“The best of all is — God is with us.” John Wesley (March 2nd 1791)
Introduction: This webpage aims to explain what is special or different about Christians who call themselves Methodists. The title should make it clear that Methodists do not have different beliefs from all ‘mainline’ denominations, but we emphasise some aspects, whilst other denominations emphasise others. [Note: Unless stated otherwise, quotations from the Bible on this webpage are from the New International Version (NIV)]
METHODIST EMPHASES Methodism is well aware of the importance of personal religious experience. The Methodist Church owed its origin, under God, to the profound change which came in the religious experience of John and Charles Wesley in May 1738. Religious experience is personal, but it is also shared. (i) It is a fact of life – it comes from God and points to him. (ii) Through their experience Christians know that their redemption is the work of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:1-10). 2:1:As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2:in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3:All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4:But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5:made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. 6:And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7:in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8:For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – 9:not by works, so that no-one can boast. 10:For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Here is the same passage from the Bible but personalised. Try reading it aloud: As for me, I was dead in my transgressions and sins, in which I used to live when I followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. I also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of my sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, I was by nature an object of wrath. But because of his great love for me, God, who is rich in mercy, made me alive with Christ even when I was dead in transgressions – it is by grace I have been saved. And God raised me up with Christ and seated me with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to me in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace I have been saved, through faith – and this not from myself, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that I cannot boast. For I am God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for me to do.
(iii) Through their experience, Christians receive assurance that they have been forgiven and are children of God (Romans 8:12-17, emphasising verse 16). 12:Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13:For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14:because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15:For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16:The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17: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.
(iv) The Christian’s experience is shared by men and women of all races. God’s love is given to all and the Christian is committed to offer Christ and his love to all people. Methodism has particular emphases, which together constitute a unique witness:
All need to be saved. All can be saved. All can know they are saved. All can be saved completely.
I. THE UNIVERSALITY OF SALVATION “Grace is the undeserved love of God to all”. God offers his saving grace to ALL. He wills ALL to be saved and Christ died for ALL. However, God leaves us freedom of choice to accept or reject his offer.
II. ASSURANCE Assurance is the certain knowledge that we are saved. ‘How do we know that we are saved? >By the sure Word of God … >by the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit in our hearts … >by the fruits of the Spirit in our lives … … we know that we are saved’ (Romans 8:16 again: The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children). This assurance is not essential to salvation, but is a privilege often given to Christians.
III CHRISTIAN PERFECTION/ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION/ SCRIPTURAL HOLINESS/PERFECT LOVE ‘We are entirely sanctified when the Holy Spirit fulfils his work in our lives and we love God and our neighbours perfectly.’ Sanctification begins when we are justified (acquitted, put in the right) and born again, but it continues afterwards. Sanctification is the gradual removal of inward sin. When it is all removed then nothing remains but the pure love of God and our neighbour. Hebrews 12: 14: 14:Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no-one will see the Lord.
Some of the versions use the word “holy” and/or “holiness” in this verse. What is your definition of “holy”? Do ordinary English dictionaries agree with Bible dictionaries about the meaning of the word “holy”? Some people say entire sanctification is conferred at death, but Wesley said it could be conferred BEFORE death. There are qualifications/conditions, however. The perfect person is dependent upon Christ. If they lose their faith, they will lose their perfection. Sins will still occur and forgiveness must be sought, so the Christian must constantly strive towards perfection. Philippians 3:14: 14:I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
IV FELLOWSHIP (i) Fellowship with God: 1 Corinthians 1:9: “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord …” [Also: 1 Corinthians 10:16: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 2 Corinthians 13:14: May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Philippians 2:1: If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, Philippians 3:10: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, ]
We are in Christ and Christ is in us. (ii) Fellowship with each other. We enjoy fellowship together. This has always been a strong Methodist emphasis:
Our regulations declare: ‘The Weekly Class Meeting has from the beginning proved to be the most effective means of maintaining among Methodists true fellowship in Christian experience.’ And: ‘All Members of the Methodist Church shall have their names entered on a Class Book, shall be placed under the pastoral care of a Class Leader or Pastoral Visitor, and shall receive an annual ticket of membership.’ Few churches have a weekly Class Meeting, but a good many have weekly or fortnightly House Fellowship Groups. Our members quite rightly have commitments outside the Church. Time is limited and homes are comfortable and so house groups have developed. Do you personally feel that you would benefit from belonging to a fellowship group which meets weekly in the members’ houses or would a group meeting at the church buildings be better for you?
Weekly fellowship groups are particularly valuable in three ways: 1. They afford opportunities for Bible Study, learning our doctrines, freely discussing problems and sharing insights. 2. They enable members to share their inmost feelings with each other in the conditions of complete trust and love that the group has created. It means listening and feeling rather than teaching or just sympathizing. 3. However valuable learning and empathy are, more valuable is the opportunity to share in prayer, meditation and devotion, particularly under experienced leadership. Such groups are very flexible, providing in different ways for teenagers, young adults, parents, the middle-aged and elderly, Sunday School teachers, local preachers, etc., or some of these mixed together. A group may have a regular Bible study, follow a recently published book or study a series of questions or problems. The other fellowship meetings in our Church and others include Uniformed Organisations, Women’s Fellowship meetings, Youth Clubs, Men’s Breakfasts, Senior Citizens Clubs and Clubs for many sorts of special interests such as music, drama and other activities. These may seem, and are, less important than Worship and House Groups, but they are typical and important parts of our Christian fellowship together, and often draw newcomers into the deeper fellowship whilst enabling even the most committed members to know and enjoy each other better.
What ideas do you have for groups which we could start in our church for fellowship with each other?
V. EVANGELISM The Church could be said to be created by God for the purpose of helping its members, but also to further the purposes of God in the world. So the local congregation is a group of people who worship and learn together in fellowship about Christ, but it is also a community meant to witness to God and his truth in ordinary everyday life. Church membership is both a privilege and a responsibility. The Church exists both to nurture Christians and also to bring new Christians into being; into fellowship and into the Church. The Church is the object of God’s redeeming love and is also the means by which that love is proclaimed to the world. If this missionary duty is forgotten a church stagnates. ‘The purpose of the Church’s existence is that it should be both a saved and a saving community.’ Methodism began as an evangelical movement to preach the Gospel to anyone who would hear and this is still true today. Methodists are committed to try to find ways of reaching people outside the Church. This also involves a social commitment and responsibility.
VI. THE COVENANT SERVICE John Wesley, on 25th December 1747 and on many other occasions, strongly urged the Methodist people to renew their Covenant with God. He held his first formal Covenant Service in August 1755 and he wrote in his Journal: “Wed. 6. (Aug) – I mentioned to the congregation another means of increasing serious religion, which had been frequently practised by our forefathers and attended with eminent blessing, namely, the joining in a covenant to serve God with all our heart and with all our soul. I explained this for several mornings following, and on Friday many of us kept a fast unto the Lord, beseeching Him to give us wisdom and strength to promise unto the Lord our God and keep it. Mon. 11. (Aug) – I explained once more the nature of such an engagement, and the manner of doing it acceptably to God. At six in the evening we met for that purpose at the French church in Spitalfields. After I had recited the tenor of the covenant proposed, in the words of that blessed man, Richard Alleine, all the people stood up, in testimony of assent, to the number of about eighteen hundred persons. Such a night I scarce ever saw before. Surely the fruit of it shall remain for ever.” Journal Vol. 4 p.126
John Wesley instituted a special Covenant Service to be held annually – usually, though not always, on the first Sunday of the new year. In that service, after prayers of adoration, thanksgiving and confession, we are invited to renew our covenant, to declare once more that we are servants of Christ and that we depend on his grace and strength to do what he has for us to do. The actual words of the Covenant provide one of the simplest yet most challenging statements of what it means to be a Christian. (see also The Methodist Service Book page Dl)
Questions/Discussion 1. Discuss the “Four ‘Alls’ of Methodism.” (All need to be saved. All can be saved. All can know they are saved. All can be saved completely.) 2. Consider the fellowship in our local church. Could it be improved? If so, how? What are you prepared to do about it? 3. Consider local attempts at evangelism. By our own church; with other churches in the area. How far do you think mass evangelistic campaigns are successful? Do they often have less impact through lack of ‘back up’ by the local churches? How do the local churches participate? Care for new Christians? Is there a built-in resistance to big campaigns by the churches? By Christians in the churches? 4. List all the outlets/opportunities possible in your area for evangelism. Remember caring personal witness is often as effective as more obvious approaches. e.g. chaplaincies; play groups; Day Care Centres 5. Obtain a copy of the Methodist Service Book and read carefully and prayerfully through the Covenant Service, which is to be found on pages D1 to D11.
Further Study: 1. What is the meaning of ‘salvation’? Methodism emphasises that salvation is offered to everyone. 2. Look up the word ‘assurance’. Make up a sentence to show that you understand the meaning. Think about it used in ordinary everyday life and also in a Christian context. Are there any differences? Methodism emphasises that everyone can KNOW they are saved. 3. Study John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Our response to God’s love is found in Luke 10:27: He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.'” 4. John Wesley spent most of his life telling other people the wonderful news about Jesus and his love/his saving grace and in offering them salvation. As Methodists we must do the same. See if you can think of ways in which you can tell people about Jesus today. List the ways in which The Good News about Jesus Christ is told: e.g. church; radio; T.V.; Internet. 5. Design a poster or leaflet or T.V. advertisement or webpage which would tell people about Jesus or advertise a church and its services and activities. 6. Make up two sentences using the word ‘covenant’ (a) as it is used in everyday life; and (b) as it is used in the Bible (Genesis 28:20; 31:49 etc., Jeremiah 31:31ff, Mark 14:24; Hebrews 8-12; etc.). Are the meanings the same; nearly the same; or different? 7. Make a list of songs or hymns which we regularly sing which relate to the themes of this webpage (Personal Religious Experience, The Universality of Salvation, Assurance, Christian Perfection/Holiness, Fellowship with God and Each Other, Evangelism, Covenant with God).
[Note: Most of the material on this webpage is adapted from the Methodist Publication: “Methodist Emphases”]