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.

Happy Aldersgate Day! (#umc)

May 24 is something of a holy day for the Wesleyan-Methodist family. On this day in 1738, John Wesley experienced his evangelical conversion, and the world hasn’t been the same since. Here’s the experience in his own words from his journal:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His own will.

After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.

Don’t miss the last line in that first paragraph. This was the first time Wesley trusted Christ alone to do something for him that he could not do for himself. In that crucial moment, Wesley was no longer attempting to add to the work of Christ. On this day, he experienced afresh the perfect and sufficient grace of Christ to atone for his sin and give him assurance of salvation. Thanks be to God.  
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.

5 Keys to Fill the "Sanctification Gap" (#UMC, @IVPacademic, @OfficialSeedbed)

Is holiness a missing element in evangelical theology? That’s what Gordon T. Smith says in the opening chapter of his recent book, Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Smith points to an observation made by Richard Lovelace in the late 1970s “that evangelical theology and spirituality were marked by a ‘sanctification gap'” (14). Lovelace traced this to evangelicalism’s emphasis on revivalism where the focus was on conversion leaving Christian maturity and holiness to be treated as secondary matters. Smith suggests that the gap remains and substantiates the case in part by pointing to the fact that theology texts in evangelical seminaries tend to give holiness superficial attention. When sanctification is in view, Smith observes, the interest is in how not when. That is to say, attention is given to the process of sanctification, not the goal or end of sanctification (14-15). He believes we need more than that.
The sanctification gap and Wesleyan identity
Reading Smith as a pastor steeped in Wesleyan theology, I cannot help but think of John Wesley’s conviction, articulated in a letter near the end of his life, that the doctrine of entire sanctification “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” (Works, XIII, 9). You might say that Wesley perceived a sanctification gap in 18th century English Christianity, and he was persuaded that God had specifically called and equipped the people of the Methodist movement to fill the gap. To that end, he rode countless miles on horseback to preach thousands of sermons and organize communities of worship and accountability committed to growing in grace and maturity that intentionally pursued, not just sanctification, but entire sanctification. For Wesley, that’s what it meant to be Methodist.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you’ll find a Methodist family tree with no few branches. The denominations that trace their heritage to Wesley are many and varied. Some embrace robust teachings on holiness. Others don’t emphasize it quite as much. Within my own branch of the Wesleyan family tree – The United Methodist Church – we have a number of tribes with distinct subgroup identities, but we are largely without a widely held sense of identity on the denominational level. The theorists would say that we have a number of competing subgroup identities but lack a superordinate social identity that cultivates and maintains a sense of coherence between the subgroups. We’ve got high church folks, low church folks, mainliners, progressives, and evangelicals. The point there is to illustrate the range of groups, not provide an exhaustive list of UMC subgroups. All that to say, the UMC is a denomination without an identity, and we are feeling the anxiety and the pain that comes with that. 
My hope is that we will be able to recover the identity that Wesley left us: we are the people called by God “to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” The reason there are Methodist churches all over the world with so many branches on the Wesleyan tree is because John Wesley believed with all his heart that God raised up the people called Methodist to revitalize the Church with the message of holiness for the life of the world. That is who we are. That is our identity. That should be our mission. Because that is what it means to be Methodist. It’s our vocation to fill the sanctification gap.
Can we fill the gap?
But how do we do it? What disciplines and practices and strategies have to be in play to pull this off? There are several key pieces. And at this point, I’m moving beyond the UMC to think in terms of the wider Wesleyan world. It’s not clear that the UMC will ever succeed in forming a unifying identity. I should add that I’m not suggesting any of this is new information. Lot’s of folks are thinking about this. I’ve been involved in dialogue about this sort of thing for years. Here are a few things that keep coming up.
  1. Preaching – Wesley believed that every Methodist preacher should preach the doctrine of holiness. I’ve heard the observation made many times that the doctrine of entire sanctification is seldom preached these days. This could be for a variety of reasons. Maybe we are unfamiliar with it. Maybe we don’t understand it well enough to preach it confidently. Maybe we are afraid of being misunderstood. Maybe we don’t believe it. Whatever the reason for the lack of homiletic attention to the doctrine of holiness, if we are going to forge and maintain an authentic Wesleyan identity, then we must have clear and robust preaching on holiness. 
  2. Singing – The observation has been made that the Methodist movement would never have made it with John’s preaching alone. Charles Wesley’s hymns were essential for planting the seeds of holiness in the hearts of the early Methodists. Not only do we need to be singing our own Wesleyan hymns about holiness, we need a new generation of songwriters who can ably transmit holiness theology melodically and lyrically. 
  3. Small groups – Wesleyans did small groups before small groups were cool. The movement happened because the people involved were involved with each other at deep levels. They didn’t just worship together; they got deeply entrenched in one another’s lives. They cared for each other. They got in each other’s business, and they did it for love of Christ and love for one another. And if someone didn’t show up a couple of times, they went looking for that person. This is essential. We can’t be Wesleyan without deeply committed small groups explicitly focused on growing in holiness and entire sanctification. 
  4. Theologians – We also need theologians who can write the books and give the talks that lead the Church in thinking about entire sanctification. Some of these folks might be academic theologians; others might be pastor theologians. We’ve got some good folks out there doing this kind of work, but this is one of those things where there’s never enough. And there’s the question of who will receive the baton from the current generation of theological leaders in the Wesleyan tradition. Who will embody this key vocation as we move into the future? 
  5. Conferences and publishers – I am encouraged by the birth and growth of Seedbed and the New Room Conference. This sort of thing is going to be essential for connecting people of like heart and like mind around the topic of holiness. It’s also essential for helping us discover new resources and develop a sense of group identity. Let’s keep it growing.
All five of these center around our ability to speak and write about holiness with care, wisdom, clarity, and faithfulness. At the end of the day, we’ve got to be talking about holiness…a lot. So much that when people see us coming, they think “here come the people who talk about holiness.” And our speaking must be filled with passion that is compelling and contagious. If we can do this, then we will be well on our way to filling the sanctification gap and recovering our God-given vocation to bless the Church and the world with the good news that God’s grace is more powerful than the sin that besets us.

Your turn: Do you perceive a sanctification gap? What evidence do you see for a sanctification gap? What must we do beyond the 5 keys mentioned here? Is holiness essential to Wesleyan identity? Leave a comment with your input. 

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.

The United Methodist Church and the Sovereignty of God (#UMC)

To say that United Methodist anxiety levels are heightened would be an understatement. As deeply entrenched sides await this week’s arguments before the Judicial Council (our ecclesial high court), worry and frustration abound. And there’s no promise that it will subside, regardless of the Council’s decision. It’s painful. And in the midst of these stormy times, I have become persuaded that what the Church needs most – right now! – is a good dose of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty that characterizes Calvinist theology propagated by the young, restless, and Reformed. I’m not talking about a God who irrevocably elects and condemns. I’m talking about what John Wesley meant when he said in his sermon “On Divine Providence” that God “is infinite in wisdom as well as power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures” (Sermon 67:14). About this teaching Wesley said, “There is scarce any doctrine in the whole compass of revelation, which is of deeper importance than this;” he also said there is no other doctrine so “little regarded, and perhaps so little understood (Sermon 67:7)  In painful times, we need to focus on what’s important. We need to know that God has not given up on his children. He loves us. And he is at work for our good.
Providence and well-being
Wesley’s doctrine of God’s providence derives from his doctrine of creation. If God made everything that exists, then God knows every detail about everything that exists, because he is the author of that detail. And he did not create this complex world only to ignore the details. After all, the number of the hairs on our heads, be they many or few, are known by God (Luke 12:7). Scripture led Wesley to conclude that God is deeply concerned with what seem the most insignificant details in the lives of his children. There is no affair so small that it is beneath the regard of the triune God. “For we know that, to those who love God, he works all things together for good, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, emphasis added). 
Brothers and sisters, the current troubles of the United Methodist Church have not taken God by surprise. He is not caught off-guard. He frets not. He is not wondering what to do with us. To the contrary, he is at rest. And from that posture he is working within our circumstances to bring good for those who love him and are committed to his purpose for the Church and the world. His countenance is marked by noble and kingly joviality. His care for his beloved is unhindered. And his ultimate purpose to fill his creation with the knowledge of his glory will not be undone. Rest assured. 
Be patient
This means that, despite what we want, we can and must be patient. We want all of our problems to be resolved, and we want them to be resolved now. Patience feels like doing nothing. And we don’t want to wait around for the next press release or the next conference or the next declaratory decision. We want to do something. We want it fixed. We want the pain to go away. 
But patience is not idleness; it’s the fruit of the Spirit. It’s an expression of faith that we can trust God to work for our good no matter how long it takes. It is of the utmost importance to remember that God’s great priority is not our daily or temporal comfort. He is primarily concerned to fill the world with the unparalleled beauty of his glory by reproducing his holy love in creatures who bear his image and bear it well. And that takes time. 
Wesley understood this and made the point in paragraph 15 of “On Divine Providence.” To summarize, it takes time because being made in the image of God comes with some degree of liberty, and far too often we’ve use that liberty to mess things up. God will not magically fix all of our problems today because that would counteract his work of making human beings in his image with the relative freedom that involves. I don’t know how long it will take to find resolution for our United Methodist mess. I do expect that it will get worse before it gets better. But we must not allow that expectation to rob us of joy. We must trust that God is at work to renew us in the image of Christ in the midst of this mess. That’s what we need. That’s what the Church needs. That’s what the world needs. That takes patience. So, pray for me. And I’ll pray for you.
There’s a condition
I cited Romans 8:28 above to make the point that God is attentive to every detail in the lives of his children, and that he is at work in every circumstance to bring good. It would be inattentive, however, to neglect the point that this promise comes with a condition. It is for “those who love God” and “are called according to his purpose.” Let us not forget that, for Jesus, love is expressed in obedience (John 14:15). God has revealed his purposes in scripture. He has called us to be his people. He requires our believing obedience. If we are committed to those things, we can rest assured that he is at work for our good. The operative word there is rest. Love Jesus. Obey scripture. Rest in the knowledge that God loves you and is at work for your good. 
I don’t know what the Judicial Council will decide after all the arguments are made later this week. I do know that, whatever they decide, a lot of people will be unhappy. Now more than ever, the faithful need to remember that the God who loves us is at work in us to reproduce his character in us for the life of the world. That is what matters. And he will not be thwarted. The bride of the Lamb will one day be clothed with holiness and splendor. You can count on it. God will not give up. And neither must we. 
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. 

New Podcast: Saved All the Way @StMarkMobile #UMC #WesleyanAccent

One reason I love Philippians is the constant attention Paul gives to applying the gospel to all of life. He really wants to see the light of the grace of God shine into every crack and crevice of the human heart. He wants to see us work out the grace that God has worked in us. One way he does this is by holding up the example of Jesus, the one who did not exploit his divine status but instead emptied himself to become a servant, and a human servant at that! For Paul, the attitude of Jesus demonstrated in his other-oriented self-emptying is the same attitude that should consistently and comprehensively be demonstrated in the lives of believers. We Wesleyan Christians sometimes happily insist that “all can be saved to the uttermost,” and this certainly reflects Paul’s understanding of salvation all the way through Philippians. To update the language a bit, we might also say that Paul believes we can be saved all the way. Click play above to discover how it happens.

New SermonCast: "Why Church?" #UMC

It’s a question that many regular churchgoers may never ask. Church, for a lot of us, is the default position. It’s just what you do. Why ask why. However, more and more people are finding the Church unnecessary. And a growing number are looking to places other than the Church to find spiritual fulfillment. Recent years have seen the rise of the “spiritual but not religious,” who find great importance in spirituality but don’t see traditional expressions of the Church as good places for spiritual growth. One poll even found that 33% of Americans think of themselves this way. Spirituality matters, but for the spiritual but not religious it’s not to be found in the Church. In this increasingly post-Christian climate, the Church must be always asking the “why” question. Why Church? Why does it matter? What does the Church have to offer a world that cares less and less? This week’s SermonCast on Ephesians 3:7-13 drills down on these questions as we consider the possibility that Church is not an option. Church is the plan.