Following Jesus: The Wesleyan Tradition

“If Lutheranism is the parent of Pietism,” I began my response this month in the Following Jesus conversation, “then surely the Wesleyan Tradition is the closest cousin to my own.” Started by English Protestants who had been profoundly shaped by their encounters with Pietism, Methodism and the other Christian movements that originated with John Wesley are represented in our conversation by Sarah Lancaster, professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, one of the thirteen seminaries sponsored by the United Methodist Church.

In a winsome essay that felt very familiar to me — despite my own lack of experience of UMC churches, Lancaster focused on “the idea of scriptural holiness at the heart of the Wesleyan tradition,” which takes both personal and social forms — and varies with the variants of Wesleyanism — but ultimately comes down to “a common conviction that God empowers us to live in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may work with God in God’s intention to restore the world to what God created us to be.”

April’s Tradition: “Holiness of Heart and Life

“John Wesley’s understanding of holiness can only be understood against the background of his understanding of human nature. For Wesley, Adam was created in the moral image of God, with love filling his soul and directing his actions. Adam had full liberty to remain in this state or to lose it. While he remained in the state God intended, he was happy. Adam’s state changed, though, and with the fall, the nature God had given to Adam was marred, opening him to be ruled by other affections besides love (for instance fear and anger), and crippling the love he was made for. The “one thing needful” for human beings is for Christ to renew our fallen nature, to restore us to wholeness so that we may again love God above all else and love everything else as God loves it. This renewal in holiness brings with it the happiness for which we were made….

“Some of Wesley’s complex theology has been stressed differently in different churches. I think it would be commonly held that holiness is love but expressing love may take different forms. Some will seek holiness through counter-cultural behaviors, others will recognize it in struggle against oppression, others look for a powerful internal experience of God. This means that people in the same tradition may commit themselves to following Jesus somewhat differently—for instance in abstaining from alcohol, in protesting injustice, in seeking emotional experiences of God in prayer and worship.”

My Response: “‘Oh, now I understand…‘”

“When it comes to Methodism itself, I’m almost shocked how little I know of it…. But apart from that hesitation [about John Wesley’s notion of Christian perfection], I came to the end of Lancaster’s winsome essay and felt almost like I could say, with her other students, ‘Oh, now I understand why I am a Methodist’ — the overlap with Pietism is that close.”

“The hymnal of my pietistic home denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, features sixteen hymns by Charles Wesley, including ‘O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,’ which opened the Maundy Thursday service last night at our neighborhood Lutheran church. Describing a Jesus whose name is ‘music in the sinner’s ears,’ bringing ‘life and health and peace,’ and who has the power to ‘[set] the pris’ner’ free,’ that hymn came to my mind as I read Lancaster describe sanctification as ‘growing in holiness-understood as perfect love,’ both personal and social.”

Additional Responses

“Young Joseph Smith described his religious leanings as follows: ‘In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was. . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.’ Interestingly, in 1831, twenty-five year old Joseph Smith stated that ‘until we have perfect love we are liable to fall, and, when we have a testimony that our names are sealed in the Lamb’s book of life, we have perfect love, and then it is impossible for false Christs to deceive us.’ Perhaps some of the Methodist teachings were still a part of his religious thinking and understanding.”

– Robert Millet, “The Quest for Holiness” (Latter-day Saints Tradition)

“…Lutherans are open to sometimes urging the despairing to strive for more holiness. You could validly preach that sometimes in a Lutheran congregation under our full communion agreement. But if invited to your congregation, pledged to preach and teach in a manner that does not violate Methodist teaching and if advised in advance of my visit that you had a number of members struggling and uncertain in their faith, would I be legitimately able to proclaim a Word of freedom from the Law and the spontaneity of good works, as I have been advocating in our sessions? Is it possible for Methodists to deem this Lutheran theme a legitimate Christian alternative? If so, Methodists and Lutherans can indeed unequivocally follow Jesus together.”

– Mark Ellingsen, “How Do You Best Love Those Who Don’t Fulfill Expectations?” (The Lutheran Tradition)

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