Deep Happiness, John Wesley, and the Beatitudes

“Failure to thrive” is a medical diagnosis for children who aren’t growing as they should. If you’ve ever taken a child to the pediatrician, you know about growth standards. Every parent is eager to see which percentile their kids are in. 75th percentile? We may have a ball player on our hands! Every parent gets excited when their kids are above average. Kids who are low on the chart are diagnosed with a condition called  failure to thrive. It’s not a disease. It’s not a disorder. It usually has to do with environment. Maybe a kid isn’t properly nourished. Maybe he’s experienced some deep emotional stress or trauma that’s affecting his development.

As a pastor, I can’t help but think how many Christians might – at one time or another – diagnose their devotional (un)health with failure to thrive. It’s easy to imagine. You’ve experienced the new birth. You’re excited. You’re growing in your newfound faith. Then a little time passes. Maybe you get out of the habits that fueled your experience of grace in the beginning. You don’t read the Bible like you once did. You haven’t gathered to worship with the church in a while. Maybe life has dealt you unexpected  circumstances that left you struggling to hold on. You haven’t given up on following Jesus. But you sure wouldn’t say you’re thriving.

Beatitudes as Growth Chart

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most famous passages of scripture. The Beatitudes are one of the most famous parts of the Sermon. There are two approaches to the Beatitudes. Some say they are ordered steps on the path to Christian maturity. Others say they are each always presents to some extent in every believer. John Wesley saw no reason to pick one approach over the other. He took a both/and approach:

It is undoubtedly true, that both poverty of spirit, and every other temper which is here mentioned, are at all times found, in a greater or less degree, in every real Christian. And it is equally true, that real Christianity always begins in poverty of spirit, and goes on in the order here set down, till the “man of God is made perfect (Sermon XXI).

So if the beatitudes are intended to be taken in order, then perhaps we can think of them as a spiritual growth chart. And as you develop along the growth chart, you grow into a thriving follower of Jesus and a full experience of human life. Want to escape the failure to thrive diagnosis? Spend some time in the beatitudes. Immerse yourself in Jesus’ vision of flourishing.

Absolute Helplessness

If the Beatitudes are all about thriving, then the first one might seem counter-intuitive. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We don’t normally think of poverty as thriving. So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? And how does poverty of spirit lead to a full and thriving human life? Let’s start with the notion of poverty. Poverty means a person doesn’t have the resources to meet their basic needs. It means they are helpless. And it’s not just a matter of finances. There are plenty of people with plenty of money who are impoverished relationally, emotionally, psychologically, or in other ways. This helps us understand poverty of spirit. To be poor in spirit is know we don’t have the resources to meet our spiritual needs. We don’t have the power to atone for our sins. We don’t have the ability to free ourselves from slavery to sin. We come into the world spiritually destitute, and we don’t have what it takes to fix our problem. When Jesus talks about “the poor in spirit,” he’s talking about the people who understand that.  Here’s Wesley again:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and of our guilt and helplessness.

So the first step to thriving is understanding that we can’t thrive on our own. We are absolutely helpless. We need someone to do something we can’t do.

Ultimate Happiness

Now you may be thinking: If the beatitudes are all about blessing, why am I hearing so much about what a mess I’m in? Well, the blessing comes in what Jesus can do for people who are in a mess (and who know they’re in a mess). When our eyes are opened to our desperate state, he meets our poverty with the riches of the kingdom of heaven. He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He forgives our sin. He frees us from slavery. He reconciles us to God. And he graciously begins to reproduce his own character of holy love in us. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about the reality of the reign of God coming to bear on this world. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The will of God is done on earth when human beings surrender their bodies to God’s purposes for them. And as more and more people surrender more and more of themselves, the kingdom spreads. And it will continue to spread until that day when Jesus returns to make the kingdom complete and perfect. Participation in that project is happiness. Not the shallow and fleeting emotion of happiness, but the deep and abiding happiness that comes with the knowledge that we are living into God’s best for us, even if our circumstances are not what we expected or what we may have once preferred. The path to that deep happiness starts with embracing our spiritual poverty. Put differently, ultimate happiness depends on absolute helplessness.

For more on the beatitudes, check out the latest episode of the So What? Podcast.

 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Getting Grace (@pastorjoei, #UMC)

umc_webban_graceseries_wk3-690x353I very much enjoyed the recent opportunity to be interviewed by Joe Iovino for a series of articles on grace for UMC.org. Joe did a great job articulating the Wesleyan understandings of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. In particular, he made it clear that we are talking more about different seasons of grace than different kinds of grace. There’s only one grace. The distinction is more of chronology than substance. Here they are:

  1. God at work before we know it: Prevenient grace
  2. By grace we are forgiven: Justifying grace
  3. God’s power over sin: Sanctifying grace

These are the kind of resources you could share with a friend as an intro to Wesleyan theology. Pastors and others will find them very useful.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

A Wesleyan Approach to Pastoral Authority (@9Marks, #UMC)

I am grateful for the invitation to contribute to the most recent volume of the 9 Marks Journal. My essay is on pastoral authority from a Wesleyan/Methodist perspective. It’s part of a round-table discussion with Kevin DeYoung offering a Presbyterian approach and Benjamin Merkle giving a Baptist perspective. Here’s an excerpt:

Methodist founder John Wesley considered himself “a man of one book,” and that book was the Bible. Wesley believed that essential doctrines must be grounded in scripture. His attitude toward pastoral ministry was no different. This is clear in Wesley’s sermon, “On Obedience to Pastors,” in which he exposits Hebrews 13:17. He introduces the sermon insisting that the nature of pastoral authority can be understood if we “simply attend to the oracles of God” and “carefully examine the words of the Apostle.” Later in the sermon he rejects views on pastoral authority that cannot be proved from Scripture, and he refuses to “appeal to human institutions,” insisting again on what “we find in the oracles of God.” Wesley also believed Scripture puts limits on the pastor’s authority. He didn’t expect members of a congregation to obey the pastor if that pastor instructed them to disobey Scripture. And when pastors shepherd the flock in a way that accords with scripture, Wesley says, “we do not properly obey them, but our common Father” (italics original). The point should be clear: faithful Methodists locate the source of a pastor’s authority in scripture.

Click through to read the rest. 

Common Grace vs. Prevenient Grace: What’s the Difference?

The question was put to me over lunch earlier this week and not for the first time. So I thought it worthwhile to post here a few reflections on the difference between the Reformed doctrine of common grace and the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace.
What is Common Grace?

The easiest way to clarify the difference between common and prevenient grace is to consider them both in relation to salvation. Common grace does not lead to salvation; prevenient grace does. In Reformed theology, common grace is not saving grace and is not regarded as part of soteriology (i.e., theology of salvation) or the order of salvation. Instead, according to Berkhof, it was developed in response to questions like these:

How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles? How can we account for it that sinful man still “retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior”?…How can the unregenerate still speak truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives? (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.1.).

In short, how can sinful people who live in a fallen world do anything good or virtuous? The answer, from the perspective of Reformed theology, is common grace. Here’s Berkhof again, common grace 

curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men” (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.4.)

So we might say that common grace is that which keeps the effects of sin in check to some degree and makes possible human culture and civilization.
It is essential, however, to understand  that in Reformed thinking common grace is distinct from special (or particular and saving) grace. Common grace does not save people from condemnation; special grace necessarily effects the salvation of the elect to whom it is given. Berkhof points to several further distinctions between common and special grace Common grace is given indiscriminately to all people; special grace is limited to the number of the elect. Common grace never removes the guilt incurred by sin; special grace always does. Common grace doesn’t renew human nature; special grace changes the inner person. Common grace is resistible; special grace never is.
What is Prevenient Grace?

While common grace is not considered saving grace, prevenient grace may very well lead to salvation, though not necessarily so. In Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, prevenient grace is simply the work of God in a person’s life that precedes conversion and prepares that person to freely receive the gospel. In Reformed thinking, common grace is not part of the order of salvation; in Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, it is. At the risk of oversimplifying the order of salvation, prevenient grace leads to justifying grace, which leads to sanctifying grace and then glorifying grace. I’ll hasten to add that since we Arminians see grace as resistible, it follows that prevenient grace need not always lead to justification and final salvation. Prevenient grace is not effectual. It does not effect salvation as the Reformed understand special grace to effect salvation. Rather, prevenient grace prepares the human heart to believe the gospel and be saved, but prevenient grace can be resisted. To summarize, if you can look back and see the work of God drawing you to Christ prior to your conversion, that is prevenient grace. 
I should add that Wesley and Arminius had somewhat different views of the extent of prevenient grace. Wesley thought prevenient grace extended to all people in some degree in order to mitigate the effects of original sin. If I understand correctly, Arminius thought prevenient grace came specifically through the preaching of the gospel to free the hearts of those who hear to respond freely to the good news. Both saw prevenient grace as part of the order of salvation. Both understood it to be resistible. They differed on the scope and perhaps the means. 
One more point of clarification is necessary. Prevenient grace is not substantially different from justifying or sanctifying grace. They emphasize different points in the same journey of salvation by grace through faith. The terms have to do with process and chronology; they are not different sorts of grace. 
Two Different Graces?

I think people tend to confuse common grace and prevenient grace because both have the lost as their object. Otherwise, they have little else in common. They are fundamentally different concepts that address fundamentally different questions. Common grace answers the question of how fallen people can do anything that is not thoroughly wicked. Prevenient grace answers the question of how fallen people can be prepared to respond freely to the gospel. 
In the end, Reformed theology seems to posit two substantially different forms of grace – one effective to salvation and one not. The problem, as I see it, is that this divorces grace from the work of Christ, which Berkhof acknowledges with regard to common grace. To be fair, he rejects the suggestion that there are two substantially different forms of grace by arguing that common grace is not attribute of God while special grace is. But if this is the case, why create confusion by calling it grace? Arminian theology successfully provides a coherent understanding of God’s grace: there is only one grace, and it leads to and finds its fulfillment in Jesus and union with him.

5 Benefits of Baptism according to John Wesley #UMC

What happens when someone is baptized? The question is important not only because baptism is the ritual that marks entrance into the Christian Church, but also because because different strands of the larger Christian tradition have come to different conclusions with regard to the meaning of baptism. Is it primarily a sign of faith? Is it an instrument of God’s grace to us? Should it be given to adult believers only? Or are the children of believers proper candidates for baptism? Well, we won’t answer all these questions today, but since a couple of recent posts (here and here) have dealt with John Wesley’s “Treatise on Baptism,” I thought I’d keep the topic going and share Wesley’s account of the benefits of baptism. One question you may want to ask along the way is this: Who, for Wesley, is the primary actor in baptism? God? Or the baptized? 
1. Guilt Cleared

For Wesley, baptism clears the guilt of original sin, a doctrine Wesley believed wholeheartedly and which asserts that every person comes into the world in a state of brokenness and guilt. No one starts off in a right relationship with God. Baptism deals with that handicap and paves the way for further workings of grace. Wesley points to scripture, the baptismal liturgy, and the ancient fathers to make his case.
2. New Covenant Status
Baptism brings us into covenant with God. Whether infant or adult, baptism marks a person’s
entrance into the the new covenant. It is God’s everlasting commitment, Wesley says, “to be their God, as he promised to Abraham, in the evangelical covenant which he made with him and all his spiritual offspring” (II.2.). Wesley here sees baptism as analogous to circumcision in that it is a covenant sign, but also surpassing circumcision as the sign of the realized new covenant.
3. Church Entrance
Baptism also marks a person’s entrance into the Church. For Wesley, the sacrament incorporates a person into the body of Christ, who is the head of the Church. He points here to Galatians 3:27, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” This is one of the key ways that Wesley understands baptism as a means of grace. Grace is nothing more or less than Jesus. To be baptized is to be connected to the Church, which is to be connected to Christ, which is to be worked on by his grace as we participate in its privileges and the promises Christ has made to it. 
4. Made a Child of God

Now this one will make evangelical types squirm a little (or a lot!). I should know. It does me, at least a little. But Wesley believed that “By baptism, we who were ‘by nature children of wrath’ are made children of God” (II.4). Wesley was apparently quite comfortable using the language of baptism alongside the language of regeneration: “By water then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again” (II.2). He was comfortable with this because he found it in the Bible. Check out Titus 3:5, to which Wesley appeals along with John 3:5. He was, after all, homo unius libri. Now if you believe that salvation, once given, cannot be lost, this is going to feel a lot like some sort of legalistic works righteousness, where you do something to gain God’s favor. Remember, though, that Wesley didn’t have a “once saved, always saved” theology. Grace must always be responded to with faith; otherwise salvation can be lost. Note the conditional statement he makes later in the treatise, “Baptism doth now save us, if we live answerable thereto; if we repent, believe, and obey the gospel” (II.4., emphasis added). To put it differently, the means of grace are only effective for salvation when received through faith in Christ. So, his theology of baptismal regeneration does not mean that a person will necessarily be fully and finally saved. It simply means that God is working in them by grace to renew them in a substantial way that must be received by faith, lest they fall away and lose this benefit of their baptism.
5. Heirs of the Kingdom

If baptism makes us children of God, then it also makes us heirs of the kingdom of God. Wesley turns to Romans 8:17 to make this point: “if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” But again, don’t make the mistake of thinking Wesley believed that inheritance could not be forfeited. 
Well, there you go. Baptism according Wesley. Grounded in scripture. Shaped by worship. Striving to hold fast the ancient faith. What do you think? Does Wesley’s attitude toward baptism make you feel uncomfortable? Has he missed the mark? Or does it shed light on a mysterious means of God’s good grace?  

John Wesley: New Testament Baptisms Probably Not Immersions #UMC

The New Testament does not explicitly define any required mode for Christian baptism. As a follow up to last week’s post on Wesley’s argument that Christ’s baptism was probably not by immersion, here’s an excerpt from the same treatise arguing for the probability that baptism in the New Testament was by pouring or sprinkling:

And as there is no clear proof of dipping in Scripture, so there is very probable proof of the contrary. It is highly probable, the Apostles themselves baptized great numbers, not by dipping, but by washing, sprinkling, or pouring water. This clearly represented the cleansing from sin, which is figured by baptism. And the quantity of water used was not material; no more than the quantity of bread and wine in the Lord’s supper. The jailer “and all his house were baptized” in the prison; Cornelius with his friends, (and so several households,) at home. Now, is it likely, that all these had ponds or rivers, in or near their houses, sufficient to plunge them all? Every unprejudiced person must allow, the contrary is far more probable. Again: Three thousand at one time, and five thousand at another, were converted and baptized by St. Peter at Jerusalem; where they had none but the gentle waters of Siloam, according to the observations of Mr. Fuller: “There were no water-mills in Jerusalem, because there was no stream large enough to drive them.” The place, therefore, as well as the number, makes it highly probable that all these were baptized by sprinkling or pouring, and not by immersion. To sum up all, the manner of baptizing (whether by dipping or sprinkling) is not determined in Scripture. There is no command for one rather than the other. There is no example from which we can conclude for dipping rather than sprinkling. There are probable examples of both; and both are equally contained in the natural meaning of the word (Works of John Wesley, Jackson ed., 10.189-190).

Two observations here. First, archaeologists have discovered pools known as mikva’ot (singular, mikveh) in Jerusalem which were used for ritual washing. These pools were yet to be discovered in Wesley’s day; so he wouldn’t have known of them as such. Nevertheless, as Wesley observes with regard to the pool of Siloam (probably a mikveh), its difficult to imagine thousands of people being immersed in a single day in a small pool. (cf. Acts 2:41). And the presence of a few such pools only demonstrates that a means by which some people might have been by baptized by immersion was available. It doesn’t demonstrate that anyone was actually baptized by immersion. Other evidence is needed in order to reach any conclusion with regard to the baptismal practices of first century Christ followers. 
Second, Wesley mentions that sprinkling is an appropriate image of baptismal cleansing from sin. One New Testament text in which sprinkling is used alongside baptismal imagery is Hebrews 10:22, which speaks of having, “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” This is not, of course, an explicit statement that sprinkling is an authorized mode of baptism, but you do have the cleansing of the heart by sprinkling set alongside the washing of the body with water. At the very least, sprinkling is here associated with Christian ritual washing. 
Wesley’s last statement that the word “baptize” equally contains the sense of immersion or sprinkling is still a topic of debate. Perhaps we’ll take that up in the next post.