Book Review of Minding the Good Ground at Seedbed.com

My latest book review for Asbury Seminary’s ministry resourcing site Seedbed.com is up. The book is Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal (Baylor 2011), by Jason Vickers. Vickers is a professor at United Methodist related United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Here’s the link.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 5b

Wesley noted a transition in article 5 of his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection from reading the bible to studying it “as the one, only standard of truth” in 1729. And he saw its teaching “in a clearer and clearer light.” So, what did he see?

Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having “the mind which was in Christ,” and of “walking as Christ also walked;” even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in Him; and of walking as He walked, not only in many or in most respects, but in all things.

Salvation is by grace through faith. It is God’s doing, received by us as a gift. And, in Paul’s words, “we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Our works don’t save us, but saved people do good works. Why? Because grace is transformative. God’s grace is not only powerful enough to justify us before God, but also to sanctify us in and for God.

Wesley saw in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament that the full project of God’s salvation is not only saving us from the consequences of things we’ve done, though that’s a part of it. The full project is heart surgery (and we would add the mind and the will too!) in which we are transformed by God’s grace and power into Christlikeness.

As Wesley saw in that “clearer and clearer light,” God’s aim is to transform us not just a little bit, but all the way. God’s grace is not limited to forgiveness only, but works in us for “an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.”

Sound extreme? Well, it is. Submission to and participation in the grace of God is not easy for us. But it’s not our project, it’s God’s from start to finish. And the testimony of the saints, the most mature Christians of all, is that this work of grace is worth it.

“Every Mile Out There Is a Gift”

When the explosions went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Amby Burfoot was just seven tenths of a mile from finishing. Burfoot won Boston, the great prize of marathons, in 1968. To celebrate that momentous occasion, he has run it every five years since. This year was the 45th anniversary of his win. He and other runners yet to complete the race were turned back, unable to finish.

Here’s what Burfoot shared in an interview a day or two after the bombing:

There was a time when my entire soul hungered for nothing but winning this race and I was lucky enough for that to happen. But now I run it with the full knowledge that every mile out there is a gift and every finish line is a gift and knowing I don’t know when it’s going to end and be taken away from me or when it will be taken away from others as it was at this year’s marathon.

“Every mile out there is a gift.” That simple line has been lodged in my mind.

Amby Burfoot’s first Boston Marathon was in 1965. Winners of the Boston Marathon are at the top of their sport. That pinnacle demands orienting one’s whole life—schedule, diet, sleep, etc—around preparation for competing to reach it.

The early followers of Jesus knew well the demands of orienting one’s whole life around a great goal–living authentically and abundantly in Christ, and making disciples of all peoples. James writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

I think James would like Amby Burfoot’s words: “Every mile out there is a gift.” It’s an attitude of appreciation and gratitude. And it’s an attitude that acknowledges that, as hard as we work at life—like a marathoner’s difficult training regimen—at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, life is better treated as a gift to be cherished than a wage to be earned.

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?

Ben Witherington on “Why I’m a Wesleyan”

Dr. Ben Witherington III is one of the most prominent New Testament scholars in the world. In this brief video from my friends at Seedbed he addresses the topic, “Why I’m a Wesleyan.”

Now, I’m a generous orthodoxy sort of Christian (before the Brian McLaren book seized upon the phrase). I believe in creedal orthodoxy, represented by the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. And I believe in a generosity about the Body of Christ: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity, as the saying goes. But I also think it’s alright to put forward the distinctives of one’s own branch of Christianity’s family tree and make the case for its faithfulness to scripture, even over against other branches of the family tree, provided it’s done in love.

So, without further adieu… Here’s Dr BW3:

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.

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