Have you ever wondered what it means to be a Methodist, really? Or, maybe you’ve wondered if there is really a core of essential content to Methodism? Maybe it is just the church you go to if you get married and he’s Baptist and she’s Roman Catholic. You know, the compromise church. Or maybe some of you know recent Methodism too well and you see it not as the compromise church but as the compromised church.
What is real Methodism?
Methodism has a history in the United States of America that is longer than the history of the United States of America itself. The first Methodists came to the British Colonies in the late 1760s. Their marching orders came from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. One of the best known summaries of Methodism comes from Wesley’s essay “Thoughts upon Methodism,” an essay he wrote in 1786 towards the end of his life. Wesley gets right to the point in the first paragraph:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Methodism did not exist when John Wesley was born. Can you imagine seeing God raise up a movement during your lifetime that grew so much and put down such deep roots that by the end of your life you could say that you were confident it was going to continue to exist. Amazing!
BY 1786, Wesley wasn’t worried about whether Methodism would continue after his death. He only worried about whether it would be a faithful Spirit-filled movement, or merely a powerless zombie institution.
So what is real Methodism? Wesley tells us right here:
Real Methodism “holds fast” to “the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
If you are following me, then you are already asking the next question: What were the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which Methodism began?
Methodism involved a commitment to basic Christian orthodoxy as found in Holy Scripture and summarized in well-worn statements embraced by the universal church like the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed.
Methodism built on this foundation with an audacious optimism that the grace of God is able to save to the uttermost. The grace of God first justifies (forgives and pardons) and enables us to enter into a reconciled relationship with the Lord. Second, the grace of God sanctifies (heals and transforms) so that we are able to actually live the kinds of lives that God intends for us to live and love what God loves.
This is described in John Wesley’s articulation of the possibility of entire sanctification. A key passage for Wesley on entire sanctification is 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24:
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (NRSV)
Real Methodism is all-in. Methodists are sold out for Jesus Christ. They have counted the cost and laid down their lives in submission to Jesus, seeking to follow him wholeheartedly. Real Methodism is characterized by zeal and passion. There is an expectation that the Holy Spirit will produce his fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). There is also an openness and hunger to receive the gifts the Spirit gives (see Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12) to be empowered to do the works the Father would have us do in Jesus’s name.
Real Methodism is both a spirit of commitment and passion combined with a fully Trinitarian understanding of God that includes not only the Father and the Son, but also the Holy Spirit.
Finally, real Methodism is a disciplined life. Methodists read Scripture and pray daily. They gather together weekly with other believers to worship the Triune God. They receive the sacrament of Communion. They fast. And they gather together in small groupls (like class and band meetings) to connect with one another and to encourage each other to pay attention to God’s work in their lives and to continue to grow in holiness.
Perhaps most counter-cultural today, real Methodists do not profess Jesus with their lips but deny him by the way they live their lives.
Real Methodism is really just authentic Christianity. Wesley himself said as much.
Want to know more?
If you want to know more, please check out my Servant School Course: Real Methodism (The Essentials).
Kevin M. Watson is Director of Academic Growth & Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is anchored at Asbury Seminary’s Tulsa Extension Site. He also serves in Tulsa as Scholar in Residence at Asbury Church. Connect with Kevin at: kevinmwatson.com