Over the past week, I’ve given a sermon and taught a class on the Way of Salvation in the Wesleyan tradition. I often have this opportunity given my work as a professor of Methodist studies, but this week was different. I found myself preaching repeatedly (even in class, it seemed) about the reality of salvation here and now.
The idea that salvation isn’t something that we only experience after death isn’t new. I still remember a membership class that I took as a teenager in the Church of the Nazarene where the pastor told us that eternal life isn’t something that starts with death. Eternal life begins at the very moment of conversion. That always stuck with me. And it’s a very Wesleyan way of approaching the topic.
But Wesley’s emphasis wasn’t just on eternal life – nor was the Nazarene pastor’s presentation to be fair. Rather, salvation, or being made alive in Christ, awakened from doldrums and damnation that is life without God, is a reality that is experienced now. And now just now, but here, for you and for me.
And what that means is that we don’t have to wait until death to begin the healing of the soul. While sin is very real, the grace of God and the blood of Christ are all the more powerful. And God’s power (i.e. grace) can set us free from the entrapment of sin right now.
This is part of what I’ve started calling the charism of Methodism. Wesley often spoke about the reasons why God called the People Called Methodists into being. And often he would provide a list of three doctrines, justification by faith, the new birth, and holiness of heart and life, as the keystones of that charism. We might just use the mission statement of Methodism to sum it up, to spread scriptural holiness across the land.
In my work with the Roman Catholics in the UMC/RC dialogue I’ve learned about the various charisms of the hundreds of religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church. The Dominicans with their love of Thomas Aquinas are called to preach. The Jesuits with an ordered life of spiritual formation have taken on education. The Benedictines with their belief that we should treat everyone we meet as if they are Christ have the charism of hospitality. Each of these charisms are a gift to the larger church.
Methodism’s charism is to live out and preach the doctrine of Christian perfection in this life.
Holiness is our calling. We don’t own it, but we are called specifically to live it and to remind the church that God can and does make all things new, even now, even you, and even me.
Throughout the history of Methodism our ability to live up to our charism has been spotty. But it drove us when we were at our best, and it still does. Early Methodism was designed for the experience of the New Birth and Christian perfection, even down to its societies, classes, and bands. Later Methodists launched great missionary movements (the circuit riders fit in here) to preach full salvation now.
The resources for a revival of our charism are within our grasp. The sermons of John Wesley are easily found in many different formats. The hymns of Charles Wesley are not only found in our hymnals, but all 6000 have been published and many are available online. The work of Methodist theologians, scholars, and pastors who hold true to the Wesleyan heritage are easily accessible.
Yet in addition to reading and meeting together in small groups, what is most vital to an embrace of our charism is a full reliance on the empowering grace of God. To be a Wesleyan is to rely on God’s grace and to trust completely that God’s grace can transform even the worst of sinners.
Since the earliest day of Methodism at the beginning of annual conference, we sing a hymn of Charles Wesley, “And Are We Yet Alive.” The title isn’t a question. It’s a celebration of what God has done and will do in and through us. It reads:
And are we yet alive,
and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!
Preserved by power divine
to full salvation here,
again in Jesus’ praise we join,
and in his sight appear.
What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord
hath brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford,
and hides our life above.
Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.
Let us take up the cross
till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss
so we may Jesus gain.
The hymn is a full–throated embrace of our charism, to proclaim and to experience “full salvation here.” May we who sing these words believe them and may we full embrace our charism to spread scriptural holiness, a life that is available wherever we are, even now.
Ryan N. Danker