This a brief explanation of some of the central doctrines of the United Methodist Church. For more information please visit the website for the United Methodist Church [www.umc.org], check in our Church Library or Pastor’s Library for books about United Methodist beliefs and practices, and there are additional resources listed at the end of this page.
HALLMARKS OF UNITED METHODIST THEOLOGY
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, and the early Methodists were particularly concerned about inviting people to experience God’s grace and to grow in their knowledge and love of God through disciplined Christian living. They placed primary emphasis on Christian living and on putting faith and love into action. This emphasis on what John Wesley referred to as “practical divinity” has continued to be a hallmark of United Methodism today.
Grace is central to our understanding of the Christian faith and life. Grace can be defined as the love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it. We read in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Our United Methodist heritage is rooted in the deep and profound understanding of God’s grace. This incredible grace flows from God’s great love for us. Many people know or have heard John 3:16 and there is a good reason. This one verse summarizes the gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John Wesley described God’s grace as threefold:
Prevenient Grace – Justifying Grace – Sanctifying Grace
Prevenient Grace is understood as God’s active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human responses. It is a gift – a gift that is always available, but that can also be refused. God’s grace stirs up within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God’s invitation to be in relationship with God. God’s grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose good. God takes the initiative in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God’s love and graces, God actively seeks us!
Justifying Grace is best seen in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Paul takes up this same theme in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us: (Romans 5:8). These verses demonstrate the justifying grace of God and they point to reconciliation, pardon, and restoration. Through the work of God in Christ our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored. According to Wesley, the image of God – which has been distorted by sin – is renewed with us through Christ’s death.
Again, this dimension of God’s grace is a gift. God’s grace alone brings us into relationship with God. There are no hoops through which we have to jump in order to please God and to be loved by God. God has acted in Jesus Christ. We need only to respond in faith.
Conversion is the process of salvation that involves a change in our lives. Conversion is a turning around, leaving one orientation for another. It may be sudden and dramatic, gradual and cumulative, but in any case, it is a new beginning. Following the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “You must be born anew” (John 3:7). We speak of this conversion as rebirth, new life in Christ, or regeneration. Following Paul and Martin Luther, John Wesley called this process justification. Justification is what happens when Christians abandon all of the vain attempts to justify themselves before God, to be seen as “just” in God’s eyes through religious or moral practices. It is a time when God’s “justifying grace” is experienced and accepted, a time of pardon and forgiveness, of new peace and joy and love. Indeed, we are justified by God’s grace through faith. Justification is also a time of repentance, a turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God’s love. In this conversion we can expect to receive assurance of our present salvation through the Holy Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
Sanctifying Grace is the understanding that grace is not a static, one-time event in our lives. It is an ongoing experience of God’s gracious presence transforming us into the people God intends us to be. John Wesley described this dimension of God’s grace as sanctification, or holiness. Through God’s sanctifying grace, we grow and mature in our ability to live as Jesus lived. As we pray, study the scriptures, worship, and share in fellowship with other Christians, we deepen our knowledge of and love for God. As we respond with compassion to human need and work for justice in our communities, we strengthen our capacity to love our neighbor. Our inner thoughts and motives, as well as our other actions and behaviors, need to be aligned with God’s will.
We are to press on, with God’s help, in the path of sanctification toward perfection. By perfection, Wesley did not mean that we would not make mistakes or have weaknesses. Rather, he understood it to be a continual process of being made perfect in our love of God and each other and of removing our desire to sin.
Faith and Good Works
United Methodists insist that faith and good works belong together. What we believe must be confirmed by what we do. Personal salvation must be expressed in ministry and mission in the world. We believe that Christian doctrine and Christian ethics are inseparable, that faith should inspire service. The integration of personal piety and social holiness has been a hallmark of our tradition. We affirm the biblical precept that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).
Mission and Service
Because of what God has done for us, we offer our lives back to God through a life of service. As disciples we become active participants in God’s activity in the world through mission and service. Love of God is always linked to love of neighbor and to a passionate commitment to seeking justice and renewal in the world.
Nature and Mission of the Church
For John Wesley there was no religion but social religion and no holiness but social holiness. In other words, faith always includes a social dimension. Today we talk about this social religion and holiness as the way we are connected to each other through the community of faith we call the church. As we grow in our faith through our participation in a church community, we are nourished and equipped for mission and service to the world.
“From Wesley’s time to the present, Methodism has sought to be both a nurturing community and a servant community. members of Methodist Societies and class meetings met for personal nurture through giving to the poor, visiting the imprisoned, and working for justice and peace in the community. They sought not only to receive the fullness of God’s grace for themselves; but…they saw themselves as existing ‘to reform the nation…and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.'” [excerpt from Who Are We?: Doctrine, Ministry, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church, Revised: Kenneth L. Carder]
Resources for Additional Learning
You are invited to learn more by exploring these resources from Cokesbury.com or check with the Pastor.
The Book of Discipline
The United Methodist Primer
Who Are We?: Doctrine, Ministry, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church,
United Methodist Member’s Handbook