Nine years ago, when I was sitting in the Confirmation class at my home church in San Antonio, our pastor seemed like an absolute genius. I sat quietly, fascinated by the skill with which he recounted the life of John and Charles Wesley, the role of the circuit riders, the questions of the early Holy Clubs at Oxford, and countless other things that were significant in the history of Methodism. How could one man know this stuff so well? Clearly he’s a top-notch scholar of Methodist History, a regular walking encyclopedia of theology. But more interesting to me than the two centuries of history were the things he called “basic Methodist beliefs,” what I later came to know as the “Doctrinal Standards” of the church. These beliefs were ultimately what drew me deeper into the church and made me want to pursue vocational ministry; they tapped something deep within, a need to pursue something higher, and I couldn’t get enough.
In John Wesley’s words, as I sat on my bed later, thinking back to that confirmation class and reflecting on my own beliefs, I found that “my heart was strangely warmed.” I was feeling the movement of God within me.
So, what did they explain that made such a difference? Today, I’ll start addressing that through the lens of Methodist doctrine, simply meaning I’m going to write about what Methodists believe that make our denomination what it is.
As far as I can tell, the core of Methodist doctrine can be found in our understanding of Grace. A lot of groups and traditions teach about Grace, and for good reason! Simply put, Grace is an extension of love and mercy by God to us. The Methodist understanding of Grace is unique because we approach it from three directions, an attempt to clarify the many roles that Grace can play in our lives.
The first type of Grace is called Prevenient Grace. When we talk about this, we’re referring to the Grace inherent to all Creation, the Grace present in the very act of God creating us. Most importantly, this type of Grace is present regardless of our own decisions or actions, as it is ultimately what enables us to move beyond the shackles of our sin and into the arms of the Lord. That brings us to the next Grace, the one most commonly known: Justifying Grace. This is the Grace given through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, which is the means of salvation for all mankind. Simply put, Justifying Grace is the forgiveness of our sins by Christ’s sacrifice.
Now, the last of the three Graces is the most “Wesleyan” in nature, simply because it is very active and involved. Whereas Prevenient Grace is given without any action on our part and Justifying Grace is primarily the responsibility of Christ, Sanctifying Grace, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, is entwined with our own journey of faith. Sanctifying Grace is the continued work of God in our lives through the Holy Spirit, allowing us to become more holy as our lives go on. This idea has been called sanctification, theosis, and many other things throughout history, but it revolves around the idea that God works to make us more perfect (notice the “more” in that sentence) as we pursue Christian lives. I would argue that this idea, that we are engaging in a process of perfection in Christ even as we live, is the mark of Wesleyan (and Methodist) theology, and it informs almost everything we believe and do.
So, that’s the core of our theology. How about some specifics?
Methodists do perform infant baptism. We also perform believer’s baptism. We do not, however, rebaptize anyone, and that’s where the theology kicks in. Let’s look at the role of baptism through the lens of infant baptism. Why do we baptize children? This practice stems from our understanding that baptism is a sacrament of God and a “means of Grace” (that’s another word for your “Methodist Lingo” list if you’ve started keeping one), an idea which means that it’s considered a way of experiencing the Grace of God in a very direct manner. As you’ll recall, we don’t believe that experiencing God’s grace always requires the desire to do so or the full understanding of what that entails (we experience Prevenient Grace from the moment of our creation, after all), so the first reason we baptize infants is because we consider it to be a participation in God’s work for the child, and God starts working well before they can understand. Additionally, we consider baptism to be a commitment of the whole church to the one being baptized, which also doesn’t require the understanding of the baptized individual.
Interestingly, the reason we don’t rebaptize is because it’s a means of Grace. If baptism is God’s work, not man’s, then why would we need to do it again? God doesn’t make mistakes.
One of the more interesting tenants of Methodism is the emphasis we place on personal holiness. We believe that God can work to engage us in a process of perfection from the moment we are saved. But that perfection requires that we change our actions as well, as sin is still sin after you accept the redemption of Christ. Considering that we desire to be made more perfect, how could we continue living lives of sin? We can’t! So we do everything we can to “flee from sin” in our lives, not because we believe we can make ourselves more holy, but to make ourselves more open and receptive to the working of God in us. This leads to high degrees of self-discipline and conscientious living, or in more trendy terms, living an intentional lifestyle.
When I looked at the role of Christianity a few posts ago, I answered the question of “what’s the point?” with a decidedly Methodist answer, and that’s the last doctrine I’m going to write about today. We are tasked, as Christians, to love our God and to love our neighbors, no exceptions. We believe that God can sanctify us in our lifetimes, but we also believe that we, as Christians, are supposed to be working toward the sanctification of the whole world, a practice which leads to the United Methodist Church’s views on things such as sustainable agriculture, immigration policies, and human rights. Every four years, the UMC publishes a new edition of The Book of Discipline, a dense, sometimes hard-to-read collection of statements about the beliefs of the church. In this book, there is a long section titled “Social Principles” which details the church’s stance on everything from the death penalty to family farms (they’re strongly opposed to the first of these and in favor of the second, if you were wondering). Running through all of their statements, all of the beliefs, you will find this mentality that we are supposed to be the caretakers of Creation, the stewards of everything under the sun, and that it is our responsibility to improve the world in whatever way possible. That mentality, whether applied to our individual person or the world as a whole, is what makes up current Methodist belief.
Comment! Give me feedback, criticisms, helpful tips, or anything else! And come back Friday so we can discuss the role of Missions in the church!