Atonement & the Method of Methodism-Conclusion

A Contemporary model: Covenant Discipleship

Today we have a contemporary model of the class meeting in Covenant Dali CrucifixionDiscipleship groups. A group consists of 5-7 people who are willing to be accountable for their discipleship. They agree to meet weekly for one hour. The group’s life is shaped by the General Rule of Discipleship:

To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The process of weekly accountability and support for balanced discipleship forms members as leaders in discipleship who, in turn, disciple others. Some group members will be commissioned by the congregation to serve as Class Leaders.

Class Leaders partner with the appointed pastor in the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Each class leader is assigned up to 20 members of the congregation. Their task is to meet regularly with each member of his or her “class” to help them be more intentional about their discipleship. The General Rule of Discipleship serves as their rule of life.

The importance and power of Covenant Discipleship groups and class leaders is that people are equipped to join Christ in his mission in the world through relationships of mutual accountability and support for the disciplined practice of loving God and those whom God loves, leading to growth in holiness of heart and life and the development of a congregational culture of holiness.

Covenant Discipleship groups, and other small groups that foster mutual accountability and support for growth in holiness of heart and life, help the congregation to keep its baptismal covenant: “to provide a community of love and forgiveness and prayer that members may become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. … and to do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”


The Wesleyan way of Christian formation provides a simple and practical way to respond to God’s love revealed in the death of his Son. It provides the means to form relationships of mutual support and accountability people need to deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow Jesus. The call to discipleship is a call to live with the cross. It is a call to relationship with the Triune God. The Wesleyan way helps us know and love God by joining with others like us. God comes to us and we grow in knowledge and love of God through relationships with others who seek to “deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Jesus” (Luke 9:23). This reality tells me that Christian faith and life is necessarily relational. Christ comes to me through the lives, witness and love of other people.

Jesus shows us that his way is the relational way. He shows us how to love:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

His way is the way of love that is eternal life; life with God here and now and in God’s coming reign on earth as it is in heaven. When we follow Jesus he gives us the grace we need to love as he loves. As we learn and practice the disciplines of self-denial, bearing our cross in daily obedience to the way of Jesus, and walking with him in the world we will grow in holiness of heart and life and become more and more like him. We will become fully the person God created us to be, in Christ. We will also realize that the most precious things in this life are not what the world tells us are important (power, wealth, things, and fame); the most important thing in life is love and the relationships that are gifts from God.

Let us join (’tis God commands),
Let us join our hearts and hands;
Help to gain our calling’s hope,
Build we each the other up.
God his blessing shall dispense,
God shall crown his ordinance,
Meet in his appointed ways,
Nourish us with social grace.

Let us then as brethren love,
Faithfully his gifts improve,
Carry on the earnest strife,
Walk in holiness of life.
Still forget the things behind,
Follow Christ in heart and mind;
Toward the mark unwearied press,
Seize the crown of righteousness!

Plead we thus for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies,
Active faith that lives within,
Conquers earth, and hell, and sin,
Sanctifies, and makes us whole,
Forms the Saviour in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
Sure salvation is its end;
Heaven already is begun,
Everlasting life is won.
Only let us persevere
Till we see our Lord appear;
Never from the rock remove,
Saved by faith which works by love.

(Charles Wesley, #507 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists, 1780).

Atonement and the Method of Methodism-Part 4: Following Jesus

Following Jesus:
The Wesleyan Way of Discipleship

The Wesleyan tradition provides a powerful compass heading for following Dali CrucifixionJesus (the third ingredient of Jesus’ recipe for discipleship in Luke 9:23). The engine of Methodism was the compulsory small groups known as class meetings. The Wesleyan “Rule of Life”—The General Rules—provided guidance for living the “cross-bearing” life that is the way of Jesus. “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. … It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, 138). The General Rules functioned as a rule of life for the Methodist societies. It oriented the network of societies toward obedience to Jesus’ teachings and fostered a culture of holiness; inward love of God expressed in outward love of those whom God loves.

The class meeting taught Methodists how to live as Christians in the world by gathering for prayer, Bible reading, exhortation, hymn singing, and accountability for discipleship shaped by the General Rules. These small groups of 12-15 people, men and women together, met weekly for 1-2 hours. They were led by an appointed leader who was a seasoned follower of Jesus. The class leaders where persons who possessed the pastoral gifts needed for the work of disciple-making. All Methodists were required to meet with their class every week. The weekly discipline of the class meeting formed relationships of trust and mutual affection among the Methodists. As the people grew closer and closer to one another their love for God grew and matured.

The discipline of the class meeting served to equip the Methodists to join Christ in his mission among the poor of the world. The dynamic of Methodist discipline led Wesley to state:

Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. “This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loves God, love his brother also;” and that we manifest our love “by doing good unto all men; especially to them that are of the household of faith.” And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren, not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be “zealous of good works.” He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire of spending and being spent for them. “My Father,” will he say, “worketh hitherto, and I work.” And at all possible opportunities he is, like his Master, “going about doing good” (Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems -1739).

The class meeting fostered growth in holiness of heart and life by bringing people together weekly under the leadership and care of a mature follower of Jesus. The community of the class meeting, along with the regular Sunday evening society meetings, Love Feasts, and annual Covenant Service encouraged the habitual practice of the means of grace among the people.

While the class meeting was the one compulsory group, other groups contributed to the formation of holiness among the Methodists. Trial bands were for inquiring Methodists. People could “try on” Methodist discipline to see if it was for them. Band meetings were groups of 6-8 people grouped according to gender and marital status. Leadership was shared. The focus of the meetings was confession of sin and prayer. The sharing within the band was on a deeper, more intimate level than the class. The theological focus was on justifying grace. The select society focused on perfection in love. Membership tended to be drawn from the leaders of the society.

Early Methodism was characterized by an integrated network of small groups. They had groups designed to meet people where they were and helped them to grow in holiness of heart and life. As persons matured in love of God and neighbor groups, such as the band and select society, were available to help build upon the growth. The expectation was that all Methodists would come to saving faith in Christ. The goal was to do all in their power to increase faith, confirm hope in Christ and do all in their power to perfect one another in love.

Atonement and the Method of Methodism-Part 3: Cross-Bearing


Jesus tells those who want to be his followers to “take up your cross daily.” Dali CrucifixionChristian life is cross-bearing because it is centered in God’s love revealed in Jesus’ death on the cross. The cross we are to take up is daily obedience to his teachings summarized in Matthew 22:37-40:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

God has given us the grace and means needed to obey Jesus. Love for God and those whom God loves take the form of the cross. Loving God with all the heart, soul, and mind comprises the vertical beam. The means of grace Wesley called “works of piety” are the practices that enable us to participate in the relationship God desires for us. These practices are how we are “at-one” with God.

The works of piety are “ordinances of God.” This means God commands them. They are the basic, expected practices of the members of God’s household. He commands them because they are “ordinary channels whereby he might convey to [people] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Wesley, Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace,” § II.1, 1:381). In these practices God calls us to give our time, presence, and attention to him. “The life of prayer begins in a deceptively simple way. It begins with a commitment to make time for the relationship—to show up for our appointment” (Robin Maas, Crucified Love: The Practice of Christian Perfection,  49). God promises to be there when we show up. The challenge is to keep our daily appointments with God.

The essential works of piety are found in the third of the General Rules: The public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence. They are practiced in public (worship, the ministry of the Word, and the Lord’s Supper) and in private (prayer, Scripture study, and fasting). Each practice involves the body, mind, and soul. They require us to make time in our day and our week to show up and be present to God and to others in God’s household to offer ourselves to him and open our hearts to his grace.

The horizontal beam of the cross of obedience to Christ’s teachings is our relationship with our neighbor (those whom God loves). Wesley called these practices “works of mercy.” Christ teaches us in his commandments that loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind compels us to love what and whom God loves. Therefore, we love our neighbor as ourselves. Christ teaches that our neighbor is anyone anywhere in the world who is suffering (see Luke 10:25-37). He also said that serving people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick or imprisoned brings us into his presence (see Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus identifies himself with the poor. Therefore, if we want to be in relationship with him we must be with and for the poor. Feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners, witnessing to Christ are the means of grace God gives to love our neighbor as ourselves and, in the process, live out our love for God in the world God loves. Wesley encapsulates these means of grace in Rules 1 and 2 of the General Rules:

“It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire for salvation,

First, By doing no harm, by avoiding evil in every kind—especially that which is most generally practiced. …

Secondly, By doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have opportunity doing good of every possible sort and as far as possible to all men …

The cross represents God’s love, which is the nature and name of the Triune God. This love, this grace, makes obedience to Jesus teachings possible. This cross-bearing life draws us closer to God and closer to one another.

Christ calls us to journey together – to be his body in and for the world. He calls and equips us, through self-denial and cross bearing, to be his witnesses in the world. We follow together as channels of God’s love and justice for the world in Jesus Christ.

Atonement and The Method of Methodism-Part 2: Self-Denial

John Wesley believed Jesus clearly stated the responsibility that comes with the Dali Crucifixionblessing of his atonement in Luke 9:23

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

This verse describes the “method” of Methodism in a nutshell. Versions of this saying are found in all three synoptic gospels. Wesley was drawn to Luke’s version because it is the only one in which Jesus insists our cross must be taken up every day.

Self-Denial & Love

Jesus gives the church a compass heading for how to respond to the love of God revealed in his death on the cross. Because he defeated the powers of sin and death we are able, by grace, to respond to the invitation to join him in his mission to prepare the world for the coming reign of God. Rather than living in and by the agenda of the world, we can have new life in Christ and become channels of grace for the world.

Jesus tells us what we must do in Luke 9:23. John Wesley took this teaching to heart. He was convinced that one could not truly follow Jesus without participating in his atoning work through practicing self-denial:

It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our ‘coming after him’ and ‘following him’, insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not ‘take up our cross daily’, we do not ‘come after him’, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own ‘fleshly mind’ (Col. 2:18). If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following him; we are not treading in his steps, but going back from, or at least wide of, him.

Late in his life, at 86 years old, Wesley completed a tour of Methodist societies in Ireland and England. He found a lack of missional vigor among the Methodist societies. In the sermon Wesley subsequently published in the Arminian Magazine he attributed the current malaise to a lack of Christian discipline, self-denial, and increasing prosperity among the Methodists. Regarding the importance of self-denial Wesley wrote:

Why has Christianity done so little good, even among us? Among the Methodists? Among them that hear and receive the whole Christian doctrine, and that have Christian discipline added thereto, in the most essential parts of it? Plainly because we have forgot, or at least not duly attended to those solemn words of our Lord, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ It was the remark of a holy man several years ago, ‘Never was there before a people in the Christian church who had so much of the power of God among them, with so little self-denial.’ Indeed the work of God does go on, and in a surprising manner, notwithstanding this capital defect; but it cannot go on in the same degree as it otherwise would: neither can the word of God have its full effect unless the hearers of it ‘deny themselves, and take up their cross daily’.

Wesley defined self-denial to be “the denying or refusing to follow our own will, from a conviction that the will of God is the only rule of action to us. And we see the reason thereof, because we are creatures; because ‘it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves’ (Psalm 100:3).” Wesley believed loving God with all the heart, soul, and mind requires us to set aside our own will in favor of the will of the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.

If we truly love God then we set aside our ways in favor of his. Such self-denial is born of faith in God who created and redeemed us. When we practice self-denial we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit who works in us to root out the remnants of inbeing sin and restore the image of Christ so that love can reign in our hearts. Practicing self-denial leads to holiness of heart and life. This is the importance of self-denial for Wesley.

Love necessarily requires self-denial. It is essential for any significant relationship. We must understand that practicing self-denial does not mean that Jesus expects his followers to be “doormats.” It does not mean that Christians must allow others to take advantage of or abuse them. Self-denial simply means that we put the needs and interests of others ahead of our own. Jesus provides an illustration in Luke 10:30-37. In the parable of the Good Samaritan he tells the story of a man from Samaria travelling on the Jericho road. When he encountered a man who had been robbed, beaten and left to die he stopped to help. He cleaned and bound the man’s wounds and took him to a local inn. Before continuing his journey the Samaritan gave the inn keeper money to cover the cost of caring for the man, with the promise of more upon his return.

The Samaritan put the needs of the wounded man ahead of his own. He interrupted his plans and gave assistance to a man who needed his help. Jesus told this story to illustrate the meaning of his command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Because the Samaritan loved God he was compelled to deny himself and live out that love by caring for a stranger whom he knew God loved.

Self-denial is essential to genuine love – love that is a reflection of God (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). After all, God denied himself in the incarnation. Paul describes God’s self-denial as self-emptying love (kenosis) in Philippians 2:5-8

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Paul encourages Christians to be imitators of Christ, just like the good Samaritan. As we submit ourselves to following Jesus through self-denial we become fully the persons God created us to be; the mind of Christ, the way of Jesus, will become our way and we will become the persons God created us to be as we learn to love as God loves.


Atonement and The Method of Methodism (Part 1)

John and Charles Wesley knew the way people came to faith in Christ was Dali Crucifixionthrough relationships with people who love God and are striving to grow in holiness of heart and life. The early Methodist societies were communities centered in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Their mission was to introduce people to Jesus, teach them how to follow him, provide the accountability and support needed to receive the gift of faith and then to live their faith by serving with Christ in the world. This work was accomplished in an integrated system of small groups designed to meet people where they were and to help them grow and mature in holiness of heart and life.

The Methodists met weekly in small groups where they formed relationships with others seeking “to flee the wrath to come and to be saved from their sins and.” Wesley understood that people need to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the love of God before they will accept it for themselves.

This is why God became one of us and shared the whole of human life and experience in Jesus of Nazareth. God knows that relationships require bodies. Human beings are embodied creatures. We learn how to live and love through relationships with other people, for good and for ill. God took on flesh and blood in Jesus Christ to relate to us in common words and actions. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. … This one-of-a-kind God Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day” (John 1:14, 18, The Message).

The Eucharistic prayer beautifully describes the way God communicated and connected with us in Jesus

“Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ.
Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people.

He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners. …

“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

“When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks for you, gave it to his disciples, and said: “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Here we see Jesus’ ministry. He was physically present to people, touching, listening, walking, eating and drinking with them. He commanded his followers to re-member (anamnesis) his life among them in the sharing of a simple meal, the broken bread and shared wine. The simple elements re-present his body broken and his blood shed for the world. We take his love into our bodies so we can give ourselves for others that they may know and experience the love of God in Jesus Christ. This love requires living, breathing, eating and drinking, broken and flawed bodies.

The method of Methodism was to organize people into small groups and teach them practices that re-orient them to Jesus and his way of life. The groups provided the relationships of accountability and mutual support needed to help people develop new habits. The new habits resulted in transformed affections (what we love) and tempers (thinking and attitudes).

The Methodists were required to meet weekly under the care and guidance of a mature, seasoned disciple known as the “class leader.” Part of the weekly meeting was focused on the leader asking each person how he or she practiced the habits described in the Methodist rule of life (the General Rules). The practices of salvation by doing no harm, doing good, and practicing the personal and corporate spiritual disciplines (public worship, the ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence). These practices involve the whole person. When practiced habitually they lead to people who love what God loves and “have the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).

The goal of the class meetings was to equip Methodists to join Jesus in his atoning work of redeeming planet Earth. His death on the cross set them free from the guilt of sin. His resurrection set them free from the power of death. Wesley believed freedom from the guilt and power of sin and death meant Christians, particularly Methodists, were set free to be co-workers with Christ and his mission to prepare this world for the coming reign of God on earth as it is in heave.

Atonement & The Relational God

The following is part 2 of several posts based upon a paper I presented at the Wesleyan Theological Society annual meeting on March 7.

Atonement is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ because God is love (1 John Dali Crucifixion4:16). Love is a relationship characterized by giving the self to and for another person. This love is described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love is characterized much more by action and behavior than by feelings. Love treats the other with dignity, compassion, and justice. Love suffers, for, and behalf of the beloved.

The Trinity attests to God’s relational character. God the Father is Father because of his love for the Son, Jesus Christ. God the Son is Son because of his love for the Father. The two are bound by the love of a parent for a child and a child’s love for the parent. The love of the Father and Son sends the Holy Spirit. The Three are united as One in love for one another and for the Cosmos.

The Cosmos emanates from the Trinity’s love. It is God’s good creation. Scripture tells us that God created order out of chaos with the words, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:1-2:3). He created all plant and animal life and everything they need to live and grow. The process culminates in the creation of human beings, male and female, to be God’s partners and stewards of the good earth. God “saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Genesis 3:1-24 explains how the good creation has gone wrong. Sin entered the world and brought with it pride, fear, alienation, and death. The relationship with God was broken. Human life and community turned away from God. God’s response was to restore relationship with humankind through the Hebrew people. God chose them to be his covenant people. Again and again they turned away from his love. This resulted in conquest and exile. Nevertheless, Scripture is clear that the covenant making Triune God does not relent. He, and his love, pursues his people even into exile, seeking to redeem and restore relationship with them.

God’s love took on human flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth. God became one with his creation. Love compelled him to take on flesh and blood and live among us. Charles Wesley captured the meaning of the self-emptying love of God in Christ in this stanza,

“He left his Father’s throne above
(So free, so infinite his grace!)
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘This mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love for the world. In his life and teaching he shows us the way of holiness summarized in the law of love,

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

In his suffering and death on the cross Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself. Because of his love for the world he suffered the humiliating death of the cross to set the world free from the powers of sin and death. Charles Wesley powerfully describes Christ’s atoning work on the cross:

O Love divine! What hast thou done!
Th’immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree:
Th’immortal God for me hath died,
My Lord, my Love is crucified.

The shedding of his blood is the sign of God’s forgiveness of the world’s sin. On the third day he rose again and destroyed death’s power to dominate human life.

After his death and resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples. Seeing they were afraid he comforted them by saying “Peace be with you.” After showing them the wounds in his hands, feet and side, Jesus commissioned them to continue his mission, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23). As God the Father brought creation into existence when his Spirit blew over the waters of chaos, Jesus inaugurated the church with the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples.

The Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God in the church. The church is the community baptized in the Triune name sent into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s reign that is present and is coming.

The church receives people as they are, nurtures them into faith in Christ, equips them to grow and mature in holiness of heart and life, and sends them into the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ as the participate in his atoning work, preparing the world for the coming reign of God. John and Charles Wesley understood this very well. Their life’s work was devoted to “reforming the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.”


Part 3 in this series is titled: Atonement and the Method of Methodism

Atonement ==> Discipleship

Atonement was to topic explored at the March 7-8, 2014 annual meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society held at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. I presented a paper in the Practical Theology group titled “Active Faith That Lives Within: A Wesleyan Response to Atonement”. I am sharing the content of the paper in several posts. The paper continues to be a work in progress. Your comments are welcome.

Dali Crucifixion

The various theories of atonement have one thing in common: God desires to be in relationship with humankind, in spite of human rebellion against God and his law of love. God initiates and restores the broken relationship through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. The death of Christ removes the guilt of sin and sets people free to respond to God’s reach toward us. The atonement of God in Jesus Christ reveals the relational character of God and the depth of his love for the world.

I will briefly explore the relational character of God. I believe the Wesleyan way of Christian formation acknowledges that human beings are created in the image of God. One of the implications of the imago Dei is that humans are, like God, innately relational creatures. We come to know God and God’s love through relationships with others who know and love God. Wesley understood that women and men are creatures who are shaped by practices and experiences that involve the whole person: body, mind and spirit. Jesus provides the compass heading for people to participate in his atoning work in Luke 9:23

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

The telos of the Wesleyan way is a people who profess to pursue holiness of heart and life in order to join Christ in his mission of preparing this world for the coming reign of God. A culture of holiness develops in congregations that provide the means for people to participate in Christ’s atonement by learning and practicing the discipline of loving God and neighbor through self-denial, cross-bearing, and following Jesus in the world.