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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: We Believe in Faith and Good Works

January 10, 2012

For the next few weeks I'll be focusing on some of our distinctive Wesleyan beliefs from my book on that subject.

We see God's grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God's grace calls forth human response and discipline. (United Methodist Book of Discipline)

As Wesley encountered resistance to his revival, he issued an "Earnest Appeal" to his critics, attempting to explain Methodism:

This is the religion we long to see established in the world, a religion of love and joy and peace, having its seat in the heart, in the inmost soul, but ever showing itself by its fruits, continually springing forth, not only in all innocence...but likewise in every kind of beneficence, in spreading virtue and happiness all around it.[1]

Note that Wesley refuses to commend his revival exclusively on the basis of an experience that it engenders in its adherents. Nor does he take pride in the birth of a new institution or in his movement's conformity to the orthodox faith. He urges measurement of Methodism "by its fruits," by the "beneficence" it produces in the spread of "virtue and happiness all around it." Faith in Jesus engenders good works for Jesus. United Methodists join Wesley in joyfully linking the mercy of God with the holiness of God, what we believe with what we do, who we are, with how we act, praying that our doing will be a public testimony to the fidelity of our believing, and "to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land."

Wesley's orientation toward the practical is evident in his focus upon the "scripture way of salvation." He considered doctrinal matters primarily in terms of their significance for Christian discipleship.

In Wesley's "Address to the Clergy," in which he outlined his expectations for the performance of his traveling preachers, he stressed (of course) grace - they should show response to God's work in their lives, gifts - they must show both God-given talents and acquired skills for ministry, and fruit - visible, measurable evidence of God's blessing upon their ministry.[2] In countless ways, Jesus did more than ask us to "think this" or "feel this" but also to "do this." Faith is meant to be fruitful.

Whenever Wesley cited the deleterious results of teaching the doctrine of predestination, his main fear was that predestination fostered dreaded "quietism" and hindered the transformative work of God in the individual soul.[3] Wesley sneered that if people really believed in predestination, then "The elect shall be saved, do what they will: The reprobate shall be damned, do what they can.[4] The Christian life, initiated and sustained by grace, is known by its holy fruits.

The Discipline reminds us that Methodism did not arise in response to a specific dispute, but rather to support people to experience the justifying and sanctifying grace of God and encourage people to grow in the knowledge and love of God through the personal and corporate disciplines of the Christian life.

Note that knowing precedes doing, experience of God leads to the service of God, and ethics arise out of doctrine. On the other hand, our knowledge of God is enriched and deepened in our service of God, our attempts to put the faith into practice encourage us to intellectually explore our faith. We do no good work in the world that is not subsequent to, responsive to the work that a creative God is already doing. It's God's world and God intends to have it back and one way God uses to get back the world is ordinary United Methodists through whom God does some extraordinary work.

-- Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

[1] Earnest Appeal, para. 4.
[2] Address to the Clergy (1756), in Works (Jackson) 10:480-500.
[3] Sermon 110, "Free Grace," §10-18, (see §11), Works, 3:547-50. 
[4]Works (Jackson), 14:190-8.

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alamaba Conference of the United Methodist Church.]



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