Jim Harnish ~ Why I am a Methodist

10

 

What if, on your way to work between floors in the elevator, someone asked you, “Why are you a Methodist?” That’s shorthand for, “Why have you chosen to live out your discipleship in the context of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition?” How would you respond?

I heard about a feisty little Methodist woman who visited a Baptist Church where the fire-breathing preacher asked, “Why are you a Methodist?” She replied, “Because my parents and my grandparents were Methodists.” He shot back, “If your parents and grandparents had been fools, what would you be?” She said, “I guess I’d be a Baptist.”

The fun thing about that story is that you can tell it either way! But there’s nothing new about the differences between the Methodists and the Baptists. Those denominational labels tend to represent two great branches of Christian theology which go all the way back to the 5th Century, but which took particular form in the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. On one side is the Calvinist or Reformed tradition represented by most Baptists and Presbyterians. On the other side is the Arminian or Wesleyan tradition represented by the Methodists, Episcopalians and others.

The differences came home to me when Time magazine listed “The New Calvinism” as one of the “10 Ideas That Are Changing the World.” Here’s the way they described it.

“Calvinism is back … complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination … It offers a rock-steady deity who orchestrates absolutely everything … by a logic we may not understand but don’t have to second-guess.”

The writer traced the Calvinist influence in America to 17th Century Puritans like Jonathan Edwards but went on to say, “It was soon overtaken in the U.S. by movements like Methodism that were more impressed with human will.” (Time, March 23, 2009, p. 50)

That article came out about the same time I was asked to write a column for “The Tampa Tribune” on Paul Young’s novel, “The Shack.”  I wrote that Young sounded like a good Methodist when he had “Pappa” say, “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace.”

The morning after the article came out, I found a voicemail from a woman who, with tears in her voice, said, “I don’t know anything about the Methodists, but I know that’s what I’ve always believed.”

One reason I live out my discipleship as a Methodist is the Wesleyan balance between God’s providence on one hand and human freedom on the other.

Methodists don’t believe in “an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity … who orchestrates absolutely everything.” We don’t believe that “God has a reason for everything.” Rather, we believe in the God who loves us enough to give us the freedom to reject that love; the God who is relentlessly at work to fulfill his saving purpose for us while never abrogating the freedom he planted within us; the God who invites everyone — not just a predestined few — to receive his love and grace in Jesus Christ.

Charles Wesley described God’s universal love and our freedom to respond in his hymn:

Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind.

Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all.
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.

His love is mighty to compel;
His conquering love consent to feel,
Yield to His love’s resistless power,
And fight against your God no more.

This is the time, no more delay!
This is the Lord’s accepted day.
Come thou, this moment, at His call,
And live for Him Who died for all.

Another reason I’m a follower of Christ in the Methodist tradition is the Wesleyan balance between heart and head.

I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but it’s an oversimplification that points to a real difference. The Reformed tradition tends to focus its attention on what happens in our head. The important thing is to get the truth and get it right in the assurance that right belief in right doctrine is the critical factor in a right relationship with God. We need that emphasis because there’s a lot of flakey theological fluff floating around these days.

But while the Wesleyan tradition is no less concerned about the content of what we believe, its central focus is on what happens in our heart in the confidence that once we get our hearts right, our heads will follow. For the Wesleys, the heart of the matter is always a matter of the heart.

Two Wesley hymns capture that balance. One says:

O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free,
A heart that always feels Thy blood
So freely shed for me.

A heart in every thought renewed
And full of love divine,
Perfect and right and pure and good,
A copy, Lord, of Thine.

The second is a hymn that Charles wrote for the opening of their new school at Kingswood.

Unite the pair so long disjoined;
Knowledge and vital piety;
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love let all men see
In these, when up to thee we give,
Thine, wholly thine, to die and live.

My third reason for following Christ in the Methodist tradition is the Wesleyan balance of personal piety with social action.

Eddie Fox has traveled the globe as Director of World Evangelism for the World Methodist Council. Every now and then someone will ask him which is more important, personal piety — the individual transformation of the heart — or social action — the transformation of the kingdoms of this earth into the Kingdom of God. Eddie says that it’s just like breathing. Personal piety is the way we breathe in. Social action is the way we breathe out. You know which is most important when you know which you did last.

That’s a good Methodist answer. The Methodists have always agreed with the epistle of James that faith without works is dead. The inner transformation of the heart must be expressed through social transformation of the world in which we live. Some of Wesley’s early followers expressed the spirit of Methodism when they said:

Do all the good you can,
By whatever means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

Methodist Christians have always been social activists because they are convinced that the love we feel in our hearts must become the love we express with our hands. Here’s the way Charles Wesley sang it:

Let us join (‘tis God commands),
Let us join or hearts and hands;
Still forget the things behind,
Follow Christ, in heart and mind;
Plead we thus for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown.

My final reason for following Christ in the Methodist tradition is the balance between present and future salvation.

We believe that God’s salvation is not a static thing. It’s not a form of spiritual vaccination. We don’t just “get saved” and then sit around waiting to go to heaven. Salvation is a living, growing, dynamic relationship in which God forgives and heals the brokenness in our lives, relationships and in the whole creation so that we participate in God’s transformation of the world.

Salvation begins now and continues throughout our lives. Wesley used the word “sanctification” to describe the ongoing process by which the grace of God is constantly at work in us to shape our lives into the likeness of Christ. The work begins here and continues within us until it is fulfilled in heaven.

One of Wesley’s greatest hymns begins in the way God’s love meets us in the present:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

It begins right here, right now, when we experience the love of God in our hearts. But the last verse of the hymn points to the way that love continues to be at work within us all the way to heaven.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

My prayer is that faith, working in us through that “love divine all loves excelling,” will fulfill God’s new creation in and through “the people called Methodist” in our time.

 

(Adapted from “A Disciple’s Path Companion Reader,” copyright 2012 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.)

10 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a Methodist pastor, and so very thankful for my Methodist roots (they go all the way back to England where the kids in my family (1780’s or so) were born again at a Methodist meeting. Their father promptly kicked them out, but a Methodist preacher convinced him that he was a sinner in need of grace. He then build one of the first Methodist churches on his property). I was raised in Methodist churches all my young life, but no one ever told me I needed Christ personally. No one ever told me I was a sinner in need of grace. In fact, if I had not fallen away and then been pursued by my Baptist friends, I would still be lost (or dead). So while I don’t agree with much of the Reformed theology, I’m so very grateful for Billy Graham and the Baptists who challenged me to deal with my sinfulness through the grace and mercy of Christ. I’m also thankful for my Catholic friends. They taught me about the body of Christ, and not just the one that live here and now, but the full body of Christ who also live in heaven. My brothers and sisters who live there and pray for us. Some of them lived exemplary Christian lives on earth and are remembered officially as saints, whereas all believers who live in heaven now also intercede for us. I love their sacramental theology, as well as our own. We share so much there. But I also thank God for my Pentecostal brothers and sisters who help me celebrate the living Presence of God, the Holy Spirit, in our lives and in the life of the church. I love that they have taught me to ask big things of a big God, and to stand on His word and promises, even if it doesn’t get resolved the way I would like (if I were God, and you should all thank Him that I’m not, lol). So yes, the best place for me to serve is as a UM pastor, but I like to call myself a Metho-bapto-catho-costal. For me, that just means I’m a member of the whole body of Christ. We can ask Jesus to straighten out all our faulty theology when we see Him face to face.

  2. Great post! We have just completed your “A Disciple’s Path” small group study here at St. Paul UMC in Omaha, and this article reinforces many of the Wesleyan principles you presented there. I really enjoyed the additional explanation. Thanks!

  3. While Harnish’s article brings a much needed voice of acclaim to our church’s heart and soul, I must voice my dismay that he misses the historical fact that the church has been the “United Methodist Church” since 1968. I am not, and never have been “Methodist,” but proudly proclaim my United Methodist heritage.

    • Because scripture can be interpreted in different ways, that’s why the subject of theology exists. The big difference here is a Methodist touch. The Bible didn’t invent Methodism, the interpretations made by John and Charles Wesley did. That’s why he quotes hymns instead of scripture. Even though scripture would have been useful, it still makes sense the way he uses his support; taking from the men before him and not re-inventing the wheel.

  4. Thank you for this. I have been a Methodist all my life and have seen the changes from the Methodist to the United Methodist Church and believe strongly in the Wesleyan heritage. Thanks be to God!

  5. Pastor Harnish, I enjoyed your thoughts on Methodist beliefs. It’s led to a discussion with an old friend, a retired Methodist pastor, who brought it to my attention. I’m an apostate Methodist, abandoning the UMC and embracing Calvinism long ago. Just a few thoughts.

    > Calvinist love Charles Wesley too. We sing a lot of his hymns in our church because of their biblical theology, great music and ties to historic Christianity.

    > Know your opponent and treat him seriously. Specifically your paragraph on “…present and future salvation” The implication is Calvinists see no importance to works demonstrating faith. This is a straw man argument. If you know any Calvinist preachers you know they often preach on sanctification. I hear this theme at least once a month in some sermon from one our pastors. Really, a righteous life is the only thing that assures us of our salvation. We delude ourselves if we rely on some previous profession of faith yet have no change in our lives.

    “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” James 2:14

    One of the main concerns of my pastor is the prevalence of false professions, people who truly believe they are saved, but are not. They might make up the majority of most congregations. So no, Calvinists don’t rely on a profession of salvation and then “… sit around waiting to go to heaven.”

    > “once we get our hearts right, our heads will follow.” This might be at the heart (no pun intended) of not only our disagreements on Calvin but our totally different view of the gospel. No, there is a process to salvation. First we hear “…How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” Romans 10:14 The gospel begins with words, then through the work of the Holy Spirit, regeneration occurs and the words are understood and believed. Then we become, again through the work of the Spirit, “a new creation.” “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from
    you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. … ” Ezekiel 36: 26

    You can’t be saved unless you hear the words of the gospel first. This begins a supernatural process instigated and continued by the God.

    > To make your points, point to scripture that supports you. If you ever want to get through to a Calvinist you have to point to scripture not an appeal to justice or fairness. Don’t try to bring God down to a human standard to make Him more palatable.

    > The works that James is referring to are personal acts of righteousness, good deeds, personal holiness, the fruits of the spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 This doesn’t exclude social action. William Wilberforce in England and the abolitionist movement in America, the civil rights movement in 50’s and 60’s, the anti-abortion movement today. These are times for men to stand against evil. But generally social activism degenerates into just political activism. We see this in both the Left and the Right. The gospel is not politics although it appears Methodists believe it is.

    >What is “salvation” and who or what are we saved from? We are saved from God’s wrath and His judgement. We are saved from the just penalty of our sins, and the continuing sins in our life. Sanctification is not that second work of the Spirit in the Wesleyan tradition, but a never ending, personal struggle against sin. We are righteous judicially before God and being saved from the power of sin in our lives. We will progress, we will grow in righteousness, we will struggle through effort, but the sanctification is, like salvation, solely the work of the Sprit. This is a seeming paradox, like many truths in the bible. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Here’s a question to ponder, why does Jesus use the metaphor of birth to describe salvation?

    > The sovereignty of God in choosing whom he will, stands equally with our personal responsibility for accepting or rejecting the gospel. The scripture affirms both without apology. These two parallel lines will never meet in our human understanding, yet in God’s economy there is no contradiction.

    > You and I are not God and we can’t understand everything He does in His perfect wisdom justice and knowledge. An important thing to remember is God is God and we are not. This fact eludes many people.

    > The scripture is true. Read it, search it and study it everyday.

    > Don’t follow Christ in any tradition. Follow the Christ that you find in the Bible and let the chips fall where they may. The Christ you find there is glorious, wonderful and worthy our total obedience no matter what the cost.

    > Finally, Charles Wesley, once more, he also wrote this hymn: “And Can It Be?” I love this hymn, especially this verse:

    “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast-bound in sin and nature’s night.

    Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke–the dungeon flamed with light!

    My chains fell off, my heart was free!

    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!

    Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?”

  6. Pastor Harnish, I enjoyed your thoughts on Methodist beliefs. It’s led to a discussion with an old friend, a retired Methodist pastor, who brought it to my attention. I’m an apostate Methodist, abandoning the UMC and embracing Calvinism long ago. Just a few thoughts.

    > Calvinists love Charles Wesley too. We sing a lot of his hymns in our church because of their biblical theology, great music and ties to historic Christianity.

    > Know your opponent and treat him seriously. Specifically your paragraph on “…present and future salvation” The implication is Calvinists see no importance to works demonstrating faith. This is a straw man argument. If you know any Calvinist preachers you know they often preach on sanctification. I hear this theme at least once a month in some sermon from one our pastors. Really, a righteous life is the only thing that assures us of our salvation. We delude ourselves if we rely on some previous profession of faith yet have no change in our lives.

    “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” James 2:14

    One of the main concerns of my pastor is the prevalence of false professions, people who truly believe they are saved, but are not. They might make up the majority of most congregations. So no, Calvinists don’t rely on a profession of salvation and then “… sit around waiting to go to heaven.”

    > “once we get our hearts right, our heads will follow.” This might be at the heart (no pun intended) of not only our disagreements on Calvin but our totally different view of the gospel. No, there is a process to salvation. First we hear “…How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” Romans 10:14 The gospel begins with words, then through the work of the Holy Spirit, regeneration occurs and the words are understood and believed. Then we become, again through the work of the Spirit, “a new creation.” “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from
    you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. … ” Ezekiel 36: 26

    You can’t be saved unless you hear the words of the gospel first. This begins a supernatural process instigated and continued by the God.

    > To make your points, point to scripture that supports you. If you ever want to get through to a Calvinist you have to point to scripture not an appeal to justice or fairness. Don’t try to bring God down to a human standard to make Him more palatable.

    > The works that James is referring to are personal acts of righteousness, good deeds, personal holiness, the fruits of the spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 This doesn’t exclude social action. William Wilberforce in England and the abolitionist movement in America, the civil rights movement in 50’s and 60’s, the anti-abortion movement today. These are times for men to stand against evil. But generally social activism degenerates into just political activism. We see this in both the Left and the Right. The gospel is not politics although it appears Methodists believe it is.

    >What is “salvation” and who or what are we saved from? We are saved from God’s wrath and His judgement. We are saved from the just penalty of our sins, and the continuing sins in our life. Sanctification is not that second work of the Spirit in the Wesleyan tradition, but a never ending, personal struggle against sin. We are righteous judicially before God and being saved from the power of sin in our lives. We will progress, we will grow in righteousness, we will struggle through effort, but the sanctification is, like salvation, solely the work of the Sprit. This is a seeming paradox, like many truths in the bible. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Here’s a question to ponder, why does Jesus use the metaphor of birth to describe salvation?

    > The sovereignty of God in choosing whom he will, stands equally with our personal responsibility for accepting or rejecting the gospel. The scripture affirms both without apology. These two parallel lines will never meet in our human understanding, yet in God’s economy there is no contradiction.

    > You and I are not God and we can’t understand everything He does in His perfect wisdom justice and knowledge. An important thing to remember is God is God and we are not. This fact eludes many people.

    > The scripture is true. Read it, search it and study it everyday.

    > Don’t follow Christ in any tradition. Follow the Christ that you find in the Bible and let the chips fall where they may. The Christ you find there is glorious, wonderful and worthy our total obedience no matter what the cost.

    > Finally, Charles Wesley, once more, he also wrote this hymn: “And Can It Be?” I love this hymn, especially this verse:

    “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast-bound in sin and nature’s night.

    Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke–the dungeon flamed with light!

    My chains fell off, my heart was free!

    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!

    Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?”

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