01 Aug 2007

August 2007 - What’s Right with Methodism (3)? Holiness, the Defining Message of the Revival

Bishop's Page

Bishop Hwa Yung

(Explanatory Note: The author began this series in the April 2007 issue of Pelita Methodist. The 2nd in this series was to be on Methodism’s passionate commitment to the work of evangelism. However, this theme has been discussed in detail in Dr George Hunter III’s article on ‘Rediscovering Wesley, The Church Growth Strategist’ in the May issue. Hence we will skip this and move on to the third theme.)

In the Large Minutes of 1763 (equivalent to The Book of Discipline) John Wesley clearly stated that Methodism’s God-given mission was to ‘reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land.’ The first task referred to spiritual revival and moral reform in the church and nation, and the second to holy living in private and public. Clearly both emphasis to go together.

In his account of Wesley and early Methodism, Richard H. Heitzenrater (Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 1995, p.242) asserts that, ‘the possibility of perfection in love through grace was the distinctive and defining message in Wesley’s revival, and the very organization of the movement itself, as a network of disciplined small groups, was designed to nurture the hope of perfection in the lives of the Methodists.’ This is simply another way of saying what Wesley had already stated as Methodism’s mission earlier, which is ‘to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land,’ because perfect love was for him the goal of holiness.
But what is perfect love? Wesley’s doctrine has been the subject of intense debates because of his use of the word ‘perfect.’ It should therefore be noted that he himself clearly pointed out that his doctrine is not one of ‘sinless perfection,’ a state of absolute faultlessness and unimprovability, attainable in this life. Rather, as Albert Outler (John Wesley, 1964, p.31f) puts it, for Wesley, ‘perfect love’ is ‘the conscious certainty, in a present moment, of the fullness of one’s love for God and neighbor, as this love has been initiated and fulfilled by God’s gifts of faith, hope and love .....‘Perfection’ is the fulfillment of faith’s desire to love God above all else, so far as conscious will and deliberate action are concerned.’

To put it in another way, Wesley’s understanding of perfection is relative to our conscious will, and not to our
unconscious or subconscious mind and action. Further it relates only to the laws of God that we are aware of and not to God’s laws in totality. Thus to have attained perfection does not mean that we are exempted from ‘ignorance, or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations’ or ‘involuntary transgressions’ (A. Outler, John Wesley, 1964, pp.258 & 287). 

For Wesley, ‘perfect love’ as he understood it, is the goal of sanctification (i.e. the process of growth in holiness) and a distinct possibility in this life—although he himself never claimed to have attained it. Whether we find Wesley’s idea of perfect love fully coherent or not, the important thing is to remember that for him the three fundamental doctrines of Christianity are repentance, justification by faith, and holiness—with sanctification logically flowing out of justification, and holy lives and good works as its fruit.

In practice, Wesley was first concerned that the people called Methodist live lives that were different from those in the world. He therefore required all the converts of the revival to meet regularly in small groups called classes and bands, which primary purpose was to provide for adequate pastoral oversight and to instill holiness in personal lives. (We shall return to a detail discussion of classes and bands in a later article.) And those who were not prepared for such spiritual discipline had to leave. In Newcastle (1743), for example, he expelled sixty-four people from the society: two for cursing, two for habitual Sabbath breaking, seventeen for drunkenness, two for selling liquor, three for quarreling, one for wife beating, three for habitual lying, four for evil speaking, one for idleness, and twenty-nine for carelessness towards spiritual things. I have often wondered what disciplinary actions Wesley would take if he returns to visit our Methodist churches today!

The result of such discipline and pastoral oversight was that lives were changed. Many of the converts came from a background where poverty was rife, homes were largely dysfunctional, drunkenness was commonplace, and ungodliness and immorality prevailed. But transformed by the revival, they became disciplined and hardworking, and responsible in family matters. Thus the result of discipline and holy living was not just a thriving and growing church, but also a socially upwardly mobile people. Indeed by the time of the second and third generations, the children of the revival had begun to grow rich, and had begun to lose interest in spiritual things as a result. Wesley then had to wrestle with a new problem in the later stages of the revival—how to get the ‘poison’ out of riches which was beginning to be a threat to the revival? His answer is summarized in his little dictum: ‘Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can!’

But Wesley was concerned not merely to inculcate holiness at the personal level. For him holiness must also be social, that is, what does it mean to love our neighbours as ourselves? This made him, despite his political conservatism, a pioneer of various social reforms in his own day. He and his co-workers did whatever it was within their means to care for the poor and needy, visited prisons, campaigned against alcohol and drunkenness, introduced public health and pioneered public education. And a week just before his death he was still writing to the young William Wilberforce to encourage him in his future long battle in the British Parliament against slavery with the following words: ‘Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.’ The Methodist leaders in the second and third generations built on these earlier efforts and, among many other things, were involved in the early labour union movement that agitated successfully for law reforms that brought greater justice to the working class in British society, in a period when the poor were exploited through low wages and long hours, and child labour was common practice.

This two-sided emphasis on holiness as both personal and social helped Methodists demonstrate that salvation is no mere spiritual pie-in-the-sky, waiting to be claimed only when we get to heaven. Rather it had to be lived out in the here and now of a dog-eat-dog kind of world. In the midst of all the contradictions and pains of its harsh realities, Christians are called to show to the world what loving God and our neighbours mean.

There has never been full agreement among historians about the impact that the 18th century Methodist revival had on Britain. One historian, Harold Perkin (The Origins of Modern English Society, 1969) states that ‘between 1780 and 1850 the English ceased to be one of the most aggressive, brutal, rowdy, outspoken, riotous, cruel and bloodthirsty nations in the world and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly, tender-minded, prudish and hypocritical.’ Even though the above description of the 19th century English people is not entirely complementary and may be exaggerated, historians are generally agreed that Britain underwent some fundamentally positive changes between the 18th and 19th centuries. Moreover, by the 19th century Britain was by any measure the most powerful nation in the world. 

What were the things that brought about such positive changes and gave British society such strength? Historians may provide partial answers. But it is generally accepted today that good governance, integrity and transparency in national politics and economics, and the ability to minimize corruption in government and public life are the factors that make nations strong economically and politically. Is this sufficient reason to believe that the 18th century Evangelical Revival, together with other reform movements in the 19th century, not least the work of Wilberforce and his associates in the Clapham Sect, had helped to effect the positive moral and social changes that contributed (together with other factors of course) to making Britain politically and economically such a strong nation? The conclusion appears clear.

If this is so, then a simple lesson can be drawn. We all recognize the social and political problems facing our nation, not least the problems of corruption, poor governance, lack of transparency and even the loss of integrity in both the public and private life. Unfortunately, often Christians have been and are no less guilty. But if the church is to be truly ‘salt’ and ‘light’ (Matt 5:13-16) in our nation, there must be a genuine recovery of true holiness in our lives, both in private and in public. But sadly, as I see it, this does not appear to be a priority in many Malaysian churches today. My hope and prayer is that the people called Methodists in our country will have the courage and guts to take the lead!

If and when that happens, three things will result. First, the work of revival in our churches will be greatly enhanced because the holiness of God’s people will give the Spirit freedom to flow! Second, a holy church will then act powerfully as ‘salt’ and ‘light’ in this nation. Thirdly, perhaps then God will be able to use the church to be the one institution which will have the moral courage and strength to redeem our society from the increasingly widespread corruption and power abuses, and turn our country into a more righteous, moral and godly nation! Then we will see right before our eyes a glorious fulfillment of Methodism’s original God-given mission to ‘reform the nation and … to spread scriptural holiness over the land.’