What Are We Here For?
These are trying times in Methodism, perhaps more so for those connected to the United Methodist Church than others at the moment. I have been surprised over the past few months that I have felt an excitement and a growing sense of anticipation.
Don’t get me wrong, it is very easy for me to find things to be discouraged or even angry about the current state of United Methodism. And to be honest, I no longer have hope for the current configuration of United Methodism.
But there is an undercurrent of expectation in my spirit when I think about the future of Methodism.
Unsettled and even chaotic times can provide an opportunity for reevaluation and they can be clarifying. They can help people refocus on the basic purpose or mission that provides the deeper reason for their ongoing commitment in the midst of disappointment and uncertainty.
I am convinced that there is really one reason that Methodism exists.
I wonder what you would say the reason for Methodism is if you had to limit yourself to one thing? My guess is that if this question were asked in local churches, at Annual Conferences, or General Conference that we would get a bewildering array of not just different, but mutually exclusive answers. Which is, of course, one of the main reasons that we are where we are.
Methodism has experienced a loss of identity. This process has been going on for about a hundred years, though it started in many places well before then. Methodists no longer know who we are as a people. We no longer know who God intends for us to be, our purpose. Why is there a Methodism? Aren’t there more than enough options in contemporary Christianity? Why did God raise up Methodists?
Here is my answer: If we pursue anything other than what John Wesley referred to as the grand depositum that God has given to us, then that new thing will be dead on arrival, stillborn. And I am equally convinced that if a people recommitment themselves to this grand depositum that God will breathe new life into this people for their sake and for the sake of a desperate and hurting world.
The grand depositum that God has given to Methodists is the doctrine of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification.
On February 8, 1766 John Wesley, the key founder of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, wrote a letter to one of the early Methodist preachers. After the brief greeting of “My Dear Brother” he got straight to the point.
Where Christian perfection is not strongly and explicitly preached, there is seldom any remarkable blessing from God; and, consequently, little addition to the society, and little life in the members of it. Therefore, if Jacob Rowell is grown faint, and says but little about it, do you supply his lack of service. Speak and spare not. Let not regard for any man induce you to betray the truth of God. Till you press the believers to expect full salvation now, you must not look for any revival.
In a time when the need for the revival of Methodism seems as obvious as ever, what would John Wesley say about the prospects of revival? Based on the above letter, he would say we have no right to expect revival because we have not been pressing Christians to expect full salvation now.
What Has Happened to Methodism?
Some might argue that Wesley’s convictions developed and changed over time and that his insistent emphasis on pressing believers to expect full salvation now was one of those things that changed. But less than a year before his death, John Wesley wrote yet another letter, this time to Robert Carr Brackenbury, that once again insisted on the essential importance of entire sanctification for the very reason for Methodism’s existence.
Wesley started the letter by noting that his health was declining as his “body seems nearly to have done its work and be almost worn out.” Perhaps it was facing his impending death that caused Wesley to reflect on the big picture of his life and involvement in Methodism. It was in this context that Wesley offered a powerful description of why God had “raised up” Methodism. Wesley wrote:
I am glad brother D — has more light with regard to full sanctification. This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.
As Wesley looked back over the more than fifty years of Methodism and thought about the work that he had seen God do during these years, he zeroed in on one particular doctrine as the key explanation for why God had done this surprising thing in his lifetime. The belief in entire sanctification, or full sanctification, was the reason for Methodism.
Methodism exists because God gave us a particular corporate calling – to preach and teach that through faith in Jesus Christ it is possible experience full salvation from sin’s power in your life.
Wesley believed that God raised Methodism up in order to preach and teach Christian perfection. We have so thoroughly failed to steward our own theological heritage that few Methodists have ever heard of Christian perfection. Even fewer Methodists have a sound understanding of Christian perfection. And fewer still have a deep conviction not only that God makes full salvation possible, but that it is possible right now.
It is past time for us to once again press the believers to expect full salvation now.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.