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A Wesleyan Voice? #AndCanItBe

Yesterday, Matt O’Reilly posted a blog post entitled
Finding Our Wesleyan Voice (#AndCanItBe). It is an attempt to respond to the concerns of Kevin Watson:

...we are not doing a very good job of getting our message out. For at least five years I have heard people raise the lack of visibility of Wesleyans in print publications, for example, with some regularity and frustration. I once heard a UM leader make the point that you would not find hardly any books in Barnes and Noble that were written from a Wesleyan perspective.

I really like Matt’s response to this concern. Matt says that one of the reasons for this may be the simple fact that there is no one Wesleyan perspective. He is probably thinking of the United Methodist Church here. There are many different perspectives, all which make some claim to having the support of John Wesley. There is too much confusion.

So, the first order of business would be for Wesleyans to find a voice. How would they do that?

Here is Matt’s proposal:

...I want to suggest that any authentically Wesleyan message will intentionally emphasize what John Wesley himself emphasized (and I am, by no means, the only person to make this suggestion). You don't have to read much Wesley to recognize that he was convinced that God raised up the people called Methodists to renew the church with the message of entire sanctification. This is our primary distinctive. This is our contribution. We are the people who believe that God's grace is powerful enough and big enough to deal with our sin and produce in us the life of holiness in a comprehensive way. We believe that God can actually transform us such that we live in a way that consistently glorifies his name. We need to rediscover our roots in this doctrine and let it define our voice. Little to nothing else is distinctive about Wesleyan theology. If we do not articulate what is distinctive, then we have no contribution and no voice.

He then goes on to suggest a website along the lines of the Gospel Coalition to spread the Wesleyan message.

I am, of course, fine with his suggestion about where to start. But, the fact of the matter is that the entire sanctification message is wholly out of step with most of United Methodism and with most of mainstream evangelicalism. So, this is going to be an exercise in swimming against the stream.

However, this really
is the logical place to start because it is the concern that lies at the heart of John Wesley’s theology. His was a quest for holiness of heart and life right from the beginning. So, when he heard the message of justification by faith from the Moravians, this did not change his quest, it put the quest on a new salvation-by-faith basis. Justification was by faith. Sanctification (understood as holiness of heart and life) was also by faith. I think Christian Perfection was a phrase already current among the writers on the spiritual life in Wesley’s day. So, he used it (after all, it had some Biblical backing, from the word τέλειος and its cognates) — but the basis of the Christian Perfection message was changed: now it was sanctification by faith. (See, for example: The Nature of Christian Perfection.)

But, most people in the United Methodist Church have never heard this message. When they hear it they are either shocked or confused — or both. Many pastors in the UMC only encountered this message when they arrived at Seminary — and, who knows, they may not have been paying particular attention then.

Furthermore, most of the evangelical world has, for a long time, been content with a faith that is constantly plagued with guilt. The resistance to the Wesleyan message has never been stronger than it is right now.

So, where do we start? Let me suggest that we start where Wesley says we should start: with the Scriptures. What do the Scriptures promise for us in the Christian life? What is the standard the Scriptures raise for us?

The word “sanctification” is being used in an idiosyncratic way in the Wesleyan tradition. We may need to look at that. Goodness knows, the word “perfection” is. But, terminology has never been at the heart of this — the issue has always been: a heart wholly devoted to God.

What is, then, the perfection of which man is capable, while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command: 'My son, give me thy heart.' It is the 'loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.' This is the sum of Christian perfection: it is comprised in that one word; love. The first branch of it is the love of God: and as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;' Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. 'On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets;' these contain the whole of Christian perfection.

So, to me, back to basics means: back to the Scriptures upon which this was built. And, from here, a renewed doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and a renewed doctrine of the Christian life can grow.

And what about Matt’s idea of a website? That is a good idea. The
Seedbed site at Asbury Theological Seminary is a step in this direction. But, it needs to be something more broadly based than that. It needs to include people from all the historic Wesleyan denominations, who can commit themselves to advancing this message — speaking in this voice.

And, it needs to be clear whether our intention is to preserve the “mainline” or to preserve the “methodist.” They are two wholly different things.

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