Saved to the Uttermost
Rev. Greg Pulham
Minister’s Conference, Wesley Acres
September 26, 2013
Prayer for Heart Purity
This morning, I would like you to join me in praying this prayer that was of great significance to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, as we shall see. It is also a prayer that has been prayed by followers of Jesus for at least 1200 years …
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are opened, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Introduction – all the good news
A couple of years ago, Peter, one of the men in our church, a professor at the University in Brantford, invited leaders from about 18 different churches in the city to discuss the organizing of a major event on the university campus. Some of you will have heard of Veritas Forum events – but if not, all you need to know is that it is an on campus forum aimed at university students – the event is designed to bring the most difficult issues and questions of our day in contact with the Truth of Jesus. These forums were having exciting results around North American university campuses and also in Europe.
Well, about a dozen pastors show up and almost before Peter has finished describing what a glorious format this is to engage the best and brightest of university minds with the Christian faith, a pastor from a more conservative Baptist congregation puts up his hand and asks: “Will there be a gospel presentation?”
It was more than a little deflating. I knew what he meant –would there be an invitation, an altar call? While we were endeavoring to hold to an expanded scope of the meaning of salvation to include God’s amazing promise of abundant life, life that is truly life, more and better life than we could dream or imagine; he was trying to narrow the stakes to a confrontation with sin and repentance.
God’s grace doesn’t end simply by changing our standing with God. The Bible speaks everywhere of how God, in Christ, effects a change in us – that we can walk in newness of life. Paul makes this clear when we read past chapter 5 in Romans.
This expansive, optimistic understanding of salvation was everywhere emphasized by John Wesley, as we have seen already these past few days:
- All must be saved
- All may be saved
- All may know they are saved
- All may be saved to the uttermost
I want to explore in the next few minutes, the last of these four convictions.
In chapter 5, Paul was concerned to describe what the Christ event does for us – justification – a new relationship and new standing with God. As part of that, Paul had written in 5:20 – “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
As we turn the page from chapter 5 to chapter 6, we are on the edge of our seats wondering where this astonishing triumph of grace over sin in our lives will lead.
But what we find is a question, or possibly an objection to Paul’s teaching – I don’t know if it was from someone legitimately trying to understand Paul’s teaching or from someone that was trying to exploit it:
1 … Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
The query, then, is to this effect: “Are we not able, or even obliged, by the logic of justification, to continue on in sin, now that we are Christians, in order to give divine grace as much opportunity as possible to display itself? The more we sin, the more will God’s grace be required to meet the situation, and this will in turn contribute the more to his glory.”
Clearly, the questioner has failed to grasp that God can do more with our sin that simply forgive us the guilt of it.
God doesn’t forgive just for the sake of forgiving. God doesn’t forgive just to demonstrate how loving he is. Isn’t that what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”? Rather, God sends his Son to reconcile the world to him for the purpose of glorifying his name through our lives. He reconciles us to him as a first movement in his plan to make his dream come true – to make all things new.
When I look at this question, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”, I think of something I read many years ago:
“The Lord does not love us for our good parts and pass over the rest. He died for the bad parts and will not rest until they are put right. We must stop thinking of God as infinitely indulgent. We must begin to grapple with the scary and exhilarating truth that he is infinitely holy, and that he wants the same for us.” (Frederica Mathewes-Green)
Whereas in chapter 5, Paul describes what the Christ event does for us – that is, justification – a new relationship and new standing with God; in chapter 6 Paul turns to the transformation that occurs in us – that is, sanctification.
The power of God’s work in Jesus Christ does not just change our relationship with God. If we stop at chapter 5 or think that is all Paul says, we miss the amazing results of the work God does through faith in our lives. Yes, our relationship with God is changed by what God promises to do for us in Jesus Christ. But we ourselves are also changed – profoundly.
Starting Point – 6:11
In our time this morning, we can only begin to probe the depth of Paul’s thinking in chapter 6 and following. Let me try to get us into his thinking by focusing on v.6:11.
11In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
This verse is a way into what Paul is communicating here and on into chapters 7 and 8. And here, I think, is the starting point, a foundation upon which our thinking about the nature and extent of this change in us can be built.
Paul declares that we must `count’ – alternate translations include “reckon” (KJV) and “consider yourselves” (NLT).
The word is most commonly used in bookkeeping, and thus the image I think we are to draw is to “calculate” or to “take accounts.” When this counting or account-taking is done, the results might be exactly as expected, or they may be totally unexpected (and shockingly so.) But if done with due diligence, the accounting will disclose the true state of affairs. Think for a moment about the Sunday offering (for those who gather on Sundays). Until you add up the money in the offering plates, you won’t have an accurate ‘count’ of the amount of the morning’ offerings. The counting makes you aware of the reality of the offering amount (good or bad).
Paul is telling those who have embraced his teaching in chapter 5 and put their trust in Jesus to take the count of what it is they have because of that new relationship / standing. He certainly doesn’t want them to guess or underestimate what has happened to them. He wants them to be aware of their true spiritual condition.
He wants them to embrace the truth of who they are so they can be who they are. And what is that? What is it that they need to take account of? That they are new people – dead to sin and alive to Christ.
Paul has been at pains to describe this very identity in the preceding verses.
DEAD TO SIN
In saying, “we died to sin” (v. 2), Paul is not suggesting that temptation will no longer lurk. Nor is he suggesting the impossibility of committing sins – wrongful acts. What he is suggesting, I believe is the impossibility of continuing in a life dominated by sinfulness – our inner twistedness or disposition toward sin. His explanation follows:
3 … don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
We could quickly get into quite a quagmire if we try to use Paul’s use of baptism here as some kind of sacramental instructions. I’ll leave that to you and to another time. Let us instead simply think of what Paul is saying in more relational – even spiritual – terms.
The metaphor of baptism is used elsewhere in scripture in a relational sense. For example, we are told that the Israelites were baptized “into Moses” by reason of the crossing of the Red Sea. Obviously, the meaning of baptized there had nothing to do with them all getting wet. What was meant was they recognized and trusted and depended upon Moses’ leadership. They came into a special relationship – really a spiritual relationship – with him.
Paul is saying that believers too are joined to Christ in a spiritual union – a union in death, burial, and resurrection. Paul is saying that however and whenever they may have been baptized, there resulted or was represented a spiritual union with Chris, a union that resulted in a new life.
The nature of this spiritual union – dying and being buried – is such that it requires an abandonment of everything associated with the former self and a willingness to allow God to transform a person into something new – as in resurrection.
Our new identity is characterized, in part, by being dead to sin. (It is also, in part, characterized by being alive to Christ. More on that in a moment.)
Clearly he does not mean that Christians are not tempted by sin or that we are incapable of sinning-as his commands in verses 11-14 make clear. However, the predilections or inclinations to sin – whatever they may have been – no longer exercise the attraction or power to control us. They are still there, but from this point on they will not dominate us. Before this, we were “slaves to sin” (v. 6), but having died to sin, we are now “freed” from it (v. 7).
As one writer describes it:
What that means is that parts of us shrivel away and die. What Paul calls our “old self’ seems to become unplugged and loses power. Old desires and interests, old habits and tricks and unsettled scores, all seem to lose their hold on us. As we rejoice in the peace and contentment that come from a straightened-out relationship with God, we discover that certain activities we used to enjoy are no longer much fun. Old parts of our lives wither and fade away.
… our old schemes, our old habits of putting ourselves first, our old preoccupation with making ourselves look good, our old need to toot our own horn – all these old pieces begin to shrink, die and fall away … part of the old ways we leave behind.
Will we sin? Yes! But we do not need to, and we will do so less and less as we go on in the Christian life.
Old Augustine talked about it in these terms:
In the fall, Adam, who was previously “able to sin” – that is, he had not sinned but was able to do so – became “not able not to sin” – that is, he was unable to break free from the power of sin of his own effort.
Now, those who have been saved by Christ, are “able not to sin”. That is the change that Paul is talking about here in Romans 6. For believers, says Paul, they have died to sin – that is, the tyranny of sin has been broken.
And the future for which believers yearn is when we are “not able to sin”. In our glorified state we will not be tempted by sin or be able to fall into it again.
ALIVE TO CHRIST
What does this mean?
Remember that “in Christ” – or we should say, “in Messiah” – is how Paul speaks of one his central beliefs – and that of the Jewish people – that what is true of the Messiah (being the one who represents his people) is also true of his people. And so, Paul wants us to understand – by saying we are “alive to Christ” – is that the resurrection life that Jesus has lived since Easter is also ours.
Of course, our bodily resurrection is in the future. But that future is secure and certain, as the Bible insists endlessly, and as Paul will confirm shortly in chapter 8. As such we can – and in fact ought to – live out that future today, in the present. In a sense, we bring the future forward into the present.
We are to make the God’s coming kingdom – what we at Freedom Christian Community in Brantford often call his “kingdom dream” – real and visible in our world today. We are to show people what it means to live under the reign of the one true God.
Being dead to sin and alive to Christ means that although sin is still present to tempt even in the most mature and pious Christians, we need not surrender to it. As we are now in Christ, joined to him, we have his resurrection life and power in us – the same power that raised Jesus from the dead live in us! –
We have a new way to live – no longer in sin, or in despair – but in the joy-filled, life-giving way of Jesus.
Having been “not able not to sin”, we have now become “able not to sin”.
This Paul says, is the reality we are to “count” – the reality we are to live.
Therefore – this is what we need to do …
Once we have done the count, the calculation, we are led to the “therefore” of v.12 ff.
12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
While the work of justification is all God’s work, Paul seems to be saying here that we have work to do to live out who were have counted ourselves to be.
Paul envisions the various parts of the human body as tools to be used in the service of “wickedness” or of “righteousness.” As those with a new identity, “able not to sin,” Paul exhorts us to use every part of our body, including for that matter our mind, memory, imagination, emotions and will, to use for God’s plans and purposes.
If this is true, how can we avoid availing ourselves of the means of grace to grow in faith, to become true witness and faithful servants?
There is an element of cooperation here that was not present in chapter 5. We must give ourselves to God – to righteousness. That is our part of this new life. God’s part is to make us holy. It is ours to be available and attentive, it is God’s to transform. This is made clear in 22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
Now maybe we can see how all of what Paul is saying fits together.
We are to be “instruments of righteousness.” If you have read some of Tom Wright’s work, especially on justification, you will understand when he says “righteousness … is such a difficult word, in contem¬porary English and in theological debate.”
He says of righteousness, “Its underlying stress is on the good purposes of the creator to bring the world back from chaos into proper order, and to bring human beings into the right shape and the right relation to himself. Here Paul uses it to indicate that the purpose of the new life, the reason why new standards of behaviour are required, is because God is putting the world to rights, and wants and needs his newborn children to be part of that work, both in their own lives and in their service for his kingdom.”
Wright is saying that our holiness is part of the equipment we need to be missional disciples in the world around us. God’s work of rescuing, restorative justice must happen in us in order that it can happen through us.
In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that our holiness leads to eternal life – that is, “to the age to come.” – to the time when God’s kingdom dream for the world is realized. Paul gives us a glimpse of that age to come in Romans 8 when he describes a groaning creation awaiting its liberation from the effects of the fall.
Christians are called to live in the present in the light of that future, that future which has come to meet them in Jesus. True Christianity is living out a new, joyful, abundant, resurrected life with Jesus Christ now.
A few comments on chapter 8
In chapter 8 we find that the hope we have “walking in newness of life” is not found only in the justifying grace available through the work of Christ. Paul now turns to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
In chapter 8, were we to spend some time there, we would discover the ongoing work of the Spirit – a work of grace – in our lives. “The Spirit indwells and transforms (8:9), implants holy desires (8:5), controls the mind (8:6), gives life (8:11), puts to death evil deeds (8:13), leads to self-control (8:14), confirms our spiritual adoption (8:15), and intercedes on our behalf with the Father (8:26). Above all, the Spirit confirms within us that God continues to be on our side, giving us a new status as his adopted sons and daughters (8:14-17). Despite our suffering and feelings of futility, God remains on our side, promising a future that holds a glorious promise of both our own redemption and that of the entire earth (8:18-25).”
Putting it all together
The evangelical tradition tends to talk about salvation primarily, if not solely, in terms of conversion – the event by which we enter into a saving relationship with God – that one memorable moment we refer to as when we “accepted Jesus” or “were saved” or “came to faith” or as the earliest Methodists would say, “received the atonement.”
What is clear from Paul in Romans, however, is that salvation has a broader meaning – which includes justification, sanctification, and glorification.
– Salvation begun (justification) – delivered from the penalty/guilt of sin
– Salvation continued – (sanctification) – delivered [progressively] from the plague/power of sin
– Salvation completed (glorification) – delivered from the presence of sin and its effects
Salvation is thus something that has already come, something that we are continuing to work out, and something that we are still waiting for.
Let’s translate this into a diagram to help us visualize this understanding of salvation as a journey – a path – a way.
[describe the components of the diagram]
Our diagram is a simplified version of what Wesley called “The Scripture Way of Salvation.”
At the heart of the message of the reformers of the 16th and 17th century was a protest for a renewed understanding of the beginning point on our diagram – how salvation begins. This is Paul’s topic in chapter 5 of Romans. By believing that God has done everything necessary to restore us to right relationship with him through Christ, we are no longer alienated sinners, but embraced as children. Justification is like acquiring our ticket for admittance into heaven, eternal life at the end of the journey.
Let me represent this close connection by removing the middle part of our diagram.
[on the diagram, remove the sanctification section]
Friends, you have heard this message – it is the message that evangelicalism has made primary … “Believe in Jesus so you can go to heaven when you die.”
– When we see this visual depiction of the “believe and go to heaven” message, it prompts me to ask, as I think it must have prompted Wesley to ask, “Where has holiness gone?”
Can you see what this kind of simplifying the gospel to the two end points (justification and glorification) has done? When we emphasize the beginning and linking it so closely to its meaning for us at the end of the journey, we miss out on the crucial middle part!
The storyline of the bible is not just FALL and REDEMPTION. It includes RESTORATION as well.
And the storyline of salvation is not just justification and glorification. Jesus came for the purpose of restoring. It needs to be a major part of the good news we share.
When we look to see where the word salvation is used most often in Scripture, we find it is in the Psalms and Isaiah. In both books, the definitions center around the idea of restoring shalom. The Hebrew concept of shalom encompassed the ideas of wellness, completeness, and wholeness.
Salvation in the New Testament looks and feels like this Old Testament shalom.
We can see it clearly in the passage common to Isaiah 61 and Luke 4:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Salvation, then, is a re-establishment of shalom.
Indeed, the message of Jesus himself and of the early disciples was not just one of the forgiveness of sins, but rather was one of newness of life – about the restoration of shalom in people’s lives.
And Paul too seems most interested in helping those who have be made right with God to become fully formed, and mature in Christ, here and now – to experience the glorious realities of being in Christ and experiencing Christ in themselves.
So let’s put the important middle part back.
[replace the middle part of the diagram]
Wesley would certainly agree that you can’t just skip from justification to glorification. Embrace Jesus – yes! But not just for the hope of eternal life, but also for the hope of sanctification/transformation – more and better life and everything else listed in the middle part of the journey – here and now.
Wesley understood Scriptures as emphasizing the transformative aspect of salvation – sanctification – Wesley called it holiness of heart and life – or any of the other names underneath it in the diagram. The point is that in this middle part of our diagram God wants to restore us to what he always intended we would be in creation. This middle part “sanctification” is where God would do something about your life – about the sin in your life.
Wesley’s expansive understanding of salvation was that it encompassed the entire journey – and the journey included healing/restoration/wholeness [see the bottom line on the diagram].
Indeed, this is God’s dream for us, that we might again be made whole, perfect in the likeness of Jesus.
In the forgiveness that is ours in justification, we are released from the guilt of sin.
In the deliverance that is ours in sanctification, we are released from the grip of sin.
At the heart of Wesley’s Methodist movement was the conviction that you could have both – not just forgiveness (which offered relief from the guilt of sin) but also deliverance (which was freedom from the grip of sin in your life).
Once we acknowledge this broader understanding of salvation, some questions for our faith journey arise that weren’t there before.
If Salvation is, as Wesley believed, more than a change in our status with God (justification / conversion) and includes a process of making us like him (sanctification) including the healing of our brokenness, think about these questions:
1. Where have you been saved? (That is, in what ways have you been changed to be like Christ? In what ways has your brokenness been healed?)
2. Where do you need saving? (That is, in what ways do you still need to be transformed into Christlikeness? What areas of your brokenness still need to be healed?)
But as we look at this diagram, a question comes naturally to mind.
And there is another question as well. Let’s take another look at our diagram.
The new life we get at the beginning of our journey poises us for something more – for the progress of sanctification in becoming like Jesus.
But the question naturally arises: the question of quantity or degree:
Just how saved can I become in this life? That is:how sanctified >
- how delivered >
- how healed > can we become in this life?
- how whole >
- how transformed >
- how much like Jesus >
We’ve already mentioned Wesley’s “theological optimism” – that is, his understanding of the great lengths to which God wants to work in and through his creation. And
so we know the answer to our question. We can be saved to the uttermost.
I believe that Wesley’s insistence on Entire Sanctification / Christian Perfection is his expression of the extent to which we can be released from the grip/power of sin in our lives.
Wesley’s theological optimism has been a source of dispute and misunderstanding at this point. We naturally balk at the idea that we can be “entirely” sanctified or made “perfect” in this life. Maybe at the end, but not in this life.
And so naturally, this was the most controversial aspect of Wesley’s theology – even with his brother Charles. The dispute centers to some degree around semantics.
In Latin, the word translated perfect means completed, finished, unsurpassable. This was the common, everyday understanding of perfect in Wesley’s day, and in ours.
But Wesley was thinking in the Greek (the original language of the NT), in which the word translated as ‘perfect’ means maturing, moving toward completion. It suggests a comparison, like as a man vs. a boy; or as a master vs. his apprentice.
So, for Wesley, Christian Perfection was to be as a Christian, as a master is superior to an apprentice.
I think we fall into a trap here … we can talk about the extent to which God can work – i.e. how many addictions and predilections to sin can we be delivered from? All of them, of course – otherwise we limit the power of God’s grace.
Wesley would never want to limit the power of God to effect our transformation “in this life.”
And while Wesley was not prepared to limit the extent to which God could make us good, moral people, Christian Perfection is not about moralism. Not about flawless moral performance as a Christian. [King David was certainly not perfect in that sense!]
When God says, “I am holy,” he doesn’t mean “I am nice.” And when he says, “You shall be holy,” he doesn’t mean “You ought to be nice too.”
We must resist the temptation to see holiness in moralistic terms. As soon as you do that, you will inevitably thrust the concept of sinless or angelic perfection upon Wesley. He was at pains to always be denying and refuting this.
But if not moral performance, what was he talking about?
It was from John Vlainic, many years ago, that I first heard an illustration that captures the essence of perfection, dare I say, perfectly.
Suppose your little girl is playing intently with Lego blocks on the floor, when, at the end of an exhausting day in the back yard, in agony, you collapse into your favourite chair. Immediately, her heart reaches out to you. She has no other hidden agenda, not “I could help out, but I’m tired too,” not “last night you wouldn’t let me stay up as late as I wanted to, so I’m not sure I want to help;” not “I’m enjoying what I’m doing too much,” not “maybe if I get a glass of water I’ll end up with an ice cream cone.” No. Your little girl’s heart is filled with love alone. Running over to the sink, she grabs the nearest glass (it has a disgusting milk film on it), shoves it under the tap and fills it quickly (so that the water isn’t even cool). Then she rushes over (spilling half of it), and says, “Here. I love you. This will make you feel better.” (John Vlainic)
The child’s intention is perfect. Her motive is pure. There’s nothing else in her heart but love for a parent. Yes, the actions were lousy. The performance was terrible. But in time, with the acquisition of knowledge and experience, she will show love more effectively, more intelligently, and with greater capacity. But she will never love more purely, more “singly”. That’s what Methodists mean by “perfect love” or “entire sanctification.”
According to Randy Maddox:
“Wesley was convinced that the Christian life did not have to remain a life of continual struggle. He believed that both Scripture and Christian tradition attested that God’s loving grace can transform our lives to the point where our own love for God and others becomes a ‘natural response.’ … To deny this possibility would be to deny the sufficiency of God’s empowering grace – to make the power of sin greater than that of grace.”
(Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace, p. 188)
What Christian Perfection IS NOT
It was not:
– absolute purity
– flawless performance as a Christian
– spiritual infallibility
– angelic perfection
It certainly doesn’t mean immunity to life’s problems
What Christian Perfection IS
The heart of Christian Perfection is in the WILL, in one’s INTENTION not in one’s actions. According to Wesley, perfection meant singleness of intention, purity of motive, the desire to love perfectly with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength. [reference The Manual, para.610.7 end – “not made perfect in performance, but in love.”]
Because there is never a time when a person has to sin – that’s what Paul said in Romans 6 – in any situation, the grace of God is greater than the lure of temptation. Sin is failure of our will, not God’s grace.
The perfection Wesley envisioned is not freedom from ignorance, error, and temptation. These are unavoidable by even the most devoted Christian. But with God’s help the Christian can possess purity of heart, by which love becomes the controlling affection of our life.
Can we be like Jesus – perfect in performance? – no
Can we be like Jesus – perfect in intention and affection to love God and others selflessly? – Wesley said “yes we can.”
We can insofar as we receive God’s perfect love – love that restores his image in us – and then in turn reflect that perfect love into the world, to share it with our fellow creatures – and to share it perfectly, that is, to share it in such a way that it can be received and appropriated by others as a love whose source is God.
Which means, by the way, that perfection is not so much for the benefit of oneself or for our own sakes as for the fulfillment of the vocation to which we are called, to be God’s image bearers in the world, reflecting to others the perfect love we have received and are receiving from God.
But, one might object, doesn’t perfection imply that there is a point we reach beyond which there is no growth – our journey is done?
Perfection is not a state we reach – not static, but always dynamic – sanctification [the process of becoming holy] is an ongoing process as we respond to ever-new initiatives of God’s grace in our lives (see The Manual, Para.119)
And so to be “entirely sanctified” or “perfect” does not mean we are done with the journey – on the contrary, every point of progress renews one’s zeal for more. What results from Christian Perfection is not sinlessness, but a chance to seek God with less of the barrier that sin in our life creates [e.g. marriage relationship].
Take for example a marriage relationship (also often used of God and his people). When my wife and I are able to overcome, even eliminate, all obstacles in our relationship that prevent us from living in blissful harmony, does that mean our marriage will not get any better? Is that all there is? Of course not. We are now free to explore new vistas in which our relationship can grow deeper and stronger.
Well, they scoffed at Wesley’s notion of perfection. But Wesley was undeterred.
He was undeterred because he believed that the Scriptures testify over and over again to this doctrine.
Wesley saw the “Root” commandment of scripture in Leviticus 19:1 et al: Be holy, because God is holy. That is the root command of all others in the Scriptures.
Wesley saw the “Great” commandment – that is, to love God and others – as issuing from the root commandment. It was the best expression of what that holiness looked like.
Perfection, Wesley argued, is implied in the promises of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. It is prayed for in Psalm 51. We find it in the New Testament in the teaching of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 5:48 – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”); in the teaching of John (I John 2:5); the call of the Book of Hebrews to go on toward perfection (6:1); and especially in Paul’s prayer that his readers will be sanctified entirely (I Thessalonians 5:23) and his call in Romans 6 to believers to use the freedom of the new life found in Christ to become slaves to him, as they had once been slaves to sin.
What was more, Wesley believed that perfection was (although neglected) the doctrine of the Church of England. In this, he could point to the Collect for Purity from the Book of Common Prayer (which we read earlier), part of which asks of God “that we may perfectly love You.” When they prayed this prayer as they were to do daily, did they not mean it?
In fact, a Holy Living tradition had manifested in various Christian movements in the previous centuries, and most recently in the Puritans, the Pietists, and in the spiritual classics which were so influential in his life and theology (Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ; Jeremy Taylor – Holy Living and Dying; and William Law – Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.)
Wesley believed that God had raised up the Methodist people to turn the attention of the church to the doctrine of sanctification and to restore holiness to God’s people. Wesley believed it was imperative for all Christians to actively seek this deeper experience of salvation.
In 1776, after visiting one of the Methodist circuits, Wesley was disturbed because there had been no advance in the work since his last visit. Here was his diagnosis of the cause of the problem:
Here I found the plain reason why the work of God had gained no ground in this circuit all the year. The preachers had given up the Methodist testimony. Either they did not speak of Perfection at all (the peculiar doctrine committed to our trust), or they spoke of it only in general terms, without urging believers ‘to go on to perfection,’ and to expect it every moment. And wherever this is not earnestly done, the work of God does not prosper.
How would Wesley diagnose the problem in terms of our diagram of the Salvation Journey (or the diagram of the Discipleship Journey)?
– I think he would point to the failure to have movement along the journey because people were never encouraged to think that something more than forgiveness [punching your ticket] was available.
Nothing was more central to Wesley’s life-long ministry than challenging this anemic conception of Christian salvation.
Benjamin Titus Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church, was of the same heart and mind as Wesley. That is why the founding mission of the Free Methodist Church was “To maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the gospel to the poor.” By “bible standard”, Roberts was re-articulating Wesley’s earlier emphasis on total transformation into Christlikeness.
Some of you have seen my ground-breaking – well maybe not groundbreaking – diagram offering a visual expression of the journey of faith / process of sanctification that is at the heart of who we are as Free Methodists. My apologies …
[First set of slides – boundary set]
Let’s imagine the kingdom of God in terms of this yellow shape. It is a traditional view of the Kingdom (also of the church although kingdom and church are not the same thing). There is a boundary.
One obvious boundary is conversion – but what kind of conversion?
And then there are other types of boundaries that we may not like to admit:
– Doctrinal distinctives (do you baptize babies or not)
– Behavioural issues (do you drink alcohol)
– Cultural or socio-economic differences (are you dressed the right way, talk the right way)
Depending on where you are in relation to the boundary, you are in …
Or you are out.
It is pretty cut and dried.
[repeat previous slide] … in
[return to this slide] … or out.
When we emphasize the event of conversion, we focus on the boundary.
Here is a question I think that Wesley asked: Is Christian faith primarily a form of bounded set – either you’re in or you’re out? Or was it something altogether different? Could it be that we need to think of it as a centred set – where what is significant is not whether you are in or out, but in what direction you are moving – in how you relate to a particular center? Indeed, what if our proximity to God – that is, our relationship with God – became more important than the boundary?
So in light of these considerations, let’s look again at our diagram. It now reflects that the boundary is less important than the center – which is Jesus. Jesus offered the invitation to “follow him” not follow rules or set boundaries. And Wesley’s call was for lost and hurting people to reorient themselves toward the center.
Wesley also understood something else in this salvation process. It was this … that God’s grace, mercy, love flow outward drawing us to the center – to Him (common grace, prevenient grace). God moves first to gather his wayward and scattered children to Him – to reconcile all of creation to himself. God moves first to reveal himself and his purposes to us.
God’s grace calls for a response. Whether you know it or not. how you are living is your response. We are moving through life. Our lives have trajectory. So our diagram now reflects this movement – this response (known or unknown) we are making to God.
Note how this changes our perception of A – E. Remember, proximity is key – but our movement has consequences for our proximity to Jesus.
But there is a further consideration that needs to be reflected in our diagram – the fact that Jesus is always on the move. God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” and through John, the apostle he says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” You see, God himself is on the move. He is not some static entity in the universe. Rather he is the one who is making and remaking all things. He is active and at work in the world. This was the truth that fueled the faith of our Hebrew forefathers. They knew that God was active in history, calling Abraham to a promised land, delivering them from bondage as slaves in Egypt, leading them to conquest over their enemies.
And so we reflect God’s activity in the world with his vector.
But you note now how that again affects our perspective on A – E.
What becomes absolutely vital to those who would follow Jesus is to know what is happening in that box. What is God doing? Where is he going? What is he blessing? Unless I know that, I cannot orient myself to him.
This is why Wesley emphasized the use of the “means of grace” – those things that we can do to put us in closer contact with God – practices like prayer, scripture, Holy Communion, being part of a small group for Christian conversation and accountability. We need to listen and look more closely because the trajectory of our lives is so important to our ultimate proximity to Him.
Let’s consider for a moment you or me in the world with God.
Here I am moving through life – at a pace beyond belief and [seemingly] not attentive or in response to God at all.
But as God’s grace continues to reach out to me, willing for me and in me that I respond and re-orient my life toward him … awakening me to his presence and will …
His prevenient grace has become convicting grace and at some point I find myself wanting to be a follower of Jesus – that is God’s justifying grace working in me. (Romans 5 phenomenon)
My life begins to change as I turn toward him.
The trajectory of my life begins to come more in line with God’s as I mature in faith and become more like Him.
And as I continue to seek what is happening in the box, listening for his voice calling me to follow him, I become more like him.
This is nothing less than sanctifying grace, holiness working itself out in my life. Holiness is our orienting ourselves to God, making him the center and becoming like Him. Living in sync with him.
But to what extent. Surely I cannot be perfect like Jesus?!
God wills me draw close and so I can. He wills me to be like his Son. And my proximity continues to be a dynamic relationship with Jesus. Moving, moving, moving …
Until at some point, there is little to distinguish between us in terms of my desire to be like him and live in accordance with his desires for me – which is – to love God and each other in self-forgetful service.
For me, this is a visualization of what Wesley and Methodist’s have called “Entire Sanctification” or “Christian Perfection”. Here is a moment when we are truly and absolutely living in sync with God.
Remember, Perfection is not a state we reach – not static, but always dynamic – sanctification [the process of becoming holy] is an ongoing thing as we respond to ever-new initiatives of God’s grace in our lives
And so to be “entirely sanctified” or “perfect” does not mean we are done the journey – on the contrary, every point of progress renews one’s zeal for more
“If it be possible for God to give us a little love, is it not possible for him to fill us with love?” [from a letter written by Sarah Crosby to John Wesley]
HOLINESS AND MISSION
We don’t live life in a vacuum. Let’s put me in the world with my neighbours.
What is going to happen as we live together?
Our lives are going to intersect. Bump into each other. Influence each other. Possibly impact the trajectory of each other’s lives.
As followers of Jesus, we want to impact lives – to change the trajectory of their lives and introduce them to the great adventure of orienting the trajectory of our life to Jesus.
Opportunities are endless. The world is full of people.
Let’s not forget that forever and always God’s grace is reaching out to every person, willing a response. Combined with our witness, our influence, our bumping into them (God is using us) …
Our holiness becomes a vital part of missional ministry.
Clearly, this doctrine has significance for us today?
THIS MESSAGE LEADS US BACK to the New Testament church. God’s people living together in the way of Jesus in the world.
It is this message of holiness that has the most potential of capturing the imagination of an un-believing world. The world is not impressed with our organizational image, our denominational heritage, our communication savvy, or even our cultural relevance. It is our life together in the radical way of Jesus that presents our most compelling witness – just like Acts 2.
Michael Frost – “Most people today don’t get converted by listening to the Gospel, with the light going on and saying ‘I get it, I need to be saved.’ Most of them get saved by being drawn into a community, by being loved.”
THIS MESSAGE POINTS US FORWARD to the fulfilment of God’s dream for his creation.
The accompanying image is titled “Tree of Life” and comes from war-torn Mozambique. I found it on the internet with the following explanation:
“The Transforming Arms into Tools Project” has found a literally creative solution to the problem of arms left over from the civil war in Mozambique. They offer to trade weapons for valuable items such as farming tools (swords into ploughshares), and then, after decommissioning the weapons they have just collected, they make them into works of art. They have just made the appropriately named ‘Tree of Life’ out of guns.”
Says one of the artists who worked on this piece, “We artists want to turn the situation around, change the story. Changing these instruments of death into hope, life, and prosperity.”
This image is a visible illustration of God’s dream coming true – or what is supposed to happen in each of our lives.
My favourite biblical image of the same is from the story of Jesus healing the man on the Sabbath.
10He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored.
God dreams of making all things right – that our world and lives would no longer be withered but be made whole – the way he created it to be, the way he always intended it to be, the way it’s supposed to be.
This accords with an Hebraic understanding of holiness that suggests that all of life is actually in the process of being redeemed and brought into the sphere of the sacred/holy. Holiness begins with God, flows into our own hearts and our lives, moves from there into the community, and eventually reaches every aspect of life in the world. God is extending his sanctity over ever-increasing portions of life until all is made holy. [Hirsch, Untamed, 93]
But there is more.
Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done … on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s the same as saying, God, your dream come true … your purposes be fulfilled … here right now, on earth, in my life … just as they are in heaven.”
God’s dream has impact not only on the cosmic future of all creation, but EXTENDS EVEN INTO THE NOW OF OUR LIVES. TODAY. When we as spiritual descendents of John Wesley and B.T. Roberts speak of Christian Perfection, we are simply saying this very thing about God’s dream come true, right now, right here, in my life.
In the darkness of the 18th century, people wanted to know what God could do for them in the misery and squalor of their present lives, not what awaited them at the end. And I think that people in our world today are asking us what our God can do for them today, in the here and now of their sufferings and struggles. [And maybe you want to know the same thing!]
Where is this holiness – this longing for holiness of heart and life in the church today?
The Apostle Paul wrote this to Titus (2:4:11-14):
God’s readiness to give and forgive is now public. Salvation’s available to everyone! We’re being shown how to turn our backs on a godless, indulgent life, and how to take on a God-filled, God-honouring life. This new life is starting right now, and is whetting our appetites for the glorious day when our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, appears. He offered himself as a sacrifice to free us from a dark, rebellious life into this good, pure life, making us a people he can be proud of, energetic in holiness. (Msg)
Are we a people he can be proud of? Are we energetic in holiness in the church today? Where is this holiness – this longing for holiness of heart and life in the church today?
I would remind you about:
¶151 THE REQUIREMENTS OF MEMBERSHIP ARE:
1. Christian baptism, confession of a personal experience in regeneration, and a pledge to seek diligently until sanctified wholly if that experience has not been attained.
And as a member, you would subscribe to the truth of this article of faith:
Sanctification is that saving work of God beginning with new life in Christ whereby the Holy Spirit renews His people after the likeness of God, changing them through crisis and process, from one degree of glory to another, and conforming them to the image of Christ.
As believers surrender to God in faith and die to self through full consecration, the Holy Spirit fills them with love and purifies them from sin. This sanctifying relationship with God remedies the divided mind, redirects the heart to God, and empowers believers to please and serve God in their daily lives.
Thus, God sets His people free to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves.
I know that the pursuit of holiness feels like one more thing to worry about in an already impossible life. Sure, it would be great to be a better person, and we do hope to avoid the really big sins. Many have the attitude that life seems fine without it. But that is tragic.
And it’s also tragic that people are never encouraged to think that something more than forgiveness is available to them. Many believe that sin is inevitable, pervasive, and enduring in a Christian’s life. Sadly, they seem to be unaware there is a different way to live. Maybe they’ve never heard that God wants to do something with sin beyond just forgiving it.
Christ came to earth to redeem us and make us a holy people. It is a mistake to deny or ignore God’s power to deliver us from the dominion of sin and to produce within us a measure of the holiness of Christ.
Where has holiness gone?
It is waiting for each one of us to surrender ourselves to God.
“In the first eight chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul has presented his understanding of God’s righteousness and how one can attain it. He has traced the downward spiral of sin, the futile attempts of humans to justify themselves, and finally the great gift of grace that both reconciles and transforms an individual in anticipation of the glory that is to come. Looking back on the entire panorama of salvation, Paul can conclude, “In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
I am glad to be part of a movement that has such an expansive and optimistic view of salvation – what Paul would perhaps call a movement of conquerors. Where else would you want to be?
An obvious place to end this discussion would be with these words of Paul – they are for us, for you, every bit as much as for his original readers:
23May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
But having come through Romans, perhaps we should return to where Dale began in Romans 5:
Romans 5:1-2 (Msg)
By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.