Methodist Heritage: World Methodist Council 1961
Address by Bishop Gerald Kennedy
Tenth World Methodist Conference
August 19, 1961
In the nineteenth century, the English theologian Frederick Dennison Maurice wrote: “I cannot but think that the reformation in our day, which I expect to be more deep and searching than that of the sixteenth century, will turn upon the Spirit’s presence and life, as that did upon the justification by the Son.” That expectation, while as yet unfulfilled, was a confident hope that God through his Holy Spirit would again act mightily in the Church. This expectation was based on previous experiences in the first century and again in the eighteenth century.
The Book of Acts is really the Book of the Holy Spirit. The clue to the meaning of Pentecost is in the words: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2). There is a mighty assurance in those early Christians and they acted as if it were only natural to heal and convert. They were filled with a power that made their witness sharp and clear. They lived in the constant awareness of the reality of the Holy Spirit ever present with them for guidance, comfort, and courage.
The end of World War II was a terrible time for the Christians of Germany. The country was ruined, defeated, disgraced, and there was no hope in the future. Germany was divided, with much of Protestantism under the communists. The churches were particularly hard hit, for they had lost their buildings and many of their leaders. Some of the church leaders had to cross back and forth between East and West Zones and suffered harassments from the authorities. Yet listen to this testimony from Bishop Otto Dibelius: “We are living in the Book of Acts, and, oh, it is glorious.” He was speaking of the recovery of the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.
Our fathers knew this experience. Indeed, to read John Wesley’s Journal is to be transported back into the atmosphere of Acts. There are the same great expectations, the same inspiring hopes, the same signs. The Evangelical Revival was, among other things, a rediscovery of the truth of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I cannot escape the conviction that the Wesleys were raised up by God for this witness and that the people called Methodists have been chosen to continue it.
Now the scandal of revelation for many is its particularity. Why should God reveal Himself in one man, one tribe, one event, one place? Why does God so seldom if ever use an entire generation, a continent, a general infiltration of a whole period as the means of making Himself known? Why is it that He speaks through minorities and fellowships rather than through majorities and institutions? Perhaps it is because He chooses to use the foolish things with which to confound the wise. But I believe He will use some particular instrument for the new reformation.
It could be Methodism. At least we have the tradition and the theology for it. We may have been raised up for such a time and we have the advantage of having been born out of a revival of the Holy Spirit, nurtured by its doctrine, and commanded by its sense of urgency. Let us examine briefly four aspects of our belief in the witness of the Spirit.
In the first place, we believe in Experience. We may argue as to the particulars of John Wesley’s heart-warming event at Aldersgate Street in 1738, but it seems inescapable that it was a personal turning-point and the spring of the Methodist flood. It was an inward witness that brought personal knowledge of God and assurance of the availability of God’s power. It was a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
This was a part of the worship experience of early Methodism. You may remember how Francis Asbury attended a Methodist meeting in Wednesbury and said: “I soon found this was not the Church – but it was better.” He found there no cold formalism and no lifeless ritual, but the sense of the immediate presence of God. The dour and dark dread which seems to dominate so much modern theology, is not the prevailing atmosphere where the presence of the Spirit is expected and recognized. So Wesley could say of a man who has this experience, “He is therefore happy in God.”
I attended a church service a few years ago in a mood of prejudice, which is not the proper way to enter God’s house. I did not like the sermon subject and I was sure that the whole approach was not for me. But from the first hymn, I was captured and lifted. The pastoral prayer began: “O God, when Thy Son walked the earth, men felt that if they could but touch the hem of His robe, they could be healed. We believe He is here with us this day in this place, and with our arms of faith we may touch Him and be healed. Help us to claim Thy promises.” The sermon was a testimony of how men find Christ the answer to their needs and the goal of their search. I left the church helped and strengthened, which is too seldom the experience of people who sit through our chilled formalities.
One of the main problems for modern Methodists is how to create an attitude of expectancy in our ‘cathedrals’ with our choirs and dignified services. Our preaching can so easily become like the heavy lecture at the 1954 World Council Meeting, after which the late Bishop Berggrav of Oslo murmured, “The word became theology and did not dwell among us.” Methodists should sing their theology, which is a better way to proclaim it than reciting a creed or constructing a dogma. Charles Wesley’s hymns are full of personal experiences, and they abound in personal pronouns. I have noticed that Methodist theologians, particularly in England, often quote a hymn when they are discussing a doctrine. They have the sense of these expressions of Charles and John Wesley’s poetry as descriptions of religious experience. And that is theology!
The sign of the living God is communication and revelation. This means experience, and we are committed to the belief that His Spirit witnesses with our spirit. Preachers without the experience of the Holy Spirit are smoking fires with hardly any flame of light. Laymen who have not been baptized with the Spirit, are merely salesmen for an institution with little joy and hardly any power. We cannot give what we do not have any more than we can go back to where we have not been. We believe in the experience of the Holy Spirit.
In the second place, the Holy Spirit’s witness makes us believe in Results. To connect anything pragmatic with the spiritual, will seem to some a contradiction. I am convinced, however, that quite the opposite is true. The spiritual affairs which produce no ascertainable results are to be considered with suspicion. The practical affairs which have no spiritual implications are to be regarded as of questionable importance. This is true of religion in general, but it is the very center of Christianity’s truth.
I have been impressed with the way Wesley met his critics and how in the midst of controversy he kept his eye on the main issue. He seldom argued generalities, but went straight to the particular point. How often he replied to his opponents by referring to the change in environment the Methodists had wrought. He talked about changed personal lives as the answer to Methodism’s critics. John Wesley seems to have thought that the results produced by conversion were the answers to the opposition.
The modern split is reflected in the conversation between two students attending a theological seminary. Both of them served student churches, and one of them was complaining about the condition of his church. The finances were in bad shape, the organizations were feeble, and the attendance was small. But the other one was not disturbed. ‘What do you expect ?’ he asked. “Results?” Or we see it in the superior attitude some times exhibited by other churchmen toward our “activism.” I have seen these communions with their empty sanctuaries and their lack of life. I prefer a Church committed to the idea that the living Spirit of God will produce observable results from its labors, if it is doing God’s will.
We may disagree about methods of evangelism, but we cannot disagree about evangelism itself and remain Christians, to say nothing about remaining Methodists. Evangelism is not just one interest of the Church, for there simply is no Church if evangelism is not present. Let us be critical of all methods and never think that a single method is holy. But that we should ever think that our Methodism can be excused from winning people to Christ would be a confession of death. Every minister and layman in our fellowship must be under the constant question: When was the last time you won somebody to Christ?
We are heavily organized and this causes some of the brethren to chafe. Organization as an end in itself is of the devil, but waste and inefficiency are neither pious nor pleasing to our Lord. All we are trying to do is to conserve the benefits of our faith and exert our maximum power. John Wesley said that he would not strike a blow unless it could be followed up and sustained. I think history says clearly that, for the long pull, Wesley’s way was right. Let us not assume that if we believe in the witness of the Spirit, we must be opposed to machinery in the Church. For it too is a part of God’s plan for the evangelization of the world. It helps us maintain the fruits which God gives from our labors.
A third aspect of this subject is Discipline. This is more important than we think, for only within the framework of a strict discipline can the free Spirit work constructively. Since the days of St Paul, there have been those who would turn the Christian’s freedom into license.
Precisely because he was dealing with tremendous spiritual power, John Wesley insisted on discipline in his services and in the lives of his followers. The early Church found that same necessity and so shall we. In Wesley’s Journal for 17th August 1750 there is this entry: “I preached at Ludgvan at noon, and at Newlyn in the evening. Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’” All one or the other can only create half-Christians.
I marvel yet at the Methodist tradition of time and rules. We are to consider time the great gift and the heavy responsibility. We have our General Rules and our Discipline. Our ministers carry heavy burdens and take responsibility for their conferences as well as for their churches. They are to serve where they are appointed without spending time candidating for pulpits. They are subject to the modern tensions and strains which are destroying so many of our contemporaries. I do not know a more difficult or demanding job in our modern world than to be a Methodist minister. This situation will not get better, for we are not about to become pietistic fellowships or passive, waiting servants of Christ. Ours is the marching tradition and we are a travelling ministry. We can only do our work by being the most disciplined of men.
Billy Sunday said one time that he had been accused of rubbing the fur the wrong way. “Well,” he replied, “let the cat turn around.” Perhaps God is saying to us that we must turn around – that we are on the wrong path going in the wrong direction. With all the material advantages we enjoy, we are often frustrated and unhappy people. To be an instrument of the Spirit’s power, we must accept spiritual discipline. The path to freedom is both straight and demanding.
Finally, let us see the witness of the spirit in the light of our doctrine of Christian Perfection. This is a difficult matter for us to understand and explain. There is a very close connection between the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and Christian Perfection. Both stem from the experience of being found by God in Christ. Both are based on a faith that God is involved in all of man’s life. Both believe that the Spirit of God can capture a man and transform his desires. Both will destroy our carefulness and timidity with an assurance that “all things are possible with God.”
When I was a young preacher, I studied John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection, which may be the only unique doctrine Methodism has preached. I found him spending about as much time explaining what he did not mean as what he did mean. It seemed to me too troublesome, and I spent little time on it in the following years of my ministry. But John Wesley held it and preached it in spite of its difficulty, and I have become convinced that he was right.
A young candidate for Conference membership objected to saying “Yes” to the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” An old bishop asked quietly, “Well son, what are you going on to?” The whole idea of perfection is foreign to us, and we prefer to just do the best we can and not expect unreasonable attainment. But Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5).
It is time that we tried to recapture the mood of a man and a people who would declare their intention of aiming at nothing less than being perfect in love. They were not saying that they expected to become sinless – or perfect in judgment. But they were willing to be content with nothing less than giving themselves completely and unreservedly to the service of Jesus Christ. It was an affirmation of the kind of faith we find in the Book of Acts when the experience of the Holy Spirit was so real.
That New Testament enthusiasm is lacking in our time. The American comedian Mort Sahl said that he wished he could find a cause, because he had a lot of enthusiasm. Our problem is just the reverse, for while we have a cause, we seem curiously lacking in enthusiasm, either in the pulpit or in the pews. If in the midst of this compromising, vacillating, mediocrity ridden world the Methodists should proclaim again that they were committed to being made perfect in love, it might start a new revival. In the midst of all the bad news which reaches us daily, this would be good news indeed.
God gives much or little according to our asking. If all we want is the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, that is all we shall receive. But if we dare to reaffirm our faith in the doctrine of Christian Perfection and pray for the glorious experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, God wih use us mightily again. And who knows whether we have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) was a bishop of the United Methodist Church (Los Angeles). Excerpted from the Proceedings of the Tenth World Methodist Conference in Oslo, Norway, August 17-25, 1961.