Holiness and Sin

The tradition that I represent in this dialogue had its beginning in the Evangelical Revival in England during the 18th century. The stream of Methodism that has survived and flourished since then was guided initially by John and Charles Wesley. As a relatively “new” tradition, it would not appear at first that Wesleyan Methodism would have much in common with the Orthodox. Although not much is known about how he encountered these ideas, John Wesley valued what he called the “primitive church,” and he refers to several early church fathers in his writing. Some have recognized similarities in theology and spirituality (see Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality, edited by S T Kimbrough Jr., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). I begin this response with appreciation for similarities that I see in David Ford’s description of following Jesus in the Orthodox Tradition and the Wesleys’ vision for Methodist followers of Jesus.

Although Wesleyan Methodists do not identify and canonize saints, the description of saints as “faithfully, fervently, and fully liv[ing] in vibrant communion with our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ” beautifully expresses the goal of Christian holiness that John Wesley had in mind. For him, every follower of Jesus should seek to have–expressed by Wesleyan Methodists in the language of Paul–“the mind of Christ.” As Ford observes, not every follower reaches the same degree of fervent faithfulness as the saints, but all may be inspired to live more faithfully. The Wesleyan Methodist movement was originally organized in groups (societies, classes, bands) where followers of Jesus were supported and accountable to others in this endeavor.

John Wesley’s understanding of holiness bears similarity to many elements named by Ford. Wesley called people to pursue holiness of heart and life. Holiness of heart refers to the inner effort to align one’s will with the mind of Christ so that sin does not rule our lives.  Holiness of life expresses the fruit of this alignment both in service to other human beings and in the proper use and enjoyment of God’s creation. Holiness in both these respects is formed and assisted by a disciplined use of the “means of grace.”

Wesley encouraged regular use of “means of grace” for spiritual growth. “Means of grace” (activities that help us experience the power and the presence of God) refers especially, but is not limited, to prayer, searching Scripture, and receiving the Lord’s Supper. As priests in the Church of England, the Wesley brothers valued, used, and recommended all the resources of their Church. After colonial North American Methodists were divided from the Church of England through the War of Independence against England, John Wesley abridged and edited the Book of Common Prayer for their use in the newly forming United States. The resources for Orthodox and Wesleyans are not identical (for instance Wesleyan Methodists do not typically use icons), but it is clear both traditions have riches to be employed for following Jesus.

Even as those historic resources have great importance, Wesleyan Methodist worship does make room for innovation. In the Wesleys’ time, Methodists used not only formal prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, but also extemporaneous prayer. Charles Wesley composed thousands of new hymns for the use of Methodists when they gathered for preaching services and for their own private devotion. In our time creativity is highly valued, so even though there are official worship resources, there is no fixed, shared form of worship that all Wesleyan Methodists use.  In fact, our worship practices are so varied that I would be hard pressed to quote, as Ford does, a prayer apart from the Lord’s Prayer that everyone would know and pray. The Orthodox posting indicates how important shared formation in worship can be for preparing people to follow Jesus. While I would not want to give up entirely freedom and variety, it may be that recovering more common elements might be helpful.

Although Wesleyan Methodists share with Orthodox a desire and effort to “live without sin in thought word and deed,” my own tradition has had to wrestle with the extent to which one could be “sinless.” John Wesley believed it was within God’s power to cleanse us from sin by perfecting us in love, but he was confronted with some in his time who claimed sinlessness to the point of infallibility. I would be very interested to know more about how completely the Orthodox think sin can be eliminated as we follow Jesus.

Today, many in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition are taking seriously the idea that sin may not be only a matter of the will in individuals, but may also be expressed in oppressive systems that need to be confronted and changed. This may be a point of disagreement unless there are ways of talking about sin in the Orthodox Tradition that were not able to be included in the posting.

Another more recent question about sin arises with regard to the way Ford expresses sexual purity, with a definition of marriage that rules out same sex relationship. Although the understanding Ford states would have been historically assumed, at this point in time the Wesleyan Methodist tradition is quite divided over how to think about the way LGBTQ+ persons may follow Jesus. On this point, some would agree with the Orthodox and others would not.