What do we believe as United Methodists? One of my favorite professors at Perkins School of Theology at SMU was Billy Abraham. Billy dies this past year much too young. His teaching still informs me though and I’d like to share some of it with you. I hope you find it as helpful as I do.
What we believe about God, about God’s saving work within creation, about human wrongdoing, about the goal of our lives and our eternal destiny all matter. They make a difference with regard to how we think about ourselves and other people, about life and death, what we should value in life, and what kind of person we should hope to become. It is common to hear people talk about beliefs as if one is simply as good as another. For some, the one great sin is to insist on a clear difference between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, but this perspective cannot coexist with Christianity. For that matter, it cannot coexist with Judaism or Islam, either, but that is not our topic here. The claims that we Christians make about what God has done for us—for all creation—in and through Jesus Christ really do matter.
Think about what Christians claim. The God of all creation loves us, even in the midst of all human wrongdoing. Because of this divine love, God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived a sinless life. He taught us how to live. He showed perfect love and called each person to the same kind of love, and in response to Jesus’ teaching and example, human beings killed him. When he died, he took upon himself all of our wrongdoing, though he himself was blameless, and he offers us the opportunity now to be restored to a proper, loving relationship with God. Death, of course, was not the end for Jesus, for after three days he rose from the dead. Just as he rose from the dead and will live eternally, those who love and follow him will rise from the dead to eternal life.
That seems pretty important (to say the least), and yet so often in the church we neglect to teach these basic truths of the faith. It is so easy to focus on things like ways to live a more fulfilled life, the necessity of righting social wrongs, or becoming a better (fill in the blank). In many cases these things are truly important. Within Christianity, however, they make no sense outside of the context of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and continues to do for us through the work of the Holy Spirit. Only God can truly change us. Only God can truly make us happy. Only God can give us eternal life.
God laments in the book of Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6). The more things change, the more they stay the same. In places where Christianity once thrived many people, even many of those who attend church, do not know the basic content of the Christian faith. Christianity, however, has always been about the good news: God loves us and has acted decisively to offer us new life, both now and forever. Without this good news, and the various ways in which Christians have filled out the details through the centuries, we cannot form new Christians. We can form churchgoers, but we cannot form Christians. Christianity has a basic content, and that content matters.
What will be shared with you are the basic ideas of Christian faith, from a distinctive Wesleyan perspective. It will not be an exhaustive account of the Christian faith, nor is this the only valid account of what Christians believe. It is a Wesleyan account, meaning that it is basic Christian belief shaped by the particular insights and emphases of John Wesley and like-minded Christians who have followed him. John, along with his brother Charles, led a powerful Christian renewal movement in England during the eighteenth century, a movement that continues to this very day, though often in highly institutionalized forms. The Wesleys emphasized that God acts within us to enable us to become more Christlike people. They thought of salvation not just as something confined to the future, but as present reality that continues into eternity. They were quite controversial in their own day, and if their descendants in the faith are less controversial today, perhaps it is because we have retained the form of our religion without its conviction, power, and passion. The truth is that we have also lost the intellectual content of the Christian faith.
Various kinds of Methodists, Nazarenes, the Wesleyan denomination, Church of God denominations, and other traditions fall into the broad category of “Wesleyanism.” Many Pentecostals are also descendants of Wesley, since Pentecostalism came out of the Holiness movement, which came out of the Wesleyan movement. Because you are attending a church in this tradition, the hope is that you find this account of the faith helpful. If you are not sure what you believe, the prayer is that the words shared will lead you to know God in such a way that your life will never be the same.
Right belief by itself, of course, is not enough. As Wesley put it, a person may be “as orthodox as the devil . . . and may all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.” Right belief does matter, though, because it helps us know God more fully, and it is by knowing and loving God, and by God’s knowing and loving us, that we become the people God wants us to be. We read in the Roman Catholic catechism, “The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.” The goal is love, and God is love. We should do all we can, therefore, to know God.
More to come next month!
Peace be with you,