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God Made Me Do It (Or Did He?)

Theologians seeking to account for the way God rules the world say that He does so in two ways: through coercive power and persuasive power. In His coercive power, God causes things to happen regardless of what we do. Things like creating the world, raising Christ from the dead, sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the return of Christ all fit here. In His persuasive power, God allows things to take place but does’t determine them in advance. He works to persuade people and cooperates with His good creation, us, in how the world works. Things like giving prevenient grace that leads us to salvation all, God’s commands in Scripture to us, and even allowing suffering all fit here.*

I like what John Wesley writes in his sermon “On Divine Providence”:

“He is infinite in wisdom as well as in power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures. For his wisdom and goodness go hand in hand: They are inseparably united, and continually act in concert with Almighty power, for the real good of all his creatures.”

Wesley says that God continually governs and manages “all the affairs” of His creation in His infinite wisdom and power. This seems to speak to God acting in coercive power. If we read on, though, Wesley balances it with these statements in his next paragraphs (forgive me for the long quote but it is all worth reading):

“Only he that can do all things else cannot deny himself: He cannot counteract himself, or oppose his own work. Were it not for this, he would destroy all sin, with its attendant pain in a moment. He would abolish wickedness out of his whole creation, and suffer not trace of it remain. But in so doing he would counteract himself; he would altogether overturn his own work, and undo all that he has been doing since he created man upon the earth. For he created man in his own image: A spirit like himself; a spirit endued with understanding, with will or affections, and liberty; without which, neither his understanding nor his affections could have been of any use, neither would he have been capable either or vice or virtue. He could not be a moral agent, any more than a tree or a stone.

“If, therefore, God were thus to exert his power, there would certainly be no more vice; but it is equally certain, neither could there be any virtue in the world. Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore, (with reverence be it spoken,) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself, or undo what he has done. He cannot destroy out of the soul of man that image of himself wherein he make him: And without doing this, he cannot abolish sin and pain out of the world. But were it to be done, it would imply no wisdom at all; but barely a stroke of omnipotence. Whereas all the manifold wisdom of God (as well as all his power and goodness) is displayed in governing man as man; not as a stock or stone, but as an intelligent and free spirit, capable of choosing either good or evil. Herein appears the depth of the wisdom of God, in his adorable providence; in governing men, so as not to destroy either their understanding, will, or liberty.”

Wesley basically says that God governs humanity in the way He made them, allowing them to exert free will, and in doing so shows His wisdom. God governs us as people who have free wills, not as any other part of His creation.

What does this have to do with being a small group leader?

As small group leaders, we cannot force anyone to submit to God’s authority for their lives and make Him transform them, but we can point them to the God who has the power to do it. We can be persuasive with our lives and words.

As we lead discussions, we can help people notice the ways God has been at work in their lives. We can be careful not to attribute things to God that really were the fault of human decisions. And we can take responsibility for the times we have not responded to God’s persuasive grace.

*I am drawing from an article by Dr. Chris Bounds called Divine Leadership in the World written for Wesley Seminary. 

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Ordo Salutis: Holiness

The distinctive mark of John Wesley’s theology has always been his theology of holiness. Wesley spoke of “Christian perfection.” By this he did not mean sinlessness or that we would be made perfect in this life. The adjective “Christian” modifies the meaning of “perfection.” Let’s first define what holiness is not:

  1. Holiness is not absolute perfection. The Christian is still tempted, still able to sin. It is not as if we are exalted to a state of absolute judgment or knowledge or performance.
  2. Holiness is not superiority. He or she is not a super Christian, as if holiness is only for the select few pastors and missionaries.
  3. Holiness is not immunity from life’s problems. We will never reach a point where we are exempt from suffering or from Satan’s tempting.
  4. Holiness is not a static (non-moving) experience. Wesley taught that a person could be made holy in an instant, like conversion, but this instant is never separated from one’s entire walk with God. It is part of the process, not the end goal of the process.

Steve Harper, commenting on Wesley’s theology, says holiness is singleness of intention. This is in contrast to what Dallas Willard mentioned about duplicity of the heart. We are no longer duplicitous and deceitful but only will and desire what God wills and desires. This emphasizes that being is just as important as doing. Our primary intention is to love God with all our heart and to love others.

Harper is helpful in an illustration as to how this can be called perfect love while still leaving room for sin:

“When each of my children were small, they had the bright idea to bring Mommy some flowers. Never mind that they plucked the flowers from the bed Mommy had worked hard to cultivate. Never mind that they may have even taken flowers from the neighbor’s bed! Their one desire was to please Mommy and to show their love for her” (The Way to Heaven, p. 84).

He then goes on to say how his wife did not reject their gift but gladly accepted it and put the flowers in a vase. We cannot hope to match God in actions but we can hope to match Him in intentions. Our controlling desire can be God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Perfect love, however, starts with the heart and motives and our actions begin to line up with them.

Second, holiness is power over sin. Wesley did not believe there was ever a time when a person had to sin. God’s grace is always greater than the lure of temptation. And if you think about it, this is really matching one’s singleness of intent to action. When given the choice of sinning or loving, we can choose to love each time. This doesn’t come automatically–note how we’re talking about holiness toward the end of the ordo salutis–but with God’s grace and our practice.

Third, holiness is radical dependence on Christ. This is the idea in John 15, where Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Apart from him we can do nothing. I find this facet of holiness the most intriguing and most emphasized in contemporary holiness circles today. We use phrases like “fully devoted disciples” or “wholly surrendered to Christ.” The surrender, both instantaneous and ongoing, becomes the focal point, but we soon lose sight of God giving us power over sin. We get tired of ongoing surrender, wondering if our hearts and hands will ever synchronize. If holiness is radical dependence on Christ, then the act of surrender ought not be the focal point, but the One we surrender to ought.

Fourth, holiness is equipment for ministry. We are set apart for service to God. Holiness is always a social experience: it always fleshes itself out in love for others expressed in service with other Christians. There is a reason why Harper listed this last, and why I agree with the order. Namely, it is dangerous to skip straight to empowerment for ministry because that tends to be an easy disguise for any number of intentions that are unholy. We serve out of who we are; we serve out of the Spirit’s power; and we are eager to serve because in service we can display Christ’s love.

Ordo Salutis: The Means of Grace

Adding a section on the means of grace is really related to things like the spiritual disciplines and other catalysts God uses to grow our faith. It is speaking of those things we can consistently count on God to use in our lives to give more of His grace to us, whether we are aware of it or not. The “means of grace” is very much a Wesleyan phrase that John Wesley used to describe one of the ways God works in us.

Wesley writes, “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16). He later lists in the same sermon that the “chief” means of grace are prayer—corporate or personal, searching the Scriptures, and eating the Lord’s Supper. God has chosen certain avenues and activities by which he gives grace. Many of these are the spiritual disciplines that we have talked about earlier.

Wesley also wrote in this sermon several clarifying statements as to what is meant by the means of grace.

  1. The means of grace must be tied to the end, or goal, of Christianity. If they are not part of loving God, they keep Christianity out of the heart rather than bring it in.
  2. If they are separate from the Holy Spirit, they cannot profit us. There is no inherent power in the means of grace, but only by the Holy Spirit at work in them do they profit us.
  3. The means of grace cannot atone for sin. Only the blood of Christ can offer forgiveness for sin.
  4. A large number of Christians abuse the means of grace to the destruction of their souls. They believe there is merit in them that will cause God to favor them even though this is not how God gives us His favor.

The means of grace can also be called sacramental, because the sacraments–communion and baptism–are also outward signs of an inward grace. So we might say that prayer is sacramental. We might say marriage is sacramental or that raising children is sacramental. It is not that they are sacraments, but that God uses these relationships as a way to change us.

Ordo Salutis: Progressive Sanctification

Mildred Wynkoop wrote, “What one believes about human nature and God’s grace will have a direct bearing on the kind of Christian life one experiences” (qtd. in Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 65). I think we’re finding that out already in our study of how God changes us. Knowing the way God desires to work in us, and believing He will, has great bearing on our further growth in Christ.

The Wesleyan doctrine of progressive sanctification basically says that as we are Christians, we continue to receive more of God’s grace, enabling us to grow. Thomas Oden writes, “During the entire time that sanctifying grace is continuing to work—throughout life—the believer is daily called upon to confess, repent, and pray for forgiveness. The new birth begins a life that grows in responsiveness to unmerited grace and presses on in the way of holiness” (Classic Christianity, 657).

This is an important topic–we grow in grace. Normally, when we talk about spiritual growth, believers assume we mean taking another class to grow in knowledge. And yet knowledge is only part of the equation, and knowledge without grace means nothing. Now is probably a good time to explain grace a bit.

Grace has to do with at least two things:

  1. God’s unmerited favor given to us as a gift. This is the grace we speak of at conversion/salvation.
  2. God’s power enabling us to live the Christian life. This is the grace we speak of afterward.

John Wesley taught that we grow in grace out of a sense of assurance. Romans 8:16-17 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (TNIV). Assurance is possible that we are indeed God’s children, saved for a glorious inheritance. Satan would try to make us doubt and fear God’s love for us and our standing with Him. Assurance is not a rest-on-your-laurels kind of thing, as if God’s assurance means we sit back and wait for heaven one day. For John Wesley, assurance only dealt with one’s present relationship; it was not a guarantee for the future. Only continued obedience and faithfulness could take care of the future. Assurance says, “How amazing is my Savior, Jesus!” He has made His home in me and He intends to stay.

Progressive sanctification really is simply what we’ve been talking about all along–renewal of the mind and of the heart/will, changing our narratives, etc. And it encompasses things we’ll talk about in future posts. The point of understanding that what we’re experiencing now is “progressive sanctification” is that we understand that all of our work to partner with God in response to His grace is both a necessary and natural step for us to take. To take a class and gain knowledge is necessary and natural. To read blog posts is nice. To surrender your will to God is necessary and natural, and only enabled by grace. And so on and so on.

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