Wesley in the World Today
By Hal Knight
For the last three months I have been discussing “Moralist Therapeutic Deism,” an alternative to historic Christianity that studies show to be the dominant understanding of God in mainline Protestant churches. Its basic belief is in a distant God who wants people to be nice, feel good about themselves, and can some to the rescue in times of trouble. Those who are nice then go the heaven when they die.
We have seen how John Wesley, in agreement with all other great teachers of the Christian faith, would reject this. The actual gospel of Jesus Christ speaks of a God who is near and involved, sin as our prevailing problem, and a salvation that profoundly renews our hearts in love and that is lived out in service to God and neighbor.
But there is another alternative to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that many believe, and understands itself as defending salvation by grace alone. It goes something like this: we are sinners, not the nice people we think we are. Salvation comes not through our being good, but through what God has done in Jesus Christ. Although we remain sinners, we are now clothed with Christ’s righteousness. This means we are now judged not according to our sinfulness but Christ’s goodness.
It is that last sentence that John Wesley could never accept. It is likewise rejected by contemporary theologian Dallas Willard, who called this understanding of salvation a “bar code faith.” Willard notes that if one puts the bar code for dog food on a package of ice cream, the scanner in the checkout line will read “dog food” even though the content is actually ice cream. A “bar code faith” works the same way. Receiving forgiveness through Christ gives us a new “bar code.” The divine scanner then ignores our actual sinful content, instead reading “Christ’s righteousness.” Thus, Willard says, our current life “has no necessary connection with being a Christian as long as the “bar code” does its job.” (The Divine Conspiracy, Harper Collins, 1998, p. 37).
What “Moral Therapeutic Deism” and the “bar code faith” have in common is they understand salvation as about the life to come—what happens when we die. And they seek the minimal requirements to ensure we attain the heavenly goal with as little change as possible in our present lives. For Wesley this was the exact opposite of what God has promised in Christ. God seeks not only to forgive our sin but to change us from being sinners to persons who love as God loves. God wants us to have the mind that was in Christ, and grow in the knowledge and love of God and love for our neighbor. Salvation as Wesley understands it is a new life of love, received in this life and then lived from now through all eternity. Such a life is the source of true happiness. This, he would proclaim, is the real promise of the gospel.