Tag Archives: Faith

Ordination and the Next Methodism

Last week I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church along with many other Elder candidates and a few candidates for the office of Deacon. The process to becoming an Elder in full connection is a long one. I began this journey 10 years ago. The earliest I could have been ordained was two years ago, but I self-delayed the intense written and oral examinations required to be approved due to some challenging life circumstances and a few qualms about the dubious state of the denomination. At any rate, I wanted to share a few thoughts about some of the vows I took during the process of being accepted into full connection during the clergy session and in the ordination service during our Annual Conference in Western NC. And piggy-backing on what others have shared about what the “next Methodism” should be like, I also want to share some thoughts on how these vows should be and can be taken more seriously in the future. (See others’ thoughts about the next Methodism here: Kevin Watson, David Watson, David Watson again, Scott Fritzsche, & Stephen Fife.)

During the clergy session at the beginning of our Annual Conference the Bishop invites the candidates for ordination on stage to answer historical questions of examination for Methodist preachers that go back to John Wesley himself. Some of the questions also seem to be a bit hysterical too as they often evoke chuckles from candidates, colleagues, and family and friends, such as the one that asks: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” With the exorbitant cost of higher education, including seminary, nowadays the debt question always evokes some chuckles.19576256_1788153057866681_480327071_n

I think the next Methodism certainly needs to find more ways to help ministerial candidates fund theological education and to train students on strategies to get by with less and reduce the amount of loans. Ministry is hard enough without the added strain of a mountain of debt. Thankfully, I was blessed that I didn’t have to borrow very much for seminary. What I did borrow to help with the transition from full-time gainful employment to a part-time local pastor salary while I was a full-time seminary student I, I was able to pay off entirely last fall. Nonetheless, as we find ourselves in an evermore missionary type environment, I think we need to seriously consider finding ways of educating and training ministers more efficiently, economically, and effectively. How is it in a day when we have the most educated clergy since Pentecost, we also seem to have some of the most Biblically illiterate congregations in history? With the technology we have today, surely we can train and equip clergy more efficiently and effectively.

More importantly, however, one of the other questions, actually the very first question asked of candidates in the clergy session is: “Have you faith in Christ?” That may sound like an odd one considering it’s being asked of candidates for ministry. But we must remember this comes from the Rev. John Wesley who wasn’t sure if he had genuine and complete faith in Christ even years after being ordained in the Anglican church.

In March of 1738 – about 13 years after he was ordained a deacon! – he wrote in his journal “I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley went on to contemplate quitting preaching. He asked himself, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” His friend and mentor Peter Bohler insisted that he continue to “Preach faith til you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Wesley took his advice, but for many weeks continued to struggle with heaviness of heart over his lack of saving faith. He consulted the Scriptures and the description of faith and the experience of salvation described therein and compared them to his own experience. He remained in a state of feeling weighed in the balances of the word of God and found wanting. Wesley understood faith in theory, but he knew he did not have it in his own experience. Rather than redefining faith to match his experience, he continued to seek faith as defined and described in Scripture. He sought a change in his own heart rather than denying the truth and changing the word.

On May 24th that year, still with heaviness of heart, he hesitantly attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening upon hearing Martin Luther’s description of “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ,” Wesley wrote, “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.” Interestingly, the very next thing he describes is how he then began to pray with all his might for those who had especially despitefully used him and persecuted him.

From that moment on, although he was tempted to doubt, Wesley never again doubted that he had real faith, even as he recognized the need to continue to grow stronger in that faith. And that was the moment that really ignited the fires of Methodism as a movement and the Wesleyan revival across England that spread to America and around the world.

If Methodism is to really become a movement again, and if we are really going to see revival again, genuine faith and a call to real faith will be at the forefront. Wesley realized that knowing about faith doesn’t guarantee an experience of it in the heart as the real work of God. As he listened to the message of Luther on Aldersgate street, he finally received that precious gift of faith. Interestingly, it is Martin Luther who can also help us to ensure that our candidates for ordained ministry today have genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation and how to discern what specific shape it should take.

In his “Treatise on Good Works,” to correct misunderstandings of the doctrine of justification by faith alone which are still common today, Luther explained that genuine faith will be evidenced by the fruit of good works. He said faith in Christ is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, which is: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). In the context of the storyline of the Bible this is because there is only one true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and all other gods are really just pretenders. The gods worshipped by the nations are not really worthy of worship. Only, Yahweh, the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who rescued Jews and Gentiles, all of humanity, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to sin and death, is worthy of worship. Hence, we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:5). From here Luther said obedience to the rest of God’s commandments would flow. He used the Ten Commandments to explain what are the good works for which  we are saved (see Eph 2:8-10). It’s also important to note that John 14:6, where Christ claims to be the only way to the Father, is a direct corollary of the first commandment, as Jesus Christ was the manifestation of the one true God in human flesh (see also Acts 4:12; Acts 17:30-31).

A person of genuine Christian faith should display a serious commitment to the first commandment and the first of the two greatest laws according to Jesus (Matt 22:36-40). Moreover, John 14:6, shouldn’t be considered controversial or embarrassing or in need of reinterpretation among those of genuine faith. So if there is a candidate for ordination who agrees with the modern day Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, that the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, and that other gods and goddesses are legitimate manifestations of the divine, can we really say they have faith in Christ? As I shared before, I was taken to a conference to listen to Bolz-Weber speak with many other young pastors who were also provisional members (i.e. commissioned but not yet ordained). Virtually, all of them thought she was a wonderful role model for United Methodist ministers. I do not!

We need to take the original intent and spirit of that historical question that Wesley asked more seriously. “Have you faith in Christ?” doesn’t mean do you believe in Christ as you define and imagine him. It means do you believe in Christ as he is revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. Do you trust in him and him alone for salvation?

We have pastors in some of our churches telling their congregations that they don’t really need to believe in Jesus to be saved because everyone is saved already. We have some who are telling their churches that Jesus really didn’t rise bodily from the dead. We have others who are telling their churches that Jesus really wasn’t divine. A Facebook friend of mine, stopped attending his United Methodist church in California when the pastor said the Sunday after Easter that Jesus was not really divine, and planned to preach a sermon series from the Gospel of Thomas (a heterodox non-canonical text). In 2003, in spite of denying Christ’s virgin birth and his bodily resurrection, Bishop Joseph Sprague was cleared of heresy charges by Bishop Ough, the current president of the Council of Bishops, who obviously didn’t see Sprague’s heterodox beliefs as a big deal. Have they faith in Christ? Well not in the historical sense in which that question was originally asked. Not even close!Which brings me to some other questions I was asked about doctrine and Scripture.

We were also asked: “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?”; Do yo believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?; Will you preach them and maintain them? In that same spirit we were reminded by the Bishop in the liturgy during the ordination service that we are called “to proclaim the faith of the church and no other” (p. 675 UM Book of Worship). Additionally, we were asked if we believe the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, “to contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life” and if we would be loyal to the church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.”

In all of the above there is an echo of the call found in the book of Jude to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). The reason for Jude’s call to defend the faith is because of people who had crept into the church and perverted the grace of God into an excuse for sensuality, which the context clearly indicates involved sexual immorality. As the story of Balaam in Numbers shows, the promotion of sexual licentiousness is sometimes the lure into the trap of idolatry (Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16; see also Jude 1:11 & Rev. 2:14).

In our current climate in the United States, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a candidate who would answer that historic question in the spirit of its original meaning might be penalized or viewed as in need of correction for not being “diverse and inclusive” enough in their thinking. Through the commissioning process I was deemed by at least one person to be too rigid in my thinking because I expressed my conservative views on sexuality in particular. That person also began to talk to me about how all religions are really just manifestations of the same divine ultimate reality. He used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate his point. Gods of other religions are just as valid as the god of Christianity he said. He recommended two books to “help” me. One was “Six Ways of Being Religious”, which really doesn’t argue what he was arguing, although it obviously leans in that direction. The other was “The Future of Faith” by the liberal Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In that book, Cox argues against orthodoxy and the creedalism that has attended it. He argues for a more “diverse, open, and pluralistic” faith rooted more in a mystical experience of an apparently more impersonal ultimate reality. He actually includes John Wesley in his criticism of orthodoxy and its historical proponents, which he views as corrupting what he believes to be the original, “more open and diverse” version of Christianity. He also argues for a faith based less on specific content than experience; in reality Cox just presents an experiential faith with a different specific content. The diversity and inclusiveness so often promoted in Mainline circles is often just another version of the syncretism that both the Old and New Testaments warn God’s people against.

This one persons recommendations to me, which he included in his official report, were meet with approval by those on the discipleship committee and were put on their report of my interview as official recommendations for me. “Have you faith in Christ?” answered according to its original intent actually might put a candidate going before a board of ordained ministry in the U.S. and some other places in the category of “needing help and correction.” These things out not be!

The next Methodism, whatever that ends up being, if it is to become a Holy Spirit fired movement again, will have to take those historical questions more seriously according to their original meaning and intent. The faith required will require more than – albeit not less than – orthodox content. The faith required will be the kind that John Wesley, himself, received as the free gift of God on Aldersgate street a little over 279 years ago!

Click on the link below to listen to a powerful song by the Mark Swayze Band and let’s pray for that holy fire to fall upon the people called Methodists once again. Come, Holy Spirit! Bring us the faith to ignite the fire of revival once again!

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=mark+swayzee+band+come+like+a+fire&view=detail&mid=96D4663D00D2EDBBD2E996D4663D00D2EDBBD2E9&FORM=VIRE

 

 

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When Christian-ish is Just Not Enough

“The Almost Christian” (Sermon II) is a sermon that John Wesley delivered before the university at Oxford in 1741. In it he argues that a person can assent to all the right beliefs, participate in all the rituals of the church, make use of all the means of grace, and live according to the highest of moral standards, and yet not truly be a Christian. The “almost Christian” may by all outward appearances look like a Christian, but not truly be a Christian, what Wesley calls an “altogether Christian.”

What is required for someone to be an altogether Christian, a true Christian, according to Wesley, is an inward transformation of the heart to go along with the outward profession of the lips and behavior. Even the most orthodox professions of faith, and the most meticulously religious of lifestyles, may not necessarily spring from a pure and godly heart. Wesley himself admitted that he was but an altogether Christian for a long time, even as a minister in the Church of England who labored diligently to live a holy life.

To be an “altogether Christian” more is required than assent to Biblical truths, religious practices, and even a moral lifestyle. And this more that is needed is not something we can do for ourselves; it is something that only God can do for us through Jesus Christ and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The more that we need is not just conformity to Biblical standards. According to Wesley we need an inward transformation of the heart. To be an altogether Christian, we need the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), which will consequently lead us into genuine love of our neighbors, including enemies. We may say and do all the right things, but if we do so with the wrong motive of heart, namely love of self, then we are still far from the kingdom of God. In other words, we need to be born again (John 3:3-7).

In addition to love, Wesley said, to be an altogether Christian, we need a true and living faith. Indeed, genuine faith inspired by the love of God for us activates genuine godly love in us. But Wesley was quick to point out that the faith of which he spoke should not be confused with mere assent to a certain set of beliefs and practices, no matter how right and true they may be. Indeed, he said, “the faith which bringeth not forth repentance, and love, and all good works, is not that right living faith, but a dead and devilish one” (II:4).

In fact, Wesley was so bold to say that even the demons believe in the virgin birth, miracles, the divinity of Christ, that he died for the sins of humanity and rose again on the third day, that he ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead. He said they, the demons, even believe the articles of religion (of the Church of England at that time) and “all that is written in the Old and New Testament” (II:4 emphasis mine). Wesley went on to say, “And yet for all this faith, they be but devils. They remain still in their damnable estate, lacking the very true Christian faith.”

So the faith that Wesley was talking about involved much more than intellectual assent to a set of beliefs, important as that is. The faith of which Wesley spoke, is an genuine trust and absolute commitment to the person of God the Father through Jesus Christ. This is the faith that issues in repentance, love, and all good works. According to Wesley:

“The right and true Christian faith is” (to go on in the words of our own Church), “not only to believe that Holy Scripture and the Articles of our Faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ. It is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that, by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God; whereof doth follow a loving heart, to obey his commandments.” (II:5)

As John Wesley righty discerned, the word of God calls us into a true and living relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We enter this living relationship only through a true and living faith. Of course Wesley wasn’t pitting an experience of faith against the content, the specific beliefs, of the Christian faith. He was simply calling people to receive the inward transforming power of God by faith in addition to the outward conformity to the content of the Christian faith. In other words, he wasn’t suggesting, as some do, that the content of the faith is not that important.

What is really astonishing is that many of the things that Wesley listed as things that even demons know and believe to be true, are not accepted by a lot of people who consider themselves Christian today, even ministers. There are plenty who do not believe that all of the Bible is true. Sure, there are those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but, as with many things, it’s not the words that are used, but the meaning attached to those words that really matters. Often those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but reject orthodox doctrines (as I used to), insist on new interpretations to bring Scripture in line with their reason, desires, and/or sensibilities. Some will cling to their novel interpretations and their claim to a high view of Scripture, but others when pressed and unable to substantiate their views from Scripture will resort to questioning it’s trustworthiness in favor of their own views. Indeed, one of the surest ways to draw the ire of many a Mainline minister today, is to insist that Scripture is without error or infallible, which is a belief that can easily be traced back through the early church fathers to the apostles and Jesus himself.

Others will claim to believe in the orthodox doctrines concerning the nature of God, but, again, radically redefine them. How for instance can one really believe in the Triune God in light of the First Commandment and yet claim that other gods are just as valid? Some will speak of the Triune God and perhaps belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ, but what does that mean when it comes from someone with a pluralistic, syncretistic worldview that insists all religions lead to the same place? I think the meaning of those orthodox terms would be radically different than within a worldview that whole-heartedly believes the First Commandment understood in its historical, biblical context. As the United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden said he used to do before he experienced the change of heart that Wesley preached, some use the language of orthodoxy while all along undermining its true meaning.

In contrast to Wesley, some today seem to insist that even what Wesley called almost Christian may be too much to expect. Despite the attempts of some to narrow the range of what he considered to be essential doctrines that one must believe in order to be considered Christian, John Wesley included obedience to the moral law to be among the essentials and part of the ground for genuine Christian fellowship within the church universal. In his sermon “Catholic Spirit” he writes:

Does the love of God constrain thee to serve him with fear, to “rejoice unto him with reverence?” Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory? Upon this ground, dost thou “hate all evil ways,” every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man?”  Sermon 39: Section 1:16

While Wesley made abundant room for varying opinions regarding modes of worship, baptism, and the particulars of church government, there is absolutely no reason to believe that he would allow for differing opinions regarding basic Christian morality. Indeed, I have no doubt that he would have no patience whatsoever for anyone who would insist on rejecting any of the clear moral commands of Scripture, which he, along with David (Psalm 19:7-11), Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20), and Paul (Romans 7:12), believed to be holy and perfect.

Yet some still want to insist that we don’t even need the faith of what Wesley called an “almost Christian”, really even what Wesley described as the faith of demons. Instead for many Christian-ish is plenty. Some want to insist that theology, or beliefs about God are all that really matter, and that issues of holiness are secondary matters. Some want to boil it all down to the least they have to believe to still be considered Christian. But if someone’s faith falls short of what Wesley said even the demons believe, can they possibly have a living faith that leads to “a loving heart, to obey [God’s] commandments”? (‘The Almost Christian” II:5)

Maybe Wesley was too extreme. Maybe being “almost Christian” is enough. Maybe even less than that, just being kind of sort of Christian-ish is enough. Then again, maybe Wesley was right, and being either of those is to still be totally lost.

Maybe settling for the minimum set of theological beliefs about God apart from the particulars of a holy life is foolish when the God we say we believe in says he created us in his image and says to us, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 quoting Leviticus 11:44 – KJV).

Assenting to a particular set of beliefs is not enough. Living according to a particular set of standards is not enough. But God’s grace to forgive us and cleanse us by the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out is more than enough. What would Wesley tell us to do?John Wesley preaching

Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and call upon thy God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest, till he make his “goodness to pass before thee;” till he proclaim unto thee the name of the Lord, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.” Let no man persuade thee, by vain words, to rest short of this prize of thy high calling. (emphasis mine). But cry unto him day and night, who, “while we were without strength, died for the ungodly,” until thou knowest in whom thou hast believed, and canst say, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember, “always to pray, and not to faint,” till thou also canst lift up thy hand unto heaven, and declare to him that liveth for ever and ever, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

May we all thus experience what it is to be, not almost only; but altogether Christians; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus; knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us!  (“The Almost Christian” Section II:10-11)

 

 

Faith and Scripture

Jesus calls for others to believe in him, to trust him. In John 14:1 he says, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” You see this, as well, throughout each of the four Gospels, whether it be calming a storm on the sea, healing the blind, the sick, and the demonically oppressed, or in his warnings to his disciples about coming persecution. Would be disciples of Jesus are called to trust in him personally. Matthew 28:17 shows that after his resurrection this call to faith culminated in his disciples worshiping him, though some initially lingered in doubt, Thomas the most famous among them (John 20:24-29). John makes it clear that this was the very reason he wrote his Gospel. John 20:31 “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (ESV).

The life of which John speaks is the abundant life, the eternal life, which, for the one who believes, begins in the present. It is a real foretaste of the glory of the life to come in the fullness of the kingdom of God with its corresponding joy in the here and now. Hallelujah! Faith in Jesus allows us to receive and enter into God’s kingdom even now, but it is a faith in Jesus as he is revealed to us in the Bible. Faith in Jesus will also require trust in scripture as it describes and points to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh who reveals the Father and His will (John 1).

Inevitably, therefore, the question of whether we should trust Jesus will bring us to the question of whether we can trust the canonical written accounts of his life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised second coming. This especially includes the Bible’s claims about his significance “for us and our salvation,” to quote the Nicene Creed. Can we trust the Bible? A question that is really at the crux of much controversy and conflict in the world, even in the Church, today.

One of the central claims of Islam found in the Quran, for example, is that the Bible has been corrupted by Jews and Christians and can no longer be fully trusted to reveal the truth about who Jesus really is or what God is really like. Initially, it seems, this may have been understood to mean that Jews and Christians had just misinterpreted the original meaning of the Old and New Testaments. Eventually Muslim scribes and scholars would argue that the biblical texts themselves had been altered from their original message and therefore have been corrupted. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, many centuries later, would make similar claims regarding the relationship of the Book of Mormon to the Bible. The founder of The Way International, the group I was once involved with, also made similar claims, that the Bible had been misinterpreted by orthodoxy and that many passages in English translations had been intentionally corrupted by conspiratorial Trinitarian translators. He penned a little booklet called, “Forgers of the Word” where he leveled these charges. He also gave his own “translations according to biblical usage,” as he called them, that drastically altered the traditional understanding of passages like the one found in John 1 in other publications.

Many others in various forms and for a variety of reasons have made similar claims, questioning either the mainstream orthodox interpretation of the Bible, or the reliability and truthfulness of the biblical texts themselves. Some don’t doubt that the Bible says what it’s original writers intended to convey as much as they just doubt the Bible accurately reflects who Jesus really was and what God is really like, if they believe God exists at all. In some cases the doubt is only centered around certain parts of the Bible, in others the entirety of the Bible’s depiction of Jesus and God generally is suspect.

Saint Irenaeus in the second century contended with those who, apparently, initially tried to argue from scripture that Jesus was a being quite different from the one that the universal church had come to believe in, and that the God revealed in him, according to the writings that would come to be included in the New Testament, was different from the God revealed in the pages of the Old Testament. In other words, they at first, it seems, claimed that the Jesus described in the New Testament revealed a God of compassion and mercy that was different from the God of wrath and vengeance found in the Old Testament. They also denied, according to their Gnostic worldview, which discounts the value of the physical world as an illusion from which we need to be set free, that Jesus was really human. Traces of some of these ideas can be found being opposed by the apostle John in 1 John, where he warns the church to be discerning, to “test the spirits” because of the false prophets who claim that Jesus did not come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). From what Irenaeus says they at first try to make their case from scripture, but when they cannot sustain their arguments from the scriptures they resort to attacking them  to justify holding to their unbiblical beliefs.

“But when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition.” (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2.1)

This is a common pattern that comes up again and again throughout history. You see it with the rise of Islam and the claims of its prophet Muhammad; you see it in the claims of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and various other movements, religious and political, that have sprung up over the centuries to challenge the longstanding interpretations of the Bible, and/or to challenge the authenticity or the truthfulness of the claims of the Bible itself. You see it in the scholarly movement called “The Jesus Seminar,” which paints a portrait of the so-called historical Jesus that bears barely even a faint resemblance to Jesus as he is actually described in the New Testament. While the Gnostic Jesus only appeared to be human, the phantom of “The Jesus Seminar” was entirely and utterly human, but none too prophetic, at least not in the Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic sort of a sense. The same pattern can be found in contemporary “progressive Christian” movements that inevitably end up progressing beyond the Bible, at least those portions they deem distasteful.

Nevertheless, the Bible as we have it must be the measure and standard for any claims to faith in Jesus. If we are going to trust Jesus and faithfully follow him we must trust the documents in and through which he is revealed. Thus, you will find throughout the history of the Church, statements about scripture which indicate its function as a guide and rule for what is genuine Christian faith and practice.

Referring to the writings handed down from the apostles or their close associates, Irenaeus said:

“All of these handed down to us that there is one God, maker of heaven and earth, proclaimed by the law and the prophets, and one Christ the Son of God. If anyone does not agree with them he despises the companions of the Lord, he despises the Lord himself, refusing his own salvation, as all the heretics do.” (Against the Heresies 1.2)

Here Irenaeus not only holds up what would become New Testament scriptures, but, importantly, also those writings with which they were in harmony as they unveil their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, namely the law and the prophets (i.e. The Old Testament). In the conclusion of his work, “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius, the fourth century defender of the full divinity of Jesus against Arius and his associates who declared that prior to his incarnation Jesus as the Word of the Father was the first created being who then created all other things, invites his readers to prove the truth of what he had written “by the study of the scriptures”, which he declared were inspired by God. The same must still be done today by orthodox believers in the face of the claims of Arius’s modern heirs like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The articles of religion (Articles 5 & 6) and confession of faith (Article 4) for my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, express this same idea, that the scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments, which are explicitly declared to be in harmony, are to be the ultimate standard and guide for faith and practice.

Church fathers like Irenaeus and Athanasius didn’t develop this idea of testing claims by scripture on their own. They rightly discerned this rule from the Bible itself, even from Jesus himself, that is as he is revealed in the pages of the four canonical Gospels. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus birth and events surrounding it fulfilled scripture. Jesus fended off the attacks of the devil himself, who confidently, albeit wrongly, referenced scripture as one of his tactics to deceive, by quoting scripture as it was meant to be understood in its proper context (Matthew 4 & Luke 4). He also chastised religious leaders not for adhering to the law, which he himself knew to be the word of God, but for rejecting the word of God in favor of their traditions, which Jesus judged to be contrary to the original intent of the law (See Mark 7 & Matthew 15). In one confrontation with religious leaders who were judging him by their traditions, Jesus said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain they do worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8 ESV).

Unquestionably, Jesus, as he is revealed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had the highest regard for scripture, the law and the prophets. He knew them to be the very word Jesus pointing to scrollof God and he believed himself to be the one in whom they find their ultimate meaning and fulfillment. He courageously allowed his own arrest and went to the cross that the scriptures might be fulfilled (Mark 14:48-49). After his resurrection he lovingly reproved his disciples for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). Then he took them on a journey through the law, the psalms and the prophets, the whole Old Testament. This helped them to understand the scriptures so they could know him and understand who he really is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean for their salvation and for the salvation of those to whom they would be witnesses (see Luke 24 and Acts 1).

His apostles and those who would come to believe because of their testimony and preaching would continue to state the importance of testing all things by scripture. In Acts the Bereans are held up as a model for all believers in that they eagerly received the word, and also examined the scriptures daily to authenticate the preaching and teaching of Paul and Silas (Acts 17:10-11). In 1 Corinthians Paul, in defense of bodily resurrection, reminds them, with what was apparently a confessional statement handed down from the first apostles, that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection happened “in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3-4). Moreover, in his second letter to Timothy, in the context of warnings about false teaching and false teachers (2 Timothy 3:1-9), Paul encourages Timothy to continue in the scriptures (here the OT), “which,” he says, “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15). Timothy can trust scripture as a reliable and trustworthy guide and standard by which not only to test the claims of false teachers but also by which to live a godly life and to help others do likewise. Why? For “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (v. 16-17).

papyrus p66 JohnCan we trust the Bible? Jesus thought so, and so did the apostles; and they were referring to the still much maligned Old Testament! As mentioned above some will wonder whether we can trust the Bibles we have today to say what was in the original manuscripts, which are no longer in existence. With only a few significant exceptions that don’t affect any major Christian doctrines, which are usually noted and explained in newer English translations, experts who study and compare the thousands of manuscript copies assure us that we can be confident that what we have now reliably and accurately reflects the original manuscripts.

But can we be confident that the Bible accurately conveys the truth about who God is and the life and significance of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Son of God. In more personal terms should we trust the Bible with regards to Jesus’ significance “for us and our salvation,” what we should believe and how we should live. Jesus and his earliest apostles believed that to be true for the Old Testament, the law, psalms, and prophets. The early church fathers after the apostles believed that to be true of the Old Testament as well, and also for the testimony of the apostles of Jesus handed down in the documents that would eventually comprise the New Testament. Again, they believed the New Testament to be in harmony with the old, a harmony that Augustine tried to express in the dictum, “In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.” This is like the relationship between a seed and its mature fruit.

Because they believed the Bible was inspired by God, church fathers like Augustine believed the Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, to be completely truthful and trustworthy, even without error or superfluity, the later meaning the Bible doesn’t contain anything that it shouldn’t. In a letter to Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, Augustine said referring to the canonical books of scripture that he believed the authors “were completely free of error” and that of these book alone he was bound to submit to their teaching without suspicion of the slightest mistake or intent to mislead. If he found something therein that seemed to be at odds with the truth, what he would call the analogy of faith, the entirety of the harmonious teaching of all of Scripture, he would assume either a copyist’s error in the manuscripts, an unclear translation, or an error in his own understanding. Thus he trusted that the original manuscripts would have been without error. It was a matter of faith based on the best available evidence.

Church historian, J.N.D Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, 1978) says, “it goes without saying that the fathers envisaged the whole of the Bible as inspired,” which led to the view that it was also without error and that not even a “jot or title” according to Origen or a “syllable, accent, or point” according to Jerome is superfluous. In the 18th century, the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, echoed these convictions in a sermon warning about the dangers of downplaying or ignoring passages that speak against “fashionable sins” by saying the Bible is “unquestionably true” and that there is nothing superfluous in it, relating either to faith or practice” (“On Corrupting the Word of God” Sermon 136). In his preface to his explanatory notes on the Bible Wesley said:

“The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”

Its unerring truthfulness cannot be judged by any outside criteria, neither can it be perfectly explained or comprehended without running into paradoxes, which are also inescapable with other major Christian doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnation and predestination and free will. The reliability and truthfulness of the Bible can only be experienced as we seek to master it and in the process find ourselves mastered by it as it leads us to daily surrender at the foot of the cross. All of it is inspired, and therefore without defect; thus, all of it is profitable for us and our salvation; none of it is to be disregarded, certainly not discarded.

As Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself.” Without the whole thing, you won’t have the real thing, and it’s only the real thing that is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). In light of John 5:39, I don’t think John would mind me saying, these, all of the scriptures, were written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

 

 

About Me Part 2: A Wall at the Crossroads: Which Way?

Sitting on a five gallon bucket in the midst of the old rusty appliances scattered in front of the huge two bay garage that adjoined my parent’s country store, I had declared to my longtime friend, whom I had known since we played Pee Wee football together for the King Dolphins, that something told me that Christianity was true; and I was going to find out.  This knock on the door of my two bedroom apartment, which I shared with a friend whom I had meet in the seventh grade, could it be the answer I was looking for come looking for me?  Well, we’d have to answer the door to find out.

(Read Part 1 Here)

My father, Marcus Wall, (front) with friend.
My father, Marcus Wall, (front) with friend.

Actually, the first knock we heard was on the door not of my own apartment but the one beside mine.  One of my drinking buddies from the night before -really one of my best friends ever – decided to be funny.  As a well dressed middle-aged man and woman, whom he could see as he peered through my door scope, knocked on my neighbors door my friend knocked on mine from the inside as he snickered and chuckled along with me and our other friend.  I think we had all watched too much “Beavis and Butt-head” on MTV!

Soon though the snickering turned to alarm as the knocking moved directly to my door.  My friend scurried off to my bedroom like a feral cat from a back porch.  A bit embarrassed, I opened the door.

After apologizing for my buddies foolishness – I wasn’t going to take the blame – I asked, “what can I do for you?”

They explained that they were in the area with several others telling people about a wonderful class that the ministry they were affiliated with offered.  It was a class that would explain the Bible and answer life’s most important questions.  Before I could really say too much they began to ask me a few questions themselves.  One was if I knew how to be saved.  I rambled on a bit about growing up in church and trying to be a good person.  Unsatisfied by my response, the man pulled out a King James Bible and turned to Romans 10:9-10, which he insisted was all their was to it – to being saved that is.  He asked me if I believed what those two verses said.  Hesitantly I said I think I believe that.  They emphasized how easy is really is to be saved, and how so many people who go to church just don’t realize what “the Word” (the Bible) really says.

They also began to share some of the other benefits of this class they were promoting such as learning the keys to prosperity, overcoming fear, and how to pray effectually, among other things.  The conversation wasn’t all that long, and they mentioned that they really didn’t live in the area, but they said the local branch of their ministry would be offering a further explanation of the class in the near future.  They asked for my name and number so someone could followup with me about that.  Reluctantly, yet deep down, longingly, I gave them my information.

It wasn’t long before I did receive a phone call inviting me to a public explanation of the class they were talking about.  It was held in a room in the basement of the student center  at ECU.  Reluctantly, but expectantly I went.

As I entered the room, still early in the spring semester, I was greeted enthusiastically and very warmly.  Everyone seemed to be incredibly nice and cheerful.  There was a TV set up playing a band singing a brand of Christian music that I had never quite heard before; it was the band and singers from this ministry’s headquarters in Ohio.  After a brief period of introductions with a few people in the crowd of about 20, someone stood up in front to explain more about this class that so many in the room were obviously absolutely enthralled with.  Then a woman got up to share her testimony for how this class had changed her life so much for the better.  The leader then explained that there would be an opportunity to sign up for the next class that evening.

Afterwards I was approached by a laid back, very friendly gentleman in his late forties.  He explained how he had taken the class when he was a student at ECU in the 70’s and how it had changed his life as well.  I was a bit intrigued by the way he cussed a little as we talked.  I can’t say that I had ever really heard that in Christians circles before.  His demeanor was quite disarming and relaxing to someone like me prone to extreme social anxiety, especially around authority figures.  He pressed me to sign up for the class, which involved a $50.00 registration fee.  “The bottom line is that this just works”, he said.  “It really brings positive results”, he insisted.

The thought of being better able to understand the Bible led me to believe that this class just might be the answer that I was looking for; learning the keys to prosperity and success and overcoming fear sounded wonderful to the ears of that poor anxiety-ridden skinny kid who hoped he’d never have to prime another row of tobacco or load up another truck with watermelons or corn to peddle in parking lots and city streets in downtown Winston-Salem – or live in a junk yard, I suppose.

Me in the store with Daddy's blue ribbon watermelon.
Me in the store with Daddy’s blue ribbon watermelon.

Yet I was reluctant to sign the card and pay the fee.  Would my anxiety outweigh my longing to find the answers that I had declared I would find?

I hemmed and I hawed about how I was just so busy, which I was – a full course load, Air Force ROTC, and an officer in a fraternity – I didn’t know if I could squeeze in the dozen or so sessions that would be required.  The $50.00 caused me pause too, but not too much when I thought about how many hundreds of dollars of student loan money I had spent on booze – one time about $100.00 drinking beer and taking shots in the bars in downtown Greenville, a night I would never forget if I hadn’t blacked out.

By this time the leader for the ministry in Greenville had joined in the conversation.  As I proffered excuses he challenged me to believe that God would make a way for me to take this class, a principle I would learn much more about when I actually took the class.  I signed the card; I paid the fee; I took the class called “Power for Abundant Living” (PFAL) offered by a nondenominational ministry called “The Way International” (TWI).

The class was taught by the founder of TWI, Dr. Victor Paul Wierwille, who was by that time deceased.  He had his teachings recorded on video tape even while he was still alive so they could be disbursed as far and wide and as fast as possible.  From the start I was captivated by his charisma, impressed by his boldness, and delighted with what seemed to be his clear, logical teaching straight out of the Bible.  He referenced Scripture profusely such that it seemed he backed up virtually everything he taught with the Bible.  He insisted that it was not his own views or the views of any other preacher or theologian that mattered, and that what he was teaching was “the Word and nothing but the Word.”  I was hooked.

Everything just seemed to make so much sense.  I felt a deep sense of trust in the “accuracy of the Word,” the Bible.  At one point during one of the class I found myself rubbing my open Bible in awe and adoration.  I was infused with a tremendous confidence that I had never experienced before.  During that class I became a wild-eyed fanatic for the Word, at least the Word according to “The Way” (TWI).

Wierwille said something though at a later point in the class that jolted me just a bit.  It wasn’t the main point of what he was talking about, but something he just mentioned in passing as he quoted, Acts 2:22, which says in part, in the King James, which is what he was teaching from, “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God …”  Here Wierwille briefly paused and adamantly insisted that the Bible just teaches that Jesus was a man and it was wrong and just plain silly for other preachers and theologians to teach that he was God since the Bible here just plainly states that he was only “a man approved by God.”  He then quickly moved off of this tangent and back to his main topic.  Although I was slightly taken aback, I quickly gave him the benefit of the doubt because of how it had really seemed that he had substantiated everything else he had taught.

This class really did change my life, in many ways for the better.  My addiction to alcohol was broken and my desire to grow in the things of God and the word of God exploded.  I was so excited that I wanted to share what I had learned and was learning with anyone and everyone who would listen.  The PFAL class ended just before the spring semester did; shortly I would take my new found excitement and confidence back home with me, along with a big bag of dirty laundry for my mother to wash.

At first I didn’t take my completion of the PFAL class to mean that I was to become a full-fledged participant in TWI exclusively.  I very enthusiastically began to go back to my home church, Chestnut Grove United Methodist, with an eagerness that I hadn’t had since I was a very young little boy.  The sermons of our Methodist preacher seemed to pale in comparison to the teachings of Dr. Wierwille, but I did not take that to mean that I at that time needed to stop going to church and just attend TWI meetings.  As a matter of fact, early on in my summer break that year, I even had a vision while I was mowing my parent’s yard that I would go to Duke Divinity school and become a Methodist preacher after graduation from ECU.  As of yet I didn’t see the stark difference between the mainstream churches and TWI.  Pretty soon that would change.

It wasn’t long before a TWI fellowship coordinator (TWI groups meet in homes) in Winston-Salem and the one in King came to pay me a visit.  They began to fill me in on those stark differences and insisted that mainstream churches, while they had many good people, even some saved people in them, taught the “false doctrine” of the Trinity as well as encouraged spiritualism by teaching that there is conscious existence after death.  They insisted that I needed to stay away from mainstream churches and call others out as well to join with TWI.  Suddenly that passing comment Dr. Wierwille made had to come off the back burner of my mind; a wrestling match for my soul ensued.

I wanted to be right with God; I wanted to know the truth.  I listened carefully to the folks from TWI; I read Wierwille’s book “Jesus Christ is Not God”.  Wierwille’s logic, which his loyal followers had made their own, and the apparent confirmation from Scripture were compelling to my theologically ill-informed, naive 19 year old mind.  Nevertheless, I intuitively knew that I was on the precipice of making an enormous, life-altering decision.  I was getting ready to take a major plunge, either way; and I wrestled with which way I should go.  My mother was also extremely concerned, to say the least.  Even though I was more and more convinced by the arguments of TWI, I wasn’t quite ready to make that turn, to take that plunge.

I asked for a meeting with the pastor of my home church.  Little did I just how much hung in the balance and on this one conversation with my rural United Methodist pastor.

That and more later …  Stay tuned.

About Me: From the Cradle …

I was born in Winston-Salem, NC, raised in Stokes County in a little rural community called Pinnacle pert near the foot of the Sauratown Mountains.  My parents, of whom I am their only child, owned and operated a small country store on a long country road through the tobacco fields between the towns of King and Pilot Mountain.

sauratown mountain

By the time I was in kindergarten my parent’s business began to wane.  From around 1959 to 1979, my father ran a grocery/convenience store on wheels, a 50’s something model full-sized Chevrolet school bus stripped of its seats and furnished with fully stocked shelves and a cash register where the right front passenger bench used to be.  It was a light blue bus with a white top and “Wall’s Rolling Grocery” painted in red down both sides. With the addition of larger chain stores expanding into nearby towns, resulting in shrinking profit margins for my parents, the rolling grocery bus came to a final stop, but not before leaving many fond memories for countless customers, neighbors, family, and friends.

To make ends meet my dad started learning how to repair household appliances.  It wasn’t long before our store, which had our two bedroom apartment where we lived attached to the back, was surrounded by used appliances and parts, not to mention the remains of the three old buses that Dad had acquired over the years.  He made use of them by filling them with parts that he might need for his appliance repair and used appliance sales business, and whatever else he thought he might need some day.  So I grew up in an old country store in a used appliance wonderland that some might call a junk yard.

I was a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden, somewhat socially awkward kid who mumbled more than talked.  At the same time I also had a red-hot temper, honestly acquired from my father, with a generous dose of athleticism to go with my short, slender, but wiry frame.  When I wasn’t cutting wood or working in tobacco I played basketball, baseball, and football all at some point during my childhood.  I was decent at the later two, but definitely better at and more interested in hoops.  If not for my severe performance inhibiting anxiety and a streak of juvenile delinquency, I might have been able to play some college ball; nonetheless, it’s still a game that brings me much joy to this day.  I still have some skills even if not the stamina and the legs.

As an infant I was baptized in the local United Methodist church, just a mile up the road, Chestnut Grove UMC, by the pastor after whom I was named, Rev. Clifford Weller.  A couple of his grandchildren attended my elementary school, one in my class.  Early on I loved church and really sought the Lord.  Once, inspired by a “Little House on the Prairie” episode, I climbed to the top of a big hill near my house to get closer to God.  Inspired by the preaching of our evangelical Methodist preacher and Rev. Billy Graham, who I sometimes watched with my grandma Wall, who lived in the old white farm house next door, I publicly committed my life to Christ along with other confirmation students in my church when I was nine years old.

I remember struggling to really live out my faith after that, but by the time I was a teenager the struggle was gone.  Not because I had reached some kind of sinless Christian perfection, but because I had given into sin, and was really just going through the motions at church, which we attended faithfully together as a family before I went to college.

Before I finished Jr. High I had a trespassing charge on my record that could have easily been breaking and entering.  For that I got community service at the King public library.  Before I graduated from South Stokes High School I had a drinking problem that one time almost got me arrested, but instead just landed me an underage drinking charge which is on my record to this day, not to mention several other indiscretions of other varieties for which I did not get caught.  By the time I was in college the drinking got worse and the risky behavior escalated.  Only by the grace and mercy of God, did I not get killed or kill someone else, especially when I would drive when I was even too drunk to walk.  I’m also fortunate that I didn’t die of alcohol poisoning, which a few did die of during my time at East Carolina University.

During my freshman year there I did begin to experiment with drugs, and once even took a hit of acid.  That scared me enough to back away and stay away from the marijuana and other hard drugs , but my strong desire for strong drink remained, along with a small but ever increasing desire to really know God.

During this time while I was trying to find fulfillment in all the wrong things, I also was on a search of sorts for righteousness and the One from whom all blessings flow.  During deep discussions – as deep as you can get in smoke filled rooms with pyramids of empty beer cans and water bongs – when the topic of ultimate things and the purpose of life came up I found myself ineptly trying to defend the  Christian faith of my upbringing amidst harsh ridicule.

In one exchange with someone who was adamantly insisting that Christianity was just too stupid and silly for consideration, something welled up in me and I insisted that for some strange reason I believe it is true.  My friend was taken aback by the smile on my face and the gleam in my eyes as I strangely  (because I really wasn’t living for Him) spoke up for Christ.

During my time in college I did occasionally attend church, often with a hangover.  I went to several different churches, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and more.  I also attended a couple of Campus Crusade meetings.  Nothing seemed to stick, but the desire to know Truth remained and grew.

Over winter break in the midst of my sophomore year that found me drinking less and studying more – to greatly improved academic performance I might add – I was sitting on a five gallon bucket in the midst of the old appliances in front of my dad’s garage drinking beer with a long time friend who was expressing some serious skepticism regarding the Christian faith of his own upbringing.  Again something welled up within me, and I insisted that I really believed Christianity was true but I really didn’t know why.  Then and there I declared that I was going to found out.

A couple of months later, after a long night of lots of longnecks with some friends from back home, I got a knock on the door of the apartment where I lived in Greenville off of 10th street, just a few miles from the ECU campus.  It was a knock that would change the course of my life in incredible, painful, wonderful, and even miraculous ways.

More on that with the next post.  Stay tuned …