“Take away whatsoever seemeth thee good”
Let this therefore, if you have not already experienced this inward work of God, be your continual prayer: “Lord, add this to all thy blessings, — let me be born again! Deny whatever thou pleasest, but deny not this; let me be ‘born from above!’ Take away whatsoever seemeth thee good, — reputation, fortune, friends, health, — only give me this, to be born of the Spirit, to be received among the children of God! Let me be born, ‘not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever;’ and then let be daily ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!'” – “The New Birth”, John Wesley
When I attended Wesley Theological Seminary, one of the first things I read my first semester was the John Wesley sermon, “The New Birth”. One of the faculty, a Wesley and United Methodist history scholar, the late Dr. James Logan, was not happy this was assigned. He called it “Wesley’s most equivocal sermon” precisely because it denies the full efficacy of baptism as, both Wesley and the liturgy state, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Yet, Wesley was doing nothing more than preaching on the words of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, telling the Pharisee Nicodemus that he must be born again.
We profess “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” for the remission of sin. Yet, Wesley preaches some hard truths that we in our day continue to need to hear:
But perhaps the sinner himself, to whom in real charity we say, “You must be born again,” has been taught to say, “I defy your new doctrine; I need not be born again: I was born again when I was baptized. What! Would you have me deny my baptism” I answer, First, There is nothing under heaven which can excuse a lie; otherwise I should say to an open sinner, If you have been baptized, do not own it. For how highly does this aggravate your guilt! How will it increase your damnation! Was you devoted to God at eight days old, and have you been all these years devoting yourself to the devil Was you, even before you had the use of reason, consecrated to God the Father, the son, and the Holy Ghost And have you, ever since you had the use of it, been flying in the face of God, and consecrating yourself to Satan Does the abomination of desolation — the love of the word, pride, anger, lust, foolish desire, and a whole train of vile affections — stand where it ought not Have you set up all the accursed things in that soul which was once a temple of the Holy Ghost; set apart for an “habitation of God, through the Spirit;” yea, solemnly given up to him And do you glory in this, that you once belonged to God O be ashamed ! blush ! hide yourself in the earth ! Never boast more of what ought to fill you with confusion, to make you ashamed before God and man! I answer, Secondly, You have already denied your baptism; and that in the most effectual manner. You have denied it a thousand and a thousand times; and you do so still, day by day. For in your baptism you renounced the devil and all his works. Whenever, therefore, you give place to him again, whenever you do any of the works of the devil, then you deny your baptism. Therefore you deny it by every wilful sin; by every act of uncleanness, drunkenness, or revenge; by every obscene or profane word; by every oath that comes out of your mouth. Every time you profane the day of the Lord, you thereby deny your baptism; yea, every time you do any thing to another which you would not he should do to you. I answer, Thirdly, Be you baptized or unbaptized, “you must be born again;” otherwise it is not possible you should be inwardly holy; and without inward as well as outward holiness, you cannot be happy, even in this world, much less in the world to come. Do you say, “Nay, but I do no harm to any man; I am honest and just in all my dealings; I do not curse, or take the Lord’s name in vain; I do not profane the Lord’s day; I am no drunkard; I do not slander my neighbour, nor live in any wilful sin” If this be so, it were much to be wished that all men went as far as you do. But you must go farther yet, or you cannot be saved: Still, “you must be born again.”
We have made being “Christian” so easy. We hear people say, “I believe in God,” yet we never ask, “Which one? How does this belief change your life? Do you not only believe, but seek after what God wants for your life?” Wesley did not preach or teach what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace”. He understood the Christian life to be a life of discipleship, one in which the regeneration of one’s life was evidenced in how one lived: A single-minded pursuit after the living God, the resurrected Christ whose Spirit gave birth to the Church.
From hence it manifestly appears, what is the nature of the new birth. It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is “created anew in Christ Jesus;” when it is “renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;” when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the “mind which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth: “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
I bring all this up because in all our arguing back and forth in the United Methodist Church, in all the threats of schism, of withholding apportionment payments, it seems we have forgotten this great spiritual truth that God through John Wesley gave us: Our lives, including our lives as lay and clergy in the Church, are not our own, but now hidden in the life of the risen Christ. All sides demand the right to be correct. All voices demand to be treated with respect. We have forgotten that, like this particular sermon, Wesley also had members of the United Societies renew their covenant together, usually at Night Watch Services on New Year’s Eve. It has come down to us as “A Covenant Prayer In The Wesleyan Tradition”. We say it, but I wonder if we live it? Does that mean, perhaps, we should set aside our grievances? I think, at least in part, we need to recall that we are not called to be united in thought, but in Spirit, driven by the Spirit to remember that no matter what – whether we have everything, whether we have nothing; whether we are used for God’s purposes, or set aside; whether we are full, whether we are empty – that we are now God’s, hidden in the New Life of the Son through Spirit who dwells within us. Holiness of heart and life begins not with any outward act. It begins with God’s grace filling our lives so we turn toward doing and living and suffering for the Gospel. That is the New Birth. That is who we are to be.