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.

Matthew 12:25-29 and God’s Power in This World

John Wesley led a movement that was filled with the Holy Spirit and changed the world around them.

John Wesley led a movement that was filled with the Holy Spirit and changed the world around them.

I know many people in the West who see our society crumbling and growing darker, more evil. They remember what life was like decades ago, see it now, and wonder how the Church has lost so much ground. Of course, most of them are also quick to point out how the Church is growing in other parts of the world and wonder why not here. (I should say here that the Free Methodist Church in the USA has been growing for several years now. You can see the statistics here.)

Jesus’ comments say something about this situation:

25 Because Jesus knew what they were thinking, he replied, “Every kingdom involved in civil war becomes a wasteland. Every city or house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan throws out Satan, he is at war with himself. How then can his kingdom endure? 27 And if I throw out demons by the authority of Beelzebul, then by whose authority do your followers throw them out? Therefore, they will be your judges. 28 But if I throw out demons by the power of God’s Spirit, then God’s kingdom has already overtaken you. 29 Can people go into a house that belongs to a strong man and steal his possessions, unless they first tie up the strong man? Then they can rob his house.

Who is the strong man? Satan. What are his possessions? Those who are possessed. How does Jesus have the ability to cast out demons? Through God’s Spirit and because Satan is already bound. When God entered into this world, Satan was bound. Because the devil is not equal-but-opposite from God, there is no dualism or yin-yang concept in Christianity, where the Holy Spirit is, Satan has no power.

Given this reality, the situation in the West means something that is hard to hear, but very true. Our culture is becoming more dark because we do not have the Holy Spirit within us as much as we had in the past. We have, as John Wesley was so fond of saying in his own day, the form of godliness without the power. We know how to do Church. We know what the right and wrong things are. We know how to stand up for justice and be in ministry to and for others. But we have lost our first love, and we are doing all of this because of rote tradition, because of political ideologies, because it is what we have always done (or think we should have always done).

Yet for all of our action on behalf of Jesus Christ, we no longer have the living, vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. We have the form of godliness without the power.

We need to repent of our self-sufficiency. We need to repent of our resistance to change. We need to repent of our political activism. We need to seek God with a passion that realizes that without him, we will cease to exist. We need to be relentless in asking for the Holy Spirit to be poured out once again in our congregations and fellowships. We need to have a serious discontent with any Christian group that would try to organize around personal preferences, hanging out, or certain causes, and seek out other people who will settle for nothing less than the very power and presence of the Living God in their lives.

Jesus has bound the strong man. If we are in fellowship with him, we will see that reality all around us. Just look at the Christians in the two-thirds world and how the Good News is being proclaimed with power there. May we in the West cease settling for tradition, familiarity, political activism, and fellowship based on affinity. Instead, let us seek the power of God in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then we will see God’s wonders once again.

Isaiah 37:21-22 and The Absolute Necessity of Prayer

Prayer room in John Wesley's home. This is just off his bedroom, and he would rise at 4 am every morning for prayer.

Prayer room in John Wesley’s home. This is just off his bedroom, and he would rise at 4 am every morning for prayer.

John Wesley once said, “God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.” Prayer is our way of reminding ourselves of our utter dependence upon God and it is a way of showing God our faith in him. We would not pray if we did not need help, and we would not pray for help if we did not expect to receive it.

In this section of Isaiah, Hezekiah prays to the Lord for deliverance and help as the Assyrians are threatening to destroy Jerusalem and deport the people to other parts of their empire. Hezekiah reads the threats that have come to him in the form of letters, immediately goes to the Temple, spreads the letters out before the ark of the covenant, and asks the Lord for protection, deliverance, and victory over the Assyrians–all so the Assyrians, and the rest of the world, will know that the Lord is the only true God, exists, and acts on behalf of those who worship him.

Hezekiah received this answer:

Then Isaiah, Amoz’s son, sent a message to Hezekiah: The Lord God of Israel says this: Since you prayed to me about Assyria’s King Sennacherib,  this is the message that the Lord has spoken against him…

Here is faith and God’s response to faith. Hezekiah did not depend upon another nation or military or gods to help him, although that was what the conventional wisdom of the day said he should do. Everyone thought that Hezekiah would make a treaty with Egypt to protect Judah from Assyria. Hezekiah does nothing of the sort. But neither does Hezekiah simply assume that the Lord will act. He does not presume upon God because he is Jewish, or resides in Jerusalem, or is a descendant of David, or is near the Temple of the Lord.

Hezekiah does not depend upon others or assume that God will act. Instead, Hezekiah pours out his petitions to the Lord in prayer. He does this because he knows he needs help and he knows the Lord is the only one who can help him. And notice the Lord’s response–Since you prayed to me. It was Hezekiah’s act of faith in prayer that prompted the Lord to act.

Perhaps Wesley is right after all. Perhaps God does nothing except in response to prayer.

2 Chronicles 19:2-3 and Helping the Wicked

John Wesley

John Wesley

The Christian life is hard. We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are supposed to defend those who are week. We are to seek out the lost and offer them the Good News of Jesus Christ. But we are not to join them or help them in their wicked endeavors. This can be a fine line–how to seek out, pray for, and be in ministry to those who need it most and not to join them in what they are doing.

Jehoshaphat joined Ahab in his military endeavors. He gave his son to one of Ahab’s daughters for marriage. He was probably trying to reunite the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Upon returning from a defeat in battle, Jehoshaphat is confronted by a prophet:

Jehu son of Hanani the seer came out to meet him and said, “Why did you help the wicked? Why have you loved those who hate the Lord? This is why the Lord is angry with you.  Nevertheless, there is some good to be found in you, in that you have removed the sacred poles from the land and set your mind to seek God.”

The good Jehoshaphat did is not overlooked, but neither is the evil he did in trying to help prop up Ahab overlooked. Jehoshaphat was good, but he could have been even better in serving the Lord. Watch out for helping the wicked. In my mind this goes beyond social issues that are dividing denominations right now (homosexuality and, to a lesser extent, abortion). There are denominations that have believers within them who hold to the historic understanding of the faith and biblical interpretation, and those very same denominations have leaders–in churches, denominational headquarters, seminaries–who deny the divinity of Christ and reinterpret the Trinity. In these denominations funds go from all congregations, regardless of their beliefs, to the regional, national, and global offices to support and pay for those who do not even believe Jesus is God.

That would be the parallel with Jehoshaphat and his rebuke by Jehu.

John Wesley, in his sermon On Schism, argues very strongly against the Methodists separating from the Church of England. However, he did include this in his sermon as well:

But perhaps such persons will say, “We did not do this willingly; we were constrained to separate from that society, because we could not continue therein with a clear conscience; we could not continue without sin. I was not allowed to continue therein with breaking a commandment of God.” If this was the case, you could not be blamed for separating from that society.

Good thoughts about helping the wicked.


James 2:26 and Dead Faith

2013_08_FaithI have lived in many places over the years and every once in a while I end up in a community that is adamant that Christians can’t have “works” because we are saved by faith alone.  Apparently those Christians have never read James.  It would not be surprising.  Martin Luther, that venerable reformer, wanted to remove James from the Bible (why not, he got rid of several Old Testament books!) but was prevented from doing so by others.  James didn’t fit his theology of sola fides or faith alone for salvation.  Here’s why:

As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.

That is pretty clear and straight to the point.  If you want to read it in context, here is a link.  In fact, the only place the phrase faith alone occur in the Bible are in James 2:24:

So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.

Luther was fighting against a corrupted system in the Roman Catholic Church of his time in which there was no discussion of faith, but only a system in which people worked for God to work off their sins.  His message of salvation by faith alone was a radical return to the idea that God saves us by grace so that we can live a Christian life.

Christians today who say there is no place for works in their lives take Luther’s statements (consciously or unconsciously) and try to apply them to a radically different situation.  They would do well to reexamine James, because James has the antidote to much of what is wrong in many Churches in the West today.

Faith is not really faith if it is not strong enough to lead to a transformed life.  This is because faith is not an agreement to a group of ideas about God.  It is a relationship with the Living God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–that leads us to be transformed step by step, grace by grace, and glory by glory, into the likeness of Jesus Christ.  If there is no transformation, if there is no changed life, if our lives do not increasingly look like Jesus, there is no faith.

John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, said that we are not saved by works, but neither can we be saved without them.  If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, but our lives do not show that belief, what does it say about our profession of faith?

Does this mean that in order to say we have faith we must be perfect?  Absolutely not!  If we have faith we must struggle against sin and seek to do God’s will, obeying Christ’s commands–for if we believe in him we acknowledge him not only as our Savior, but also our Lord.  We obey our Lord or we are unfaithful.  As we try to live the life Christ calls us to live we seek his help in fulfilling his calling upon our lives.  God gives even more grace to those who pray for it so they can live the Christian life.  This transformation occurs over time, as our relationship with God grows deeper.

Do not be drawn away by the idea that we are saved by saying we have faith alone.  Faith is not faith unless it results in a transformed life.

Raising Kids Without Doing More Harm Than Good

(c) Epworth Old Rectory; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationJohn Wesley was raised knowing that God had something important for him to do in the world.  I was reminded of this yesterday when, during my Bible readings I ran across Zechariah 3:2, “Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” (ESV).  Those who know Wesley’s life or Methodist history would know this is how John’s mother, Susanna, thought of John when he was rescued at the last minute from a fire in their home when John was a young boy.  Men stood on top of each other’s shoulders to make a human ladder to reach John and pulled him to safety right before the roof crashed down where he had been.  Susanna thought of this verse and decided that John needed extra attention because God had preserved him for something.

John grew up with this story.  He knew God had kept him alive for some reason, and he wanted to make sure he accomplished that purpose.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  Wesley created a movement that has become one of the largest groups of Christians in the world (see this post for stats) and he is credited with preserving England from the radical revolutions that swept Continental Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and for seriously contributing to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire due to his influence on the likes of William Wilberforce.

Sometimes parents overly praise their children to the extent that children are not prepared for the hurts and failures that real life can bring.  When kids think they are obviously the best at everything, and anything they attempt is perfect, they are being set up for failure in life quite simply because there will generally be someone else who is better at something than they are.

On the flip-side, there are parents that limit the praise and children grow up thinking that they cannot do anything well.  They may have success in life but never feel as if they are fulfilled because the voice in their heads tell them that it is not “good enough.”

John Wesley is a great case in the middle road.  This is how his parents treated him.  Susanna and Samuel Wesley raised John, telling him that he was there for a purpose (the brand from the fire) but they were also realistic about life and John’s abilities.  They encouraged him where he was gifted and did not overly admonish him where he was not.  To be sure, it took John a long time in adulthood to come to a balanced life (some might say he never quite arrived there), but the results of his life cannot be denied.

Perhaps one of the greatest things we can do for our children is to remind them every so often that they have a unique mission on this earth given to them by God.  It is a mission that only they can do, because if it was not then God would have created someone else for a different mission.  Every one of us, whether we have had an encounter with a blazing inferno of a home, are brands plucked from the fire.  We are all here by the grace of God and we all have something we are uniquely qualified to do.