The Cumulative Effect…

Life is short…

They grow up way too fast…

Ever hear one of these phrases?  Yeah, me too.  It was always the “older folks” who used to say them to me when I was twenty.  You know the older folks right.  Those people over 40…

It seems that now I am one of those “older folks”, and I hear myself spouting off those same cliches to people in their 20’s.  Ahh, the circle of life.

I think if there is one thing that I am striving to learn in my life, it is the cumulative effect.  Things add up.  Over the span of our lifetime, little decisions can have drastic consequences.

I woke up this year at the heaviest weight I’ve ever been.  It was crazy.    Things accumulated, right around my waistline.  It was like one day I was running the Tough Mudder and in the best shape of my life and the next day I was buying the largest size waist band I have ever worn.  The truth is, it didn’t happen overnight.  Every decision to pop open a can of coca-cola, or open a bag of peanut butter M&M’s added up.

When I think about it, I ran the Tough Mudder 2 1/2 years ago.  Thats about 900 days.  Many of the days I said no to exercise and yes to all kinds of wonderful comfort foods.  It all added up to where I found myself two weeks ago.

Or take writing for example.  I enjoy writing, and I want to become a better writer.  I hope to live a nice, long life.  What would happen if I chose to write SOMETHING every day for the rest of my life.  So many days, I choose to watch someone else’s writing through a TV show or movie instead of writing something myself.  And a lot of that writing really stinks actually…

We can apply this cumulative effect to a great number of areas of our life.  For example, our spiritual disciplines can also be chosen or neglected.  We may look up a few years down the road and wonder how our heart grew hard towards the things of God.  It probably didn’t happen overnight.  We choose DAILY if we will allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s grace.

The beautiful thing is that the cumulative effect works both ways.  Our good decisions add up too.  Almost 2 weeks ago I started eating differently and I am already seeing results.  I know that if it took years to put those pounds on, it will take a long time to take them off, but every choice to drink water instead of soda adds up.  If I want to be a better writer, I can choose to write TODAY and see how my writing develops in the next 40 years of my life.  If I want to be in tune with God’s Spirit, I can choose to seek God TODAY.

Every little bit adds up.  A little each day changes us dramatically over time.

My boys are both in high school now.  Every person I have talked to has warned me HOW FAST high school goes by for your kids.  I’m sure that is true.  I pray that I will make small decisions each day as a dad so that when this season of my life is over, I see how the little things have accumulated and I have no regrets…

Just a thought,

n8

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A Pastor’s Appreciation…

We are on the heels of a month of appreciation for we pastor-types.  It always feels good to be appreciated, and I am thankful to be serving a congregation that appreciates their pastor all throughout the year.  Sometimes when I peruse the internet, it seems like we pastors are a bit of a miserable lot.  Most of the posts about pastors talk about our depression, our struggles, and our inadequacies.  I’m not saying that this pastor is exempt from any of these.  I have my share of neuroses to be sure, but this post isn’t about any of that…

There are three other people who make this journey with me.  Unlike me, they didn’t choose this life for themselves.  My wife, Paula, married a chemist.  She had no idea what she was signing up for when we married.  The title of “pastor’s wife” never crossed her mind when she said “I do.”

And then there are these two young men that live in my house.  They had no choice in the matter at all.  They were born as YPK’s. (Youth Pastor’s Kids)  There has always been somewhat of an expectation on them to be “good boys.”  Almost five years ago, they became just PK’s.  Maybe there is more expectation tied to that, I’m not sure.  Everybody expects the youth pastor to be a little crazy, so maybe YPK’s get cut a little slack.  Either way, they are PK’s which comes with a whole list of expectations.

At the end of pastor appreciation month, I’d like to thank these three.  They are the ones who pick me up on the days when I am the epitome of those pastoral blog posts.  When I am hurt, frustrated, depressed, or just plain worn out from the duties of being a pastor, it is these three that keep me steady.  It is in these three that I find constant affirmation, acceptance, and love.  Their love is the closest thing to the love of God that I have experienced on this earth.  So I would be remiss if I didn’t share my appreciation for them…

To Paula: From the moment you said those three magical words, “What’s your name?”, I knew that there was something amazing about you.  You are much more than a pretty face, although you are that for sure.  You are the one I have laughed with and cried with for   20 years now.  I love that we still date.  I enjoy going to our kids ball games, or just sitting around the house hanging out with the boys.  You are my rock.  You prop me up when I question myself.  Your faith challenges me.  You make an amazing pastor’s wife even though you didn’t sign up for it.  You are the life of the party and bring joy to the people you are with.  You dive right in and work hard at the church right beside me, even though you aren’t paid like I am.  You always have.  You allow me to completely be myself.  I love you…

To Nathan: You came into the world in a dramatic fashion.  We weren’t sure if you were going to make it or not that first night.  I am so glad you did.  You were always my mini-me.  Nate Jr. is what we called you as baby.  You always were a practical joker and a bit sarcastic like your dad.  I’ll never forget the prank you played on me in kindergarten.  You really were a mini-me.  Not so much my mini-me anymore.  Now I look up to you.  I know that there are days that people put expectations on you because of my calling, but I couldn’t be prouder of you.  You ARE a good kid, not because your dad is a pastor, but because you have chosen to follow Christ yourself.  I love that you are really enjoying high school and that you have a great group of friends to share the experience with.  I am excited to watch you play basketball this year, but am more excited about being your dad.

To Tyler:  We’ve always had a bit of a special bond because you and I understand what it is like to be the youngest of two brothers.  Since you were a toddler, you have been able to make the entire family laugh.  You are always entertaining us.  You too ARE a good kid, not because you have to be, but because you have placed your life in Christ’s hands.  I’ve watched you bring your friends to church and watched them become part of our youth ministry.  I have had the privilege of baptizing some of them.  You jumped in and started playing the drums in 5th grade, much to the surprise of everyone on the stage and in the church.  I taught you everything I know about the guitar, which took like an hour, but still…  Someday you will be teaching me how to play things on guitar.  I am looking forward to watching you play ball in the next month or so.  I love being your dad.

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This weekend, as I watched my family set up for our “Monster Mash” trunk or treat, I realized how much I appreciate these three.  There is kind of this unspoken understanding that they will be there, but I love that they genuinely want to be there.  Tyler was over at the table sawing 2×4’s and building games, which he does much better than his old man.  Nathan was carrying sheets of plywood and reaching things that no one else could.  Paula was scurrying around completing 10 tasks to every one of mine as usual.  And I thought to myself, no matter where ministry may take me, no matter the ups and downs, I will have these three people.  Definitely three people this pastor appreciates…

Active Waiting: Recovering the Passion of John Wesley

“Set yourself on fire with passion & people will come for miles to watch you burn. -John Wesley.” You may have seen a quote like this floating around the twittersphere. The only problem with this quote is that there is no evidence that John Wesley actually said any such thing. Why then is this quote so often attributed to Wesley? I think the reason the quote keeps getting attributed to Wesley is that it seems to be a good summary of his life. As a graduate student at Nazarene Theological Seminary, I was asked to study the life and thought of John Wesley including his sermons and journal entries. I was immediately struck with the passion with which Wesley pursued God. If there is one thing that I think the Church of the Nazarene could stand to recapture from Wesley’s legacy, it would be this passionate pursuit of God.

When Wesley was at Oxford, he joined a group his brother Charles had formed called “the holy club.” Although the main focus of this group was studying the scriptures, the members of the holy club were determined to live out their understanding of the text in daily life. John Wesley had little use for theological thoughts that were not lived out in a believer’s life.[1] A simple quote illustrates the passion with which this group pursued their Savior:

At first the friends met every Sunday evening; then two evenings in every week were passed together, and at last every evening from six to nine. They began their meetings with prayer, studied the Greek Testament and the classics, reviewed the work of the past day, and talked over their plans for the morrow, closing all with a frugal supper. They received the Lord’s Supper weekly, fasted twice a week, and instituted a searching system of self-examination, aiming in all things to do the will of God and be zealous of good works.[2]

There seems to be a natural pushback in the Church today against this kind of discipline. After all, any kind of spiritual practice that requires discipline has the potential to lead to putrid self-righteousness. Even Wesley, as he reflected on his Aldersgate experience, may have later considered his “holy club” days to be a type of self-righteous striving. His journal seems to imply that Aldersgate was the place where he first genuinely trusted the Love of God. However, it seems that this passionate pursuit of God was a quality in Wesley that made events like Aldersgate possible. By allowing himself to be constantly shaped by scripture, fasting, communion and the like, Wesley was making space in his life for grace. In other words, he was able to seek and find God as he sought God with all his heart.

A quick look into Wesley’s journal reveals that he continued to live with this same passion after leaving Oxford. Wesley’s daily routine during his trip across the Atlantic illustrates his dedication to the pursuit of Christ and to ministry. Beginning with prayer at 4 AM, Wesley’s days at sea were inundated with personal spiritual formation as well as ministry to others. After that initial hour of prayer, Wesley and his companions spent two hours in the bible together, reading the scripture in community. They also read the early church fathers’ comments on the passages and compared the two understandings. Wesley then set aside an hour for breakfast. After breakfast was an hour for public prayer, followed by a three-hour study of German. This was to enable John to minister to the German immigrants onboard. At noon, the Wesley brothers and their companions gathered for accountability and then ate lunch together. After lunch, the group spent time reading to other passengers on the ship that were in their care. The early evenings consisted of a public prayers and catechism, private prayers, and reading to men who were in their cabin. The Germans hosted a public service at 7 PM, which Wesley attended. The Wesley brothers and their companions then met together one more time to “exhort and teach one another” about an hour before they went to bed.[3] In looking at Wesley’s daily schedule, it becomes painfully obvious that the driving force in Wesley’s life was to “Love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. And to love his neighbor as himself.” His passion to know God permeated every hour of his days at sea.

Although Wesley’s daily pursuit of God demonstrates the passion with which he approached his faith, it may be in his lack of faith that we see this characteristic most distinctly. On his voyage to America, Wesley had a “near death” experience. It bothered Wesley that in the midst of the storm, he lacked a sense of assurance about his faith. What was even more troubling was the fact that a group of German Christians known as Moravians seemed to have a peace when faced with their own mortality that Wesley did not possess. They literally continued to worship by singing the evening’s Psalm as the storm raged on. When Wesley realized his faith to be lacking assurance, he began to seek this assurance with his usual vigor. He was introduced to a Moravian named Peter Bohler. Bohler continued to converse with Wesley about the “assurance of faith” and encouraged Wesley to continue to preach, even as he sought the assurance of salvation.[4] On May 24th, 1738, Wesley received the assurance of salvation he had been seeking:

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.[5]

Even though Wesley admits that he went “unwillingly” to the meeting at Aldersgate Street, that evening was a culmination of a Wesley’s search for the assurance of salvation. The search began on a boat in the Atlantic where Wesley realized his faith to be lacking. It was this lack that led him to “actively wait” for the assurance that he witnessed in the Moravians. Wesley’s friendship with Peter Bohler was another form of this “active waiting.” In short, Wesley made himself available to God so that he was willing and able to recognize the grace of God at Aldersgate.

It seems that Wesley’s life was characterized by this “active waiting” upon God. Wesley’s life was saturated with prayer, scripture, and participation in Christian community, which was characterized by receiving communion together. Wesley called these activities the “means of grace.” He instructed those who desired the grace of God to wait for it, not passively, but by actively pursuing the means of grace.[6]

The Church desperately needs to recapture the passion that led John Wesley to actively pursue God. We are victims of the dreaded pendulum swing. We have seen discipline turn into legalism, and therefore, our natural reaction has been to forego discipline altogether. Grace is free. It seems to us to be something we passively receive. Wesley’s daily schedule is almost laughable to us. Even the pastors among us can hardly imagine having every hour of the day accounted for in study, prayer, or ministry. We enjoy our lazy boys and Netflix binges. It is difficult for us to get our people to commit to an hour-long service every week. Wesley’s words from his sermon entitled “On Grieving the Holy Spirit”, sound all too familiar to us:

Men are generally lost in the hurry of life, in the business or pleasures of it, and seem to think that their regeneration, their new nature, will spring and grow up within them, with as little care and thought of their own as their bodies were conceived and have attained their full strength and stature; whereas, there is nothing more certain than that the Holy Spirit will not purify our nature, unless we carefully attend to his motions, which are lost upon us while, in the Prophet’s language, we “scatter away our time,” — while we squander away our thoughts upon unnecessary things, and leave our spiritual improvement, the one thing needful, quite unthought of and neglected.[7]

Once again, we see that Wesley refutes the understanding that holiness somehow happens to us. Rather, Wesley affirms that our response to the sanctifying grace of God is to “attend to His motions.”   With the advent of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like, we are given a multitude of opportunities to “scatter away our time.” We are easily distracted by the myriad of choices placed in front of us each day. We cart our children to soccer practice, vocal lessons, and swim team. Could it be that we have been guilty of grieving the Holy Spirit by allowing our lives to become so disjointed and distracted?

Over the years, we have had lots of theological conversations about holiness. We have talked about two trips to an altar. We have talked about growth in grace. We have argued over which is correct. Some of us have said, “This is a both/and thing, not an either/or.” Although Wesley understood sanctification to be a crisis event, he acknowledged that scripture is somewhat ambiguous on the subject. Perhaps it’s time to stop having discussions on the mechanisms of sanctification and to, instead, begin passionately pursuing a Holy God, trusting God to give us all the experiences we need. It seems that Wesley’s pursuit was a pursuit of God that led him to experiences, rather than a pursuit of experiences that led him to God.

Recapturing this passion from Wesley will mean that we will have to say “no’ to some things. Many of those things will be “good” things, but not necessarily “the best” thing. It means that we will have to learn to make space in our lives for grace. It might mean that we turn off the Netflix marathon. It might mean that our churches say “no” to traditional weekly events to create new environments for hearing scripture in community. Some of us might be able to leverage the power of our technology by listening to scripture on our morning walk. Others of us may want to put the technology away for large portions of our day. We might give up sleep, or food, or even sex. We might have to learn to say “no” to some things to make ourselves available to receive the grace that God desires to pour into our lives.

If we are to take our cues from Wesley, a passionate pursuit of God will most certainly include attending to the means of grace. Rather than living by one verse bible promises, (which may or may not be completely ripped out of context) we will have to become a people who devour scripture. We will need to learn to hear scripture in community, both with the people in our local congregation and in the historical voices of the church. We will need to be a people of prayer who call on God both individually and as a congregation all throughout the week. Finally, we will need to be a people of communion, a living embodiment of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. I pray that the people called Nazarenes would once again learn what it means to “actively wait” on the grace and mercy of God by attending to the means of grace. I believe that, as we are willing to attend to the means of grace, we will be set on fire, and the world will come to watch us burn!

            [1]. Timothy J Crutcher, John Wesley: His Life and Thought (Publication Pending), 95.

            [2]. “John Wesley the Methodist”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesley-the-methodist/ accessed October 16, 2014; Chapter V.

            [3]. John Wesley, “The Journal of John Wesley”, Christian Classics Ethereal Library Internet, available from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.html, accessed October 16, 2014; 16.

[4]. Ibid, 34-35.

[5]. Ibid, 36.

[6]. John Wesley, “The Means of Grace”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-16-the-means-of-grace/, accessed October 16, 2014; Section V.1.

            [7]. John Wesley, “On Grieving the Holy Spirit”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-138-on-grieving-the-holy-spirit/, accessed October 16, 2014; Section II.

When God Doesn’t Seem Fair…

We have been going through the first 11 chapters of Genesis on Wednesday nights at our church.  Tonight we were in Genesis chapter 4.  The story of Cain and Abel.

I was reading through Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis, and something caught my attention.  The story of Cain and Abel never gives a reason for God rejecting Cain’s offering…

I’ve heard lots of sermons that made assumptions.  Cain’s offering wasn’t the best that he had.  Abel’s was.  The text never says anything like that.  It simply states the fact that God looked favorably on Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s.

We wonder why God would do such a thing?  It’s not fair.  Why would God look favorably on one person’s offering and not look favorably on another’s?  We can hardly imagine such a scenario.

Or maybe we see scenario’s like this all of the time.  God heals one person, and not another.  Why does God seem to look favorably on one person and not another?   The truth is that we will probably never know the answer to questions such as these, but the reality of life is that God sometimes acts in ways that seem unfair to us…

But what is interesting is that the scripture never tries to answer the question…

Instead the question becomes, “What will Cain do with this unjust treatment?”  Will he become angry and bitter, or will he do what is right.  The word of the Lord comes to Cain in the seventh verse:

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

So now the focus of the text shifts from Cain’s offering to how Cain chooses to respond.

We all know what Cain chooses to do.  Cain chooses to allow anger to fester until it becomes murder.  Cain doesn’t master the sin that is crouching at his door…

What about us?  We all live in a world that is not fair.  Sometimes, it even feels like God is not fair.  Will we choose to become angry, bitter, and cynical?  Will we injure others with our words, and kill relationships with our response to our “unfair treatment”?

Or will we hear the Word of the Lord saying to us:  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? Will we place our trust in a God who, at times, seems unfair?

Just a thought,

N8

For my theological nerds…

Just thought I would put this out there for anyone who wants to read it. It was written for graduate school which is a different type of writing than sermon writing.  So if I start talking like this when I preach, someone slap me in the face…

If you happen to enjoy these kinds of papers, feel free to give your thoughts, insights, etc…

Thanks!

LIVING AS AN OPTIMIST IN A PESSIMISTIC WORLD

Reflections on John Wesley’s Theodicy

Throughout the course of history, human beings have wrestled with the idea of evil in the world. How could a good God allow the existence of evil in our world? The study of this question is called theodicy. In the Old Testament, the book of Job wrestles with this very question. Theologians in every age have given their thoughts on the nature of evil, both its origin in the fall and its persistence in the world. John Wesley addressed theodicy in his day as well. Since Wesley never postulated any kind of systematic theology, in order to understand Wesley’s thoughts on the nature of evil, we are left with the task of piecing together Wesley’s thoughts from sermons and writings left by the 18th century revivalist. It is the aim of this paper to examine John Wesley’s writings on theodicy, particularly the fall of mankind, and examine theological themes and discrepancies that arise along the way.

 

Wesley’s View of Humanity

In order to understand Wesley’s theodicy, it is imperative that one understands Wesley’s view of the created order before the infamous “fall of man.”

In Wesley’s sermon, “The General Deliverance”, he quotes Genesis in saying that “God saw everything that he had made: and behold it was very good!”[1] This distinction is an important aspect of Wesley’s understanding of man. Wesley distinctly rejects any dualistic understanding of the created order that would make any implication that human flesh is inherently evil and the human spirit inherently good. Instead, Wesley seems to fall in line with his contemporaries in understanding that creation existed in perfection before the fall. In the sermon, God’s Approbation of His Works, Wesley writes the following:

Such was the state of the creation, according to the scanty ideas which we can

now form concerning it, when its great Author, surveying the whole system at one

view, pronounced it “very good.” It was good in the highest degree whereof it was

capable, and without any mixture of evil. Every part was exactly suited to the

others, and conducive to the good of the whole. There was “a golden chain” (to use

the expression of Plato) “let down from the throne of God;” an exactly connected

series of beings, from the highest to the lowest; from dead earth, through fossils,

vegetables, animals, to man, created in the image of God, and designed to know, to

love, and enjoy his Creator to all eternity.[2]

Here Wesley argues that the created order was the highest good imaginable. Beginning with the lowest level of living species, and working up the “golden chain” let down from heaven, Wesley argues that creation could not be anything but perfect. Wesley’s pre-fall vision of creation is one in which the entire created order responds to the Divine in the most amenable manner. It is clear from the quote above that Wesley’s good creation is highly relational. As the Crutcher manuscript proposes, Wesley believed creation to be dynamically good.[3]

One of the tensions that arises in Wesley’s thinking concerns this understanding of the goodness of creation. One might wonder how such a perfect creation could fall into evil. Wesley realizes this conundrum and briefly mentions it in his sermon, The End of Christ’s Coming:

Yet his liberty (as was observed before) necessarily included a power of choosing or

refusing either good or evil. Indeed it has been doubted whether man could then

choose evil, knowing it to be such. But it cannot be doubted, he might mistake evil for

good. He was not infallible; therefore not impeccable.[4]

Here Wesley creates a bit of a loophole of sorts by admitting that although the created order was “perfect” in one sense, it was not infallible. We again see Wesley’s tendency towards a dynamic, relational understanding of perfection. How could something be perfect and yet able to mistake evil for good? It would seem that Wesley’s perfection has more to do with the creature’s relation to the created order. In other words, Wesley is speaking of creatures relating perfectly towards their creator rather than imagining a state of static perfection.[5] Although Wesley is using the language of his contemporaries who would view the original created order as a sort of static perfection, his relational intuition still seems ever-present.

Maddox offers an interesting explanation for Wesley’s tendency to label the original creation as “perfect” in what would seem to be a “static” way. He postulates that Wesley is drawing from both Eastern and Western influences in Christianity.[6] Although Western thought espoused a static vision of the original created order, Eastern streams of thought leaned towards a more dynamic understanding of humanity in its innocence. Maddox argues that Wesley was exposed to Greek systems of thought, but was simply ignorant of any such developmental view of humanity in its original created state. Maddox contends that, based on Wesley’s understanding of a dynamic spiritual development in believers on this side of the fall, Wesley would have welcomed such a dynamic view of creation if he would have encountered it in his lifetime.[7]

Whether or not Wesley had such intuitions, the question of how evil entered into the created order remains. In the same sermon mentioned above, The End of Christ’s Coming, Wesley provides an answer:

But it cannot be doubted, he might mistake evil for good. He was not infallible;

therefore not impeccable. And this unravels the whole difficulty of the grand

question, Unde malum “How came evil into the world” It came from “Lucifer, son

of the morning.”[8]

It seems that in this instance, Wesley’s best explanation for the fall of man and the introduction of evil is: “The devil made Eve do it.” The sermon goes on to speak about the fall of the devil. Although Wesley has just argued that it would be difficult to understand how humanity’s holy and righteous first parents would choose evil instead of good, he makes no similar argument concerning the angelic being Lucifer. It would seem that mankind, who has been created a little lower than the angels, would be more likely to rebel than Lucifer in such a scenario.

Collins believes that Wesley tries to address this tension by stating that the devil was self-tempted. Collins goes on to point out Wesley’s distinction between the fall of Satan, and the fall of mankind. According to Collins, for Wesley, Satan was tempted by pride, whereas humanity’s first sin was unbelief.[9] Satan deceived Eve and created doubt about the goodness of God in her mind. The resulting sin was unbelief. This distinction is helpful to a point, but the question concerning Lucifer’s fall remains.

In summary, Wesley is optimistic about human nature in the original created order. He imagines the Garden of Eden to be a masterpiece of perfection. Wesley doubts that mankind would knowingly choose evil over good, but postulates that humanity could possibly mistake evil for good. This possibility becomes reality when Satan coerces Eve into first “unbelief” in doubting the goodness of God, which leads to eating the fruit she was commanded not to eat. Wesley sees Lucifer’s sin as a sort of self-temptation driven by pride, but apparently is willing to live with the lack of continuity between his thoughts on the fall of man and the fall of Lucifer.

 

Free Will, Determinism, and the Felix Culpa

It has often been wondered if God was able to foresee the fall, and if so, is God somehow a causal agent in such a scenario. Wesley states plainly his understanding of the matter:

“Did not God foresee that Adam would abuse his liberty And did he not know

the baneful consequences which this must naturally have on all his posterity And

why, then, did he permit that disobedience Was it not easy for the Almighty to

have prevented it” — He certainly did foresee the whole. This cannot be denied:

For “known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world;” rather,

from all eternity, as the words “ap aivnos” properly signify.[10]

In this quote we can see Wesley’s inclination to believe that God somehow stands outside of time and is able to see everything in eternity. This was certainly a popular view in Wesley’s day. A person could easily ask the question, “How is free choice really free if the end is known- even by God?” It would seem that the future has been determined or predestined. Wesley spent much of his life in contention with the proponents of predestination. For Wesley, free will is a necessary component of the “dynamically good” created order.    The thing that separates man from the “brute creation” for Wesley is that man is “capable of God.” Man is able to love, obey, and relate to God.[11] It is this dynamic and relational quality that separates man from the rest of the created order. In other words, liberty is necessary for relationship to exist.

In the sermon, “The General Deliverance”, Wesley argues for the necessity of human liberty in order for God to truly relate to God’s creation:

He was, after the likeness of his Creator, endued with understanding; a capacity

of apprehending whatever objects were brought before it, and of judging

concerning them. He was endued with a will, exerting itself in various affections

and passions: And, lastly, with liberty, or freedom of choice; without which all the

rest would have been in vain, and he would have been no more capable of serving

his Creator than a piece of earth or marble; he would have been as incapable of

vice or virtue, as any part of the inanimate creation.[12]

In this sermon, Wesley is describing the three qualities that he includes in the natural image of God: understanding, the will, and liberty. The quality that Wesley uses to differentiate humanity from the inert world is freedom of choice. Wesley points out that mankind’s understanding and will would be of no use without liberty. In fact, the characteristic mark of a being with a “spirit” for Wesley was the right to choose. Wesley states as much in “The End of Christ’s Coming” when he says:

He was likewise endued with liberty; a power of choosing what was good, and

refusing what was not so. Without this, both the will and the understanding would

have been utterly useless. Indeed, without liberty, man had been so far from being

a free agent, that he could have been no agent at all. For every unfree being is

purely passive; not active in any degree. Have you a sword in your hand Does a

man, stronger than you, seize your hand, and force you to wound a third person In

this you are no agent, any more than the sword: The hand is as passive as the

steel. So in every possible case. He that is not free is not an agent, but a patient.[13]

Not only does Wesley once again emphasize the importance of free will in this sermon, but he also makes the point that a will that has been overridden is not truly free. He compares it to a sword in a man’s hand. Wesley uses the imagery of the man with a sword being overpowered by someone else. Is that man still responsible for the damage inflicted while being overpowered? Wesley would answer, “Certainly not!” One might wonder if a God who sees the end from the beginning has somehow overpowered humanity and struck a wound to the human race that we know as the fall. Wesley sees no contradiction in the idea of free agency and God’s foreknowledge, which seems to be in step with other theologians of his day.

In explaining the presence of evil in the world, Wesley is very careful to say that God permitted the fall. He does not state that God caused the fall. Once again, one could argue that God’s permission is similar to God’s being a causal agent, but for Wesley, this was not an issue. Wesley used the language of felix culpa or “happy fault” to describe the fall. The idea of a felix culpa, centers on the understanding that the fall of man, while wreaking havoc on the world at large, also brought forth the redemption of the human race through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   In the sermon “God’s Love to Fallen Man”, Wesley espouses this idea throughout his discourse. It is fairly well summed up by the quote below:

He made man in his own image; a spirit endued with understanding and liberty.

Man, abusing that liberty, produced evil; brought sin and pain into the world. This

God permitted, in order to a fuller manifestation of his wisdom, justice, and mercy,

by bestowing on all who would receive it an infinitely greater happiness than they

could possibly have attained if Adam had not fallen.[14]

It seems from the above quote and in the tenor of the entire sermon that Wesley is postulating that humankind is better off because of the fall than it would have been if the fall had never occurred.   Wesley goes on to state that the world would have never known anything like the faith in God who sent his Son to earth on our behalf. He also makes the argument that humanity “might have loved the Author of our being, the Father of angels and men as our Creator and Preserver: We might have said, “O Lord our Governor, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” Wesley furthermore states that the sufferings that have come as a result of the fall have served to develop the Christian graces in God’s people. Wesley seems to believe qualities like patience, meekness, gentleness, and perseverance are produced in us by living in a fallen world. He also mentions that good works of compassion would never have existed had there not been a first sin. In short, Wesley believes that the fall makes new levels of holiness possible for humanity.

It seems that the “happy fault” becomes a way for Wesley to address the tension of a good God permitting evil in the world without becoming a causal agent. As a parent allows suffering in the life of a child, provided that it teaches the child something valuable, so God allowed the “happy fault” for the good of humanity. However, Wesley’s view raises a question. Would not the original created order experienced holiness and happiness in receiving blessing from God’s hand and existing in a “naked and unashamed” relationship with their Creator and the created order? Wesley does not seem to address the issue. Collins states as much:

Wesley does not explore the philosophical implications of this thinking: is evil necessary in order for the greatest, most poignant expressions of the love of God to be displayed? Cannot God reveal the height and depth of the divine love in any way not, in some sense, dependent on the fall? [15]

It seems that Wesley does not have the necessary resources to explore such an option, but allows God’s glorious salvation to trump the damage done through the entrance of evil in the world.

 

Summary and Conclusions

In examining Wesley’s writings on the problem of evil, several themes emerge that, at times, exist in tension with one another. On the one hand, Wesley would argue for humanity’s goodness in the original creation. In Wesley’s mind, humans in their created state would certainly not choose evil over good, but could be tricked into choosing evil. However, Wesley never addresses the same question in examining Lucifer’s fall. Lucifer’s fall is described as a self-temptation. Wesley’s understanding of God’s foreknowledge also lives in tension with his understanding of liberty. Wesley believes that the possibility for mankind to choose evil had to exist in order for people to be more than just inanimate objects. In other words, Wesley’s relational intuition sees free will as a necessary component in relationships. And yet, Wesley is content with the understanding that God sees the beginning and the end, which some would argue negates free will. Wesley is willing to concede that God allowed (not caused) the first sin so that new levels of holiness and happiness would be available to humanity in Christ. However, Wesley does not imagine that there could have been greater levels of holiness possible to humans in the garden. As a practical theologian, Wesley seems to be willing to live in the tension created by these competing ideas.

It seems that one common thread runs through all of these tensions. In all these cases, Wesley is the consummate optimist. Wesley seems content to focus on the positive aspects of humanity, the nature of God, and salvation. This is apparent in the amount of attention he gives to the doctrines of salvation and sanctification as compared to the question of evil and its existence in the created order. Wesley’s optimism towards the goodness of the created order leads him to imagine the first parents as almost infallible, and therefore Wesley would rather place blame on Satan than Adam and Eve. Concerning God’s foreknowledge, Wesley’s optimism and regard for God convince him that the fall had to have been foreseen by God. Wesley could not imagine a scenario in which God could not foresee the future. Wesley’s adherence to the idea of a felix culpa helps Wesley make sense of God’s foreknowledge concerning the fall. God chose to allow the fall because of the levels of holiness and sanctification available to humanity after the fall through the death and resurrection of Christ. Again we see Wesley’s optimism at work. His view of God’s work in salvation and sanctification allow him to understand the world as better off after the fall than before.

It seems that, at times, Wesley’s optimism in one area of his theological understanding creates discrepancies in his systems of thought. Since Wesley is not a systematic theologian, he is content to live with those discrepancies. For a man who never wrote a systematic theological method, Wesley’s thoughts line up more often than not. Perhaps if Wesley would have been exposed to some more recent theological concepts such as the potential of the original creation for growth or an understanding of open theism, he may have been able to clear up some of these contradictions. It appears that task has been left to the rest of us.

            [1]. John Wesley, “The General Deliverance”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-60-the-general-deliverance/, accessed September 10, 2014; Section I.6.

            [2]. John Wesley, “God’s Approbation of His Works”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-56-gods-approbation-of-his-works/, accessed September 9, 2014; Section I.14.

  1. Timothy J Crutcher, John Wesley: His Life and Thought (Publication Pending), 125.

            [4]. John Wesley, “The End of Christ’s Coming”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-62-the-end-of-christs-coming/, accessed September 10, 2014; Section I.8.

            [5]. This understanding of perfection will play out again in Wesley’s dynamic understanding of Christian perfection.

            [6]. Maddox readily admits that Wesley is not consciously combining the Eastern and Western schools of thought.

            [7]. Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), loc. 1331-1343.

 

            [8]. Wesley, The End of Christ’s Coming, I.8.

            [9]. Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love in the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 59.

[10]. John Wesley, “God’s Love to Fallen Man”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-59-gods-love-to-fallen-man/, accessed September 4, 2014; Section 3.

            [11]. Wesley, The General Deliverance, I.1.

            [12]. Ibid.

            [13]. Wesley, The End of Christ’s Coming, I.4.

            [14]. Wesley, God’s Love to Fallen Man, 15.

            [15]. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love in the Shape of Grace, 356.

Why I am a Nazarene…

I was recently asked to give an answer to the question, “Why am I a Nazarene?”

If I am honest, part of why I am a Nazarene is my pedigree.  Both my grandparents were Nazarene ministers at some point in their life. My dad was a Nazarene youth pastor.  In other words, if I would have ended up as something else, someone had failed miserably…

But there comes a point in a person’s life when he has to own his faith.  I was in my 20s when I fell in love with Nazarene theology.  It was because of our “Theology of Love” that I fell in love with the church that I was born into.

We believe that God is a God of Love and God extends that love to EVERYONE.  We aren’t predetermined, we have a choice.  Real love always includes a choice to love and be loved.

But more than that, we believe the love God does more than just cover up our sin, we believe this Love of God transforms us into the image of Christ.

What that says to me is that NO ONE is beyond the transforming Love of God.  Even the person who is most hostile to religion.  The gospel is good news to everyone.  There is hope for all of us.  None of us is too far gone.  Jesus modeled this when he walked upon the earth.  He went to people that others had given up on.  He was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners.  Everywhere Jesus went, his transforming love changed people.  From religious leaders like Nicodemus to tax collectors, adulterers, and lepers.

What I love about my church is that even in its inception the goal was to make “outsiders” into “insiders”.  The buildings were plain because we wanted to poorest of the poor to feel at home.  In choosing the name Nazarene, we were identifying with those who have been given up on.  Nathaniel asked Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)  To be a Nazarene was to be an outcast.  We are the church for the outcasts.

When we are honest with ourselves, we are all outcasts at some point.  We all are the woman caught in the act of adultery.  We all are the tax collector. We all are the Pharisee.  In short, we all long for and need an encounter with the transforming Love of God that is found in Christ Jesus and born in our heart by the Holy Spirit.

Honestly, at times our church has gotten away from our identity.  But what organization hasn’t?  What I am encouraged by is the fact that all across the North American Church I see churches that are getting back to our roots.

Why am I a Nazarene?

Because I believe in the transforming Love of God, that brings hope to places that are hopeless.  There is no place that is too far gone. God specializes in making something beautiful out of “Nazarenes” like you and me.

Just a thought,

Nate