THE DISTINCTIVE BELIEFS OF THE METHODIST CHURCH

Methodist beliefs are no different from the common fundamental, creedal, Protestant evangelical beliefs, but the people called Methodists have a few distinctive emphases resulting from the life and work of John Wesley. When a Methodist takes his membership vows according to the prescribed ritual found in the Methodist Hymnal, he subscribes to the beliefs of the Church Universal. These are foundational beliefs relating to God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible and the Church as the Body of Christ. However, as he enters the fellowship and worship of the Methodist Church, he becomes aware that built on the foundational beliefs are four doctrines which may be called the corner stones of Methodist faith and practice. John Wesley valued faith, experience, the Bible, reason and experiment; and in the course of his application of the Bible to the Christian life the four corner stones became prominent. They are:

[b]1. CONVERSION
2. JUSTIFICATION
3. SANCTIFICATION
4. PERFECTION[/b]

Together they make a distinctive whole.

[b]1. CONVERSION[/b]
Conversion may mean a change from sinfulness to a life of grace, with the help of the Holy Spirit. It can also mean a change from incompleteness of Christian faith to a state of complete assurance. The change can happen suddenly; it can happen gradually leading up to a climactic point in one’s life. In the case of John Wesley, he felt a sense of incompleteness in his faith when he went out as a missionary from England to America. He was caught in a storm; and in that crisis he found several Christians, including women and children, confident, singing hymns and possessed of an assurance in God’s love. He felt that he was lacking in this sense of assurance of being in the eternal care and love of God. Wesley called this awareness of incompleteness, repentance. He said that repentance is a deep sense of the want of all good. On his return from America, at a prayer meeting on 24th May, 1738, he had a unique spiritual experience of God’s love. He wrote about it in his journal:

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

From this point he experienced `the witness of the Spirit’, that he was a child of God and no harm could come to him.

The climactic nature of the experience of John Wesley has made Methodists emphasize the need for unique experience or experiences, when a new certainty becomes the inalienable possession of the Christian. It was after this experience that John Wesley was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to work for the spread of scriptural Christianity in the Anglican church and in eighteenth century England. It was also in the power of the spirit that he was able to declare, “I look upon the whole world as my parish.” This became the watchword of world-wide Methodism.

A conversion experience breeds concern for the salvation of souls. It is a deep Wesleyan hunger for souls.

[b]2. JUSTIFICATION[/b]
Justification by grace alone is a pre-eminently Protestant doctrine. From Luther’s day it has served to remind Christians that they have direct access to God and that forgiveness of sins is a matter between the individual and God in Christ. The whole of Paul’s epistle to the Romans seemed to Wesley to give a natural and easy account of God’s justification of man. To quote Romans 3:25, “We conclude that a man is justified by faith.” A reading of Wesley suggests that he coupled faith with grace as in Ephesians 2:8:

“For by grace are ye saved through faith: and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”

Let us turn to Wesley’s explanation of justification. “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon – the forgiveness of sins …. He pardons those who need his pardoning mercy. He saves from the guilt of sin – and, at the same time, from the power – sinners of every kind, of every degree; men who, till then, were altogether ungodly.”

What is the condition of justification? Wesley’s answer was “justifying faith” which is “the sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that He loved me and gave Himself for me”. This faith itself is `a gift of God’. Pardon is like the wiping out of a debt, as if the debt had never been incurred. So great is such an act that the forgiven sinner feels it is no trifling matter. It is so magnanimous, kind and loving that God must have done it all. Yet the sinner has a part. In all the doctrines there are two elements: a gift and a task. There is God’s part and there is man’s part. Man’s part in conversion is repentance. Man’s part in justification is faith, which itself is too good for man to possess by his own merit: it is a gift of God’s grace. Man’s part is minimally to get into the spirit of acceptance of so precious a thing as God’s gift of faith.

[b]3. SANCTIFICATION [/b]
Whilst justification `implies what God does for us through
his Son, sanctification is what he works in us by his Spirit’. Sanctification is in some degree the fruit of justification. It is also a distinct gift of God, and like all gifts, has to be accepted. “Holiness of heart and life” was one of Wesley’s cherished mottos. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer and utter the words, “Deliver us from evil,” we are delivered from evil and there can be no sin remaining. John Wesley next argued that after having been justified, a person `gradually increases in spiritual stature and strength’. Often the word sanctification refers to `entire sanctification’. St Paul wrote: “The very God of peace sanctify you wholly.” The process of sanctification is a process of spiritual saturation.

Good works are the fruit of the holy life. Faith is the root. We must do all the good we can, by all the means we can. We must choose opportunities not merely to do good, but to do the most good. Wesley often quoted Galatians 6:10:

“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”

One of the good works of a Christian is the practice of stewardship. Stewardship is firstly an attitude of mind which says that all things that we are or have belong to the Lord. The Psalmist said, “The earth is the Lord’s.” The Christian must say, feel and act out his acknowledgement that all things belong to God. In one of his sermons on the use of money, Wesley gave a threefold motto: “Gain all you can. Save all you can. And give all you can.” John Wesley was saintly, but he was down-to-earth in making the application of total dedication practicable. He wrote:

“Render unto God not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God’s (be it more or less) by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith and all mankind, in such a manner that you may give a good account of your stewardship.”

When you become a member of the Methodist Church you not only confess the full Christian faith but you promise to support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service. This is the beginning of a growth in the stewardship of all of life.

Sanctification has ethical implications. Methodists are strict at many points. Methodist ministers are expected not to indulge in alcoholic drinks or in tobacco, and such a moral influence is expected to be exerted among the laity, especially the leaders. But it is not with the prohibition of certain matters only that Methodism is concerned. The more stringent test is `not doing what we know is not for the glory of God’. The holy life is lived to the glory of God and not for the praise of man. To take this purpose of the Christian life seriously is to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit for courage, wisdom and strength. Sanctification has its extension in the early interest in social concerns. From the earliest days when John Wesley headed a group called the Holy Club at Oxford University, devotional habits went hand in hand with visiting the sick and those in prison, and conducting schools for the poor. The sanctified life is not a cloistered one but one of expanding service. John Wesley said, “Christianity is a social religion; and to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”

[b]4. PERFECTION[/b]
The fourth corner stone is perfection. This doctrine, though based on the Bible, was regarded in Wesley’s time and thereafter with a distinctively and almost exclusively Methodist emphasis. Wesley wrote, “This is Wesley’s doctrine! He preaches perfection.” He does: yet this is not Wesley’s doctrine any more than it is yours, or any one else’s who is a minister of Christ. For it is His doctrine peculiarly, emphatically, His! It is the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Those are His words, not anyone else’s: “Ye shall therefore be perfect as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.”

John Wesley’s utterances on this subject were frequent and insistent. Perhaps a three point summary of his statement made after forty years of exposition, from 1724 to 1765, will serve as a good guide: (i) perfection is purity of intention, dedicating all our life to God; it is devoting, not a part, but, all our soul, body and substance, to God; (ii) perfection is putting all our mind in Christ, and thus enabling us to walk as Christ walked; (iii) most importantly, perfection is loving God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves. A Methodist preacher has to answer two questions in the affirmative. The first one causes little trouble: “Are you going on to perfection?” However, the second question appears to demand a promise to do the impossible, namely: “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” It has been pointed out in this connection that Jesus did not say that we ought to do the best we can and not expect too much of ourselves. Moreover, it is God who accomplishes the perfect work in man who repents, exercises faith and prepares himself to accept God’s gift of grace. The Methodist doctrine of perfection stresses not only the goal of human striving but also the soul’s craving for God to complete his perfect work in man.

Because John Wesley based his teachings on Scripture, experience and reason, Methodists have in many parts of the world joined hands with other denominations in church union or in united activity. Wesley said, “Think and let think,” and so dogmatism is no part of Methodism. The four corner stones constitute a body of doctrine which will enable a Christian to take his faith seriously and to live by it. If the ideal of the world parish is to be achieved, Christians must be increasingly ecumenical so as to fulfil Christ’s prayer that we may be one even as God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are one.

Printed : 1981

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