Monday, April 30, 2012

Vital Methodists

General Conference delegates are being asked to discern which proposal for church renewal would be the best course of action to follow for the next four years during a worldwide economic recession.  How shall we organize our ministry in the midst of a shrinking middle class, the abandonment of inner cities and rural villages, and the pressure to maximize profits at any cost?  As part of the discernment process, it may be of help to review Wesley's "Thoughts Upon Methodism," which contains his evaluation of the state of Methodism and his proposal for maintaining its vitality.

The degeneration of the Methodist revival into a dead sect was a real possibility the founder warned, because the Methodists were becoming wealthy.  As their standard of living increased, Wesley noted a proportional increase in anger, "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16).

The solution to the problem of affluence is a repetition of the advice that Wesley had already delivered in the doctrinal sermon #50 “The Use of Money,”— earn all you can, save all you can, give away all you can.  This stewardship formula for finances was a means of grace that would promote growth and prevent backsliding.

If they held on to the Methodist repentance-faith-holiness Doctrine, the Methodist going-on-to-perfection Spirit, and the Methodist accountability-groups Discipline, then his followers would continue to flourish, Wesley assured his readers.  I see in this combination of Doctrine, Spirit, and Discipline a theological framework for understanding earning-saving-giving as a means of grace. 

Wesley's evaluation points to over-consumption as the root cause of Methodist decline.  Therefore a key characteristic of a Wesleyan proposal for denominational vitality would be a balanced plan to promote the message of the Gospel AND to rebuke the message of the marketplace.

Will any of the current General Conference proposals help local church leaders persuade congregants to earn-save-give as a method for seeking God's grace, maturing in faith, and preventing backsliding?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Faith Of or Faith In?

New Testament scholars debate the meaning of this phrase in Galatians 2: 16—“διά πίστις Χριστός . . . ἐκ πίστις Χριστός”

Should this be translated as “the faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ”?  Scholars who favor the former argue that Christians are justified by Christ’s faithful obedience, whereas the latter translation would mean that Christians are justified by their faith in Christ.

Wesley’s translation of this passage follows the first translation, “Even we (knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ) have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ.”  However, in his doctrinal Notes, Wesley conflates the two translations, “But by the faith of Jesus Christ - That is, by faith in him.”

The Articles of Religion reflect this double translation—
Article IX—Of the Justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith, only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.
The Confession of Faith, however, only contains the latter translation—
Article IX—Justification and Regeneration
We believe we are never accounted righteous before God through our works or merit, but that penitent sinners are justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Do the United Methodist Doctrinal Standards on justification contradict each other?  (I'd love to hear some holy conversations about this question at General Conference!)