I came across an article by a woman named Carolyn Moore that puts forward “three non-negotiables for the United Methodist Church.” They are the exclusive nature of Jesus Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the global nature of the gospel. I don’t dispute any of these per se, but it seems like there’s nothing particularly Wesleyan about these three non-negotiables. They are generic non-negotiables of conservative evangelicalism. So I wanted to offer briefly what I consider the three essentials of the Wesleyan gospel which hopefully will be non-controversial to United Methodists across our theological spectrum.
1. God’s grace is our foundation
We believe that God’s grace is the greatest power in the universe. What makes the Wesleyan gospel distinct from Calvinism is that we believe that rather than predestining people to hell or heaven before the beginning of time, God is constantly reaching out to every human being in prevenient grace to try to draw all of us into relationship. My belief in prevenient grace is an enormously significant premise to the rest of my theology. If prevenient grace is true, that means that God is constantly meeting people where they are and gently nudging them toward a deeper salvation. It means moreover that God doesn’t slam the door in my face if I’ve got a few things theologically wrong. So the pressure of being perfectly correct at all times goes away. If I’m really able to live under God’s grace, then I come to view all of my accomplishments as gifts from God for which to thank him, instead of hard-won victories for which I deserve a reward. For me, the Wesleyan focus on grace has led me to an understanding of salvation as the process of our detoxification from sin rather than the heavenly handstamp of afterlife insurance I learned about in pop evangelicalism.
2. Being perfected in love is our goal
Christian perfection is the most important and often neglected teaching of Wesleyan spiritual formation. The goal of holiness is to have a heart emptied of idols and filled with love of God and neighbor. When we make “holiness” a code-word for our opinions about sexuality, we detract from the beauty that John Wesley was seeking. The tremendous error that conservative evangelicalism makes is to make Christianity a religion of the head instead of the heart. Many conservative United Methodists bemoan our doctrinal fuzziness. That’s actually a very logical byproduct of a tradition whose highest perfection is loving completely rather than speaking correctly. Doctrine certainly matters. If we throw off orthodox Christian teaching and take up some vague kind of “mindfulness” as too many progressives are doing, it will undermine our ability to connect deeply with God and be perfected in his love. But doctrine of the head is penultimate to perfection of the heart. There are too many toxic Christians today who have all the right answers in Sunday school class but treat their neighbors and family members despicably. That’s the opposite of the holiness John Wesley was promoting.
3. The means of grace are our method
Methodism has its name because it’s supposed to be a movement of methodically spiritual people. One of the greatest tragedies of our social media age is that we’ve come to identify practicing Christianity with arguing on the Internet. Or at least that’s all we see of each other. What John Wesley would have us do is focus on the works of piety and works of mercy that perfect us in love. Even in the height of the Enlightenment, Wesley recognized that spiritual formation is not a matter of intellectual knowledge acquisition. It’s not enough to read books on theology. We need lived, bodily practices that “order our steps in God’s word.” The works of piety that have blessed me include fasting, praying with prayer beads, using lines from the psalms as mantras, walking prayer labyrinths, memorizing Bible verses with my sons at dinner. I talk a big game about “social justice,” but I’m mostly failing at works of mercy right now. When we practice the means of grace, we gain intimacy with God himself rather than simply filling our heads with a bunch of knowledge about God. Being “strangely warmed” by God should not just be a phrase we use for the day we converted to Christianity; it should be an incredible gift that we seek with our spiritual practices every day.