David F. Watson –
In his influential treatise The Character of a Methodist, John Wesley describes the type of person he hopes God will create through the Methodist movement. True Christianity, according to Wesley, does not consist only of beliefs or good works, although belief and good deeds are important. He also does not equate true Christianity with religious practice, although religious practices can bring us closer to God. No, he insists, our faith has more than believing and doing. Together, this gives us what Wesley calls the “Pharisaic religion.” To be clear, the religion of the Pharisees is not a bad thing at all. That is simply not enough. Therefore, his essay is not called “Methodist Beliefs”, “Methodist Obligations” or “Methodist Religion”, but “Character of a Methodist”.
The founder of our movement taught that true faith is not just a matter of believing or doing, but of becoming. God makes us new through the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We become what God has always meant to be.
Character development. Today, what we often call “character development” involves nurturing traits that will help us succeed in life. To cite one example, when I was a teenager, I went to the Philmont Scout Ranch on a two-week trip to the mountains of New Mexico. Mile by mile, with a heavy pack on my back, I dragged a frame of fourteen, even when I was tired, hungry, and wanted nothing more than to watch MTV and eat chips. Sometimes these trips were enchanting experiences. I was immersed in the beauty of nature and the simplicity of life without all the “things” I had at home. At other times they were difficult and tiring. They tested me and forced me to work beyond what I thought I could do at that point in my young life. Through those experiences I learned and grew. Some would say I developed a “character”. In one sense, they would be absolutely right. I developed traits like perseverance, strength, maturity, and self-awareness.
However, this is not what Wesley means when he talks about character. Traits like perseverance and self-awareness, for example, could be used for evil purposes. Terrorists could show perseverance in achieving catastrophic outcomes. Fraudsters can show self-awareness to the extent that they are aware of the way other people perceive them. “Character development” must also take place through the sanctifying grace of God. The key is not just the growth of one’s own abilities, but the growth of holiness.
What is holiness? It is the work of the Spirit who shapes us in the likeness of Christ. It is love, as God shows us love in Scripture. It is a life that is more and more free from the corrupt power of sin and more and more shaped by sanctifying grace. This is more than character development. It is a development of a particularly Christian character.
It is important to emphasize that the formation of a Christian character is a work of God. Although we can develop qualities in ourselves, such as self-discipline or knowledge of a topic, we cannot make ourselves sacred by our own efforts. Sin is too powerful. Its gravitational pull is too strong. We cannot be saved from sin. Instead, we must be saved, and only God can do that.
There are practices we can engage in to call God’s work into our lives (such as prayer, worship, fasting, and the Lord’s Supper), but other than God’s work, none of these practices have any real power. We rely entirely on God the Father, who sent his Son Jesus Christ, and who remains with us by the Holy Spirit. In other words, we cannot evoke a Christian character from ourselves. It comes to us by God’s sanctifying grace.
The love of God shed abroad. In response to the question “Who is a Methodist?” then Wesley offers this summary which is set forth in more detail in the rest of the treatise:
“A Methodist is one to whom ‘the love of God is poured out in the heart, by the Holy Spirit given to him;’ he who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.’ God is the joy of his heart and the desire of his soul; who constantly cries out – ‘When I have in heaven except you, and there is no one on Earth that I want next to you! My God and my everything! You are the strength of my heart and my part forever! ”
Having a Methodist character, according to Wesley, needs to change from people who have been imprisoned in sin to people who show an overflow of love. First of all, we love God with a power that can only come from God Himself. God is our hope today and forever. It is our true and passionate desire to know him and to serve him.
God’s transforming work in our lives would be visible in a number of other ways as well. In light of the great sacrifice that Christ has made in our name and the salvation we have through him, we will have happiness, peace, and hope. This does not mean that we will never experience other kinds of emotions, such as sorrow and anger, but in the end the joy of the Lord will prevail. We can look back with joy on our past lives when we consider the ways God has delivered us from sin. Similarly, we can look with confidence to eternal life which is our inheritance as children of God.
In the same way, the life of a Methodist should also be characterized by gratitude and satisfaction. Although we can go through difficult circumstances, by the grace of God we can learn to give thanks in all circumstances. Wesley wrote, “He knows both how to be humbled and how to abound. Everywhere and in all things he is instructed, both to be full and to be hungry, to abound and suffer need. ‘Whether in ease or pain, whether in sickness or health, whether in life or death, he thanks from the heart to him who commands it for good: knowing that just as‘ every good gift comes from above ’, so no one but good can come from the Father of light, into whose hands he has completely surrendered his body and soul, as into the hands of a faithful creator. “
Furthermore, he said, a Methodist is one who prays constantly. This does not mean that we must always be in church or on our knees in prayer, nor does it mean that we always cry out to God or shape our thoughts into some conscious communication. Instead, for a person who prays constantly, it means that “his heart is always ascended to God, at all times and in all places.” In retirement, or in society, in leisure, work, or conversation his heart is always with the Lord. “Praying, therefore, without ceasing, is a way of life. One should live with a unique focus on love and service to God.
The change God makes in our hearts will also result in love of neighbor. We must love each person as our soul, whether we know them or not. This includes not only caring for their physical needs “by feeding the hungry, by dressing the naked, [and] visiting those who are sick or in prison, ”but caring for their souls as well. We should aim to “awaken those who sleep in death; to bring those who are awakened to the blood of the congregation, so that they may be ‘justified by faith’, may have ‘peace with God’, and challenge those who have peace with God, to abound more in love and good works. “
It doesn’t matter if we approve of another person’s actions or lifestyle. We must love all people, even our enemies, actively seeking their good. “For he loves his enemies,” yes, and the enemies of God, “evil and ungrateful. “” And “if it is not in his power to do good to those who hate him, yet he ceases to pray” for them, though they continue to reject his love, they still use and persecute him nonetheless. “
The transforming love of God will evoke certain virtues in our hearts. God will replace envy, malice, anger, and pride with mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, and longsuffering. The fruit of the Spirit will abound. Christians will forgive those who have done them harm. They will not look after their own interests, but the interests of others. Their greatest desire will be to please God and they will strive to live according to His commandments. Their whole life will be oriented to the glory of God. For a true Christian, the unshakable rule of life is, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, thanking God the Father through him.”
We must not allow the customs of this world to distract us from living in God, Wesley wrote. What the world values and what God values is not the same. “[V]ice does not lose its nature, although it becomes so modern. “Greed, greed, and evil speech have no place in the lives of Jesus’ followers. Instead, we should focus our thoughts on what is good and true, and we should think, speak, and act in ways that respect Christ.
Being a Methodist, for Wesley, must have been unusual. He wrote, “By these characteristics, by these fruits of living faith, we strive to be distinguished from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not in accordance with the gospel of Christ.” For Wesley, the Methodists were not the only true Christians, but to fall into nominal Christianity so common in his day meant to cease to be either a Methodist or a Christian in the true sense of the word. The Christian life is a life in which God changes our character so much that we cannot help but look different to those around us. Maybe this will again become an expectation among people called Methodists.
David F. Watson is a New Testament professor and academic dean at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the life of God (Seedbed) and editor-in-chief of the magazine Firebrand (firebrandmag.com).