Thoughts on United Methodist Theology
I am one of those people who was raised as a United Methodist. My parents were in leadership roles in their local church. My paternal grandmother thought that there were two kinds of people in the world - those who are Methodist and those who wish they were. So my life has always been shaped by the preaching, teaching, theology and doctrine of our church. However, when asked to write about a part of Methodism that I deeply cherish - I have to say the first thing that came to mind is our belief in Christian Perfection.
For me, the idea of “going onto perfection” is a reminder that our relationship with God is a living thing. As Christians we are to be growing up in our love of God and our love of neighbor. That type of counter cultural transformation doesn’t happen over night or instantaneously. Instead, the process of maturing in our faith, and going onto perfection is one that happens every day for those of us who are being saved.
When I was in 6th grade and attending Confirmation Class, we typically closed each class session with questions and answers. I don’t remember who asked the question that day, or what the exact question happened to be, but I distinctly remember the answer that was given. The minister said, “Throughout our lives, as we live as faithful Christians, God never stops working in us, working on us, or working through us.” For me, that process and the depth of the relationship with God that he was describing have always been comforting, challenging, sometimes terrifying, and always exciting.
In his journal, John Wesley wrote, “By Christian Perfection, I mean, 1. Loving God with all our heart. Do you object to this? I mean, 2. A heart and life all devoted to God. Do you desire less? I mean, 3. Regaining the whole image of God. What objection to this? I mean, 4. Having all the mind that was in Christ. Is this going too far? I mean, 5. Walking uniformly as Christ walked. And this surely no Christian will object to. If anyone means any thing more, or anything else by Perfection, I have no concern with it.” Journal, Vol. 3, p.369
The Christian faith and discipleship are not defined solely by the work of Justifying Grace. The work of Sanctifying Grace and the process of Christian Perfection are the means by which we become the people that God called and created us to be. It is where we lay aside the old ways for the ways of God. It is where we learn to look at each other and see Christ rather than our prejudices and biases. It is where we learn to “seek first the kingdom of God” instead of our preferences, wishes and wants. It is leaning to think like Christ, act like Christ, and love like Christ. It doesn’t happen over night, but day by day and prayer by prayer we learn to love God and love our neighbor and follow Christ with all that we are.
The message of Christian Perfection is something that is central to who we are as United Methodist because it pulls together Wesley’s hope that Methodists would exhibit holiness of heart and life. That what we believe would transform how we live, and how we live would call others to believe. Lovett Weems, in his Pocket Guide to John Wesley’s Message Today, said that for Wesley the doctrine of Christian Perfection 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.” For me, it is one of our doctrines that I cherish most, and it is the doctrine I hope we will preach, teach and share with each new generation.
Charles Wesley’s Hymn: Savior, the Worlds and Mine
To love is all my wish,
I only live for this:
Grant me, Lord, my heart’s
There by faith forever dwell.
This I always will require,
Thee, and only thee to feel.
Ah! Give me this to know,
With all thy
Swells my soul to compass thee;
Gasps in thee to live and
Filled with all the Deity,
All immersed and lost in love!