Philippians 3:12-16 and Becoming a Mature Christian

ChristianPerfectionThe Methodist movement began with its goal as spreading Scriptural holiness across the land. John and Charles Wesley taught this in the form of Christian Perfection–a process of growing into the likeness of Christ. Wesley understood the term perfection as something that was ongoing, not completed, therefore his understanding was that Christian Perfection was an ongoing growth in perfecting a Christian.

When Methodism moved to America, after several years the Wesleyan understanding of perfection was lost. The process of perfecting a Christian became replaced with Entire Sanctification, a state in which the Christian had been perfected and completely (entirely) sanctified. Because this was no longer a process, people began to look for the outward signs that one was perfected–a life full of the Holy Spirit that would naturally prevent one from engaging in sinful actions. The emphasis shifted from the process of growing into the likeness of Christ and became focused on not wearing jewelry, costly clothes, not dancing, not drinking, not smoking, not going to movies, not (fill in the blank).

For the obvious reasons of both making it sound like a person who was entirely sanctified was completely perfect in every way, and the focus on a negative explanation of the faith–do not do this, do not do that–the doctrine of Entire Sanctification has all but disappeared. The original emphasis by the Wesleys on the process of perfecting a Christian is all but lost as well. Yet this does not negate the fact that it is Scriptural. Look at what Paul writes here in Philippians:

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15 So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.

Perhaps a better way of explaining this doctrine is to use the same language Paul uses here of being Spiritually Mature. This is essentially what Wesley meant when speaking of the process of being perfected. He was speaking of becoming a mature Christian, one who is growing into the full nature of Christ.

Ironically, because Entire Sanctification and Christian Perfection have fallen out of favor, we have tended to replace this Christian Maturity with conversion as the goal of Christianity. When we do this, the focus becomes preaching and teaching for a decision to follow Christ. When that happens, we end up making a serious mistake. Jesus said that it was the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the world of sin and it was our job to make disciples. By making conversion the goal of the faith, we take the Holy Spirit’s job on ourselves and leave our job to the Holy Spirit. I believe this is why we have an anemic Church in America today and why the criticism of being hypocrites can be spot on with us.

The goal of the Christian faith, of our relationship with Christ, is to become mature. It is to grow into the full stature of Christ. And notice what Paul says in verse 15–if anyone disagrees with this assessment of growing into mature Christians, not that their other opinion is also valid, but that God will reveal to that person that s/he is wrong and point that person towards the truth of the matter. Our goal is not the proverbial get out of hell free card. That actually makes a mockery of the biblical vision of the faith. Our goal is Christian Maturity, growing in God’s grace so that we can come to the full stature of Christ in us and experience the fullness of God’s power and presence in our lives.

Advertisements

Job 9:33-35 and Seeking a Mediator

PrinceOfPeaceJob’s complaint throughout this book is that God inflicts evil on people whether they deserve it or not and there is no way to make a case before God that the punishment received is unjust. Here, in Chapter 9, Job cries out for help:

Oh, that there were a mediator between us; he would lay his hand on both of us, remove his rod from me, so his fury wouldn’t frighten me. Then I would speak—unafraid—for I’m not that way.

Job seeks someone who can bridge the gap between God and himself, someone who can remove the wrath of God from him, someone who can remove Job’s fear in the face of God. This someone would be able to speak with both Job and God and understand both of them.

This is a cry for Jesus, the God-man who does, in fact, know both of them and can truly speak to both of them–whose ministry removes the wrath of God from all of the world and allows humans to boldly “approach th’ eternal throne,” to quote Charles Wesley’s hymn And Can It Be.

People have longed for someone to bridge the gap between humanity and the divine all over the world and all across time. Jesus is that mediator. He intercedes for all who would ask him to do so. Thanks be to God that he is willing to listen and desires to be heard!

 

Here is a newer version of And Can It Be:

And here is the original:

And Can It Be–A New Version

Sometimes I am a little slow picking up on new things, but I just recently stumbled upon a new version of my favorite Charles Wesley hymn, And Can It Be.

This is the hymn Charles wrote to describe his experience of God’s grace in an unmistakable way in his life.  Some have called it his conversion experience, and some have called it his version of his brother John’s Aldersgate experience (assurance of salvation).  Either way, it was a powerful awareness of the love and grace of God in his life.

I had never heard this hymn before I went to Asbury Seminary.  There we sang it so often some referred to it as Asbury’s “fight song.”  I have to say, there was always something electric in the air when the pipe organ would drop out of the fourth verse and we sang it a capella, and then had the crescendo for the fifth verse.

Here is the original version, thanks to the folks at hymnal.net.  It has all five verses and a piano accompaniment, so if you have never heard the hymn, you know how it goes (and what the lyrics are).

Below is the new version, which is wonderful.  Enjoy!

 

Grace, actually

He breaks the power of canceled sin

He sets the prisoner free

His blood can make the foulest clean

His blood availed for me.

This verse from Charles Wesley’s O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing is a grace-filled and hope-filled message that, unfortunately, is ignored or misunderstood in much of the church today.  Charles, John’s younger brother, was a proCharles_wesleylific hymn writer (he wrote over 6000 hymns), a clergyman with the Church of England along with John, and co-founder of the Methodist movement.  He was very theologically astute and an amazing poet.  This hymn, one of his most famous, has been included in every Methodist hymnal or songbook since it was written in the 1700’s.  In fact, it is usually the first hymn in those books, it is so encapsulating of the Methodist understanding of the Christian experience.

This verse, however, can be a stumbling block to some.  In fact, when my wife attended a non-Methodist church in college, it was such a stumbling block that they changed the lyrics to “He breaks the power of reigning sin.”  Why the change?  Because not all branches of the church believe as the Wesleys’ and the Methodists do that God can save us from sin in this life completely.  This was a concept that got the Wesley brothers in trouble with church authorities and has been misunderstood by many since.

Methodists, following Wesley’s example, believe that Christ can so transform believers’ hearts that they truly do love God with everything they are and love neighbors as themselves.  We believe in what has been termed Entire Sanctification or Christian Perfection.  We believe that if Christ called us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if we are promised to be made holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:13-25), and if we are supposed to be “set free from sin” (Romans 6:18), then God can make good on all these promises and enable us to fulfill these commands.

We believe that sin does not reign in us, but has been cancelled.  Not only has sin been cancelled in our lives, but that God can even “break the power” of that cancelled sin.

Does this mean that we believe we can be holy in and of ourselves?  No, not at all.  We are only holy as God makes us holy, as we respond to His grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Does this mean that we believe Christians can achieve a state of sinless perfection?  No, again.  We know by experience that humans are flawed and limited, but we do believe that we can be perfected in our intentions.  This is because we believe that God wants us to have a perfect love for Him and others.  When we do everything motivated out of love, that is the goal of the Christian life.

And we believe that this can happen in this life.  Our perfection of intention, our perfection in love, is not relegated to the future when Christ comes back and there is a new heaven and earth.  It can be experienced here and now by those who are so transformed by the Holy Spirit.  As Charles Wesley wrote further in O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:

With Me, your Chief, ye then shall know

Shall feel your sins forgiven

Anticipate your heaven below

And own that love is heaven.