Atonement and The Method of Methodism (Part 1)
By Steve Manskar
John and Charles Wesley knew the way people came to faith in Christ was through 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.