Summary: "Backsliding is something which United Methodists preach and all denominations practice".
Mister Wesley’s Methodism
Thomas F. Bracewell, OSL
Henderson & Little Oak
Scripture Lesson: OT: I Samuel 10:9-10, 16-24.
NT: II Timothy 4:10.
The Introductory Statement
Theology in the Methodist tradition is clear on one thing in particular. Bishop Mack Stokes, an Asbury man; Graduate of Duke and Boston Universities and who was himself one of the great teachers of preachers at Emory University hit the nail squarely on the head when he stated, "Backsliding is something which United Methodists preach and all denominations practice".
If there is one person within the sound of my voice tonight that has not backslidden in their faith, either through thought, word or deed, in either sins of commission or omission, then he or she is extremely blessed and is a candidate for Sainthood. Even the best of humankind live in sin, which for Christians is not the ideal state. Therefore, we are warned to watch for signs of sinfulness and work constantly not to fall into its grasp.
Tonight I want to address four major tenants of John Wesley’s pure Methodist theology. In doing so I remind you that United Methodists, in the majority, believe these philosophical doctrines, but we Methodists also allow the freedom to express ideas that might seem at a variance to these through the basic religious freedoms we so jealously defend.
The Sermon Proper
Even before I entered the ministry and while still a bright-faced youth in high school, I was exposed to the mystery of the Unpardonable Sin. This came mainly through Roman Catholic relatives who feared greatly for the salvation of the Protestant line of Carmichaels in our family on my mother’s side. While these concerned family members could never fully explain to my satisfaction what this unpardonable sin was exactly, the Bible, on the other hand, gives some excellent guidance.
When the Pharisees said that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Satan (Matt. 12:24), Jesus gave a strong answer in saying, "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven; but whoever speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come" (Matt. 12:31-32). And what is this sin against the Holy Spirit, or as we are prone to say, denying the Holy Spirit?
United Methodist beliefs teach that the only unpardonable sin is that for which we do not or cannot repent. The Pharisees in Matthew were so defiant of Jesus that they called God’s work the work of the Devil. They were so stubborn that they had essentially become hopeless.
Christ was speaking of people whose pride was so great that there was indeed no hope for them. United Methodists reject the dogma of preaching designed to frighten people into believing they might have committed the unpardonable sin. As Mack Stokes puts it in his book Major United Methodist Beliefs, " If you fear that you may have committed the unpardonable sin, you can be sure that you have not done it." He further points out that individuals involved in such sin never care enough to worry about it. Many years ago I asked Doctor Stokes (before he became a Bishop) who would be an example of one who committed the unpardonable sin. He got that little twinkle in his eye and answered, "Tommy, just think about it, the despots like Hitler and Stalin, many ancient Emperors and rulers, some Presidents, most politicians, and all lawyers."
The second tenant United Methodists do not accept is the doctrine of "What is to Be Will Be." We believe it is God who created us with freedom. Historical facts prove beyond any doubt that God does not interfere with that freedom. We believe as Bishop Stokes says, "..that everything happens under the rule of god..but God created people with the power to say yes, and the power to say no." The Scriptures call mankind to "Choose" to Come," to "Repent," to "Seek." This "what is to be will be" is a repugnant form of fatalism that makes us helpless to do anything under our own God-given power. We are warned not to put confidence in astrology, or predictions implying fatalism or in any belief that reduces human beings to puppets. "By Grace are you saved, and that through faith" in itself is a statement of Choice.
And that brings us to a third and major doctrine of Mr Wesley’s Methodism. Some people believe, "Once in Grace always in Grace." What does that mean? Bishop Stokes again put us in focus as he writes,"It means that after we become real Christians we cannot fall away from the life of grace. In other words, it means after we are Christians we have no freedom to turn away from Christ."