Wesley in the World Today
By Hal Knight
We’ve been looking at “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” an alternative to historic Christianity that Kenda Creasy Dean has shown is the dominant belief of American teenagers and their churches in mainline Protestantism. We saw that it is “moralistic” in believing that God wants us to be “nice” people, and that nice people go to heaven. But what about the words “therapeutic” and “deism”?
In her book Almost Christian Dean describes it this way: Apart from “being nice” this religion does not help teenagers “obey God, work toward a common good, compose an identity or belong to a distinctive community. Teenagers do value religion as being personally useful: in addition to helping people be nicer and feel better about themselves, religion can provide comfort amid turmoil, and support for decisions that (by and large) teenagers want to make anyway. Otherwise faith stays in the background.” (p. 29) In other words, God is there if needed in times of trouble, and as a support for our own agenda. Otherwise, God is distant and not involved in our lives. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow over a decade ago called this sort of God a “domesticated deity.”
John Wesley has been said to have a “therapeutic” understanding of salvation, but it is entirely different from this. While not at all doubting we can call upon God in times of trouble, Wesley centers in on our deepest problem and God’s central purpose in salvation. “Know you disease!” he exhorts, “Know your cure! Ye were born in sin; therefore ‘ye must be born again’…. By nature ye are wholly corrupted; by grace ye shall be wholly renewed.” (“Original Sin,” III.5).
Sin, he believes, is like a disease which has spread throughout our entire being, governing our hearts and lives. Without God’s grace we do not even know we have this disease—we think we are normal and healthy, when really we are sick unto death. We need a new birth, that is, a heart that is governed by fruits of the Spirit such as love for God and neighbor, peace, joy and hope. It was to give us this new life that God came in Jesus Christ. Through the death and resurrection of Christ we are reconciled to God, and enter a transforming relationship with God in which the Holy Spirit renews our hearts and lives in love. This takes place as we worship, read scripture, hear the preached work, participate in the Lord’s Supper, pray, meet together, and serve others. God is neither distant nor uninvolved, but a constant presence in the Christian life.
“By salvation,” Wesley said, “I mean...a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature.” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” Part I, I.3) That divine nature is love, and to renew us in love is the overriding plan of God for our lives.