Speaker: The Revd Tom Stuckey, Past President of the Methodist Conference (2005)
Theme: The Power of the Cross
Dates: Friday 3 to Sunday 5 November,
The Four Alls of Methodism - 1/4
All People Need to be Saved
If this document on the computer is not saved, it is lost and the author's creativity is wasted. This is how the terms 'saved' and lost' are most readily used nowadays in western society. The Bible is a salvation handbook explaining God's answer to the lostness and wastefulness of sin, so that every person may find and fulfil God's magnificent purpose for all. The significant division in the Bible is not between rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, but between saved and lost, heaven and hell, carnal and spiritual, being 'in Christ' and 'in Adam'.
What Is The Need?
There are no shortages of examples of the need for salvation - Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, New York, Bali, Corporate America and everywhere, remind us of the 'mystery of iniquity'. Most people today have some idea of 'original sin', even if they have never heard of it. Although the term is not found in scripture, 'original sin' well describes the radical wrongness which we have inherited from Adam and Eve, or that disobedient disposition which is in us from the moment of our own origin. John Stott identifies within us both a dignity and a degradation. Our dignity is that God made us in his own image, with a mind to think, a heart to love, a will to choose and a soul to worship. Our degradation is that because of Adam and Eve's sin through rebellion and wilful disobedience, humankind fell from God's favour and the divine image has been spoiled at every point; our minds are darkened so that we cannot see the truth, our love is corrupted, our will is enslaved and we worship the wrong things. Theologians call this 'total depravity', which Jim Packer helpfully describes thus: "It is not that everywhere man is as bad as he could be, but that nowhere is he as good as he should be". The consequences of our sinfulness are described in scripture in various ways. We are unable to save ourselves or ever please God (Romans 8:7); we are condemned and under God's wrath (Romans 1:18ff); we are unclean before the Holy One (Isaiah 6:3-5); we are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1).
While most people, except the impossibly arrogant, will admit to a moral need, it is the biblical definition of sin which baffles them and makes the job of the Christian evangelist difficult. An additional difficulty is the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). Self-destroying ungodliness has even crept up on Christian leaders whose muddled minds were temporarily switched off by sin's manipulating deceit (Ephesians 4:22), the resulting habit producing a hardening of heart (Ephesians 4:18).
When the evangelist today asks people to repent, the implication is that they are bad people and this runs counter to the fashion of positive thinking, self-esteem and that children should not be encouraged to have a negative image of themselves since guilt can be damaging. The evangelist will need to distinguish between false guilt, which is indeed damaging and real guilt which needs to be confronted, cleansed and forgiven by a loving God, who through the cross has supplied 'grace to cover all my sin'.
Another problem in sharing Jesus today is that modern sinners have little sense of the holiness of God against which sin is such an affront. There is need, as Mr Wesley knew, to preach law as well as grace (Romans 3:19f). It is God's standards which identify sin and condemn disobedience. Of course the best way to preach the law is to point to Christ, whose purity of life and clarity of teaching both inspire and condemn us.
A further difficulty in presenting the Good News of salvation today is that in polite society there is a belief that sin is mainly due to ignorance and social depravation, and maybe eradicated by education and economics. Information, however, does not change character and therapy is no substitute for prayer and belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is true that social evils such as racism, sectarianism, sexism and greed are sinful, because they are an offence to human dignity, and therefore to God in whose image all people are made. Sin is more than an offence against one another, and reconciliation with one another is not reconciliation with God. The Bible with laser-like precision repeats that sin disrupts relationship with God. Sin is a failure to reach God's standards, it departs from God's path, it transgresses God's law and defies God's authority. The essence of sin is self-defying pride. We play God when we love and serve and please ourselves, without reference to God. Augustine describes this bent on self-possession as homo incurvatus in se, which has been depicted as a wood-shaving curled around its own inner emptiness.
Who Are The Needy?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it insightfully: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
John Wesley in his preaching, like Charles Wesley in his hymns, emphasised the biblical analysis that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). After the rigours of religious discipline including failed missionary service in Georgia, he still felt alienated from God and wrote: "This then, I have learned in the ends of the earth that I am fallen short of the glory of God...and having nothing in or of myself to plead, I have no hope..." Wesley insisted that this was the universal condition, and being incapable of extracting itself, humankind needed salvation.
What Is Salvation?
A recent draft publication (2002) from the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church in Ireland states: "Salvation means not only the forgiveness of sins, but also freedom; freedom from the fear of death and hell, and freedom from the fear that life is without purpose or meaning. This can be ours because of God's grace - his undeserved goodness to us. Neither good deeds nor pious religious practices in themselves can earn salvation, whether they are done by us or on our behalf. Indeed such attempts to earn salvation show our concern to do something by ourselves, for ourselves. This concern with self, is the very opposite of that denial with self, which is required of those who would follow Jesus. All that is asked of us is that we have faith. Faith in this context is not a confession of faith such as the Apostle's Creed or a specific religious faith, but primarily trust in God through Christ. We have to recognise God's loving kindness reaching out to us, especially from the cross of Christ, and accept this personally.
In previous revival times there was talk of 'a passion for souls'. There is an urgent challenge to evangelise the uncommitted in our churches, the unevangelised in our neighbourhood and the unreached in the world. Why? Because all need to be saved