day expressions of loving one’s neighbor within the Methodist Church.  It should not be denied that Wesley’s own theology has contributed to this “modern” understanding - that God desires to save all men, and all Christians may achieve some degree of perfection.  The concept that some “faiths” (Methodist specifically) are transforming the world by “loving neighbor” ultimately undermines why Jesus went to the cross - that all men have failed to precisely do just that.  Discernment is the result of spiritual maturity, and without discernment, the Methodist Church will continue to lose its identity, especially an accurate historical identity with John Wesley as it relates to his emphasis on sanctification, or perhaps better understood biblically, discipline within the church.
V. Conclusion
In 2 Corinthians 11:13, Paul uses some very harsh language –“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ”.  In essence, Paul is warning the church in no uncertain terms that the ability to recognize those who masquerade in self styled piety is essential.  The damage “false teachers” can do is exceedingly greater when they are inside the church walls.  Who in the Christian faith will argue treating the environment (God’s creation) with respect and care is wrong?  Who in the Christian faith will deny the importance of loving one’s neighbor or sharing the gospel to one’s “enemy”?  The true Christian’s enemy is Satan, and Satan always uses deception; he is the great deceiver.  The Methodist bishops may speak of “love”, peace, joy, and diversity, but is it centered on Christ and His word – scripture?  The Methodist bishops have become like the folks in Corinth; they think of themselves as being so highly gifted in their ability to “love neighbor” – they are actually easily duped into a worldly mindedness.  Having an open mind is not a virtue, nor is it even hinted at in scripture as being desired by God’s children.  In fact, the scriptures as a whole seek to “close” the believer’s mind to all that celebrate human wisdom over and above God’s word (Isaiah 5:20-1). 
Central to the Methodist bishop’s error is the un-Wesleyan notion that all faiths deserve respect and acceptance under the cloak of “loving neighbor”.  In essence, this is the heart of self righteousness for at its foundation, it implies a fulfilling of the law.  Wesley’s idea of obtaining “perfection” in this life deserves its fair share of the blame.  What is not often expressed is the biblical teaching that “religious” folks may also fail to understand spiritual truth; the Pharisees being a primary biblical example. Saving the planet is an idea that springs forth from a self righteous mind.  Celebrating those things that unbelievers (different faiths) share with Christianity over the stark differences, is also another avenue of self righteousness.  The most essential things according to scripture are those doctrines that separate Christianity from all other faiths in the world– the gospel itself.  When a body of bishops can no longer distinguish heresy from sound biblical doctrine, they are no longer servants of Christ, but of men.                

[1]John Wesley, Advice to a People Called Methodist [article on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet.

[2] God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet.
[3]Leo G. Cox, “John Wesley’s View of Martin Luther”, Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society, 7 no 3 (Sum 1964): 85.
[4]John Wesley, Journal of John Wesley, I Felt my Heart Strangely Warm [document on-line] (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet.

[5] Leo G. Cox, “John Wesley’s View of Martin Luther”, Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society, 7 no 3 (Sum 1964): 85.

[6] Ibid., 88.

[7]Ibid., 87.

[8]John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, ed. by Thomas Jackson (1872; Christian Classics Ethereal Library) [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet. 
[9]Kenneth J. Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 196.

[10]John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions, Sermon 120, On the Wedding Garment (1872; Christian Classics Ethereal Library) [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet. 
[11]John MacArthur, The John MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), 1166. 

[12]Henry H. Knight III, “Love and Freedom ‘by Grace Alone’ in Wesley’s Soteriology: A Proposal for Evangelicals,” The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Vo. 24, No. 1 (Spring 2002): 57.

[13]Ibid., 58.


[15]Ibid., 65.
[16] God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet, 4.


[18]God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, A Pastoral Letter from the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from,; Internet, 2.
[19] God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet, 2.

[20]Ibid., 7.
[21]God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, A Pastoral Letter from the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet, 5.

[22]Jim Winkler, “Word from Winkler – Congregational malpractice”, Faith in Action (28 September 2009) [article on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet.
[23]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2008 [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from{1F6BAEA8-E9EE-4867-B892-2F6871C78CB6}&notoc=1; Internet.
[24]Barton Gingerich, “Defrocked Methodist Jimmy Creech Speaks at Duke,” The Institute of Religion and Democracy, December 2011 [article on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011): available from; Internet. 

[25]“Virginia Pastor Suspended For Denying Membership To Practicing Homosexual Thread”, UMC Page [articles on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011) available from; Internet.

[26]John Wesley, Wesley Notes on the Bible (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011);; Internet.

[27]Mitchell Landsberg, “Claremont seminary reaches beyond Christianity” Los Angeles Times, 29 June 2010 [article on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet.

[28]Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2007), 120.

[29]Ibid., 118.
[30]Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2007), 120.

[31]John Wesley, “The Question, ‘What Is an Arminian?’ Answered by a Lover of Free Grace”, [document on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet.
[32]Wesley Theological Seminary Student Handbook, 2009-2010. [book on-line] (accessed 16 December 2011); available from; Internet, 57. 

1 comment:

Deanna Johnston Clark said...

I was raised Methodist and miss the singing and Sunday School. But I have heard of members and teachers there who believe in reincarnation and other occult lies...something very sloppy is going on.
That said I believe John Wesley, as Whitefield, saw a church or meeting as being like Christ's Sermons outdoors where all without distinction were welcome to come and listen to His words. This didn't mean Jesus approved of everyone's lifestyles or beliefs. This is much braver than shunning people and being exclusive. Jesus was always criticized for those He hung out with.
Somehow the best of Methodism needs to be matched with real authority about who teaches Sunday School or what vows are used for marriage. Thanks for this article.