Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grace and Holiness in the Wesleyan Tradition

Grace and Holiness in a Changing World: A Wesleyan Proposal for Postmodern Ministry, Jeffrey E. Greenway & Joel B. Green, eds., (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 117 pp., ISBN – 13:978-0-687-46570-5.

“The times, they are a changing…” Indeed, they are! Not only did Bob Dylan sing these lines during an era of turbulence, but he also tapped into a well-spring of truth that has become commonplace among persons who look into the future: Even change has changed! And what can we say about the pace of change? Yes, even the pace of change has changed!

Therefore, as God’s people in the midst of the "best of times and the worst of times," who are we to be and what are we to do? How will we journey into the future? What are the "marks" that will set us apart? And how will others come to know and see us?

By no means are these easy questions to answer. The evidence points out otherwise. Throughout its history, the church has faced many challenges. This is not new. What is new at this juncture is how the various traditions within Christianity will maintain their distinctive voices within a wider consumerist and pluralist culture: how will Christians in the Wesleyan theological tradition, for example, contend to share "the faith once delivered to the saints"(Jude 3)? What "marks" will characterize a Wesleyan approach to discipleship in a rapidly changing world? How will Wesleyan Christians "reform the nation and church and spread scriptural holiness across these lands"? By no means are these easy questions!

Thankfully, the present volume comes to the fore to explore what the Wesleyan theological tradition can offer the ministry of the church at the beginning of a new millennium. Edited by Jeffery Greenway, a United Methodist pastor in Ohio, and Joel Green, professor of New Testament at Fuller Seminary, this work lays out the key contours of a Wesleyan approach to ministry in a postmodern world. As the title suggests, "grace and holiness" within the Wesleyan heritage are inextricably intertwined; we truly cannot speak of one without the other. Wesleyan Christians are known for preaching "grace upon grace" (e.g., preventing grace, converting grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, perfecting grace, glorifying grace); but they also cannot speak of God’s grace without speaking of God’s holiness and law, that is, without obedience (p. 10). In short, our living response to the grace of God starts with the holiness of God (p. 12). It is the "holiness of heart and life" that flows out of our relationship with God to neighbor and world (p. 12). Therefore, any proposal for a Wesleyan approach to ministry will need to come to grips with this distinctive conjunction.

The book itself is divided into six chapters, plus introduction (Greenway). All the contributors have taught or have attended Asbury Theological Seminary. All have undertaken attempts to suggest what ministry within the Wesleyan tradition will look like in a postmodern context: e.g., the "apostolic mission" of the church in a world of empire (Joel Green), the nature of change in the church in a world of transition (Lee Choi), the healing and costly message of grace in a world of sin and brokenness (Harper), the holiness of heart and life in a world of superficiality (Snyder), the importance of the priesthood of all believers for life together (Tuttle), and the dynamic tension in the Christian life between holiness and grace (Gutenson). All the authors address these critical "marks" of the Christian life and the way these "marks" impact the life of ministry – e.g., the stewardship of the earth, the role of the laity, the importance of the congregation in mission, and the significance of holiness and grace to biblical interpretation and proclamation. All find expression here.

As I reflect on this work, there are few observation I would like to make. First, as a pastor within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, I appreciate very much what these authors have to share about the Wesleyan tradition. The book can introduce and educate persons on the basics of Wesleyan Christianity. On this score, it can serve a productive purpose.

Second, several sub-themes are also apparent throughout the work. Within the flux of culture, it is interesting to note how several of the authors use the language of "counterculture," "alternative society," or "apostolic community." Critical attention is given to how the church in the past accommodated itself to the wider society and how it lost its saltiness. The focus on holiness is pertinent here. As the authors contend, there is now a need for the church to re-envision its distinctive marks and focus on what makes the church unique. A great deal of work remains in this area.

Third, following the above point, there is also a need to ask how the "language of holiness" can continue to make inroads in a church with different understandings of holiness on the one hand and how it can communicate holiness to a world with no understanding of holiness on the other. Certainly, the traditional "marks" of the church come into the equation here. Under the influence of postmodern culture, the tension between grace and holiness comes into full view. Methodists in particular tend to wrestle with this tension by going in different directions – some by maintaining a strict holiness code, others by promoting respectability and relevancy within a mostly white middle class ethos. Now, the church faces another challenge: how it will live out the kind of "peculiar particularity" of Wesley’s vision of holiness while proclaiming the transforming grace of God to all? The question goes to the heart of the gospel message.

This book can move persons within the Wesleyan tradition toward the kind of holy conversation the church must have at this moment in history. It provides food for thought. However, in regards to a usability it would have been helpful to offer discussion questions and a bibliography. It would also have been nice to know where to go to read more about Wesley and the early Methodists. And while the book certainly spoke out of the Wesleyan theological heritage, it was odd to note how Wesley was not mentioned a great deal. Not that this was the purpose of the book; it simply would have been good to state how Wesley’s world was not a postmodern world, and that the ministry of grace and holiness today faces a number of new but similar challenges.

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