Archive for March, 2011

The following commentary is by Timothy C. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., one of the top training institutions for United Methodist clergy (Asbury also has a Florida campus).

Dr. Timothy C. Tennent

Below, Dr. Tennent offers a critique of Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne). Released last week, the book is already a New York Times bestseller.

Prior to being elected in 2009 to serve as Asbury’s eighth president, Dr. Tennent was a professor of World Missions and Indian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

He holds a B.A. from Oral Roberts University, an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell, a Th.M. from Princeton, and a Ph.D. from at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Tim Tennent is served as a pastor in the UMC’s North Georgia Conference from 1982-1990.

This commentary previously appeared in serialized form on Dr. Tennent’s blog. Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.

Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, Mich., a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. His latest book, Love Wins, is an attempt to deconstruct widely held evangelical notions about heaven, hell and the lostness of humanity and replace it with a God whose cosmic love triumphs over human unbelief. It is Bell’s attempt to counter a very poor story with a better story.

The poor story is the story of a God who is an angry tyrant who sends people to hell for an eternity because of “sins committed in a few short years.”

Bell writes, “[T]elling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do, or say, or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.”

In contrast, Bell wants to tell a better story which is “bigger and more expansive.” It is the story of the power of God’s love to triumph over a world of unbelief.

Rob Bell is to be commended for exposing the weak theology which apparently is present in many evangelical churches. But he caricatures evangelical beliefs to the limit of one’s imagination, playing on the worst kinds of stereotypes. According to Bell, evangelicals often proclaim a God who “is a slave driver” ready to “inflict pain and agony” on those who don’t pray “the sinner’s prayer in precisely the right way.”

Exclusivists are stereotyped as those who insist that “followers of Jesus confess him in the precise way defined by the group” or you will not be “going to heaven.”

Bell portrays evangelicals as those who are arrogantly cramming the gospel down the throats of an unbelieving world. He suggests that evangelicals care nothing about the environment or poverty or nuclear disarmament, or pollution because all that really matters is “getting people to pray the right prayer,” or believe just the right things so they can die and go to heaven which is “somewhere else” and in a time which is a “different time” than that which we occupy today.

I could spend pages disputing Bell’s caricature of evangelical faith and practice. I have met hundreds of solid evangelical pastors who do not fall into the traps which Rob Bell cites. The historic relationship between evangelical commitments and social action is a powerful and compelling story.

But, for the sake of the argument, let’s accept Bell’s critique as fairly exposing some serious flaws in the theology of contemporary evangelicalism. If it is true, then Bell has definitely revealed that most evangelical pastors need to go back to seminary.

Apparently, today’s pastors have forgotten that the kingdom of God has already broken in to the present age and we are to live out the full realities of the New Creation in the present age.

Apparently, today’s evangelicals have confused the New Creation with 19th century hymns concerning heaven which depict the “other side” as a remote, vague place of passivity with little to do but pluck our harps and walk on streets of gold.

Apparently, quite a few pastors across our nation need to re-learn the basic lesson that God actually loves lost people.

If half of what Rob Bell says about evangelicals is true, then we need to declare a massive recall along the lines of what Toyota did last year when so many cars were discovered to be defective. We need to declare that listening to today’s pastors is no longer safe and reliable until they are sent back for a re-fit and some major theological adjustments. Something deep inside me suspects that Rob Bell may actually be on to something here. Thank you, Rob!

Indeed, it is time for a renewed emphasis on the grand meta-narrative which tells the “big story” and puts all of these doctrines in a larger and more robust theological frame. Perhaps we need a recall and a re-tooling of a largely Christendom-trained clergy to a clergy better prepared for a post-Christendom world which desperately needs a robust gospel, not a domesticated one.

Bell has been listening to the church and to the culture and he has insightfully diagnosed that the church is theologically anemic. He is saying, in effect, “Houston, we have a problem…” — and for that I applaud him.

Right problem, wrong prescription

My problem with Rob Bell is not so much with his diagnostics regarding contemporary popular evangelicalism, as it is with his prescription. The real question is not whether Rob Bell’s description of contemporary evangelical poor theology of “salvation” “New Creation” and “kingdom” is worth the attention the book is receiving. Bell is writing a popular book.

The book has received attention because of its prescription. Rob Bell is not just telling us we are sick, he is providing a remedy, a prescript for the theological malaise we are in. He may not be aware that his “solution” is not new, but dates back to at least 1963 and the writings of Karl Rahner. Nevertheless, for many evangelicals who avoid any books with footnotes, Bell’s “solution” will be received like a fresh new “third way” between a highly caricatured, mean-spirited “exclusivism” and an unbridled, relativistic “pluralism” which levels the playing field between all religions.

The question is this: Is Rob Bell’s prescription worthy of wide dissemination in the church? Should I commend it to our seminary students preparing for ministry today? The answer is a resounding no. Here are four reasons which give me pause.

First, Bell profoundly misunderstands the Biblical notion of God’s “love.” The entire premise of the book is to declare that God’s essence is “love” (which Bell states repeatedly). However, Bell never actually describes the biblical and theological relationship between God’s joyful engagement with the human race and God’s justice upon which the very gospel he celebrates is declared. Bell sentimentalizes God’s love throughout his book, making it almost equivalent to God being nice and reasonable to modern sensibilities.

I suspect that Bell has underestimated how shockingly tepid and sentimental our understanding of biblical love has become. If he had inserted the phrase “God’s holy love” for every place he has used “God’s love” he would have gained more biblical traction, but, in the process, much of his own argumentation would have become unraveled.

Bell’s argument actually requires a logical separation between God’s love and God’s justice which is quite untenable in biblical theology.

Second, Bell has an inadequate understanding of Sin — not the little “s” kind, but the big “S” kind. In other words, Bell understands that we all sin, but he doesn’t seem to comprehend that we, as a race, are part of a vast rebellion against God’s holiness.

Without Christ we, as a race, stand under condemnation and desperately need a divine rescue. Sin doesn’t just impede our progress and slow down our autonomous capacity to receive God’s love. We are spiritually dead apart from God’s prior action. Both Reformed and Arminian Christians affirm the cosmic consequences of the Fall of man. We are not Pelagian.

Bell’s solution takes humanity out of the dock and puts God in the dock. After reading Bell’s book one gets the feeling that Bell has put God on trial. It is God who now has to justify why he would be so cruel as to sentence a sinner to eternal separation from his presence, especially given the “few short years” we have had to commit sins. An eternal punishment for temporal sins is just too much for Bell to bear and so God had better provide an explanation — a good one.

The unfathomable love of the Triune God which resulted in a sending father, a crucified and risen Son and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit who ushers in the glorious realities of the New Creation into the present age is lost in Bell’s description of a “Son” who protects us from an angry “God.”

Third, Bell has an inadequate understanding of the Kingdom of God. He rightly chastises the collapse of salvation into personal justification, though he doesn’t use theological terms to describe this concern. However, in its place Bell fails to see that the kingdom has already been inaugurated, but is not fully consummated.

For Bell to say that heaven and hell are already here now is true in the sense that the kingdom of God is already breaking in (thus, heaven is breaking into the present age) and the absence of God’s rule and reign is hell. Bell correctly points out the relationship between “this age” and “the age to come.” Again, thank you Rob Bell! Bell correctly chastises a church with an under-realized eschatology which puts all redemption off into the “sweet by and by.”

However, Bell’s prescription is an over-realized eschatology which underestimates the massive redemption which still awaits societies, cultures, the kingdoms of this world and, indeed, creation itself. We live in an “already—not yet” tension. The Kingdom of God has already broken into the present evil age. Bell gets that point. However we still await our full redemption and the transformation which is ushered in by the eschaton will be dramatic and cosmic in scale. Bell misses that point.

Fourth, Bell’s solution exalts Christ’s work on the cross, but in the process sacrifices or ignores major themes in Scripture. Bell’s position regarding the state of the lost is known as inclusivism.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Bell is not a universalist, nor is he a full blown pluralist. A pluralist believes that all religions can independently save people and, therefore, there are many different, equally valid paths leading to God. In the pluralist world, Hinduism can save Hindus just as Christianity saves a Baptist. Bell does not take this position.

Bell’s argument is that you may, indeed, belong to a different religion, such as Islam, but it is Christ who saves you. You may be a practicing Buddhist or Hindu, but God is counting your faith as faith in Christ. It is a sort of Christocentric pluralism known as inclusivism and serves as a kind of half-way house between exclusivism and pluralism. It became popular in Roman Catholic circles in the wake of Vatican II and then spread to Protestantism and finally into evangelicalism in recent years.

The idea that a Buddhist could be saved by Christ has been called “Anonymous Christianity.” In other words, people are saved by Christ but do not realize it or know it.

(As an aside, I should note how offended many Buddhists were when they realized that some Christians taught that they were actually anonymous Christians. It is a form of stealth triumphalism which seeks to trump the dignity of unbelief.)

Bell drives a wedge between the ontological necessity of Christ’s work and the epistemological response of explicit repentance and faith. In other words, Christ’s work saves us even if we do not explicitly respond through repentance and faith. The relationship between God’s revelation and our response is severed. For Bell, God’s love saves “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists as well as Baptists” and does so within their sincere seeking within their own religions.

Bell concedes that John 14:6 does claim that salvation is only in Jesus Christ, but he argues that the text doesn’t go on to say that we need to acknowledge this or know this truth or respond to this, in order to be saved by Christ. In contrast, Paul says, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). The relational link between the Redeemer and the redeemed is quietly dropped in Bell’s wider-hope inclusivism.

Bell makes a point that nowhere in the New Testament does it state that we need a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” However, Bell should remember that sin is not just a forensic, legal breach with God’s justice — it is also a relational breach with God’s person. Bell doesn’t seem to realize the vast implications his position has for the church, the Great Commission and the Biblical call to repentance and faith.

Bell’s ecclesiology has collapsed and we are left with an individual sincere seeker after God. The mission of the church has been, at best, stunted, since the other religions of the world have already brought (implicitly and anonymously) more people to the foot of the cross than has the global proclamation of the gospel.

However, it is only through dramatic theological reductionism that Bell equates biblical salvation in the New Testament to a lone individual seeker after God in a religion like Islam or Buddhism. Bell doesn’t just give us anonymous Christians, he gives us anonymous communities, anonymous Scriptures and anonymous sacraments.

He has effectively disembodied the faith and separated it from ecclesiology despite the fact that it is the church which is the public, redeemed community Jesus Christ declares that he will build to manifest before the world all of the active “heavenly” engagement in this world that Bell longs for.

A domesticated gospel — or a robust, Apostolic one?

Bell is probably right about several things. A lot of pastors out there are teaching stuff which only vaguely reflects the actual teachings of the New Testament. If Bell’s book awakens in the evangelical community a fresh, robust conversation about what we really believe about the kingdom, heaven, hell, the lost and the New Creation, we should all be delighted.

It is important to recognize that Bell’s response reveals that the depth of his own theological reflection is a bit thin, too. He has given us a domesticated gospel which tries to make the gospel relevant to contemporary sensibilities. However, it is not the gospel which needs to be made relevant to us. It is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel. The gospel is always relevant whether it is recognized as such or not.

In my estimation, Rob Bell, and apparently quite a few evangelical pastors, need a thorough re-grounding in the biblical doctrines of God’s love, sin, the kingdom of God, the necessity of human response and ecclesiology.

While I sincerely believe that the spread of wider-hope inclusivism into the evangelical movement represents a serious breach of theological coherence which will undermine the gospel, I am not standing with a stone in my hand. As a seminary president, Bell’s book reminded me anew of the importance of biblical and theological training. He reminded me afresh why I have given my life to theological education.

If there is a “beam” in the eye of the evangelical church it is that we must hear the resounding bell (no pun intended) that a post-Christendom, post-modern generation is not hearing the gospel. However, the answer is not Bell’s further domesticated gospel, but a more robust, Apostolic one.

We can no longer give out gospel fragments which are not clearly tied to re-building the grand meta-narrative which gloriously unfurls from creation to covenant to incarnation to death and resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to the church of Jesus Christ to the Return of Christ and the final ushering in of the New Creation.

A post-modern world which has reduced all Truth to tiny socially constructed personal narratives is in need of a big, glorious grand Story. This is really the deepest cry of Rob Bell. This is the deepest cry of many of us.

Bell has reminded us that our deepest theological and pastoral work cannot be done in isolation from the world, the church and the larger cultural milieu. The world always remains God’s greatest theological workshop. Bell’s book, Love Wins, calls us all back to the workshop in a fresh way. Let’s get to work, shall we?

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A word from Mr. Wesley: The way to the kingdom
Podcast: John Wesley on ‘The New Birth’
Billy Abraham on United Methodism: ‘There is no common faith among us’
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘The gospel in an age of skepticism’

Related information
Preface from the audio edition of Love Wins | Read by Rob Bell (HarperAudio)
Asbury Seminary elects new president | news release, Asbury Theological Seminary (via Pastors.com) (Feb. 17, 2009)
Asbury Seminary accounts for greatest number of United Methodist elder/deacon graduates (Report on Seminary/Theological School of Ordained Full-Connection Elder or Deacon—2009) (PDF) | Sarah Combs, UM General Board of Higher Education & Ministry (June 1, 2010)

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The following commentary is by Wesley Putnam, a full-time evangelist in the UMC and former president of the National Association of United Methodist Evangelists.

Wesley Putnam

Below, Mr. Putnam provides an eyewitness account of a Feb. 27 church conference at University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, at which the church voted to affiliate with the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Ministries Network.

RMN seeks to change the United Methodist Church’s position on same-sex relations, which is rooted in the historic Christian teaching that sexual contact between two men or two women falls outside the boundaries of acceptable moral conduct for disciples of Jesus Christ.

RMN also seeks to end the UMC’s prohibition on accepting sexually active homosexuals as candidates for ordained ministry (¶304.3 of the UM Book of Discipline).

Links in the commentary below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.

I got up early on Sunday, Feb. 27, and headed out from Bedford, Texas, to Austin. This was the day that had been advertised by University United Methodist Church as the day they were going to vote on becoming a Reconciling Congregation.

“A local church or any of its organizational units may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement.

“Such identification or labeling is divisive and makes the local church subject to the possibility of being in conflict with the Discipline and doctrines of The United Methodist Church.”

Judicial Council Decision #871

“[A]nnual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.”

Judicial Council Decision #886

The primary problem with this vote is that it is clearly forbidden by Decision #871 of the United Methodist Judicial Council [see excerpt at left]. In addition, Judicial Council Decision #886 has bearing on this matter [also excepted at left].

As soon as I found out that University UMC was planning this vote, I notified the pastor, the Rev. John Elford, that he was moving the church in a direction that seemed to be in clear violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. He indicated he was determined to continue and had already discussed it with his District Superintendent.

I then contacted the office for the District Superintendent in the Austin District, the Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones, citing the relevant Judicial Council Decisions. I never received a response.

Next, I contacted Bishop Jim Dorff of the Southwest Texas Conference and informed him of the plans of UUMC. He excused the action because, in his view, the congregation was only “affiliating” — not “identifying” — with the Reconciling Ministries Network.

I fail to see the difference. Affiliating with a group is identifying with a group. And Judicial Council Decision #871 simply says that Annual Conferences, local churches, and units within churches (Sunday School classes, UMW groups, etc.) are forbidden to “identify or label” themselves as “an unofficial body or movement.”

After weeks of back and forth emails, I decided to attend the Feb. 27 Church Conference at University UMC as an observer. I also attended the morning worship service just before the church conference.

A first-hand account

The sanctuary at UUMC is lovely, and the bottom floor was comfortably full with between 250 and 300 worshipers. The congregation that gathered was multi-generational. I was met by friendly greetings from several members as I made my way to my seat.

University UMC — Austin, Texas

I noticed that rainbow crosses and pink triangles were displayed on many lapels.

The pipe organ was belting out a rousing call to worship and the sound reverberated off the ample hardwood surfaces of the room. The atmosphere was celebratory as the congregants anticipated the purpose of this day.

The style of worship was traditional. There was a lot of liturgy and an assortment of ancient hymns, plus also a couple of more recent songs from the hymnal supplement.

Everything in the service was designed to lead up to this historic vote. Even the children’s sermon was a call to remember that there are many different pieces that make up a puzzle.

“When God’s peace is at work, even though we are going in lots of different directions, God brings us together and gives us God’s love,” the pastor told the children. “To love each other, care for each other and be reconciled to each other. We want to be with all different kinds of people, not just people just like us,” he said.

The last statement was directed to the adult congregation more so than it was to the children.

University UMC’s pastor, John Elford, is a tall man with a quiet and conversational speaking style. In remarks sprinkled with humor, he emphasized that UUMC is a “welcoming congregation” and the people there are “learning more and more every day” about all that term means.

Ironically, the Scripture Pastor Elford chose to speak on was “Blessed are the peacemakers” — on a day when he was leading the church to take a divisive action.

Audio of John Elford’s Feb. 27 sermon (19 min.)

I certainly didn’t disagree with everything he said. He spoke of the hard work Jesus calls us to of reconciling the world to God. He said it is not always easy to make peace. Peacemaking can be back-breaking work in which we must trust God’s providence for success.

Pastor Elford said we need not fear as we do this work because evil is being overcome with good. He declared that the forces we are up against are what Paul called “principalities and powers.”

Regrettably, the context of the day infused Pastor Elford’s words with a meaning that differs from church’s historic proclamation of the gospel. Ultimately, the pastor of University United Methodist Church was challenging his congregation to “make peace” with what God’s Word has declared to be sinful. In this new meaning of things, a person cannot be truly “welcomed” unless his or her behavior is affirmed and even endorsed.

The Rev. John Elford (standing, blue shirt) awaits the vote

Pastor Elford was calling his church to celebrate behavior that has been condemned for thousands of years — including in both the Old and New Testaments.

Further, he was asking them to violate the spirit of our denominational Book of Discipline and the clear intent of the UM Judicial Council by joining an unofficial group whose statement of purpose is opposed to church law.

The controversy over how the church will treat homosexual behavior has been “front and center” in every General Conference for four decades. The United Methodist response has been consistent, clear, and gracious. We view homosexuals — as we do all people — as being of sacred worth, but we recognize homosexual behavior as being contrary to the teaching of Scripture and the established body of doctrine held by the church. That is our stand.

It is not the prerogative of a pastor or local church to purposely rebel against settled church law, while suggesting that everyone who opposes them (including, by implication, the UM Judicial Council, the General Conference, and every orthodox UM member) is a part of the “principalities and powers” of darkness.

But led by their pastor, and with the district superintendent present, this is precisely what University United Methodist Church did. After the 11 a.m. service, by a vote of 228 to 15, UUMC became affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network.

Why this matters

The wording of the ballot (shown below at right) makes it clear that the ruling of the Judicial Council has been violated. By calling itself “a member of RMN” and placing the phrase “A Reconciling Congregation” on its website and other communications, UUMC has identified or labeled itself as an unofficial body or movement.

Click to enlarge

There are several possible chargeable offenses inherent in this action.

I believe in presiding over this vote, the Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones failed in her job as a District Superintendent. When this Church Conference was called for, she should have ruled the meeting out of order and refused to place the power of her office behind this action.

Moreover, because Bishop Jim Dorff was made aware of this action and refused to intervene, he has, in my opinion, failed to do his job in upholding and defending the faith and enforcing the Discipline.

Why does the action of University UMC matter? In a word, it’s all about covenant. As an elder in the United Methodist Church, I am in covenant with all other elders, bishops and district superintendents included.

From the UUMC website

The Discipline defines that covenant in Paragraph 306: “An order is a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church” (emphasis added).

This is serious business.

This whole debate began in the 1990s when my home conference in Northwest Texas voted to become a “Confessing Conference.” This action was challenged and the Judicial Council rulings cited above were made. Any church or conference that had declared itself as affiliated with the Confessing Movement or Reconciling Movement were asked to remove any mention of it from their signage and printed materials.

The Confessing Movement churches and conferences complied. But as the Reconciling Ministries Network continues enlisting churches in its cause, the bishops are turning a blind eye.

Because of the vows I took as a member of the order of elders, I am compelled to speak up. I will not be silent.

Related posts
Why the United Methodist Church cannot condone homosexuality
Riley Case: Retired bishops’ statement is a sign of UMC’s sickness
Renewal & Reform Coalition responds to retired bishops’ call to alter UMC’s sexuality standards
In embracing homosexual marriage, Foundry UMC rejects UM boundaries, breaks with 2 millennia of church teaching
Riley Case: The future of the United Methodist Church is at stake
Judicial Council overturns bishop’s ruling on sexuality statement
Maxie Dunnam: Amendments outcome reflects ‘sense of the faithful’
Judicial Council says no to same-sex marriage
Billy Abraham on United Methodism: ‘There is no common faith among us’
Bill Bouknight: The good news from General Conference ’08

Related information
Eros defended or eros defiled — What do Wesley and the Bible say? | Ben Witherington, The Bible and Culture (Patheos.com) (Feb. 14, 2011)
A reply to Wesley Putnam | Adrienne Trevathan, MOSAIC blog (March 21, 2011) — Note: MOSAIC is a student-focused extension outreach of the Reconciling Ministries Network, “affirm[ing] all sexual orientations and gender identities as gifts of God.”
University United Methodist Church moves to become part of larger reconciling network | Joshunda Sanders, Austin American-Statesman (Feb. 26, 2011)
Christianity elevates sexual morality (a historical overview of the Christian church’s teaching on sexual morality) — Chapter 3 of How Christianity Changed the World | Alvin Schmidt (Zondervan, 2004 — via Google Books)
Why bother becoming “reconciling”? | The Rev. John Elford, Keeping Jesus Weird blog (Jan. 15, 2011)
Why bother becoming “reconciling”? (part 2) | The Rev. John Elford, Keeping Jesus Weird blog (Feb. 7, 2011)
Three steps to affiliate with RMN (PDF) | Reconciling Ministries Network
Methodists to vote on GLBT inclusion | Audrey White, The Daily Texan (Nov. 22, 2010)
United Methodist churches perform same-sex weddings with one foot in the closet | Amanda Hess, TBD.com (Sept. 30, 2010)
What the evidence really says about Scripture and homosexual practice: Five issues (PDF) | Robert A. J. Gagnon (March 2009)
Slavery, homosexuality, and not being of one mind | Riley B. Case, via The Sundry Times (July 1, 2008)
How churches can refine message on homosexuality | Robin Russell, United Methodist Reporter (May 19, 2008)
United Methodists uphold homosexuality stance | Robin Russell, United Methodist News Service (April 30, 2008)
Judicial Council Decision 1032 and ecclesiology (PDF) | William J. Abraham, General Board of Higher Education & Ministry Consultation on Decision 1032 (February 2007)
The church and homosexuality | Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, e-Review (Florida United Methodist News Service) (July 12, 2006)
Methodists strengthen stand against homosexual practice | Christianity Today (May 5, 2004)
Debate at the 2004 General Conference on various legislation related to homosexuality (includes audio) | 2004 General Conference Archive
Resources list: Ministry for and with homosexual persons (requested by the UMC’s 2004 General Conference) (PDF) | United Methodist Publishing House
Homosexuality and the Bible (PDF) | R. Albert Mohler Jr., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Homosexuality and the Great Commandment (an address to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh) | Peter C. Moore (November 2002)
Good News’ response to Cal/Nevada’s dismissal of complaints against 68 clergy involved in same-sex covenant | James V. Heidinger II on behalf of the Good News Board of Directors (Feb. 14, 2000)
Good News board urges bishops to preserve unity of church | United Methodist News Service (Feb. 2, 1999)
‘Good News’ says push to accept homosexual practice threatens to split United Methodist Church | United Methodist News Service (May 6, 1997)

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St. Patrick’s Day is widely observed, but in our time few people know anything about Patrick himself.

A statue of St. Patrick in County Down

A statue of Patrick in County Down

Patrick was not born in Ireland, as is widely supposed, but in what is now England.

As a teenager, in about the year 430, he was captured by Irish soldiers and sold into slavery.

While enslaved, he became a zealous follower of Jesus Christ. Eventually, he escaped slavery and responded God’s call to become a missionary — to the Irish.

Later, in Ireland, he wrote this in his journal:

“Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity, but I fear none of these things because…I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.”

A prayer by St. Patrick:

I sing as I arise today.
I call upon the Father’s might,
The will of God to be my guide,
The eye of God to be my sight.
The Word of God to be my speech,
The hand of God to be my stay,
The shield of God to be my strength
The path of God to be my way.


Related articles
Patrick the Saint | Mary Cagney, Christian History
What St. Patrick can teach United Methodists | Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service (March 17, 2011)
Patrick the Saint | Bill Potter, Circa History Guild

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Friday’s massive earthquake in Japan raises an age-old question: Is God is the author of “natural disasters”? Methodist co-founder Charles Wesley spoke to this question in a sermon first delivered in 1750, an edited text of which is below. (Wesley also composed two volumes of earthquake-related hymns.)

The version of Wesley’s sermon presented here has been shortened from the original, subheadings have been added, and the language has been updated slightly for easier reading. The original text is linked below. — Ed.

O come hither, and behold the works of the LORD;
what destruction He hath brought upon the earth!

(Psalm 46:8)

Whatever the natural cause of earthquakes may be, sin is the moral cause. This cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures.

Charles Wesley

Earthquakes are set forth by the inspired writers as God’s proper judicial act, or the punishment of sin.

Then the earth shook and trembled;
The foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken,
Because He was angry. (Psalm 18:7).

So also the Prophet Isaiah:

I will punish the world for its evil…
And will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
Therefore I will shake the heavens,
And the earth will move out of her place,
In the wrath of the LORD of hosts
And in the day of His fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:11, 13).

And again,

You will be punished by the LORD of hosts
With thunder and earthquake and great noise. (Isaiah 29:6).

We cannot conceive that the universe would have been disturbed by these furious accidents before sin. Therefore reason, as well as faith, sufficiently assures us that such disasters must be the punishment of sin, and the effect of that curse which was brought upon the earth by the original transgression.

Judgment and repentance

Nothing can be so affecting as this judgment of earthquakes when it comes unexpectedly as a thief in the night, when there is no time to flee, or method to escape, or possibility to resist; when no sanctuary or refuge remains, when the earth opens suddenly, and becomes the grave of whole families, streets, and cities.

There is only the difference of a few hours or minutes between a famous city and none at all!

When God makes the mountains tremble, and the earth shake, shall not our hearts be moved? “‘Do you not fear Me?’ says the LORD. ‘Will you not tremble at My presence?'” (Jeremiah 5:22).

Will you not fear Him who can thus suddenly turn a fruitful land into a barren wilderness; an amazing spectacle of desolation and ruin?

O that His fear might this moment fall upon all you who hear these words; constraining every one of you to cry out, “My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments” (Psalm 119:120).

Repent, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance; let us break off our sins this moment.

“‘Now, therefore,’ says the LORD” — who is not willing any should perish:

“Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”

So rend your heart, and not your garments;
Return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm.
Who knows if He will turn and relent,
And leave a blessing behind Him? (Joel 2:12-14)

Will you heed the warning?

God waits to see what effect His warnings will have. He has no pleasure in the death of him who dies.

God warns you of the approaching judgment, that you may take warning, and escape it by timely repentance. He lifts up his hand and shakes it over you, that you may see it and prevent the final stroke.

He tells you, “Now is the axe laid unto the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10).

Therefore repent; bring forth good fruit; and you shall not be hewn down, and cast into the fire. O do not despise the riches of His mercy, but let it lead you to repentance!

How slow is the Lord to anger! How unwilling to punish! By what leisurely steps does He come to take vengeance! How many lighter afflictions before the final blow!

If we provoke Him to lay waste our earth, and turn it upside down, and overthrow us, as He overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, shall we not have procured this unto ourselves? If we perish at last, we perish without excuse; for what could have been done more to save us?

Yes, you have now another call to repentance, another offer of mercy. In the name of the Lord Jesus, I warn you once more, as a watchman over the house of Israel, to flee from the wrath to come!

The Lord was in the earthquake, and He put a solemn question to thy conscience: “Are you ready to die?” “Is your peace made with God?”

If the earth just now were to open its mouth and swallow you up, what would become of you? Where would you be?

Repent and believe the gospel

Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you shall yet be saved. Confess with a broken heart your unbelief; your having rejected, or not accepted, Jesus Christ as your only Savior.

Until you repent of your unbelief, all your good desires and promises are vain, and will pass away as a morning cloud. The vows which you make in a time of trouble, you will forget and break as soon as the trouble is over and the danger past.

But if you repent and believe, then you are justified by faith. You will have peace with God, and will rejoice in hope of His glorious appearing.

He who believes has the earnest of heaven in his heart; he has love stronger than death. Death to a believer has lost its sting. Therefore he will “not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” (Psalm 46:2).

For he knows in whom he has believed; and that “neither life nor death shall be able to separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus his Lord.”

Come, then, to the Author and Finisher of faith, confessing your sins, and the root of all — your unbelief — so that He can forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Come to the Friend of sinners, and he will give you pardon! Enter into the rock, the ark, the city of refuge!

He has spared you for this very thing; that your eyes might see His salvation. Whatever judgments are yet to come, those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus shall be delivered.

Call upon Him now. Your life, you soul, is at stake! Cry mightily unto Him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Related posts
A word from Mr. Wesley: ‘Salvation by faith’
A word from Mr. Wesley: ‘The first doctrine’
A word from Mr. Wesley: The way to the kingdom
Podcast: John Wesley on ‘The New Birth’

Related articles and information
The cause and cure of earthquakes (full text) | The Rev. Charles Wesley (Note: The site mistakenly attributes the sermon to John Wesley.)
Theodicy: Where would a just God be if not in the earthquake? (PDF) | Anne Bracket, Wesley Heritage Foundation (July 2001)
Should the earth this moment cleave: An hymn by Charles Wesley | Fred Sanders (Biola University), The Scriptorium (Jan. 13, 2010)
Earthquake hymns by Charles Wesley (1750), Pt. 1 (PDF) | Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition
Earthquake hymns by Charles Wesley (1750), Pt. 2 (PDF) | Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition
Charles Wesley’s hymn on the Lisbon earthquake (1756) (PDF) | Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition
Britain celebrates Charles Wesley’s life, legacy | Kathleen LaCamera, United Methodist News Service (Dec. 19, 20007)
Charles Wesley: Lacking the Holy Spirit no more | Glimpses of Christian History

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Beginning tomorrow and continuing through Palm Sunday on April 17, many Christians throughout the U.S. and around the world will be observing a 40-day season of prayer, roughly coinciding with the season of Lent.

Here are the areas of prayer focus over the next several weeks, as described in the prayer guide, Seek God for the City.

  • March 9-19: Seeking God’s face
  • March 20-26: Seeking God to spread the gospel of Christ’s kingdom
  • March 27-April 2: Seeking God to bring the righteousness of Christ’s kingdom
  • April 3-9: Seeking God to bring the peace of Christ’s kingdom
  • April 10-16: Seeking God to bring the joy of Christ’s kingdom
  • April 17 (Palm Sunday): Welcoming Jesus Christ our King

The Seek God for the City prayer guide — available in both English and Spanish editions — can be ordered from Waymakers, a Texas-based ministry (copies are $3 each). A sample page is shown here.

children’s version is available free via PDF download.

An Ash Wednesday prayer for revival

Living God, we cry out for the renewal of life in your Church. Cause your Church to become everything Jesus died and rose again to make her.

We appeal to your never-failing love. Empower us to turn us from folly and toward the way of salvation.

Take us from dryness to a time of refreshing. Take us from ashes to fire.

And through a revived and Christ-focused Church, may your glory dwell in our cities and throughout our land.

In Jesus we pray. Amen.

Related posts
A Lenten focus: ‘Prayers of biblical hope’ (2009)
Podcast: Terry Teykl on ‘Praying for the Lost’

Related article
Why you should start a prayer room in your church | Terry Teykl, Renewal Ministries

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This is the third in our monthly series that presents excerpts from the writings of John Wesley, co-founder (with his brother Charles) of the Methodist movement.

The following is from John Wesley’s sermon, “The Way to the Kingdom.” The wording has been slightly updated from the original, based on the adaptation found in Renew My Heart (Barbour Books, 2011).

A link to the full text of the original sermon is included in the links below.

The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15)

What is the way to the kingdom of heaven? First, know yourself to be a sinner.

Know that you are corrupted in every power, every faculty of your soul. Your understanding is darkened, and you cannot discern God or the things of God. Your will is perverse and distorted. Your affections are alienated from God; your passions are either undue in degree or placed on undue objects.

What can you do to appease the wrath of God, to atone for your sins? Alas, you can do nothing. Nothing you do will in any way make amends to God for one evil work, word, or thought.

Even if you could from now on do all things well and perform perfect, uninterrupted obedience, it would not atone for what is past. Not increasing your debt would not discharge it.

To be deeply sensible of how helpless you are — as well as how guilty and how sinful — is the forerunner of the kingdom of God. Now, repent and believe the gospel.

The gospel is good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners. The gospel is:

  • “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners”;
  • “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that we might not perish, but have everlasting life”;
  • “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.”

Believe this, and the kingdom of God is yours. By faith, you attain the promise. He pardons and frees from guilt all who truly repent and genuinely believe His holy gospel. As soon as God speaks to your heart: “Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven,” His kingdom comes. You have righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Only beware that you do not deceive your soul with regard to the nature of this faith. It is not bare assent to the Bible or the articles of any creed.

From the 1954 film 'John Wesley'

It is a confidence in the pardoning mercy of God through Christ Jesus, who loved you and gave Himself for you, and a sure trust that you are now reconciled to God by the blood of the cross.

Do you have a sure trust in the mercy of God through Christ Jesus, a confidence in the pardoning God? Are you convinced that “I, even I, am now reconciled to God by the blood of His cross?” Do you thus believe?

Then the peace of God is in your heart, and sorrow and sighing flee away. You are no longer in doubt of the love of God. It is as clear as the noonday sun. Your heart cries out about the loving-kindness of the Lord.

You are no longer afraid of hell or death or him who once had the power of death — the devil; no, nor painfully afraid of God Himself — but you have a tender concern not to offend Him.

When you thus believe, your soul magnifies the Lord, and your spirit rejoices in God your Savior. You rejoice that you have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins. You rejoice in the Spirit of adoption, the Holy Spirit, who cries within your heart Abba Father! You rejoice in a hope full of immortality and in reaching forward to the “mark for the prize of your high calling.”

Adapted from Renew My Heart,
published by Barbour Publishing, Inc. Used by permission.

Related posts
A word from Mr. Wesley: ‘Salvation by faith’
A word from Mr. Wesley: ‘The first doctrine’
Podcast: John Wesley on ‘The New Birth’
Podcast: Donald English — Aldersgate Day address, 1988
Podcast: Bishop Gerald Kennedy on ‘The Marks of a Methodist’
Podcast: Billy Abraham on ‘Connecting Doctrine and Evangelism’

Related information
The Way to the Kingdom (full text) | The Rev. John Wesley (from The Sermons of John Wesley, 1872 Edition — Thomas Jackson, editor)

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