Our Methodist Doctrines - and why we must preserve them - Oliver A Beckerlegge

Our Methodist Doctrines

and why we must preserve them

Oliver A Beckerlegge MA, PhD

I would start straight away by stressing the title: “Our Methodist Doctrines, and why we must preserve them”. Not Methodist traditions, not Methodist law, not our Methodist ways, not the things we Methodists are accustomed to, but Our Methodist Doctrines, and why we must preserve them.

Four times a year Local Preachers, and once a year Ministers, are asked, ‘Do you believe and preach our doctrines?’ And every now and again somebody rises and asks, ‘Well, what precisely what do you mean by that? What are they?’

THE MEANING OF LIBERTY

We remember that we are one of the Free Churches. although some of our brethren would like to forget it. And when we talk about being free, what do we mean by that? Luther wrote a book called “The Liberty of a Christian Man”. Paul writes in Galatians, you will recall, of ‘the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free’. In Second (Corinthians he says that ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’. Liberty from what? Liberty for what? And the reason I have brought this little, what may seem at first sight irrelevant, side-line up is this: when the Christian has liberty, he has not liberty to believe and do what he likes. When we speak of the ‘liberty of the Christian man’, when we speak of ‘the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free’, when we speak of the truth that ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ none of these phrases, or similar ones, leaves any place for a loose hold on doctrine. We cannot believe what we like and be a Christian. Liberty does not mean that. And so, when we Methodists talk about ‘our doctrines’, . ' we have certain clear-cut doctrines which we believe in if we are Methodists; and if we do not believe in them, then we are not Methodists.

WE ACCEPT THE CREEDS

In the first place we accept the creeds. A little book that has been out of print for years, and ought to be reprinted, is that delightful book of Henry Bett’s, “What Methodists Believe and Preach”. It came out just after Union — in 1938 actually. Henry Bett, in this little booklet, written originally for Local Preachers, says, ‘What do Methodists believe and preach? It scarcely needs to be said that, first of all, we accept all the great truths of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. That is to say’ (and here he sums up) ‘we believe in God, the Almighty Creator of the Universe, whose glory is manifest in all His works, and Who has been made known to us as the Heavenly Father. We believe that there was a unique revelation of God to lsrael, the elect nation, and there was a final revelation of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that He was God manifest in the flesh, as He lived among men, and left us. an example that we should follow His steps, and died for our sins once for all, and rose again from the dead, and ascended to the glory that He had with the Father before the world was. We believe in the Holy Spirit, active in the souls of men in every age and every land, but more fully bestowed upon the disciples of Christ on the day of ‘Pentecost, and more abundantly present in the Church of Christ. throughout the ages since that day. We believe that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one God. We believe that the earlier revelation of God to Israel and the final revelation of God in Christ to the world have been recorded in the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament, by the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the soul of man does not die, but receives the reward of the deeds done in the body in an existence beyond the grave. We believe in the Catholic (that is to say, the Universal), Church of Christ, the fellowship of real believers throughout the whole world in every age, who are one in Christ by a living faith in Him’.1

Well, that is a summing-up in fairly straightforward language of what is sometimes a little more obscure, you may sometimes think, when stated in the Christian Creeds. And we accept those creeds as they appear in some of our orders of. service, even though we may not recite them week by week as the Anglicans do. But if we do not recite them week by week, we sing them in the hymns of Charles Wesley.

Thirty years ago nearly, my sister went to Africa as a missionary. She went out, if you work it out, during the War, when missionaries had to take a boat whenever there was one available, and it was often a long, long time before there was one available; and then the various Missionary Societies were’ told by the Government that ‘there is a ship going to so-and-so; have you anybody you can put on it? We’ve got so many places’. The result was that all sorts of people got there together who otherwise would not have been there; and, of course, because it was war time, instead of taking thirteen days or so to Cape. Town, it took six weeks, for they wandered all round the Atlantic in a convoy dodging the mine fields. It gave them plenty of time for conversation, and there was a mixed bag of missionaries on board.

In the morning they used to meet for a fellowship meeting, very many of them, of all sorts of denominations. In the course of one morning’; conversation, one of the non-Methodists present said, ‘Look here, why don’t you Methodists, if you are orthodox Christians, why don’t you recite the Creed each week as we do?’ But a bishop who happened to be present, who knew better than his colleague (for I suspect the questioner was an Anglican), said, ‘The Methodists don’t need to, if they sing Charles Wesley’s hymns’. They are full of doctrine, of course, of the creeds, Now, we accept the creeds, not because they have come down from the early church, but because they are in the Bible, because there is scriptural warrant for all those tenets that I summarised a moment ago. And I think that one may say that, by and large, there is more orthodoxy, more loyalty to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, in dissentients than in many an ecumaniac, or in many whose ecclesiastical pedigree is impeccable.

We are, among other things. dissentients. not only from the recent Anglican-Methodist Scheme, but we are also Methodist disseiitients, I suggest, from the passing theological fads and fashions of the day. We are dissentients from the doubts and denials of the passing day as well.

Yet again, we hold the doctrines of the creeds because by doing so we claim, among other things, that we must not elevate order above doctrine. And there are those of course who, sitting very lightly to the creeds, are interpreting them with a freedom which very often means a denial: ‘but we’re right, because we’ve got the right pedigree, the right order. Doctrine doesn‘t matter so much’. We put doctrine above order: doctrine matters. There are many who sit lightly to doctrine but are episcopally ordained, and indeed there have been those on the episcopal bench themselves who sat very, very lightly to doctrine. On the other hand, it is only fair to add that many Anglicans are as concerned with doctrine, as we are.

ORDER AND GOSPEL

So if you ask the question, ‘What is ‘a Christian?’ — never mind ‘a Methodist’ for a second — if you ask the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ the answer is, among other things: One who believes certain things which are outlined about God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the world, and man — things that are taught in the Scripture and are summed-up in the Creeds.

A Christian is one who has found these things to be true in his own experience. In other words, a Christian is not somebody of a certain type of accepted ecclesiastical pedigree. To lay stress on this (and this is where doctrine is important, and this is part of our dissentience, of course), to lay stress on this, the accepted, the ‘proper’ ecclesiastical ‘pedigree, is to elevate order above the Gospel. Or, to use a phrase of Wesley’s it is to elevate opinion about things secular, above doctrine. We believe these doctrines of the creed because not to do so would be to deny ourselves to be Christians. And there is no doubt at all that Wesley would have had nothing at all to do with some contemporary ‘experiments in theology’.

METHODIST RATIONALISM

I am going to read a short paragraph from Franz Hildebrandt, who should have been giving this address, and not I. ‘In his ‘Christianity according to the Wesleys’, he says, ‘Of course Wesley had his own brand of rationalism’. He would, with all the reason at his command, “appeal to all men of reason and religion”, he would stand no deism, no nonsense, and no “dialectic” theology of the twentieth century type. His reaction to Jacob Bohme is typical. “It strikes at the root of all revealed religion” — this is Wesley speaking — “it, strikes at the root of all revealed religion, by making men think meanly of the Bible, a natural effect of thinking Behmen more highly illuminated than any or all of the Apostles. So Mr. S. [whoever he was—some acquaintance of Wesley’s] frankly acknowledged: “While I admired him (this mystic), I thought St. John and St. Paul very mean writers”, Indeed it quite spoils the taste for plain, simple religion, such as the Bible is, and gives a false taste, which can relish nothing so well as high. obscure, unintelligible jargon”. It would be tempting to speculate about Wesley’s role as a critic of contemporary theology in the light of these words’.2

DOCTRINES AND TRADITIONS

So far about the creeds, which we share of course with all orthodox Christians. What about our ‘Methodist doctrine’, though? As I have already hinted, when we talk about Methodist doctrine we do not use the word ‘Methodist’ in the same way‘ that we talk about the Methodist mode of Church government. Methodist doctrine is not ‘Methodist’ in the same way that, say, the itinerant system is Methodist, or the quarterly circuit plan is Methodist, or other things which are peculiar in a sense to us. Those are some of the things which we have found useful_. We prefer that way, partly because we are used to it, I suppose, and maybe because it is too much trouble to alter it sometimes. But we have never claimed that those are part of, still less an essential part of, the Christian Church, We never claim that you cannot have a Church without the itinerant system, we never claim that you cannot have a Church without a quarterly plan. (I have no quarterly plan, for instance, because I have that most unusual thing, a one-Church Circuit. We print a monthly Bulletin instead, which has, among other things, the Sunday-Services at the back). Those are not essential, and as far as we would defend them, they are we should say, questions of opinion rather than doctrine.

But when you talk about ‘Methodist doctrines’, then you could use the word in two or three ways. You could mean ‘what we believe with all other Christians’. For instance, we talk about ‘Our God’; We say, “Our Father, which art in heaven’; but we do not really mean the Methodist Father when we say ‘our God’ or ‘our Father’. We are sharing Him with all other Christians, of course.~And when we talk about ‘our doctrines’ we obviously could use the word ‘doctrines’ in that sense, the doctrines of the Christian faith. We could, on the other extreme, mean by it, ‘what we believe and nobody else does’. That is also possible; our doctrines, those doctrines peculiar to us that nobody else holds, that we alone do.

METHODIST DOCTRINES ARE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES

But we can mean ‘what we have discovered, or re—discovered, and therefore what we stress for the good of the whole church’. That of course is nearer to what we believe when we talk about the ‘Methodist doctrines’. They -are those which not only are Methodist doctrines; they are Christian doctrines. Otherwise we should not hold them; we should not dare to hold them. They are Christian doctrines which have often been either overlooked, or misunderstood, or perhaps sometimes meanly belittled by the church, which we. have been given, and have striven to uphold and preserve. The same would be shorn of their meaning if they were not Christian doctrines. We are not sectaries; and by sectaries I mean (and I think this is the normal meaning of the word), people who, as it were, pick out a. particular piece of doctrine that tickles their fancy, or that has made some special appeal to them at sometime, from the whole of Christian doctrine, or from Scripture perhaps, and who make that the whole of their faith. Your Christian Scientist is a man like that; he takes out of the Christian record the fact that Christ healed, and that is the whole of his faith. And when you do that, of course, you distort, you exaggerate; it becomes exaggerated out of all proportion. We are not sectarian in that sense, or in the other sense of those who keep something, some particular doctrine of the Christian faith, or some feature of Christian Church lfie which is at best permissive, as if it were an essential. And that of course (I need not dwell on this at length) is obviously where the Episcopalian falls down.

If you examine the Book of Common Prayer, towards the end of the book you will find the ‘Form and Manner of making, ordaining» and consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons according to the Order of the Church of England’. And before the service starts there is a preface which begins like this: ‘It is evident unto all men diligently reading the Holy Scripture and ancient authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been three orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church: Bishops, Priests and Deacons’. ‘It is evident unto all men who diligently examine the Scriptures!’ Where is it evident? Give me chapter and verse! Wesley knew that, of course, when he prepared his own adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer, what was known as ‘The Sunday Service of the Methodists’; and, it was literally an adaptation, for Methodist use, of the Prayer Book. He had his own service; he calls it ‘The form and manner of making and ordaining of Superintendents, Elders and Deacons’. You will notice he avoids the words ‘bishops and priests’; and this is Wesley himself, who was an Anglican minister. He had no preface at all, not because he was fond of abbreviating, as he was, but because he could not write that; it just is not evident. This is a theme at which one could go on at greater length, but I must not spend time on it.

But that is where the Episcopalian falls; he takes over something which is no more than a permissible form of Church government. We do not unchurch the Episcopalian, precisely because he is an Episcopalian,‘because he has bishops; of course we do not; we have not so learned Christ. But the Episcopalian who insists on episcopacy — you know all the phrases in the Report about the ‘strictest invariability of Episcopal ordination’, and so on - by doing so he elevates a form of Church Government (which Scripture, granted, does not forbid, though in no place does it give positive ground for it), to be an absolute essential, a sine qua non. That is of course one reason why we reject it, the chief reason indeed. But the Episcopalian insists on it;_ _‘ and your Anglican in that sense is a sectarian just as much as your Plymouth Brother, or your Christian Scientist. He takes one little thing and makes that the all-important item in his creed.

CONVERSION

Now — Methodist doctrines: what are our doctrines, those that we have been given, that we by the grace of God have seen, and have stressed for the good of the whole Church, not for ourselves alone, but for the good of the whole Church’s understanding of the nature of the Christian faith? The first one is Conversion. We start there. We start there because it is scriptural. The words of Jesus are absolutely inescapable; “Ye must be born again”.

A famous book by a bishop (you see I am going to the highest quarters!) is John Robinson’s Honest to God and, he tells us, “I am not a scientist; I never seriously thought of being anything else but a parson; and, however much — now wait for it — “however much I find myself instinctively a radical in matters theological, I belong by nature to the “once-born’ rather than to the ‘twice-born’ type. I have never really doubted the fundamental truth of the Christian faith though I have constantly found myself questioning its expression“ 3

“I belong by nature to the ‘once-born’, rather than to the ‘twice born’ type”. I do not know whether he has ever preached on that verse in John 3, but there it is: the Christian is one of the twice-born type by definition. Or take another word of Jesus—in Matthew this time, Matthew 18, 3; ‘Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’. Take some words of Paul, in Romans’ 8: ‘They that are in the flesh’ (the “once-born”, if you like), ‘they that are in the flesh cannot please God’. Or take some words of Paul in 2nd Corinthians 5, 17 — ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature’. Now all these stress, without any shadow of doubt, the necessity for conversion, and, of course, one can quote any number of other supporting phrases of Scripture. This is not an odd phrase taken out of its context and made the whole of the Gospel; this is there underlining the whole of the New Testament and, incidentally, the Old Testament as well - in Jeremiah 31, for instance; these are scriptural. They proclaim, you see’, the nature of Christian discipleship. As Dr. Barrett commented in his lecture on “Our Free Church Heritage”, (and to find myself following along Dr. Barrett’s lines gives me considerable encouragement, that I am on the right track): ‘A Christian is not somebody who is born in a Christian country, necessarily; that does not make him a Christian. Or’, ‘as he said,, ‘not even somebody who is born in a Christian home, that does not make him a Christian, not even somebody who has been baptised as a baby’. I remember some years ago before going out to morning service, hearing a broadcast morning service of baptism in an Anglican Church; in the service was sung a little ditty — I cannot really elevate it higher than that — ‘I became a Christian when I was baptised’, and its theology was as shocking as its poetry! That does not make you a Christian. One is not a Christian just because one happens to be on a Church membership roll. All of us who. are ministers come across folk who were put on the roll simply because they were courting somebody in the choir, and for no better reason than that. Or, to use Anglican language, you are not a Christian because you have been confirmed. A Christian is someone who has been born again, who has himself made a personal decision. It has nothing to do with one’s own striving, with one’s own efforts. After all, nobody could have striven harder than the Wesleys.

We all have heard time after time (and I will not go into detail, but just remind you of the sese of it), of the Holy Club at Oxford, when Charles was a student and John was a tutor, and of their self-denying; and there was self-denial. They were nicknamed ‘Methodists’ because they were so methodical in their self-denial and their regularity at the means of grace, in visiting the sick, thewidows and the poor, and the imprisoned. No popish monk was more self-denying and disciplined than that little group of folk were; And it did not lead them to Christ; Wesley Went out to America, as he said, partly to preach to the Indians, but partly to save_his own soul, by denying home comforts, and his own friends, and going into a foreign land. For America, remember, was a primitive country in those days; you did not fly across in eight hours as you do now and land in a very civilised (or so they say) land, as I did a couple of years ago. They went with the possibility of being massacred by the Indians, or possibly by some French in a neighbouring colony. They exercised real self-sacrifice, and that brought them nothing but heart-burning and heart-searching.

None of those brought Wesley to Christ. All their striving, all their self denial, all their faithfulness in religious observances, all their Bible-reading, disciplined to the nth degree in every direction — all this had no effect. And then ‘on May 21st, 1738, Charles Wesley had a great experience. Some days before he had been much impressed by a passage in Luther’s Commentary on the Galatians, where he lovingly urges upon the reader that he should apply to himself St. Paul’s words, “The Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me!” Now Charles Wesley gained that personal assurance of the love of Christ in his own heart, and found himself at peace with God. Three days later John Wesley had a similar. experience. He had been listening to someone reading a passage from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans” ’, — both owed their conversion to Paul’s letters and both to the commentary of Luther, — ‘where Luther says that faith alone, which is the gift of God, makes us righteous in the sight of God, and makes us able to fulfil the law of God, for it is through faith that the Spirit of God is given, who renews our hearts, and enables us willingly and lovingly to do the will of God. “I felt I did trust in Christ, ‘Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” " 4

That is the familiar story of the conversion of the Wesleys. There is all the difference in the world between that and their seeking to find God by their own exertions. And Henry Bett again goes on to say; ‘The grace of God revealed in Christ means that God gives, and freely gives, His great salvation to men who do not deserve it, and cannot deserve it, when once they really feel their need of it; and faith, a living faith, means that we trust, in the mercy of God in Christ, and humbly, thankfully, wonderingly accept that great salvation. Here our good deeds or our bad deeds simply have no place. I may be the greatest scoundrel alive, but when I really feel my need, . . and repent and believe, the salvation of God is offered me in Christ. Or I may have tried to serve God all the days of my life (as Wesley did), but when I really feel my need, and repent and believe, the salvation of God is offered me in Christ — and on exactly the same terms.” 5

That is the essential thing, is it not? A New Testament Christian is one who has responded to -this love of God in: Christ. You will remember how Paul in a great passage says —— ‘I am Crucified with Christ; never-the-less ' I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’. And the proclamation of the fact of the need for conversion saves faith from degenerating into mere mental assent.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE ,

First then, Conversion. Then personal experience.

The second Methodist doctrine — a doctrine that we have been given by God; it is not our own, it is given to us to proclaim to the world, that the world may not misunderstand the Christian faith, may not find it too small a thing — the second doctrine is Personal experience. This follows of course from conversion, and is indeed the very marrow of religion. Confessing a religion is not signing on the dotted line, not even signing on the dotted line that we believe the articles of the Creed. That is not religion. As somebody has put it, perhaps a little sentimentally, you may think, but I still think there is a tremendous amount of truth in it — ‘Religion, being a Christian, is falling in love with Christ’. Emotional, if you like; but to fall in love is an emotional matter. That is what Wesley did on the 24th of May. And when one has this personal experience, when one knows Christ as one’s Saviour, one’s own Saviour, then of course that sort of experience" saves religion, saves Christianity, from dryness, aridity, formalism; it gives it new life. You are saying with Paul, writing to Timothy, that ‘I know whom I have believed’; not ‘I hope’ or ‘I trust’; I know whom I have believed. And, quite frankly, one cannot be converted without this experience.

Now let me frankly acknowledge that some may contradict me at this point. We may not, granted, have a memorable and vivid experience always at the actual moment. 7 Some of us have; some of us have not. Some of us can say it was in such and such a chapel, at ten minutes to nine, ‘when so and so was preaching, or so and so was leading a prayer meeting, or in the course of so and so’s teaching. Some of us can say that; others cannot. But if we have not an experience of the actual moment, we have been experiencing its effects. We can look back. There is a story told, with what truth I do not know, of a recruit in the first war before the days of conscription. He went along to volunteer and, of course, with typical Government and Army red tape, the lad had to produce his birth certificate to say when he had been born, and in addition gave a host of other details. But the lad was an orphan; being brought up in an orphanage, he had no birth certificate; and of course, the sergeant who was in charge had to put down the lad’s date of birth, and the evidence for it; in the absence of evidence, he could not allow the lad to enlist, he could not accept him. “Well,” said the lad, “do you doubt I’ve been born?” The evidence was there in front of him. Now, in the same way a person‘ may not know the date of his_ own conversion but the evidence that he is born, twice born, is there in his life.

ASSURANCE

Personal experience is, then, the second Methodist doctrine. We sum it up in the verse which I need not quote in full, but which begins, ‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night’ and you know the rest of the verse well. This personal experience is in part the result of the third doctrine — what Wesley calls, and what we call, the Doctrine of Assurance, the Witness of the Spirit.

You see, there are two sides to Christian experience. One is the turning from self to God, the surrender of the will to God, the solemn decision to serve Him, the act of dedication to Him. There is thus a certain amount on our side. Then there is the act of God on the other side; and there are two of those. There was the first act of God in giving His Son, in giving Salvation; for if God did not give Salvation, there would then be no Salvation for man to accept. A man could not accept it and do his part, if it were not there first. So there is the act of God, firstly, in giving His Son, in giving Salvation to man; and then the second act of God, when the Spirit bears witness with our spirit — Romans 8:16, you remember — that we are the sons of God; a supernatural assurance, if you like, that we are ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’, that we are at peace with God.

There is a verse in one of Isaac Watts’ hymns that we know very well indeed. The verse, as we sing it — and we never seem to think of singing it in any other version than this ~— runs:

‘My soul looks back to see

The burden Thou didst bear

While hanging on the accursed tree, ,

And knows her guilt was there.’

That is the familiar version. But that is not what Watts wrote:

‘My soul looks back to see

The burden Thou didst bear

While hanging on the accursed tree,

And hopes (not knows), hopes her guilt was there’.

Now when the successors of Wesley took that great hymn, and put it into one of the hymn books (it is not in the 1780 hymn book), editing and going over it, they said to themselves, ‘Ah, no; the Christian does not hope, he knows. He does not just hope that if Christ says He’ll forgive those who come to Him, that Christ will keep His promise — he knows He will’ As David Livingstone — was it not? — said when, on one occasion he was worried and wondering what to do, he opened the book of Psalms and came across a word of cheer and comfort, and more than comfort, a ‘ word of assurance of God’s presence; ‘This is the word of a gentleman, of the most sacred and strictest honour, and there’s an end on’t’. And if Jesus says such words as the scripture says in the words of John 3. 16, then one does not hope, one knows. '

There is also a sense in which experience gives rise to assurance:

“What we have felt and seen

With confidence we tell”.

Experience and assurance are constantly supporting and confirming one another.

EVANGELISM

Now all this is essential to the Christian faith, to our understanding of the Christian faith, because it is this that leads to evangelism, the fourth Methodist doctrine; again, not peculiarly ours, but one we have been given to preserve and to underline, and to stress. After all, unless one is full of the love of God, sure of His pardon and His presence, there is no call for evangelism; why should there be? There is ‘no spur, no incentive. It is significant that Unitarians, for instance, have no missionary field. because they have nothing to take. And it is worth remembering again that modern missionary activity, that goes back now about 170 or 180 years, to the beginning of last century, arose directly out of the Evangelical Revival. It was that that gave rise to all the modern missionary societies which were formed round about that time, every one of them. Without this assurance, what have we to offer? But with it, as Charles Wesley sang in his conversion hymn —

‘Outcasts of men, to you I call,

Harlots and publicans and thieves’ —

the lot! And you will notice (and this is important, too), you will notice how in every hymn of Charles Wesley you find so frequently that first person, ‘I’. and ‘me’.

'Oh, let me commend my Saviour to you’.

‘Oh for a thousand tongues to sing My great Redeemer’s praise.’

‘My heart is full of Christ, and longs Its glorious matter to declare’.

All these ‘I’s’ and ‘Me’s’ are always coupled with the evangelical appeal, because ‘I have found it true’:

‘Whose mercy is divinely free

For all the fallen race — and me’.

If ever you see a phrase like that in a hymn book you very well know it is by Charles Wesley, without looking for the name at the end!

Evangelism, the proclamation of the Gospel, can be summed up in what I sometimes have called, the ‘Epworth Quadrilateral’, in contradistinction to the ‘Lambeth quadrilateral’: ’

All men need to be saved,

All men can be saved, .

All men can know they are saved,

And all men can be saved to the uttermost.

CHRISTIAN PERFECTION

And that of course brings us to our fifth and last Methodist doctrine, the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which was what John Wesley, in one of those phrases he occasionally coined, called, ‘the Grand Depositum’ which God had given to Methodists particularly to preserve — the doctrine of Perfection. There are four or five names for it: Christian perfection, entire sanctification, scriptural holiness, perfect love. And of all the doctrines, the Christian doctrines that Methodists have stressed (I put it that way rather than just ‘Methodist doctrines’), of all the Christian doctrines Methodists have stressed (and in that sense only are they ours), this is the one perhaps that is most hesitantly accepted by the folk who are non-Methodists, and by many Methodists as well, for that matter. And yet, what is more scriptural than this: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’? This is the will of God,’ says Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, ‘this is the will of God, even your sanctification’_ ‘If we confess our sins,’ writes John, ‘if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Or, as Paul writes in the benediction to the Thessalonians - ‘The very God of peace sanctify you wholly,’ not partially.

Again, as I say, one could go on for a long time quoting examples; I have quoted from the New Testament but they are in the Old Testament as well. Now this, I say, is the most peculiar to Methodists of all ‘our Doctrines’. It is the one that people are frightened of; and frightened because, I suspect, of its tremendous nature — It is miraculous that people should be free from sin, that God should be able to cleanse them completely. But after all, we are dealing with a miracle-working God, we Christians, who does work miracles. What is the point of our religion if we are not reaching beyond everyday human experience and possibilities?

But what does it mean in fact; what is its relevance? Is it just an abstruse doctrine that some people like to hold? Well, if we believe this doctrine and we want to put it into practice, there are one or two things we shall certainly do. We shall certainly keep the Ten Commandments. For. after all, perfect love, to use John Wesley’s own favourite phrase for the doctrine, is ultimately the answer to today’s social evils. If we love God and our neighbour, as We read in two commandments in the abbreviated form that Jesus gives us, if we love God and our neighbour, we shall not do‘, not encourage our neighbour himself to do, whatever is harmful.‘ If we love God we shall not do that which will make ourselves less useful to Him, and so we shall not take into our bodies these things which destroy, our bodies and destroy our minds, whether they be drugs or alcohol or tobacco. If we love our neighbour we shall not rob him by violence, or by some get-rich quick method, or by getting half a million, as somebody did the other day, at the loss of a whole crowd of other folk. If we love our neighbour we shall not rob him of his honour — which brings in the whole field of sexual aberration, and sexual licence, and sexual crime. We shall not treat him as a thing, if we love our neighbour. And this covers a whole section of modem life today; we shall not treat him as a thing, whether that ‘thing’ be a tool of our passions, as your lustful man uses a girl; we shall not treat him as a thing, whether that ‘thing’ be, as it were, a butterfly on a planner’s board — ‘We'll move all these folk out there, whether they want to go and live out there or not; we’ll stick them in those tower blocks of flats where they won’t know a soul’. If we love our neighbour we shall not treat him just as if he is a statistic.

There was a terrible phrase in the Conference agenda two or three years ago — and it may have appeared more than once for all I know; it was speaking of the Ministers’ Housing Society, and told us that the Housing ‘Society had now got so many ‘units. of accommodation’. It is a lovely phrase! How human! How humane! Ministers are just ‘units’ who are to be fitted into ‘units of accommodation’, nothing more. If we love our neighbour we shall not treat him as a ‘thing’ in terms of a check number on a factory floor, or as we have seen time after time in~the violent pictures of industrial strife on TV; We shall not treat him as one of those unfortunates, people of whom it was said: ‘Well, it can’t be helped; this sort of thing you ‘ must expect in a trade dispute’ — and we just shrug it off.

Was any doctrine more needed in public life, private life, the whole of the social life of Britain and of the world todaygthan is this doctrine of perfect love? Must we not preserve our doctrines? Now these, as I say, are our doctrines. Our doctrines because they are those that God has given us particularly to preserve and to underline and to maintain for the faith of the Church. Why preserve them? Partly because they are scriptural, and if they are scriptural then we cannot let them go, they are founded in Scripture; partly because they are the very nature of the Gospel, because they are a safeguard against materialistic conceptions of the Gospel in the Church. And because they are essential for the health of both Church and society.

 

The Aldersgate Press 23, Manor House Court, Kirkby in Ashfield NG17 8LH

This address is historic and from the original printed form. 

1 H. Bett, op.cit., pp. 5-6. it 3

  1. 2F. Hlildebrandt,,., Christianity according of the Wesleys, p.30. «:5 5

3 J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, p.2

4 Bett, op.cit, pp. 8, 9.

5 Bett, op.cit, p.11.

 

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