Deepening Community in Conversation

I am grateful for the ways that other partners in this conversation (especially Randall Balmer, J. Terry Todd, and David Ford) have shared what they know about the tradition I represent. This conversation is valuable in many ways, not the least of which is to show that we actually do pay attention to each other as we follow Jesus. The realization that others have paid attention to my tradition deepens the sense of community I feel with other Christians.

I will give some short responses to items that were specifically named. Michael King was interested in the imminent division over LGBTQ+ issues, and Todd also named this problem. It has been announced that the Global Methodist Church will launch on May 1, 2022, although many practical details will take time, and the new church will function “transitionally” for many months. The new GMC will share with the UMC much doctrinal material. King’s observation that this division involves holiness, perfection, and social creeds is correct. Sadly, I have little wisdom to share at this painful point other than I think both GMC and UMC are trying to be faithful in following Jesus, but many people have profound differences of thinking about how that faithfulness should be expressed. It remains to be seen whether and how we may be able to work together in matters where our faithful following might be closer. There also may continue to be differences that have to be worked out among those who remain in the UMC.

Farris Blount wondered about the place of social justice in my essay—is it simply a choice among other options or is it a requirement for a follower in the Wesleyan tradition? I certainly did not intend to imply that social justice was optional; the theology we have received calls all of us to act on behalf of those who suffer. I also believe the commitment to social justice is widely held. Rather, what I wanted to indicate is that some will stress social action more than others. I have been present when some folks in the tradition feel the need to call other folks to greater action when other things, such as personal conversion and personal behavior have become the main focus.

Christina Wassell found many commonalities between our traditions but wondered how we pursue holiness non-liturgically. In the United Methodist Church, we do not have a fixed, formal liturgy, so there can be variety in worship. However, we do follow the liturgical year and we acknowledge the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist even though we do not attempt to explain how this presence is possible.

Robert Millet asked about the distinction between imputed righteousness and implanted righteousness. Wesley speaks of both because he finds a place for both justification and sanctification in the way of salvation. In justification, we are pardoned not because of anything we have done for ourselves but because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. But with justification, sanctification also begins. We are empowered to live a holy life so God “implants” or “imparts” righteousness as we grow in love. So imputed righteousness is the ground of our acceptance with God, but then the fruit of that acceptance is that we are actually changed as we reflect God’s love more and more.

So finally we arrive at sanctification and the possibility of perfection, about which a few expressed nervousness. Wesley himself had to continually explain his ideas in the face of great criticism. I will try to highlight and explain some ideas that may not eliminate nervousness, but I hope will improve understanding.

Let me say first that the language of perfection is rarely used in congregations that I know. During the pandemic when it was hard to worship in person, my husband and I took the opportunity to worship in many different United Methodist congregations across the country (we visited in 40 states). I can say from this experience that I heard many sermons about love, but only one actually referenced the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection. For most congregants, the kinds of questions that my conversation partners want to know more about are not very pressing because the language of perfection is not regularly used to express the call to learn from Jesus how to love. Still, I will answer as best I can about the things that have been wondered. I must also say that my perspective has been formed specifically within the United Methodist Church, and I cannot speak for the situations and experiences of all Wesleyans (for instance, Nazarenes).

First, let me address whether we can be made perfect (entirely sanctified) in this life. Because the Wesley brothers themselves had some differences regarding this point, I do not think the timing for arriving at the goal is the essential matter. The essential thing to realize about this doctrine is that relationship with God can really make us more loving, and yes, that happens in this life. And as I noted in my main post, expectation draws us forward.

It is also important to give some account of what our role is in this process. John Wesley does use the word “strive” when he talks about perfection. This word refers to the way we work to respond to God’s work in our lives. John Wesley’s way of putting this point was “First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works; therefore you must work.” In other words, God makes it possible for us to follow Jesus in love, and we must do so in order to grow. We work with God, but we do not finally “achieve” perfection (entire sanctification) through our work. If sin is removed, it is an act of God, not an accomplishment by us. The way we navigated this matter in the full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was to say “the UMC sets no limit to God the Holy Spirit’s activity and power in this present life” (Confessing Our Faith Together, para. 27). Unless and until God acts to fully cleanse our hearts, inward sin (unloving passions and affections) remains and we are in need of continual justification.

It is also important to note that Wesley insisted he did not think perfection was “sinless.” Christian perfection as he understood it did not eliminate infirmities, mistakes, or temptation. Even though he trusted that God gave us power to resist sin, Wesley also realized that without intending to do so we could make a mistake that violates God’s perfect law. We would never, then, be without the need for the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.

Mark Ellingsen asks a pastoral question: “But what do Methodists do when their expectations are not met, when holiness or good works do not happen in the lives of the faithful?” I am not sure whether this question is about no growth at all (which might require some exploration of giving one’s heart to God), or about full deliverance from sin. On a practical level, I do not think many Methodists nowadays are led to expect a full deliverance from sin, so I have never encountered this situation. If I did, I might offer the solace expressed in a poem by Charles Wesley:

“We believe, and rest secure, Thine utmost promises to prove, To rise restored, and thoroughly pure, In all thine image of Thy love, Filled with the glorious life unknown, For ever sanctified in one.”

1 reply
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Thoughtful reflections in response, Sarah, but I did want to continue our dialogue in case your Bishop ever asks me to serve in a UMC congregation and also to learn what you think I should be saying to UMC Gammon students ITC. In a way my question was whether it is OK if there is no growth in grace to a Christian troubled by his/her failures, whether in a Methodist context I can say with Luther to “chill out,” that good works will happen spontaneously. Though the option of spontaneous good woks is not characteristic of the Methodist heritage, is it a legitimate affirmation to be made in a Methodist context? I am especially thinking of Art 8 of the Articles when they speak of having no power to good works with the grace of God preventing us. I’ve long wondered about whether that phrase could even be compatible with Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Still trying to understand Methodist ways of thinking.

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