Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 5a

This week, we continue looking at John Wesley’s little book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Article 5 is titled, “Conformity to the Master.” In it, Wesley describes how his heightened study of the bible led him more clearly to Christ as Master at life. Not only our Master in life (though he certainly is), but the Master at life—the One who really knows what life is really all about and how to live it abundantly, for all it’s worth.

There are two basic reflections I’d like to share from article 5. I’ll share the first, about Wesley and the bible, in this post.  I’ll get the second in the next post.

Wesley and the Bible

Wesley begins article 5 this way:

“In the year 1729, I began not only to read, but to study, the Bible as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion.”

First, we note that Wesley differentiates between reading the bible and studying the bible. I would contend that both are important. Studying takes us deep into the meaning of the Scriptures, whether getting into the details of a small passage or paying attention to the significance of over-arching themes. Reading can be many things. For my part, I see it as simple immersion into the Story of the bible itself. Perhaps Wesley is referring a sort of surface engagement here.

Second, we can see that an important part of Wesley’s faith journey entailed submitting himself to reading the bible “as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion.” This sort of posture does not only seek to understand the bible, but to gain understanding by “standing under” it, being instructed by its story and its wisdom. We not only read the bible, but are also read by it! We do not master the Scriptures, but are mastered by them.

Finally, Wesley notes that this posture toward the bible began in 1729. An observation: Wesley began reading guides to the Christian life in Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, and William Law. Those guides led him eventually to engaging the text of the bible himself. Sometimes we need the company of others (either face-to-face or through their writings) to help us along the way. But they should lead us to the Scriptures themselves as the “standard of truth’ and “model of pure religion.”

Then we may, like Wesley, see “in a clearer and clearer light…”

What Wesley saw will be the subject of our next post.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 4

In article 4 of John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, we are again introduced to the significance of Wesley finding spiritual mentors through books. I’ve mentioned it each week, but think it worth noting again how important that can be in our faith journey. I have authors who have become not only mentors but friends through reading their works. And I have authors whose writing crossed my path at a critical juncture in my journey and nudged me along the way.

Another of those persons for Wesley was William Law, a priest in the Church of England. Law wrote two books that came into Wesley’s possession soon after their publication: A Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection, and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Reflecting on them, Wesley writes:

These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian; and I determined, through His grace (the absolute necessity of which I was deeply sensible of), to be all devoted to God, to give Him all my soul, my body, and my substance.

First, Wesley becomes convinced that it is not merely unadvisable or awkward or even a serious failing to be “half a Christian.” Rather, it is an “absolute impossibility.” In the New Testament, James seems to say it only slightly differently: “Faith without works is dead.” Forgiveness and reconciliation with God are key, but they are the beginning, not the end. The journey is about maturing faith, faithfulness, restoration to the image of God in which we were created.

Second, Wesley says he “determined, through His grace… to be all devoted to God.” This work of maturation, of growth in faithfulness, of restoration, is ultimately God’s work, according to his grace. We may apply ourselves to serving people, for example, and thus participate with grace. But we dare not mistake our efforts for what really does the job. That is the grace of God.

Third, Wesley desires to give his whole self to God, not just part: “not a mite would I withhold,” goes the old hymn. On this, I will end with Wesley’s own questions:

Will any considerate man say, that this is carrying matters too far? or that anything less is due to Him who has given Himself for us, than to give ourselves, all we have, and all we are?

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 3

This week’s look at John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection witnesses another encounter with an important book and author to Wesley. He shares having “met with” it in 1726, the year after his encounter with Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s book. Again, I love the language of “met with” for his reading. I’ve had that sort of experience with a book.

The book on this occasion is one of the most famous in Christian literature, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which Wesley references by an alternative title, “Christian’s Pattern.” He titles this article, “Simplicity of Intention.”

Wesley writes:

The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this, and go no farther) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart to Him.

Wesley was not in the least opposed to good works. Indeed, the Methodist movement engaged in works of compassion and works of seeking justice. However, Wesley lifts up the significance of knowing Christianity as a “heart religion.” Christianity is about the transformation of human hearts.

This is really a false division anyway. As our hearts are transformed by God’s grace, we gain the mind of Christ and the heart of God. We affirm the truth of 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” And we pray, “Lord, may the things that break your heart break ours as well.”

We love because he has transformed our hearts by his love. We forgive because we’ve been forgiven. We seek justice because God is transforming our hearts to love justice as he does. We show grace because we’ve been shown grace. We love because he first loved us.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 2

Last week, we began looking at John Wesley’s little book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

The term “perfection” may be a stumbling block at first, but in was a term in use in Wesley’s day. So, he did not invent it, but he embraced it and became the movement organizer who worked it out into practical ministry through a multi-tiered small group system (described well and accessibly in Kevin Watson’s Blueprint for Discipleship).

Part of Wesley’s journey included several influential books he read as he sought to understand and practice the life demanded by the gospel. In article 2, he speaks of the “Importance of Complete Dedication,” having read Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.

I love the way he introduces the book: “[I]n the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.” Some books offer us such an encounter with Christ along our journey of faith that they are not merely read; they are met.

Indeed, Wesley confesses, “I was exceedingly affected.” I’ve had that experience too, and I’m thankful for it.

What affected him so?

…that part in particular which relates to purity of intention. Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words, and actions; being thoroughly convinced, there was no medium; but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil.

There was no middle ground for Wesley. I think he would like the line in the hymn, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.” Reserving some parts of his life for himself was as good as giving them to the devil. Perhaps this “no medium” view sounds extreme.

But it does sound remarkably like Jesus in Matthew 6:

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:21, 24 NIV)

Wesley puts the question to the reader, that is, to us: “Can any serious person doubt of this, or find a medium between serving God and serving the devil?”

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 1

One of the hallmark texts of the Wesleyan Christian movement is A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

When we come to faith in Christ, we are “justified” before God, reconciled in our relationship with him. That reconciled relationship is not the stopping point, however. Our relationship with God having been restored, in Paul’s words, “by grace through faith” (Eph 2:8-9), the Holy Spirit continues the restoration work in us by growing us in spiritual maturity. By God’s grace continuing to work within us, we are being restored to the image of God in which we have been created, growing in Christlikeness. This process is called “sanctification.”

John Wesley believed and taught a doctrine known as “Christian Perfection” or “entire sanctification.” He believed that God desires us to become completely devoted to him and that God’s grace was powerful and effective enough to succeed in that project in this life.

A Plain Account of Christian Perfection is Wesley’s book on the subject. On Wednesdays, I’ll be walking through this text and sharing what stands out to me.

Here’s an excerpt from his Article 1: Statement of Purpose:

What I purpose in the following papers, is, to give a plain and distinct account of the steps by which I was led, during a course of many years, to embrace the doctrine of Christian perfection.

Mere Christianity 9

In the last post, we said that there are two views of the universe, the materialist and the religious (or spiritual) views. And we added that one of the great gifts to humankind, scientific study and knowledge is able to discover a staggering amount of knowledge about the universe itself, but is limited to the universe and therefore unable to speak to the existence of Something Behind the universe.

So if there is “Something Behind” the universe, we can’t discover it through science, therefore it would have to make itself known to us some other way.

Lewis claims that since we have “inside information” about one part of our universe that we don’t have about anything else, namely ourselves, human beings. “We do not merely observe [humans], we are [humans]” (emphasis his). This is the key. To put it a little differently, there is one case in which we have more than just the observable external/behavioral facts. Our case.

To quote Lewis:

Since that power, if it exists, would be not one of the observed facts but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it. There is only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more, namely our own case. And in that one case we find there is. Or put it the other way round. If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?

Having presented this argument, Lewis reminds the reader:

Do not think I am going faster than I really am. I am not yet with a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology. All I have got to is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.

Mere Christianity 8

It’s been a little while since that last post, but let’s get back to CS Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. We pick up in book 1, chapter 4.

Lewis is now exploring what the existence of the Moral Law (“a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us”) tells us about what lies behind the Law itself.

First, we are directed to notice that there have always been two basic views of the universe: the materialist view and the religious view. (For an excellent comparison of these two views and their significance, see The Question of God: CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, by Dr. Armand Nicholi. The book is based on a graduate course he taught for 25 years at Harvard. It’s a moderately challenging and a very rewarding read.)

The materialist view says that nothing exists beyond the universe, that the universe (or some material antecedent) has always existed, and that while we know an amazing amount of information about when and how, we do not know why. In fact, we hope to know why, but “why” only in the sense of what caused what to occur, which led to the part that we know at present. But as for the “meaning and significance” sense of the term “why,” the materialist view has nothing to offer. Why the universe gave rise to persons with intelligence is another mystery.

The religious view (we might say, “spiritual view” today) contends that something does lie behind the universe after all, and that something is more like a mind with intelligence than anything else we know.

Here’s another fact. If there is an intelligence behind the universe, then science would not be able to verify or falsify either view because science works with the universe itself and therefore lacks the tools to examine anything that lies behind the universe. This is not an anti-science statement (though, yes, some Christians have unfortunately dubious views and relationships with science). Science has yielded an absolutely staggering amount of knowledge about the universe. But science has limits. It is limited to the universe itself.

So… “If there is ‘Something Behind,’ then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to [us] or else make itself known in some different way.”

Mere Christianity 7

We began book 1, chapter 3 in the previous post.

Assigning a moral value of good or bad to someone’s actions is what the word “ought” means. Lewis points out that the physical Law of Nature is about what the natural world does. Gravity is his prime example. If you let go of a rock in mid-air, the rock falls. The Law of Nature describes what happens.

But the Law of Human Nature (what Lewis has called The Moral Law), is about the word “ought” in a moral value sense.

But what if, Lewis asks, someone questions his use of an “ought” moral value and claims that what he is saying someone ought to do describes not a moral principle but a preference that relates to his own convenience: “we might try to make out that when you say a man ought not to act as he does, you only mean the same as when you say that a stone is the wrong shape; namely, that what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to you.”

So, is all this “ought to” really about behavior that isn’t morally bad, but is simply inconveniencing me? Lewis says no and gives four lines of argument to support his claim.

  1. Intentionality: “A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I blame the second man and do not blame the first.” In other words, there is an “ought to” attached to the second man’s actions that is not attached to the first man’s actions.
  2. Motive: “I am not angry…with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed. Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not.”
  3. Universal Standard: “In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they use him and pay him they regard him” poorly. Their actions may be more convenient to us, but that alone does not determine how we assess their character.
  4. True Inconvenience: Obeying the Moral Law is itself the inconvenient thing much of the time–honesty instead of cheating/lying, honor and respect instead of gratification, bravery instead of safety, truthfulness “even when it makes you look a fool.”

So, the Moral Law, or the Law of Human Nature/Behavior, is not a matter of preferences that convenience us. Rather, it is a hard edge. Something that holds us to a standard even when it would seem more convenient to be free of its demands. And since it is not a statement of how we’d like others to behave for the sake of our own convenience, the Moral Law “must somehow or other be a real thing–a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.”

It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior, and yet quite definitely real–a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.

 

Mere Christianity 6

In this post, we’ll begin looking at chapter 3 in book 1 of Mere Christianity.

Having dealt with some potential objections in chapter 2, Lewis now gets back to advancing his argument for the existence of the Moral Law. To do that, he picks back up where he left off at the end of chapter 1: Humanity has a sense of a Moral Law, and humanity fails to follow it.

Here’s an interesting difference between the Moral Law, which we might call the Law of Human Nature, and the Laws of Nature that we find in the physical universe. The Law/s of Nature are not laws for nature to obey, but rather a description of how nature actually behaves: “what Nature, in fact, does.”

But contrast that with the Moral Law, or the Law of Human Nature. It does not refer to “what human beings, in fact, do” because many do not obey it and no one obeys it completely.

“The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave). In the rest of the universe there need not be anything but the facts.”

 

Mere Christianity 5

I’d like to follow up on something in the last post, which was a summary of Lewis’ presentation in chapter two of book one in Mere Christianity.

In one of his answers to potential objections, he offers the following illustration to prove their is something in our minds in addition to our instincts toward certain kinds of actions.

He writes: “If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses.”

A paragraph earlier, Lewis gave the example of hearing a cry for help. When we quickly survey the scene, it turns out that the man is drowning. Lewis says that we feel two instincts–one to help him and another for self-preservation. Those instincts are both good instincts. Whether they are right or wrong to follow depends on the situation. Something must judge which should win out in the particulars of that situation. Which ought to be elevated, strengthened, and acted upon? Which should be suppressed and denied?

Lewis continues: “But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.”

Perhaps in that moment the stronger impulse is the one to help. Perhaps it is the one to run away. If we’re truthful, I think we would find that we have had both experiences ourselves.

We know the experience of having known the good we ought to have done. But we found that the impulse we ought to follow in that moment of decision was the weaker one. And it needed an extra voice advocating for it when we were tempted to ignore it and go with the other.

Lewis contends that the Moral Law is not an impulse because it is the judge between our impulses at times of situational application. It is the advocate for the impulse in that moment that represents the right, but finds itself weaker than the other impulse.

In Lewis’ example, when we act with sacrificial courage and give help, we feel good in the end that we “rose to the occasion” and acted with courage and conviction (does this common phrase not indicate the struggle of the weaker impulse to exercise itself?). But if we succumb to allowing the stronger of the two impulses, self-preservation in our example, we are filled with regret and feelings of guilt that we didn’t do what we should/could have. We’re even tempted to hide our inaction and keep it a secret because we feel shame.

There’s more that the Christian gospel has to say about this latter situation, but Lewis delays speaking to that and so will I. The point here is to underscore the reality and toughness of the Moral Law. It only mediates and tells you which impulse you should follow, and reminds you of it if you fail to do so. If we are to understand the Christian gospel fully, we must reckon with this aspect of the Moral Law.

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