Are you earnestly striving after perfection in love?
By Steve Manskar
“Therefore … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12c-13).
The first four of the historic questions make very clear that perfection in love is the aim, or goal, of Christian discipleship. What follows from faith in Christ is, according to Bishop N. T. Wright, “the life of fully formed, fully flourishing Christian character.” John Wesley defines it as a life characterized by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving those whom God loves, as God loves them. Love becomes the natural response to the world.
In this fourth of John Wesley’s historic questions asked of leaders we see that Wesleyan leadership understands that perfection in love requires some serious effort. It is a gift from God that must be pursued in order to be fully received. I think the best way to illustrate this paradox is to think of the process of going onto perfection in love as being very much like the process of becoming a musician. Anyone can listen to and appreciate music. But to have the ability to make music requires commitment, diligence, and discipline. It means endless hours of study and practice with a teacher, with others, and alone. Only after years of practice and performance a musician experiences the gift of complete freedom to make music to his or her fullest ability. The musician becomes free to the point that they are able to get herself out of the way so that the music plays her; she becomes a channel through which the music flows into and for the enjoyment of the world. If we imagine love to be God’s music for the world, the goal of Christian faith is to reach a level of maturity in which we get ourselves out of the way so that God’s music (love) plays us; that we become channels of God’s music to and for the world. This gift of maturity comes only through “earnest striving” after it.
This is what the apostle Paul refers to as “working out your own salvation.” John Wesley unpacked the meaning of the need for “earnest striving after perfection in love” in his Sermon 85: “On Working Out Our Own Salvation.” To summarize the necessity of human participation in God’s work of salvation Wesley makes two important points:
First, God worketh in you; therefore you can work—otherwise it would be impossible. If he did not work it would be impossible for you to work out your own salvation. …
Here he makes clear that “earnestly striving” is not some form of earning acceptance with God or a form of “works righteousness.” Rather, because God, by grace, is working in us we are able to direct our will and our work towards what God wants for the world. Grace, therefore, sets us free to work with God in the process of becoming fully the persons God created us to be. And God sets us free to participate in God’s reign that is breaking out in the world.
Secondly, God worketh in you; therefore you must work: you must be 'workers together with him' (they are the very words of the Apostle); otherwise he will cease working.
Any good musician will tell you he or she must practice every day in order to maintain his or her ability to bring their very best to public performance. The same is true of discipleship. Grace gives us the ability to participate in God’s work of redemption and character formation. Therefore, Christians must be workers with God in our own lives and the world. Wesley quotes an aphorism from Augustine that summarizes his point: 'he that made us without ourselves, will not save us without ourselves.' God requires that persons who desire Christian perfection must “earnestly strive after” it. The process of going onto perfection in love is like a patient who desires healing knows he must first follow the doctor’s orders and take all the medicine and do the exercises; or the musician who wants to be a master of her instrument must diligently practice and listen to her teachers; or the lover who must diligently listen to, self-less giving and participate in the life of his beloved in order to love her to his fullest capacity. God works in you; therefore you must work.
Leaders in the Wesleyan spirit develop systems and structures that help persons to increase faith, confirm hope, and go onto perfection in love. These systems and structures enable the congregation to cooperate with the dynamic of grace that is prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. Covenant Discipleship groups are an excellent example of a system that develops leaders in discipleship for the congregational disciple-making system. They meet people where they are, as they are, and loves them enough to not leave them in the same condition in which they were first found. They inspire and equip Christians to “earnestly strive after perfection in love.”
Questions for reflection and discussion:
Does your congregation expect that persons with leadership responsibility are “earnestly striving after perfection in love?” Why or why not?
How does your congregation equip and help persons who are willing to “earnestly strive after perfection in love”?
Do you agree that the discipleship process is similar to the process of forming musicians? Why or why not?
What does God’s music look and feel like?
How does a congregation equip people to become channels of God’s music for the world?
Wesleyan Leadership Conference
October 14-16, 2010
West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN
Learn details and register at: http://www.gbod.org/wesleyanleadership