Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
August 19th, 2015 by Joel Watts

J. Wesley refused to use a phrase that harmed others

English: "John Wesley," by the Engli...

My entire Christian life can be summed up as “Be excellent to each other” and “Party on, dudes.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I found a statement that caused me to pause:

This grave danger was noticed by John Wesley, since he promised never again to use intentionally the term ‘imputed righteousness,’ when once he found ‘the immense hurt which the frequent use of this unnecessary phrase had done’  (Melville Scott, Crux Crucis, p. 94).

Wow. Imagine that. Wesley is willing to forgo one of the key phrases held so tightly by the Reformed so as to not harm others.

I am directed to this sermon (Sermon 20; Remember, sermons are part of the official doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church):

But, blessed be God, we are not among those who are so dark in their conceptions and expressions. We no more deny the phrase than the thing; but we are unwilling to obtrude it on other men. Let them use either this or such other expressions as they judge to be more exactly scriptural, provided their heart rests only on what Christ hath done and suffered, for pardon, grace, and glory. I cannot express this better than in Mr. Hervey’s words, worthy to be wrote in letters of gold: “We are not solicitous as to any particular set of phrases. Only let men be humbled as repenting criminals at Christ’s feet, let them rely as devoted pensioners on his merits and they are undoubtedly in the way to a blessed immortality.”

Is there any need, is there any possibility, of saying more? Let us only abide by this declaration, and all the contention about this or that “particular phrase” is torn up by the roots. Keep to this,—“All who are humbled as repenting criminals at Christ’s feet, and rely as devoted pensioners on his merits, are in the way to a blessed immortality;” And what room for dispute? Who denies this? Do we not all meet on this ground? What then shall we wrangle about? A man of peace here proposes terms of accommodation to all the contending parties. We desire no better: We accept of the terms: We subscribe to them with heart and hand. Whoever refuses so to do, set a mark upon that man! He is an enemy of peace, and a troubler of Israel, a disturber of the Church of God.

Now, let us ask ourselves as to why John Wesley would forgo the use of the term and offer repentance for using it? Perhaps it is because he felt that the hurt feelings of others would drive them from the church, and thereby lose membership, church staff, and a denomination. Perhaps, I guess, Wesley could simply never want to offer offense. Both of those sound exactly like the John Wesley I know about — along with Jesus, St. Paul, the bevy of saints and martyrs, and even Pope Francis.

Except… not really.

Rather, Wesley was worried about the wounds not to the psyche or the emotional well-being, but to the soul.1 What troubles him with this phrase was the abuse of it by Christians who chose to use it to remain nominal:

Men who scruple to use, men who never heard, the expression, may yet “be humbled, as repenting criminals at his feet, and rely as devoted pensioners on his merits.” But it has done immense hurt. I have had abundant proof, that the frequent use of this unnecessary phrase, instead of “furthering men’s progress in vital holiness,” has made them satisfied without any holiness at all; yea, and encouraged them to work all uncleanness with greediness.2

Imagine that… people using Christian-speak in a way to remain satisfied in their current state. That, according to Wesley, was the real harm, that we were satisfied without holiness of heart and hands, that we had corrupted the intent and instead used it as a salve to prevent us from being healed by God.

Yes, Wesley chose to not use that phrase because of the harm it inflicted, but the harm he was focused on was not on the feelings of the person, but against the Church’s mission and the soul of the individual.

  1. This is not about the separation of psyche and soul, only that for Wesley, the care of the soul rather than the matter of feelings “don’t offend me!” was his concern.
  2. In a Letter to Rev. Mr Hervey, 1758
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

7 Responses to “J. Wesley refused to use a phrase that harmed others”
  1. Sinclair Ferguson cites in his book “In Christ Alone” that Cardinal Bellarnine was asked what was the greatest heresy of the Reformation that the pope could use against them, replied: “They have security”. Of course he meant “of their salvation”. Yes, doubtless what is heresy for one is a blessed hope for another. Also YES, certain concepts in Christian Soteriology shared across the spectrum of denominations have a tendency of causing a degree of “comfort zone” rather than humility, contrition and glorification to God. One of these concepts is indeed “imputed righteousness” when taught in a way as to elevate the individual receiving it rather than its Giver. This is true of every single foundation of the Christian Faith, such as “saved by Grace Alone, justification”, etc. Apart from glorifying the Giver thereof these concepts may elicit nothing but pride in the pride-prone human heart while still remaining blessed truths.
    God had a remedy for Job when he was in his own comfort zone, as Job admits in Job 16:12 – remember that Job had been “praised” by God. It is not uncommon to see entire groups within Christianity to suffer a shakedown directly from God because they rest in the laurels of their own glory due to such a great salvation they received from God and forget their sense of purpose and why God kept them around after they were regenerated and saved.

    Oh, Cardinal Bellarnine? Well, if security he meant a spiritual “laissez faire” he may have been right! The devil does not always operate contradicting what we learn from God, but making light of it. “Discernment is not simply a matter of telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather it is the difference between right and almost right”. C. H. Spurgeon, British preacher (1834-1892).

    So, am I agreeing with John Wesley in the potential danger of such truth? YES.
    Would I stop mentioning it? The question is: Am I repeating it frivolously without mentioning how glorious this truth is? If not, I am responsible for men’s comfort zones, which may bring destruction upon them.

    • I look at it like this.

      The Reformed (generalization) get in a tizzy if “justification” is not the English word used in the NT. Why? So many have failed to understand it and yet focus on that particular word. Does, then, the continued use of the word do harm or good to those who would use it to remain satisfied in their state without ever truly knowing what the word means?

      • Milton Almeida says

        Harm.
        The same occurs in Portuguese. The word in the Joao Ferreira de Almeida (no relation that I know) a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church who translated the Bible to Portuguese is “justice”, as in “we are the justice of God in Christ”. So people fail to understand the meaning of the word and a glorious verse goes on in sermons without its due “praised be to God”, of hallelujahs “. In my humble opinion every glorious blessed soteriological concept in the Bible that produces carnal comfort, rather than in resulting in Glory to God is harmful. It will be the “cloud for one, but the pillar of fire to another… foolishness to those who perish, but for those who are Christ’s, the power of God…”
        Expository preaching is key to bring understanding of such precious words.
        I would be bold enough to say that the way we “spiritually” discern these words is a sign of genuine regeneration.
        The flip side is that we should not try to put the “just if” in JUST IF ICATION, because it is totally separate from any of our doing; it is not that we’ll be saved “just if” we understand the concept, but when by Grace we receive understanding and faith in it, and trust God for it.

  2. “but we are unwilling to obtrude it on other men…”
    “Only let men be humbled…”
    “A man of peace here proposes…”
    “set a mark upon that man!”
    “Men who scruple to use, men who never heard…”
    “furthering men’s progress in vital holiness…”

    Ok, I see a pattern here. Men, men, men?!
    Perhaps, if I was a Freudian physiologist, I would ask “Mr. Wesley, why do you have such a problem dealing with your wife? Come on, “wicked face?” … “imputed righteousness” doesn’t sound so bad after all!””

    On Bill and Ted, the best advice I can remember from their first movie, was when the Grim Reaper said to a heavy smoker, “See you soon!”

    • to be honest, while Wesley had awful luck with women, “men” was the common speak during the time (most likely owing to the English translation of Scripture).

  3. If God intended to use the word אָדָם ‘adam” to refer to the whole of humankind, men and women, who are we to change it? What is next now? Instead of “woman” wo-person? Women, “wo-persons?”

    • Yeah, but wasn’t Eve translated in Hebrew as Life. So better not “dis” her. Remember, also, she wasn’t “rib”, but “side”. Remember, also, Adam in Hebrew was something like “Dirt”, so I don’t think I would be too uppity if my middle name was dirt.

      Actually, now that I think about it, woman as life, and man as dirt, probably was a good choice for God to make.

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