Time Disclaimer: This post will take about 15-20 minutes to read.
A Slip of the Tongue
I don’t know if you have ever been talking to someone and said something that you didn’t plan to say, but when you said it you were like, “I have to remember that.” OK, if you followed me on that, you now know where the idea for The Reformed Wesleyan came from. It was one of those moments when you say something and you realize that God has told you something out of your own mouth. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but this was one of those instances where I said it and knew that I was going to follow this line of thinking.
My youth group was hosting a Super Bowl party and we had kids from the “church across the street” over with us. We were all having a good time. The pastor of the other church was there and we were just talking about ministry and seminary. I had joked that he should let me come and preach at his church and that I would bring down the “Wesleyan hammer.” I was really just saying dumb stuff. The conversation shifted just a little bit to theology and I told him and the other two ministers there that I was thoroughly Wesleyan, but added this qualifier. I said, “I am probably the most reformed Wesleyan they would ever meet.” That is how it actually happened.
One of the dangers in choosing or using labels is that it creates ideas and pictures in the minds of the people that hear them. This is the case with this idea of being a Reformed Wesleyan. I am not trying to confuse the lines between these two theological systems. I am not trying to combine them together to make them fit in an unnatural way. The idea I have in my mind is cutting a path that captures what I understand as I read the bible.
The Wesleyan Part
As I have studied the life of John Wesley during my time in the Methodist church I have found a man formally trained and practically motivated. Wesley was trained in the best schools of his day for the ministry. What he found was that this formal schooling provided enough training to be a good minister, but it left a lot to be desired for practical ways of living out the Christian faith. But, Wesley was also practical. Not merely pragmatic. Because of this he began a pattern of living to remove as much sin as he could in an attempt to draw closer to God. Wesley understood that people needed some way of “doing” the Christian life without robbing the whole effort of meaning and substance. This is where the “method” for Methodism comes from.
Wesley did come out of the Arminian theological position, but he modified it because he recognized that there were several areas in which the Arminian position did not reflect as clearly as he understood it the depth and breadth of what the Bible had to say. One of the main areas where this is seen is in the doctrine of Original Sin. Wesley wrote the following in his sermon on Original Sin:
II, 2. Hence we may, Secondly, learn, that all who deny this, call it original sin, or by any other title, are put Heathens still, in the fundamental point which differences Heathenism from Christianity. They may, indeed, allow, that men have many vices; that some are born with us; and that, consequently, we are not born altogether so wise or so virtuous as we should be; there being few that will roundly affirm, “We are born with as much propensity to good as to evil, and that every man is, by nature, as virtuous and wise as Adam was at his creation.” But here is the shibboleth: Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, is “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually?” Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but an Heathen still. [source]
Wesley, as I read him, was also influenced by the reformed understanding of Sin as the above example implies. This was the reason that personal holiness and seeking to increase in sanctification were so important to Wesley and his followers.
The Reformed Part
So, what does it mean that I am a Reformed Wesleyan? Or to say it another way, in what sense am I reformed? I would begin by saying that I begin with the same basic assumption with regard to how theology should be arranged when studied as a system. The reformed theological system begins with the presupposition that God is sovereign is his interaction with his creation. Now, this may sound simple, but the implications of this are profound and must be taken seriously. Where I deviate from the reformed camp is in the area of anthropology, or how God designed and created humanity.
I will summarize here what I mean by this. The reformed position, as I understand it, sees the effect of sin upon humanity to be total. That means that everything that a man does is incapable of pleasing God. The concept of total depravity is NOT that humanity is incapable of any form of good. The thrust of the concept is that nothing that humanity does is good enough to change God’s mind about us. I believe that humanity is totally depraved because of the effects of sin, as did Wesley. The issue I take here is that the biblical idea of “faith” has to be redefined so that faith itself has to fall under the sovereign control of God. The reason for this is that faith, within the reformed camp is understood as a “meritorious work.” Or, said another way, if faith originates in a person then this becomes an activity (a work) that compels God to respond with salvation. I do not think this is how faith is defined in the bible.
Faith is not a “work.” It is not something that when I “do it” makes God notice me. Rather, faith as it is displayed and demonstrated in the Bible is trust in what God has done. The emphasis is always on God. That means that God’s action was the necessary cause or source of faith. What this means is that as God acts and moves we are moved. This is connected to how God created humanity because as I understand it, we are created to respond to truth, which comes in the form of the Gospel. (That is why we have lie detectors and not truth detectors!) We recognize the truth and know it intuitively, but we fail to respond or refuse to respond to the Gospel because we have fallen in love with sin. The reason that God grounds the salvation event in the preaching of Jesus is because it is through the lives of the redeemed that sinners are confronted with truth in an incarnational way. So when Jesus says that He came to fulfill the law that is what he is pointing to. No one comes to faith without having come in contact with the church! (I will come back to this later on in another post.)
Several examples will help. Abraham, Moses and the multitude that heard Peter on Pentecost exercised faith in response to God. Abraham looked at the stars of the sky and believed God when God said that Abraham would be a great nation (Genesis 15:1-6). Moses raised a bronze serpent in the desert and all who looked upon the serpent and trusted that it would do what God promised were healed (Numbers 21:4-9). Then there was the multitude that responded to Peter’s sermon after the Holy Spirit fell in the upper room. As Peter preached over 3000 agreed with Peter about the truth that he preached. Look at the response of the people:
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:37-41, ESV, emphasis added)
If what Paul said in Romans 1:16 is true , that the Gospel is the “power of God unto salvation,” then we have to take into account what the responsibility of the hearer is in the exchange. This last issue is many times left unanswered, and even unasked. If God is the one who gives the very faith that a person needs to respond when the gospel is preached, as the reformed camp argues, then it cannot be avoided that God is the one withholding faith (for a reason in God’s own mind) from the hearer of the Gospel when there is no response. But, if faith is an attribute built into the design of humanity, if it is one of the characteristics that we were given when we were made in the image of God, then God bears no responsibility for our failure to respond to the Gospel when preached. This is the fundamental problem that I have with reformed soteriology.
I have given a brief account of where the idea of The Reformed Wesleyan comes from. I have also tried provide some insight into what I mean by this. As I continue to figure this out for myself I will address various issues along the way. I look forward to any comments about what I have said and for opportunities clarify and dive deeper. Join the journey!
My Prayer: Father, thank you for your undeserved grace provided for us by Jesus Christ. Help me to never be ungracious to those that disagree with me and with those with whom I disagree. Help me to grow in love and in wisdom so that I may be a faithful and clear witness to your love. The Good News of Jesus will never be seen if I am unwilling to address the eternally terrible news of Sin. Continually remind me of what I have been brought out of so that I might enjoy your company forever. You are what will make heaven so enjoyable. When I make heaven about me I have missed it. Heaven is all about you and I should seek heaven because you are there! Keep me focused on you! Amen.