MAKING THE MAIN THING THE MAIN
By Riley B. Case
Shortly after the 2019 General Conference an American UM bishop wrote a letter to his churches which included these words:
Our concern and conversation about the LGBTQ community should not lesson our commitment to change hearts and minds so that we end prejudice, oppression, sexism, racism and privilege.
So this is what the church’s end goal is: ending prejudice, oppression, sexism, racism and privilege? Here all these years most of us thought it had to do with lifting up Jesus Christ. Perhaps the bishop was quoted out of context, or meant something different from what the words suggest. In any case, no matter how explained, the words reflect the serious differences that are presently a part of United Methodism. Is it not time for different groups to pursue their own understanding of the mission of the church?
We at The Confessing Movement believe that there are many dedicated, evangelical God-honoring UMs that would welcome the opportunity for a fresh start. We do not wish to update, modernize, or propose new truths that have supposedly been revealed to progressives through modern learning and culture. We only wish a renewed commitment to the historic faith revealed in the acts of God interpreted by Scripture which have been passed down through the church and particularly through John Wesley and our Methodist heritage. We want the main things to be what the church has always understood to be the main things.
Here are three of those “the main things.”
The Doctrine of Original Sin.
There is a Wesley hymn we sang from time to time in churches I have attended or pastored:
I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear, a sensibility of sin,
a pain to feel it near… (410)
The hymn on several occasions, as I remember, precipitated some theological discussion, or at least comment. For example: “This hymn is a downer. We come to church to get a spiritual boost, not to obsess with sin.”
A good point. In the creation account of early Genesis we are taught that man and woman, as the crowning achievement of God’s creation, were made to reflect the image of God in order to reflect the glory and the righteousness of God.
However, because of what we know as The Fall, we are faced with some sobering news: we are sinners. We are not what we were meant to be. We are separated from a loving God. The word we use is
Wesley used strong language to describe it. Wesley, and the Articles of Religion of our church, speak of
. We are very far gone from original righteousness and of our own nature “inclined to evil, and that continually.”
This is one of the great areas of division between progressives and evangelicals. English dictionaries, at least until very recently, defined “evangelical” as “
Pertaining to or designating any school of Protestants which holds that the essence of the gospel consists mainly in its doctrines of man’s sinful condition and need of salvation…”
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
The first Methodist hymnals carried a section on Total Depravity. But progressives (called modernists in early years) thought that too negative. Secular educational theory believed humans were neither good nor bad and could be educated into moral life. Religious modernists agreed. If we just put our minds to it, we wouldn’t need revivals and peaching about judgment. We could simply do good things and bring in the Kingdom of God.
So we can trace the regression in institutional Methodism on the understanding of sin. In 1848 (during the Second Great Awakening, at a time when Methodists could claim one-third of America’s religious population) the first “official” M.E. hymnal included, with Wesley, a section on “Depravity,” heavily dependent on Charles Wesley hymns. In the 1878 hymnal “Depravity” was omitted but there were 115 hymns on “The Sinner.” The baptismal ritual, which went back to Wesley days, still started with “forasmuch as all are conceived and born in sin…” The 1905 hymnal in the table of contents omitted “sin” and “sinner” but at least mentioned “The Need for Salvation” (5 hymns). By the 1935 hymnal, sin was pretty much gone, though there was a section on “repentance” (4 hymns) and another section on “Songs of Salvation.” The baptismal ritual for children, however, wiped sin out altogether with the opening statement that read: “forasmuch as all…are heirs of life eternal and subjects of the saving grace of the Holy Spirit…” Someone commented: if we were already heirs of life eternal why bother with baptism?”
Years ago when I was a member of the Curriculum Resources Committee, we were setting up lesson plans for a study of Romans for senior high youth. The committee was identifying key ideas in Romans. I suggested a key idea was “the wrath of God” (Rom. 1:18). It was not received well. As one person said, “We are concerned about the love of God, not the wrath of God.”
The good news of the gospel is not that sin doesn’t exist; it does. The good news is that God has intervened in Christ to deal with our sin.
Christ’s sacrificial death as the atonement for sin.
I remember a phrase from seminary: “Jesus is appealing but Paul is appalling.” That sentiment is still around; “we don’t need bloody crosses; all we need is Jesus.” So progressives have a hard time with our Articles of Religion which state: “Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for the actual sins of man.” One progressive, Christ Kratzer, speaking to evangelicals, blogged recently: ” Why isn’t Jesus enough for you”? The Kingdom is about love. By love we can create a world where everyone is seen as valuable, blessed, and empowered. This is “Red-letter Christianity” (only the words of Jesus matter). Skip the cross; just follow Jesus’ teachings.
It sounds nice, but it doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked, even for 4,000 years. It is religion by good works. It assumes that loving is just a matter of doing better and trying harder. Have we not been aware of suffering, violence, hatred, prejudice, injustice, corruption, and war? Jesus came to bring good news of great joy, but made the Kingdom life not easier but harder to attain: “You have heard that it was said…but I say unto you…” The cross is still the center of Christian faith, not the cross as a symbol of self-sacrifice, but the cross as the offering of the Lamb of God to reconcile the Father to us and to empower us to live holy lives.
Again, the English dictionaries and their definition of “evangelical”:
Of or having to do with the Protestant churches that emphasize Christ’s atonement and salvation by faith as the most important parts of Christianity, as the Methodists and Baptists”
(Thorndike Barnhart Comprehensive Desk Dictionary, 1958).
Methodists and Baptists? Of course. The most successful of the Protestant groups in America. The groups that gave altar calls and spoke of the blood of Jesus. And for Wesley the atonement meant more than simply justifying grace. It was more than “imputed righteousness” (as in Calvinism—we are forgiven but not necessarily changed). Methodists spoke of “imparted righteousness”; we are changed and made righteous.
Sanctification and Holy Living.
I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire, to catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire. (#410)
With the justifying grace bestowed through faith in the shed blood of Christ comes the desire to offer everything back to the God who has been gracious. At this point we can speak of “privilege,” a label used mostly in a pejorative sense for those who by race or gender or other privilege have an advantage over others. Christians should think of privilege as blessing. For reasons not understood by us, we have been blessed, not because we deserved it or earned it, (our strong belief in sin—I want the first approach to feel of pride…) but by grace and so we might bless others.
Now the teachings of Jesus are in proper perspective as well as all Scripture admonitions, as well as Christian teachings passed down through church and family, not the least of which would be our General Rules of the UM Church. Our ethic is personal and social. Our first call is to serve the poor and the homeless and those who have no hope. It is to resist sin, whether personal sin or the permissive standards of secular culture around us. And when our ardor ebbs…
And drive me to that blood again, which makes the wounded whole. (#410)