Archive: New Power for the Church

By Albert Outler
September/October 1984
Good News

Albert Cook Outler (1908-1989) was the preeminent John Wesley scholar in America. He served four pastorates in Georgia before becoming a seminary professor. He taught at Duke and Yale and finally for many years at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. A prolific author, Dr. Outler was editor of the four-volume collection of John Wesley’s sermons in Cokesbury’s series, The Works of John Wesley. The following article is adapted from the sermon Dr. Outler preached at historic Lovely Lane Church in Baltimore on Sunday, May 6, 1984 – the Sunday between the two weeks of General Conference. The text for his message was Acts 1:4-8. This Bicentennial Sermon, “Empowered to Witness,” is a timely and prophetic word for the entire church.
–Good News

We are met together here this morning sharing a special heritage at a special moment and in a very special place.

This Sunday is a time “between the times.” It’s the midpoint of our Bicentennial year, the midpoint in this Bicentennial General Conference.

Thus far the General Conference has been largely preoccupied with celebrations and maneuverings. Now come the times of hazard – of shortened debates and of hard decisions, with less time for deliberation than will be needed and more decisions than can be made wisely in the time allotted.

We are proud and thankful for Methodism’s history. And yet, deep down, we also have this uneasy awareness of a certain sense of loss of momentum in our church and in her sense of mission, a certain malaise in her espirit and morale, a shift from a consensual mood to an adversarial mood.

Altered self-image. There are, thank God, many churches across the country and around the globe that are alive and life-giving, but they are too readily thought of as exceptional. We even make the feeble boast that our overall losses last year were less than previously. Time was when we pointed to our statistics of burgeoning growth as proof of God’s special favor. Now we have shifted to the logic of Gideon’s band. Now it is fashionable to argue that it is quality that really counts. We have altered our self-image from that of a church on the march to that of a church in a mode of maintenance.

The world about us grows more and more foreboding. The political processes on which we placed so much reliance seem more and more decrepit and ineffectual. The Western dogmas of progress and human perfectibility are no longer devoutly believed or believable. The shadow of the mushroom cloud grows darker.

After two centuries of success in an atmosphere of triumphalism, we must now recollect that historic Christianity, in all its branches, has had a long history of surmounting successive institutional and cultural crises. Its prime confidence never has been in the teeter-totter of optimism and pessimism. Rather, its assurance has been in the invincible sovereignty of God’s grace and providence – and in the constant action of the Holy Spirit in upholding the Church and empowering her in mission, in good times and bad.

This is the point of our text in the first chapter of Christian church history, “The Acts of the Apostles.” It is the risen Lord’s first promise to his befuddled disciples facing a perplexing future: “After the enduement of the Holy Spirit, (and presumably, because of it) you will receive power, and will then become my ‘martyrs’ (my witnesses): in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth.”

This, as we know, was the secret of Christianity’s survival and growth – in the first age, and ever since. It was a fellowship of men and women  empowered to witness, not their own and not just to each other, but by exclaiming the Gospel to the world that “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior to the glory of God the Father.” This has also been the secret of every re-invigoration of the Body of Christ ever since – and never more so than the Evangelical Revival of the Wesleys and in American Methodism. What real power we have ever had is spiritual power.

This is Wesley’s point in his Explanatory Notes, on Luke 1:35: “The power of God is put forth by the Holy Spirit as the immediate agent in this work, and so exerts the power of the highest as his own power – who, together with the Father and the Son, is the most High God.”

At the heart of the true Methodist there has always been a robust doctrine of the Trinity! On this special Sunday we are aware of the myriad issues confronting the General Conference. You will understand my temptation to editorialize on at least a few of them. “Keep back thy servant, Lord, from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.” I recall Wesley’s wry reference to the medieval Spanish king who said that had he been present at the creation he would have had some very helpful suggestion to make.

The point is that there are tensions in the legislative committees and disruptive proposals still hanging in the balance. There is, therefore, a natural tendency to suppose that United Methodism’s fate and future are about to be decided by what happens between now and Friday [the close of General Conference]. So it is, in a very important sense.

But not finally, and here we must be clear. Our real empowerment for effective witness still will come from its only valid source: the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives and in the church at large. The larger end we have in view, therefore, is not just legislation but empowerment to witness – the proclamation and the exclamation of the Gospel – its manifestations in our sacrificial love.

We should not underestimate the decisive role of General Conferences, but not overestimate either. It may be useful to remember how many “great occasions” have actually been stultified by their consequences, and yet also how many “minor occasions” have been surpassed by their consequences.

Authority from God. The formal authority of an ecclesiastical body and its actions is never decisive in and of itself. “Councils,” said Wesley, “can and have erred.” Authority comes from God through the consensus of the truly faithful, as they are guided by the Holy Spirit, by Holy Scripture, and by the Christian tradition. Ask not, then, how this conference fares. Ask rather how much it will have been refreshed by the Spirit to renew the church with fresh hope and vigor for fruitful Christian mission.

The Christmas Conference, large as it looms today, was a minor affair at the time and made only a slight impression – not to mention the bad example it set for later Methodist Conferences: “We were in great haste (reports Asbury in his Journal) and did much business in a little time.” But what momentous business it was, and what splendid consequences it made possible!

Thus, this Bicentennial conference and all else this year will have to be judged, not by this vote or that – but on whether or not what is now a dispirited church becomes an inspirited one – enlivened for her urgent tasks.

As we enter our Third Century, it is increasingly plain that 19th century conservatism and 20th century liberalism are both spent forces. The former never really understood the richness of Wesley’s doctrine of grace; the latter never really grasped his doctrine of sin and sanctification.

Wesley had ransacked the Christian tradition to come up with a creative and powerful understanding of sin and grace, of justification and sanctification – and we must do likewise. Until Ephesians 2:8 is restored to the heart of our message, “we are saved by grace through faith,” the power of our witness will continue to be enfeebled.

Wesley’s teaching about the Holy Spirit, and also the sources of that teaching in Scripture and tradition, could be newly instructive and relevant for us. It certainly has been at the heart of earlier Methodist renewals whenever they have come.

Christian existence is life in, with, and under the Spirit whose indwelling presence is the divine energy that is the ground of our human spirituality. It is the Spirit’s prevenient grace that is the divine initiative in human hearts.

The Spirit is God within us, witnessing to the grace of assurance of sins forgiven as well as to the supreme grace of love, not as a means but as in itself the end of faith and hope.

It is the Holy Spirit who represents Jesus Christ as Lord to each new age and culture. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers his faithful followers to faithful discipleship in word and life. This was the secret of Methodist outreach in Century One, of Methodism’s prophetic courage and vision in Century Two. It will be the open secret of refreshment and renewed vitality in Century Three.

The Spirit-Wind is blowing across the world in our time and in places that one might have thought unlikely – Indonesia, Korea, Africa, even here at home (on college campuses and even in some churches!).

In the new world unfolding the Christian power of authentic witness will come less from human ingenuity than from eager hearts, minds, and lives open to the leadings of the Spirit. It will come less from mutual exhortation than from the recognition that it is his work in the world to lead men and women into the fullness of their true humanity in Jesus Christ.

It is in this sense that our hopes and prayers for the Bicentennial General Conference must be for its willingness to be led of the Spirit – and not to confuse emotive rhetoric and trendy ideologies with the the Spirit’s leadings.

We are not talking about subjective piety here – but about the objective, operative gifts of the Spirit, especially the gift of “discernment of spirits.” We are talking about the objective, manifold fruits of the Spirit – especially love, joy, and peace and the rest of that laundry list of Christian virtues in Galatians 5:22. Let these be the tests of judgment – of every speech and every vote.

The horizons of the future are already opening up beyond this Conference. They look toward a future that God is still holding open for his human family, whom he will never abandon and yet will never coerce. What will matter most in that future is the recovery of our singlemindedness in mission – the mission of human salvation in all its fullness, for all the peoples in all the world. This is a Gospel beyond class and ideology to dignity and true “liberation,” beyond race and sex to true community, beyond adversarial theologies of all sorts toward justice, righteousness, and the “rule of grace.”

The distinctive design of “The People Called Methodists,” it was once widely agreed, was “to reform the nation and to spread Scriptural holiness over these lands.” Here is a task that demands the best and the most of us all, for it means a truly renewed kind of evangelism, truly renewed conceptions of Christian growth and maturation, renewed commitments to Christian social action, or “social holiness” as Wesley called it. It means preaching and suffering and living and caring, and turning the upside-down world right side up again.

This task of spreading “Scriptural holiness” remains our task, to be helped or hindered by General Conferences and by our boards and agencies but not preempted by any of them. The United Methodist Church exists to manifest the power of the Spirit – not the other way around.

This wonderful old church [Lovely Lane] in which we are worshipping today, with its lilting name and all its indelible memories, is “The Mother Church” of American Methodism. Our presence here is a token of our appreciation of a wondrously rich heritage, and yet also a sign of our commitments to a new future in which our hungers and hopes for yet another Great Awakening may find at least the beginnings of their satisfactions.

The men who came to Baltimore 200 years ago were empowered to witness. So may we still be. They were evangelists. So should we be. They had a vision of a New Zion in the wilderness. Our vision must be of Zion in a new wilderness – of humanity in its current dire disorder. From Baltimore their witness to the Gospel spread to the uttermost parts of the earth, and that now has brought us back to Baltimore once again for a new beginning. But all truly new beginnings are spiritual. They come from inspirited churches, enlivened and enlivening. It is not for us to know or try to control the final ends of the history. We are commissioned to help shape them. The end of it all is the Father’s business.

It is enough for us, says our text, to open our hearts and minds to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we may be empowered to give word and life and winsomeness to the true Gospel of Christ, to our nearest neighbors and out to the uttermost human frontier. So may it be here in these next few days and in the years that stretch out beyond. So may it be with all the people called Methodists everywhere in all the world. So may it be with God’s people in every place and every future – secure, as we all may be, in the unfailing providence of God. Amen.


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