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On Assurance and Faith

As might be expected, given my point of view, I always appreciate the WESLEYAN WISDOM columns by Donald Haynes that appear at the United Methodist Reporter.

The most recent one is about the experience of the assurance of salvation. First, it talks about Wesley’s religious life prior to his famous Aldersgate experience. Was he seeking God? Certainly. Was he seeking a holy life? Certainly. Did he have faith? Yes. But, there was a vital and missing element: an experience of inward assurance. It was this that he found at the prayer meeting at Aldersgate. Haynes writes:

Wesley’s doctrine was sound and his self-discipline was exemplary, but he still lacked what Paul called “witness of the spirit.” Wesley admitted later that he did not understand his father, when the old Anglican on his death bed in April 1735 told him that “inward witness” was the “strongest proof of Christianity.”Surely, many of us know how Wesley must have felt. In the years since revival altar calls gave way to confirmation classes, very little has been said in most United Methodist churches about an experience of assurance that one’s sins are forgiven. Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist children once learned a little chorus: “I’ve got the peace that passeth understanding down in my heart . . . down in my heart today.” The second stanza was the same except the last line, “down in my heart to stay.”

How many of us must confess—while we believe that God loves us, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died to save us from our sins, that the Bible is the Word of God, and that we are to reach out with deeds of kindness and acts of mercy—we still have a missing link in our relationship with God? Deep in our soul, there is an empty spot which only the Holy Spirit can fill. Is this not the Achilles heel of multiple millions of Christians? Is this not one important clue to the net loss of 650,000 United Methodists already in the 21st century?

Obviously, I agree with the spirit of this. I believe United Methodism lost something when it distanced itself from the revivalistic elements of its own tradition — out of embarrassment, no doubt. Given that the Methodist tradition was begun by a revivalist in the first place, something fundamental is lost when “experienced religion” is no longer considered important.

Yes, but emotion cannot be the measure of faith or spirituality. As I said in my post The Ecstatic Structure of Human Spirituality: “…while spiritual experiences are bound (in the nature of the case) to be emotional experiences, the inverse is not true. Emotion, per se, is not spiritual. Emotional experiences are not necessarily spiritual. So, while emotion should be expected, it is not demanded. If we focus our attention on the emotional component of spirituality, we, in fact, get off track. Emotion is the side effect of spiritual connection. It is expected but not demanded — nor do we know the form such emotions might take. Individuals will respond differently.”

We cannot make emotion the measure of spiritual experiences, though the natural expectation is that spiritual experiences will be emotional. Some people are just more emotional that others.

Assurance of salvation is a privilege rather than a requirement. And, Wesley’s doctrine of the the assurance of salvation was rooted in this passage from the New Testament:

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God….” (Romans 8:15, 16 NRSV).

This is why opinion has changed about Wesley’s spiritual life. Many used to write about Aldersgate as his Christian conversion: his experience of being “born again” through faith in Christ. A better reading (as Haynes points out in the article above) sees the dawn of faith much earlier in his life. But, it lacked fire and assurance.

Wesley himself changed his views (yes, I know he so often says he doesn’t) on this. Hear what he says in the Sermon “On Faith”:

Indeed, nearly fifty years ago, when the Preachers, commonly called Methodists, began to preach that grand scriptural doctrine, salvation by faith, they were not sufficiently apprized of the difference between a servant and a child of God. They did not clearly understand, that even one "who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him." In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, "Do you know that your sins are forgiven" And upon their answering, "No," immediately replied, "Then you are a child of time devil." No; this does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety,) "Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, `and you shall see greater things than these.'"

Yes, one could live as a servant of God. But, there are higher privileges: one can have the experience of living as a child of God, naturally calling out to God (as Paul says): “Abba, Father.”

It seems to me that in Wesley’s day the religious options were these. (1.) Calvinism offered a life of faith without assurance. Yes, the Elect will unfailingly persevere until the end — by the sovereign and absolute will of God. But, how could anyone know they were in that Elect number? Some who have faith at one point loose it at another — thereby proving they were not elect. You cannot know. All you can do is believe and serve. Living a holy life to the end is the only final proof of election. (2.) The option Wesley chose to pursue was (as Haynes points out) to seek
“‘holiness of heart and life’ within his Anglican tradition.” This was a life of study and discipline and service. But, again, it gave no assurance. And, because it is a religion of good works, it tends toward self-righteousness.

The revolution of Aldersgate was a discovery of the privilege of the Witness of the Spirit. And, it was the revolution of a grace-based pursuit of the holy life. For a long time, it made him feel that all that had gone before was a sham. It’s easy to see why. But, in truth, he had been a servant of God before Aldersgate — he was simply living below his faith-privileges.

I am sure that neither the Calvinists nor the Anglican Arminians of Wesley’s day could foresee the deadly way Calvinism and Arminianism would become mingled together in the popular evangelicalism of our day. Now, we find Assurance of Salvation (the wonderful spiritual discovery Wesley experienced and proclaimed) mixed together with Calvinistic Eternal Security. Thus, a person knows they are a child of God by an experience of salvation by faith, at which time they are given an free ride to Heaven which cannot be forfeited!

How could such a teaching ever have been created?

Certainly the Calvinists and Arminians of Wesley’s day could not have predicted the appearance of such a theological bastard: an assurance, not simply of relationship to God, but of final salvation. Now, suddenly, the assurance of salvation become license to sin, instead of being the motive power of holy living. For, both the Calvinists and the Arminians were insisting on a holy life.

Now, this has been overturned by a Christianity that is a status conferred by a faith-experience.

And, the nails are driven into the coffin of Christian living by misinterpreting Jesus himself.

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NRSV).

Here Jesus tells us that He is the One who determines who will “come to the Father.” Jesus is the way.

But, what has this become? It has become: an experience of saving faith is the only way to the Father. Anyone who has such an experience has the assurance of a salvation that can never be forfeited — and a salvation that already includes forgiveness for any and all future sins. Suddenly, it is no longer Jesus who is the “way and the truth and the life” — but an emotional faith experience!

Amazing! And, horrible.

Could Wesley have ever guessed that the doctrine of the
Witness of the Spirit that he so powerfully proclaimed would one day be the foundation stone to a doctrine that granted a license to sin to anyone who had an emotional religious encounter?

I am sure he could not.

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