A few kids in a youth group asked their United Methodist pastor: “Do we (i.e. United Methodists) believe people need to be saved? Our Baptist friends always talk about being saved. Do we believe that too?”
The short answer is yes, of course! Of course we United Methodists believe in the need for salvation (even if some unofficially find the traditional notion distasteful). But there is more to salvation than just getting a free ticket to go to heaven rather than hell when we die.
Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his image and after his likeness to be his royal representatives on earth. God intended to exercise his loving and righteous rule over creation through humanity. We were created not only to be blessed by a holy loving relationship with God, but also to be mediators through which the blessing of God would flow to the rest of creation. We were also created to lead the rest of creation in praise of God for the glory of God.
There are small, seemingly insignificant pipes that allow water to flow into and out of our homes. With the water we quench our thirst, prepare our food, and clean ourselves, our clothes and dishes and more. Large cables and thin and imperceptible wires also allow electricity to flow into and through our homes providing lighting, heating, cooling, and powering our electronics. Has the flow of water or electricity ever been disrupted at your house?
Recently a car ran off the road and hit a power pole in our neighborhood. It snapped a cable, which cut off all the electricity to our home and many others on a Saturday night. We ended up eating takeout by candle light. Fortunately my lap top was charged enough for us to be able to watch a family movie on DVD. But we all realize how much better things are with flowing water and electricity when they get disrupted.
When the first humans, Adam and Eve, gave into the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden and sinned against God it disrupted the flow of God’s blessing not only to them, but also the flow of God’s blessing to the rest of creation that came through them. Their hearts were corrupted and their minds were darkened; and the whole creation suffered as a result. Sin not only hurt their relationship with God and each other, it also brought a curse on the created world. Because the image of God in humanity was distorted, disharmony in the rest of the world followed. Like a disease, the corrupting power of sin spread to all humans who were born after Adam and Eve and the whole world suffered.
God called the nation of Israel to restore God’s blessing to the world, to be a light among all the other nations. He gave them commandments, summed up in the Ten Commandments. He promised that they would be blessed to be a blessing to the rest of the nations of the world if they would keep them; he warned them that they would be cursed if they rebelled. Although they had some shining moments, they were few and fleeting. After hundreds and hundreds of years of repeated rebellion, the nation of Israel was destroyed and expelled from the promised land. Like Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, Israel was exiled from the land that God had given them.
Israel failed to restore the blessing of God to creation. The power of sin that had been passed from Adam and Eve to the rest of the human race proved to be too strong for humanity to overcome on its own. The promised blessings of God depended on human obedience, but humanity, even Israel with a special relationship with God, proved to be utterly unwilling and therefore incapable of fulfilling its part of the covenant. God had made these promises that depended on human obedience for their fulfillment, now what would God do? . . .
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. ~ Galatians 4:4 NRSV
God’s blessing to the world depends on humans being obedient to God’s design for them. Humans are meant to live in peace and harmony with God so peace and harmony can flow through them to each other and the rest of creation. When fallen humanity proved incapable, God himself in the person of the one and only eternal Son of God became human and was born of the Virgin Mary. Evoking Isaiah 7:14, Matthew tells us he was Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Joseph, Mary’s husband, at the behest of the angel named him Jesus, which means “the Lord Saves” (Matt 1:21). As a full-fledged human, Jesus fulfilled humanity’s obligation of obedience to God. God in Christ Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves, and by grace through faith allows us to share fully in the blessing that he himself restored. Saint Paul put it this way:
If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. ~ Romans 5:17-19 NRSV
Saint John put it this way:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16 NRSV
Jesus’ obedience to God cost him his life at the hands of sinful men (Philippians 2:8). But although evil people can kill, God can raise the dead. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus God offers us forgiveness of sins and new life as a free gift.
We are saved by grace (i.e. what God has done for us in Christ Jesus), through faith (trusting in Jesus), for good works, a new way of life in the world.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10 NRSV
The incarnation of the Son of God, his life, death, and resurrection planted the seed of the new creation within the midst of our fallen world. It was a seed that sprang forth with Jesus from the heart of the earth when he arose from the dead. It continues to grow even now, and we can participate in its transforming power by grace through faith.
In the Methodist tradition we believe God’s grace leads us and empowers us to believe. When we believe we are justified and forgiven by God on account of the shed blood of Christ. At the same time we are also born anew from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the new birth we receive a new heart for a holy life that we must grow into. It is God’s grace that helps us grow. In this process called sanctification we are enabled to shed ourselves of the corruption of sin and to be renewed into the image and likeness of God as God intended when God first created humanity. It is a process where God heals our distorted desires and corrects our false beliefs. Sin makes us want to do things selfishly that are not right; in our darkened minds we seek to justify ourselves with falsehoods and lies. The grace of God renews us “in true righteousness and holiness” (see Eph 4:17-32).
To help us in this renewal of the image of God in holy love in us, God has given us certain practices of discipleship, spiritual disciplines, that we are called to practice together in the church. These are called means of grace. Means of grace are like channels that connect us to God so God’s grace in Christ can flow to us to renew us. If you want to receive the benefits of the internet, you have to get connected, right? You have to get access to the right signal. The means of grace and the practice of spiritual disciplines gets us connected to receive the grace of God that renews us into the image of God. But the reconnecting to God the Father through the Son is not merely restoring power, it is the restoration of a relationship that was lost. It is the restoration of friendship with God.
The means of grace include prayer, Bible study, worship (including the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion), fasting, fellowship with believers, works of mercy and compassion in the Church and world. These practices put us in the best position to receive the signal of God’s grace so we can grow. But we must not forget that the means of grace all have an end, meaning a goal.
A basketball coach gives basketball players certain drills to practice so they can become good, hopefully even great, players. A band director gives students certain things to practice so they can become good musicians. But becoming a good basketball player is not just meant to benefit the individual, but also a team and a school or a city. A good musician is meant to benefit a band and those who will be enriched by the music.
God gives us certain practices to help renew us into the image and likeness of God, but not just for ourselves. God wants to not only bless us, but to bring blessing to the rest of the world through us. The goal of renewal in the image of God will be complete in the resurrection of the body when Christ comes again. This is called glorification. It’s the goal of the means of grace and the practice of spiritual disciplines, including all the gifts of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Corinthians 12-14). Completion of renewal in the image of God will not only restore blessing to humanity, it will also restore the fullness of God’s blessing to the rest of creation (Rom 8:18-30). But whenever we faithfully practice spiritual disciplines now, a measure of God’s blessing will not only flow to us, but also through us into our families, to our friends and even our enemies, to our communities, and to the rest of creation, which God is renewing as he renews us.
By practicing spiritual disciplines we work out our salvation as God works in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure”(Philippians 2:12-13). By participating in our own transformation, we participate in God’s transformation of the whole world. In other words, the means of grace, made possible by the obedience of Jesus Christ, are a bridge to somewhere. That somewhere is the kingdom of God fully come in the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21-22).
Joy to the world!
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground:
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son
is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic* and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The United Methodist Hymnal # 880.