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Following Christ Is a Way of Life
What is the good life? How do you live well? Is it possible to be successful, joyful, or blessed? Does human life have a purpose? Can someone truly be happy? Is fulfillment possible?
Wesleyan Christians believe that following Jesus is the answer to all these questions, that following Jesus is the best way to live our lives with the maximum of meaning, purpose, and joy.
To some people, it's an outrageous claim. How can anyone dare to suggest that one way of life is best? To other people, especially those who have been Christians all their lives, it's obvious that following Jesus is the best way to live. But even those people sometimes wonder what following Jesus really means. If we truly followed Jesus with utmost seriousness and intentionality, what would it look like?
This study of the Wesleyan Way seeks to engage you in a conversation to help you answer that question. The conversation can be between you and me, among you and the video presenters, or with a group of people in your life who are journeying together.
The Wesleyan Way of salvation is an answer to questions about how to live well. It is an answer based on Scripture, summarizing the fundamental themes of the Bible and the life-shaping message of Jesus Christ. It can be summarized briefly like this: God has a plan for every human being.
God has a plan for every human being. Every person has been invited to receive God's help in achieving that goal. And though God may have a specific plan for one individual, the general plan that applies to you and every other person is this: God wants you to love God and your neighbor in all that you think, say, and do.
Jesus expressed the plan in a simple, compelling way. One of the religious scholars of his day, someone who had studied the biblical laws, asked Jesus a hotly debated question. The Jewish scholars knew that there were 613 commandments in the Torah, and they thought that obedience to the law was the way to please God and live a good life. So they asked him which one of all these commandments was most important. The conversation is found in Matthew 22:34-50:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. One of them, a legal expert, tested him. Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law? He replied, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands."
Jesus' first answer cited Deuteronomy 6:4-5. This was one of the usual answers; it was and is a prominent commandment among the Jewish community. But note that Jesus coupled his first answer with Leviticus 19:18, and he claimed that all the rest of the commandments depend on these two.
This was Jesus' way of summarizing how God expects human beings to live.
We live in a world full of options. There are many different religions. There are many secular philosophies suggesting that having no religion is the best option. And there are many people who drift through life with no religion, no philosophy, and not much thought about the big questions such as "What is my purpose here on earth?"
The Wesleyan Way, in answering those questions, starts with Jesus' most important commandments—love of God and love of neighbor. And yet, we know that we aren't following those two commandments the way we should. All of us are sinners. How can we possibly reach the God-given goal of our lives? If we are honest with God and with ourselves, we have to admit that following Jesus is hard.
But following Jesus, regardless of its difficulty, is the best answer to life's important questions. The Wesleyan Way describes Christianity as a journey of following Jesus toward the goal of loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Christianity is often described as salvation. In the Wesleyan Way, salvation is a journey toward eternal happiness.
Salvation Is Good News
The word salvation sometimes has been misused by Christians and misunderstood by others. Yet, as with many other words found in the Bible, it is best to keep using them and to do so with as much clarity as possible. When talking about the Wesleyan Way of salvation, one should keep in mind what Jesus said to many people whom he met. For many, salvation was about healing them of the brokenness in their lives. For some this meant physical healing. For others it was restoring broken relationships. For still others it meant life after death in paradise. One way of expressing this wide variety of meanings is to say that salvation is from all the bad things in life and for true happiness, joy, and truth.
It doesn't help that at times salvation has been "dumbed down" to a series of partial meanings. Each meaning contains elements of truth but by itself is inadequate. Let's look at a few of these partial meanings.
Salvation is more than a one-time "getting saved" experience, though that may represent an important moment on the journey. The revival and camp-meeting traditions in Protestant Christianity have placed a strong emphasis on the initial commitment of one's life to Christ as Lord and Savior. Many people tell stories of dramatic conversions, in which suddenly they felt the Lord forgiving their sins and accepting them as a beloved child. Some of our most powerful hymns were written to express the longing sinners have for that experience, such as "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed":
At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light
And the burden of my heart rolled away
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day.
Some Christian traditions presume that everyone will have an experience like this. When people ask, "Are you saved?" they sometimes expect that you can identify the date and time when Christ came to you. They refer to the experience as being "born again." The Wesleyan Way can include being born again at an identifiable instant, but it also describes a variety of valid paths to Jesus. People have different ways of coming to faith, including being raised in the faith from infant baptism on and never leaving it. It can be a story of dramatic inspiration or gradual growth.
Salvation is also more than membership in a church, though church membership is part of it. In some cases church membership doesn't appear to be much different from any other group affiliation or even a club membership. Churches, like clubs, have a purpose, attendance expectations, dues and requirements, and benefits that go along with membership. Some congregations have boiled down their understanding of salvation to "join our club—see what great benefits we offer!"
Salvation is more than a family affiliation, though one's family and upbringing may influence our path. There is no doubt that our families shape many things about us. Some of those things are genetic. Others involve a complex web of relationships, values, and loyalties that constitute a family's identity. Thus, because religion is an expression of our highest and most sacred values and relationships, our families often shape our faith. In more traditional societies, one's experience of salvation is actually part of the family experience, and changing religions is unheard of.
My own experience was not of changing religions but of going deeper into my own faith. I am a fourth-generation Methodist and United Methodist pastor. For a year and a half, I did not attend church and did not have a personal faith in Christ. I had been through confirmation and was a member of a local United Methodist Church, but I had drifted from Christ and did not know him as Lord and Savior of my life. At the same time, I was active in various United Methodist activities focused on peace, justice, and helping the poor. While at college I started a spiritual journey that led me to salvation. It was done in the Wesleyan Way, and I claimed a saving relationship with Christ that was expressed in my United Methodist roots more deeply than ever before.
For some of you, finding Christ may mean rejecting some of your family's values or traditions. Whatever one's starting point, it's clear that salvation is more than one's family affiliation.
Either way, salvation is a lifelong journey. Once someone has entered into the Christian life, they have been saved but are still being saved. Christians should understand that God has not finished with them just because they entered into a saving relationship. All of us are sinners, and it takes a lifetime to become the kind of people God intends us to be.
Salvation is holistic and long-term, not partial or short-term. It is a way of life that shapes everything we think, everything we do, everything we are. It shapes our relationships and the ways we spend our time, money, and energy. It is all-encompassing, because the God who created the universe and loves it passionately deserves nothing less.
The Wesleyan Way of salvation does not make us identical copies of each other. Though the way itself is the same for all, each of us makes the journey at our own pace, with our own abilities, and in our own style. There is both unity and diversity among the followers of Jesus.
The Wesleyan Way Brings the Bible's Message to Life
Where did the Wesleyan Way come from? It is based on the Bible. The Bible is a complex collection of sixty-six books, and the Roman Catholic version has extra books that Protestants call the Apocrypha. The Bible has a wide variety of literature types, from poetry to history to letters to Gospels to apocalyptic prophecy. Scripture is authoritative for all Christians, but the differences within the Christian family show that we read this amazing, complex, and powerful book in different ways. Each way of reading Scripture can lead to a different version of the Christian life.
The Wesleyan Way of reading and interpreting the Bible avoids some of the most contentious and divisive issues among Christians and focuses on the basic message of the text. It is the way John Wesley and his followers have read Scripture since the 1700s. Wesley himself said that the Wesleyan Way is nothing new; it is "the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the [early] Church, the religion of the Church of England." Wesley himself believed that Christians all too often did not follow the way. In fact, he said the greatest obstacle to the spread of Christianity was (and is) the behavior of Christians.
One of the ironies of Wesleyan Christianity is that, in many cases, the Wesleyan Way is not practiced adequately by those who belong to churches in the Wesleyan tradition, such as Methodist, Nazarene, and Pentecostal denominations. One reason for engaging in this study is to recommit to our highest and best values as followers of Jesus. Another reason is to invite those who are not yet followers of Jesus to consider beginning the journey.
What we will study in this book and DVD is the Wesleyan Way of following Jesus, as taught by John and Charles Wesley in their eighteenth-century movement. That movement sought the renewal of their church, the Church of England, but it eventually led to the formation of many different Wesleyan churches. The Wesleyan Way presented in this study relates to the official teaching of many of those groups. Those of us in the Wesleyan tradition don't always practice this way of life very well, but if you ask and look carefully, this is what we are trying to do when we are at our best.
Wesleyans believe in the authority of the Bible. We know that the Holy Scripture is complex and has many parts that address a wide variety of topics and concerns. Those of us following the Wesleyan Way believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, communicated through human beings and reflecting their languages, cultures, and times in which they lived. As a result, Scripture should be understood in the light of its original context. One Wesleyan denomination expresses it this way in their Confession of Faith:
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.
Though some Christians teach that the Bible is without error of any kind, Wesleyans believe it to be trustworthy in all matters relating to our faith. Thus, Wesleyans do not spend much time worrying about predicting when the world will end based on the visions of Daniel or the Book of Revelation, and we are willing to accept modern science's finding that the universe is billions of years old. Instead, we try to focus on what we believe to be the main message of Scripture: the way of salvation.
John Wesley believed that the way of salvation is the main theme that ties together the whole of the Bible. That theme is expressed in the story of a God who created humanity in his own image. When humanity sinned and became separated from God, God continued to love his creation and to seek the redemption of the human race, giving Israel the law and sending prophets to teach the people. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son to teach and then die for the sins of the world. God's saving grace was then offered to all humanity through the preaching of the gospel. We are saved by God's grace through faith in Christ, which comes to us in the form of "prevenient" or preparing grace, "justifying" or accepting grace, and "sanctifying" or sustaining grace.
The gospel is good news. The very word gospel is a shortened form of the older English words "good spell" or "good news." Going back to the Greek language in which the New Testament was written, each of the first four books was the euangelion according to its author—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The prefix eu means "good" and angelion means "news" (and is related to the word angel, which means "messenger"). Thus, the gospel is a book about the good news God is sending into the world in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is the bearer of God's grace to a world that desperately needs to be loved.
For people such as you and me, who are aware that they are broken and that life offers more than they are currently experiencing, the opportunity to heal our brokenness and find a way to fulfillment is great news!
If you'd like more detailed information about Wesleyan Christianity, including some writings of John Wesley and hymns of Charles Wesley, go the study's website, www.TheWesleyanWay.com.
Salvation Is a Journey
The Wesleyan Way is the journey of a lifetime.
From one point of view, it's a journey with a destination called eternal life. Wesleyan Christians believe that after we die, we go to live forever with God. Christ looked at the criminal crucified with him and said "I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
At the same time, we believe that eternal life is a quality of life lived here on earth. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7, Jesus gave us a series of statements called the Beatitudes. Nine of these statements begin with a word normally translated as "blessed" so that, for example, it reads "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (NRSV). John Wesley translated the word as "happy" so that it reads "Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Wesley knew the Bible was teaching us that genuine happiness comes from following Jesus.
Excerpted from The Wesleyan Way by Scott J. Jones. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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