A HOPEFUL OUTLOOK FOR METHODISM
by Daniel Steele (1896)
I AM not a pessimist nor a friend of pessimism; I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet; yet something like the burden of a prophet is laid upon me, constraining me to cry aloud to the Church of my father and mother -- the Church in which I had my first and my second birth -- the Church which nurtured me in her schools, and commissioned me to preach in her pulpits and to teach in her universities -- a Church to which I owe a debt too large for me to pay. It is exceedingly painful to note in this Church the first and the second indication of spiritual decay. The first has long grieved me; it is the neglect of those vital truths which nourish a stalwart spiritual life. The silence of the pulpit these many years respecting the full heritage of the believer, which is nothing less than is expressed in the words of Dr. McClintock, "The holiness of the human soul, heart, mind, and will," has been broken at last by the voice of a son of the Church in the open and loud repudiation of that doctrine which is "the inmost essence" and "elemental thought" of Methodism. This is the second token of spiritual decay, the second milestone on the downward road to spiritual death. The fact that this voice sounds out through the very trumpet which was made for the heralding of the glorious evangel of Christian perfection greatly aggravates my sorrow. [This is a reference to a book written by James Mudge.
-- ed.] Yet I am not surprised. The Church that incorporates in itself so large a segment of worldliness will sooner or later reject every doctrine hostile to a love of the world. "Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God."
But, there is an alternative outlook -- a hopeful outlook -- before American Methodism. The prayer of Dr. McClintock for the continuance of our spiritual triumph another century, through our faithfulness to the "very elemental thought" of Methodism, may be answered. The Head of the Church militant has a great work for Methodism in the generations to come in his conquest of the world. The extent of this work will be measured not alone by our millions of members, their social standing, wealth, and intellectual culture, but by their loyalty to Christ awakening and increasing a spiritual life strong enough to withstand the rising tides of worldliness threatening to submerge the Church.
Since everything depends on the vigor of the spiritual life, how may this be promoted? We answer:
-1. FAITHFUL PREACHING.
By the use of the same weapon by which our first conquests were made, by the earnest preaching of truths which awaken spiritual life in dead souls. There must be a proclamation of the alarming truths of the Gospel, the nature and punishment of sin. Retribution must be preached as Christ the model preacher proclaimed it. We cannot err if we employ, in a tender and sympathetic spirit, the same emblems without exaggeration that he employed. He knows what mighty motives men in all ages need to induce them to repent and believe on him. The human race will never outgrow the necessity of using the Gospel imagery of retribution.
The most intellectual generations of men will need the same truths presented in the same figurative language as was preached by Jesus Christ to a less enlightened age. There is nothing temporary in the Gospel to be laid aside when men have attained a higher degree of enlightenment. The heavenly maiden, Truth, will neither be outgrown, nor will the metaphors and the parables, the robes in which she is arrayed, ever be out of fashion. In these days when we have voluminous and almost encyclopedic treatises on Homiletics, our younger preachers may overlook the brief disciplinary statement of the best method of preaching: "1. To convince; 2. To offer to Christ; 3. To invite; 4. To build up. And to do this in some measure in every sermon." Those who keep these rules in mind will find them helpful in resisting the temptation to subordinate the pulpit to such selfish ends as the display of literary culture, classical erudition, or oratorical abilities. In the last analysis self and Christ are the only themes of preaching. Self is so subtle that it may unconsciously become the real, while Christ is the ostensible theme. Worldly men dislike the alarming truths of the Gospel. Preachers who court the favor of such hearers are tempted to smooth the tongue, and to preach a soft and easy way of salvation. It requires Pauline courage to declare the whole counsel of God, keeping back nothing that is profitable, however unpalatable to lovers of worldly pleasure and enemies to God.
Under such preaching sinners will be awakened, and will ask the all-important question,"What must I do to be saved?" The answer is as important as the question, for destiny hinges on receiving a right or wrong answer and acting in accordance with it. Before directing him to believe on Christ as both Saviour and Lord be quite sure that he is truly penitent and is disposed to take sides with God against his sins, from which he must now turn away forever. Genuine faith is possible only where sincere repentance exists. But real repentance is a cup so bitter that many partially awakened sinners are strongly inclined to find some substitute. Just at this critical point there is a danger which Wesley and the first generation of Methodist preachers avoided -- the danger, in revivals of religion, of exalting unduly acts of the awakened which fall short of the scriptural conditions of salvation. They had no altar service, nor anxious seat, nor card-signing. It is customary now in many cases to place slight emphasis on repentance, and restitution where it is possible, and to urge to acts which may be easily done, without repenting of sins as dear as the right hand or the right eye. It is easier to go forward to an altar as a seeker than to cut off that right hand sin. Says Professor Austin Phelps: "The fact is a very significant one that impenitent men are never exhorted in the Scriptures to anything preliminary to repentance. But one thing is the center of all biblical appeal to the ungodly -- that is, repentance and faith, a complex yet a single act."
What, therefore, is it advisable to do? Shall we abandon the modern practice of applying to congregations the customary tests of a desire to begin a Christian life? By no means. But they should be kept in the background as secondary, and not be thrust into prominence, tempting the half-awakened impenitent to substitute for the abandonment of his sins some act not essential to salvation. Let the alarming, searching, convicting truths of the Gospel be copiously poured out, day after day, before any such test is applied.
Let this matter be handled cautiously, so as to guard men as much as possible against deceptive substitutions followed by spurious professions of faith in Christ. Coming to an altar or "anxious seat" should be permitted to the truly penitent as a privilege, a mode of confessing repentance toward God, rather than held up to the impenitent as the chief duty to be done. Canvassing the assembly by persons exhorting individuals to immediate submission to God's command to repent, if done in a prayerful, tender, and gentle spirit, can never result in any harm. This is far different from urging unwilling and impenitent men to a step in no way decisive of salvation, and succeeding by dint of importunity at the button-hole, if not at the coat collar. The earlier Methodist style of preaching was to storm the castle of impenitence till the inmates of their own accord ran up the white flag of unconditional surrender. I should like to see a return to this style of spiritual warfare all through our churches and religious encampments, and to note the results.
-2. SAVING FAITH.
Let there be a universal return to the Wesleyan definition of saving faith on the part of a soul truly penitent and submissive to God. It is the laying hold of his Son as able and willing to save now without the seeker's doing or suffering anything more. The Holy Scriptures are the ground of this faith, the Old Testament being the prophetic record and the New Testament the historic record of this wonderful Saviour. In this attitude of assent to Christian truth and consent to Christ's enthronement over the heart, and of reliance on him alone to save, let the penitent seeker continue to seek till he has notification direct from God of his adoption into his family. Let this be the advice given at all our altars: Through faith in our Lord Jesus seek to be saved till you know that you are saved.
Largely through the influence of a school of evangelists whose theology is Calvinistic, whose view of the atonement is that it is an unconditional substitute in punishment for the sins of the elect, instead of a conditional substitute for the punishment of the sins of all mankind, misleading and pernicious advice is given at some of our altars. I do not know by what better name to call it than the syllogistic inference, thus: "The Bible says that he who believes on Christ is saved. Do you thus believe? If you do, you are saved on the testimony of the word. No other testimony is required." The great errors involved in this are: (1) That the seeker, and not God, is the sole judge of the saving efficacy of his faith; (2) that faith is its own evidence; and (3) not the results of faith, assurance of forgiveness by the Holy Spirit and consciousness of the new birth.
Now it may be that saving faith is exercised while going through this syllogism. But the outcome will probably be a state of great doubt and perplexity, a hope without experience, its proper basis, and a profession of salvation without its possession. This style of reasoning will do for that Calvinist who imagines that he by some means has gotten a glimpse of "the secret register of the elect, hidden in the bosom of God," and has seen his name written therein. But for the rest of mankind there is no repose of soul, no present comfort, no hope for the future in this groundless inference. It is groundless, because the word, written many centuries ago, cannot contain the assurance of my personal pardon, nor can it be inferred from the fact of the atonement, which is only the provision for my conditional pardon. The two theories may be thus illustrated: I. A prisoner in his cell desiring pardon is given a copy of the Revised Statutes, which describes how pardon may be obtained. After months of wearisome research he finds not his personal pardon, and is in deep despair. 2. By the other system, he petitions the governor till there comes from the executive chamber a special messenger bearing his personal pardon, signed and sealed. Now he mounts up to the highest joy.
This brings us to our next doctrinal peculiarity, and the secret of our evangelistic power:
-3. DIRECT WITNESS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
Dr. Abel Stevens deems this to be the distinctive doctrine of Methodism, the immediate contact of the human spirit with the Holy Spirit, by the touch of faith, awakening to spiritual life, giving assurance of pardon, and impressing a sense of the reality of God and of spiritual things. By the Spirit it pleased God to reveal his Son in Saul of Tarsus to qualify him to preach the faith he once destroyed. By the Spirit dwelling in the consciousness of Peter he was made bold to charge upon the Jewish officials the murder of their Messiah King. On the day of Pentecost there came a Person capable of entering into the inner sanctuary of every believing soul and pouring out the unspeakable riches of his grace, making them all kings and priests: kings because they may henceforth supremely rule self, the most difficult kingdom; and priests, because they now have direct and continual access unto God, the prerogative of the high priest only on only one day of the year. The dispensation of the Spirit transcends in glory all preceding eras, not excepting that of the incarnation of the Son of God. Jesus implies this when he asserts that it is expedient for him to go away in order that the Paraclete may come. He has come to stay till the end of the world. One of his chief offices is to cry in every believer's heart, "Abba, Father." This was the characteristic of conversions in the day of primitive Christianity and in the day of primitive Wesleyanism. It is the characteristic of modern Methodism wherever the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit is clearly preached and generally believed. Conversions take their type from the faith of the people, and this in turn takes its stamp from the utterances of the pulpit. The instrument used by the Spirit is the truth relating to Jesus Christ as the atoning Saviour. Where this is lacking the Spirit cannot impart life to dead souls. Where the truth is diluted with human philosophy weaklings may be born into the kingdom. Uncertainty in the pulpit will produce hazy conversions, if it produce any at all. Positive, clear, constant, and sharply defined presentations of revealed truth by a man in deep sympathy with him who is the impersonation of truth, will, by an invariable spiritual law, be followed by clear-cut conversions, because the Spirit now has the use of a perfect instrument. "The sword of the Spirit is the word of God:"
Wesley testifies that ninety-nine out of every hundred converted under his preaching and that of his "assistants" could tell the time and place of their entrance upon the new life. The prominence given to the person and offices of the Spirit, especially his testimony to adoption, had laid down in the hearts of Wesley's hearers a basis of faith in God for an instantaneous and assured translation out of darkness into light of every penitent believer in Jesus Christ. The decline of this doctrine is invariably attended by dubious conversions and spiritual weakness and waning joy. Let the theme of the Holy Spirit be fully restored to all our pulpits, and let him be enthroned in all our churches, and cry in all our hearts, "Abba Father," and the complaint of spiritual poverty, "0 my leanness, my leanness!" will be no longer heard. The doctrine of the direct witness of the Spirit to adoption, indisputably scriptural, was revived by Wesley and made fundamental to the spiritual life in his preaching. So far as our observation extends the advocacy and dissemination of this doctrine is still the mission of Methodism. It is rarely heard in other pulpits. In non-Methodist writers of books on the Holy Spirit it is not advocated as the privilege of all believers. This assertion is verified by an examination of all the literature of this theme written during the last hundred years. Hence our belief that Methodism has been set for the defense of this vital doctrine. The spirituality of the whole of Protestant Christianity depends on our faithfulness to our trust. A revival of this doctrine in all our pulpits would awaken no doctrinal controversy, for universal Methodism has never had any theoretical differences in respect to this subject. It would tend to tone up the spiritual members, to reclaim the backslidden, and to awaken the nominal, who never were regenerated. It would be the best possible preparation for the restoration of another vital doctrine which can be successfully preached only to the truly spiritual members who are aspiring to the higher altitudes of Christian experience.
Vital to the future success of Methodism is the answer to the question: What shall be the qualification for membership in our Church? Will it be safe to receive those who have sustained a good moral character during the term of probation, but have no testimony to Christ's saving power, and no evidence of a change of heart? Will it not crowd the Church with baptized lovers of worldly pleasure rather than lovers of God? Will not they be brought into an unfortunate relation to saving truth when they have Church membership as a shield against appeals to repent and be converted?
These are very serious questions. I would not make a cast-iron rule which would exclude all who cannot testify to the witness of the Spirit. But this should be the aim of the pastor, to bring all up to this point, a knowledge of sins forgiven by direct or inferential evidence. Let the instruction of probationers emphasize this doctrine of the direct and the indirect witness of the Spirit. In cases of doubt let the term of probation be extended till there is good evidence of the new birth.
-4. THE REINSTATEMENT OF CHRISTIAN PERFECTION IN THE PULPIT.
This implies that this theme of discourse has become nearly obsolete. For this there are several causes. Some preachers think they are not called to preach beyond their own experience. Many of the laity think it an impeachment of their present spiritual attainments to be urged to ascend to loftier heights. Some have fallen into self-indulgences which heart purity would require them to put away. Others who are at case in Zion dislike to be aroused to activity. Some are swayed by prejudice; for we live in an age in which "holiness" is a term of reproach because of an occasional faulty professor, and for other reasons, especially a repugnance to its requirements. In addition to this is the necessity of addressing an unsorted assembly in such a manner as to edify as many as possible, young and old, saint and sinner. This seems to require the omission of a theme interesting to only a very few Christians who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and the presentation very often of evidential, elemental, and ethical truths, milk instead of strong meat. Says Joseph Parker: "Perhaps there is some excuse for the preacher, seeing that he is conventionally compelled to address all classes in a common speech, instead of being permitted to address each class in its own language, and according to its own degree of spiritual enlightenment." This difficulty may be obviated by occasional addresses on advanced spiritual themes; by a few words of this kind in many sermons; also by introducing this subject in the social meetings and pastoral visitations in the homes of the members. Thus the way may be opened for proclaiming "the whole counsel of God."
This suggests that every church should be like a university, with instruction suited to every grade of believers. Where the pastor cannot instruct all these classes, he can provide competent instruction for the highest grade. A group of churches in a city could easily maintain a believers' meeting led by some pastor or person appointed by the pastors concerned, and meeting in one of the churches. Thus hungry souls would be fed within the fold without being compelled to incipient schism by hiring a hall in which to learn the highest possibilities of grace, while all the churches near by are unused. There is neither good sense nor good statesmanship in a management which thrusts from beneath the watchcare of the pastor souls earnestly inquiring for their full heritage in Christ.
If our young converts, the fruit of our revivals, were by proper instruction, oral and by tracts and books, urged to seek a still greater experience, even that perfect love which casteth out all fear, a much larger part of them would be saved to the Church, and be developed into efficient workers and strong burden bearers. There is just as much propriety in arranging for the instruction of advanced believers as there is in providing competent professors for senior classes in college. Away, then, with the unreasonable prejudice against the Pentecostal assembly, or the meeting for Christian Perfection.
The pastor who withholds sympathy from the little company who seek the full heritage in Christ is as unwise as a general at the front who looks with distrust upon a certain loyal regiment and withdraws from it his guidance because the soldiers speak a slightly different language from the rest of the army.
Again, pastors should either feed all their flock or should appoint those who will give them wholesome supplies of food. Sheep left to browse about the highways may eat poison and die. Sheep of the fold of Christ should not be left to care for themselves, to be led astray by ignorant or designing guides. If a preacher is experimentally incompetent to preach truths relating to advanced Christian experience, he can secure some one in whom he has confidence to supply his lack of service, and not by his neglect tempt the hungry souls to listen to instructors of doubtful competency, who may lead them far astray from Christ and his Church.
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