The Truth About John Wesley’s Famous Line

John Wesley, the driver behind the Methodist movement, was raised in the Church of England. His father was an Anglican priest. His brother was, too. Wesley was surrounded by churchmen.

He became a priest himself but early on, experienced a restlessness with “church as usual,” finding himself frustrated with what he saw as lifeless religious rites that lacked power to transform lives.

To Wesley’s mind, the Church of England was stuck. It had somehow lost touch with the Holy Spirit. Wesley was a popular preacher, so he began to preach about what he was seeing as he traveled throughout England from church to church. Preaching against dead religion and in favor of the Holy Spirit got him kicked out of every church in his country.

Literally kicked out. Banned.

Once he ran out of buildings to preach in, Wesley began preaching in open fields to thousands of people. He saw mass conversions, living out Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

Even preaching in open fields garnered the ire of other pastors. The Church of England was divided into parishes, after all, and those fields in which Wesley preached were in someone’s parish. Pastors would write to him, demanding that he stay out of their parish. Wesley returned fire on one such pastor, writing a letter in response in which he said (in effect), “I have an option. I can obey church law, or I can obey God’s law. Since I have no parish, then the world is my parish.”

It has become one of Wesley’s most famous lines. The world is my parish. It graces seminary walls and serves as a byline for mission organizations. We want to claim that line over our call to be on mission to all the world, in the spirit of Acts 1:8.

The world is our parish! Let’s take the gospel to the ends of the earth! No rest until every ear has heard, every heart has received, every knee has bowed.

All great aspirations, only that’s not what Wesley meant. In the context of his circumstances and that letter, Wesley’s sentiment was not primarily a statement about missions. This was his stand against dead religion. He refused to be jerked around by lifeless forms that keep people stuck in their spiritual numbness. He refused to let rigid structures and hard hearts determine for him to whom he would preach this gospel. Like Paul, Wesley had decided he would become all things to all people so that by all means he might win some.

True, our mission field is the world. In fact, we ought to insist on a global gospel. But Wesley’s point when he penned that line is that our mission is not to cater to dead forms of religion.

We simply don’t have time for that.

Read More

When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

Read More

Calvinism, Gender Politics and the ESV

In any attempt to speak into a conversation about Bible translations and theology, I am skating on the edge of my own incompetencies before I even begin. Receive this blog in that light. I write not as a scholar, but as a pastor deeply troubled by what reformed theology is teaching this generation about men, women and value. In fact, I’m stunned.

Let me begin with a word about what some Calvinist (reformed) theologians teach about the nature of women in general.

John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who have both written extensively on a “reformed” view of human design, claim that the male-female hierarchy has been so from the beginning. In their book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, they argue from Genesis, chapter two, that woman was taken out of man and that man was given dominion over the whole earth before woman came on the scene. They both lean on their heavy exegesis of the word “helper” to suggest a woman’s supportive role (Recovering, loc 2384).

Complementarianism emphasizes the distinctions between men and women, as well as their roles (Recovering, loc 2384). In the healthiest view of this theological stance, men and women bear God’s image equally, with men having the role of leader and women having the role of helper (Recovering, loc 2144). The weakness of this approach is that it emphasizes roles over gifts, gifts being the New Testament preference.

In its most extreme form, however, complementarianism doesn’t just define roles; it implies an unusual value, to say the very least, to men. Grudem states, “God did not name the human race ‘woman.’ If ‘woman’ had been the more appropriate and illuminating designation, no doubt God would have used it … he called us ‘man’ which anticipates male headship” (Recovering, loc 2224). Where Genesis, chapter one, paints the picture of partnership, complementarianism uses linguistic tricks to insert a hierarchy.

And now, in a last-minute edit, what has been woven into their theology has been solidified into a popular translation of the Bible. The Calvinist camp has now placed the idea of patriarchal design into the English Standard Version of the Bible. The editors of that version (with Grudem as general editor) recently released a statement, after making a handful of final edits, announcing that the ESV is now complete and will remain unchanged for all perpetuity. Among the final edits is a change to the language describing the curse of the woman in Genesis 3. The editors have changed the wording from, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

That translation tweaks the meaning of the verse. The revision now implies that far from being an effect of fallenness God designed gender hierarchy. The problem is that the language doesn’t support the revision.

Of this translation, Scot McKnight says, “It is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong.” Indeed, McKnight goes on, “This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism.”

Can I say again that I am stunned by this?

The editors of this popular version of the Bible (one I’ve used for years) have intentionally taken a creation-up view of scripture, using their theological biases to weave into the text something that isn’t actually there in order to make their point that gender hierarchy is a matter of divine design and not human fallenness.

This is stunning in its boldness. It is one thing to write commentary on a passage and claim one’s opinion as a sidebar discussion. It is another thing entirely to manipulate the words of the text itself to favor one’s theological biases.

The editors must rethink this. As faithful students of the Word, we must resist it. As Carolyn Custis James poignantly states, “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that reveals the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message in contrast to the patriarchal world. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular—much better than we do—if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”

I am deeply concerned for the direction reformed theology is leading this generation and these ESV final edits only deepen my concern. I am concerned for the women who are being led down a patriarchal path to a place where their very value is stripped. It is dangerous, indeed, to imply that women don’t share in the creation fabric of humanity; it is foolish to state that at the fall, nothing changed. Much more, I am concerned when an agenda is so deeply held that it overrides the integrity of biblical scholarship. When that happens, on what basis can we argue anything?

The original design for men and women is partnership, not hierarchy. The fall fundamentally, catastrophically altered that relationship. All thoughtful, faithful Christians should be fighting like crazy to get all of us back to the other side of the fall line, because it is as we live out our created design that we bring glory to God.

Read More