Psalm 119:11 “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you” (NRSV)
Several years ago during a retreat called ‘Discover God’s Call” a United Methodist evangelist, Rev. Terry Duckworth, before he began to read Scripture for his message, held up his Bible and asked others who had brought their own to do the same. When the several of us who had our Bible held them up, Terry joked that we must be the Baptists or former Baptists of the group! Everyone laughed. It was a retreat for United Methodists and now-a-days we aren’t well known for our love of Scripture I suppose. But this wasn’t always the case and it need not and should not be now. Love of and reverence for Scripture and an earnest desire to be transformed and formed by it were at the very core of the early Methodist movement, and will have to be regained if the church is to reignite that holy fire that spread “Scriptural” holiness throughout the land in the 18th and 19th centuries.
John Wesley often simply summed up holiness as the love of God and neighbor, the heart of the law, pulsating through one’s own heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 5:5, a verse that Wesley quoted or alluded to quite frequently, speaks of the love of God being poured into believers’ hearts through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Lest we mistake this love for a vague sentimentalism or simply for our own personal pleasure, we should understand that the Biblical definition of love, for God and neighbor, is inextricably bound up with very specific do’s (doing good) and don’t’s (doing no harm). Just read the context of both Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to be reminded of the intimate connection between love and keeping God’s commandments. 1 John shows this intimate connection quite explicitly.
1 John 5:2-3 (NRSV) “2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,”
We also find this vital connection between love and commandment keeping expressed by Jesus in the 14th chapter of the gospel of John. There he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (v. 15). In the preceding chapter he had delivered to them his commandment that they were to love one another, which would become the identifying mark of his disciples (13:34-35). Again, this love should not be mistaken for a false security blanket of unconditional affirmation with no word of warning regarding sin or encouragement to change, or rather be changed by the grace of God. In the early Methodist movement there was plenty of the later, and very high expectations for the level of change that God could bring about through the atoning blood of Christ and the wonder working power of the Spirit. And it was Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, that was their primary and ultimate guide and criterion for all their affections, thoughts, words, and actions.
In a day when we sometimes hear quibbling over how many passages of Scripture it should take before we take a particular prohibition or teaching of Scripture seriously, John Wesley’s insistence that even one commandment from Scripture is more than enough for one’s absolute obedience[i] may sound silly to some, but I’m sure for Wesley it would be quite the contrary. I would venture to say that Wesley’s view of Scripture as an authority far exceeded just about anyone in his own day and certainly in ours. He saw it as an “infallible”[ii] guide and criterion for holiness, the ultimate criterion for doctrine and practice that was as “true as God is true,”[iii] something which he said even demons know. He saw it as “the Book of God” written to show the way to heaven. Consequently he sought to be “a man of one book” to live a life outwardly conformed and inwardly transformed by it through the power of the Holy Spirit.[iv] In a sermon entitled “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity”, while admonishing lukewarm Methodists to stop living contrary to the Bible to their own detriment, he said: “Here I am: I and my Bible. I will not, I dare not, vary from this book, either in great things or small. I have no power to dispense with one jot or tittle of what is contained therein. I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost, but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground? Join me on this, or not at all.”[v]
There’s a story in 2 Kings 22-23 about a high priest, Hilkiah, who found the book of the law presumably that had been buried beneath the idols that had led Judah astray and to the brink of destruction. It had been long rejected and forgotten by the leaders and the people. When the king, Josiah, heard the words of the book read aloud he repented. Then he read it to the people who also repented. Together the king and the people humbled themselves to obey the commandments found written therein with all their heart. It led to a time of revival and reformation unlike anything that had been seen in a very long time. I think we too need to rediscover the book, the Bible, the word of the living God that has been buried beneath our own idols of personal pleasure, comfort, and convenience and our denominational idols of cultural respectability and relevance to name a few.
A high view, a very high view, of Scripture as the primary authority for faith and practice, holiness of heart and life, is not incidental but absolutely essential to vital Methodism. We have to do more than just try to reclaim the methods of Methodism, we also need to reclaim the message of Methodism, a Spirit infused message informed by Scripture to the highest degree. A message of love, God’s love for all, a message of grace, a grace that forgives and changes people hearts, a message of faith that works by love, our love for God and all those whom God loves. A message of new birth by the Spirit, Who fills our hearts to overflowing with God’s love enabling us to keep His commandments, and a message of the grace of a God Who loves us too much to leave us the way we are, but who takes us to heights of holiness and happiness beyond what we could ever imagine, saving all who believe from self-destruction and the wrath to come. Will we meet John Wesley on this ground? Let’s do! Let’s make our way through the gray fog of moral obfuscation and meet on that holy ground, and there let’s start digging. I believe we will rediscover the treasure trove of God’s written word and, as the Psalmist said, treasure it within our hearts so that we may not sin against the Lord. I think that’s a pretty good summary of what Scriptural holiness is all about.
[i] See Sermon 120 “On the Wedding Garment” section 3 where he says regarding Scriptural authority of texts that “one is as good as a thousand”.
[ii] I know this makes many modern United Methodists queasy, but it was what Wesley believed and he stood in a tradition in this regard that can be traced back to Jesus, the apostles, and the early church fathers. See Sermon 129 “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes” pg. 399 (last page of sermon).
[iii] See Sermon 18: “The Marks of the New Birth”, section I:2, pg. 213.
[iv] See Preface to Volume 1 of his Sermons, section 5.
[v] Sermon 116, section 12.