A Brief Commentary on The Wesleyan Church's Articles of Religion: Part IV
(E) THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH: ARTICLES 15-17
Article 15: The Gifts of the Spirit
We believe that the Gift of the Spirit is the Holy Spirit himself, and He is to be desired more than the gifts of the Spirit which He in His wise counsel bestows upon individual members of the Church to enable them properly to fulfill their function as members of the body of Christ. The gifts of the Spirit, although not always identifiable with natural abilities, function through them for the edification of the whole Church. These gifts are to be exercised in love under the administration of the Lord of the Church, not through human volition. The relative value of the gifts of the Spirit is to be tested by their usefulness in the Church and not by the ecstasy produced in the ones receiving them.
Article 15 highlights three crucial points for the Wesleyan understanding of the gifts of the Spirit. First, the Wesleyan Church believes in the gifts of the Spirit, although they are not specifically listed in this Article. However, in response to extremes in some Pentecostal and charismatic movements, Wesleyans clarify that the “gift” of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit Himself and that He is to be sought more than any particular spiritual gift.
Second, Wesleyans believe that the purpose of spiritual gifts to individual Christians is for the edification and strengthening of the Church. The degree to which the gifts do this determines their level of importance and significance in the life of the Church.
Finally, Wesleyans see spiritual gifts as a combination of (A) natural human abilities that are anointed by the Spirit for His use in the Church and (B) supernatural abilities beyond the natural talents of human beings. Again, although not accordingly listed and categorized, the Wesleyan Church believes that some spiritual gifts are natural human abilities, consecrated and used by the Spirit, while others are genuinely supernatural in nature, transcending human abilities.
Article 16: The Church
We believe that the Christian Church is the entire body of believers in Jesus Christ, who is the founder and only Head of the Church. The Church includes both those believers who have gone to be with the Lord and those who remain on the earth, having renounced the world, the flesh and the devil, and having dedicated themselves to the work which Christ committed unto His church until He comes. The Church on earth is to preach the pure Word of God, properly administer the sacraments according to Christ’s instructions, and live in obedience to all that Christ commands. A local church is a body of believers formally organized on gospel principles, meeting regularly for the purposes of evangelism, nurture, fellowship and worship. The Wesleyan Church is a denomination consisting of those members within district conferences and local churches who, as members of the body of Christ, hold the faith set forth in these Articles of Religion and acknowledge the ecclesiastical authority of its governing bodies.
With most Articles and Confessions in the consensual orthodox tradition, Wesleyans in this Article address the Church on the universal and local level, moving from the general to the particular. First, in regard to the universal or “catholic” Church, Wesleyans believe the Church is comprised of all true believers – those who are presently alive and those who have died and are presently with the Lord. In agreement with the Protestant tradition, Wesleyans believe the universal Church as manifested on earth is identified by (A) the preaching of the “pure Word of God,” (B) the due administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s supper (Article 17), and (C) a community rightly ordered according to the commands of Christ.
Second, the Wesleyan Church believes the universal Church is made manifest concretely in local churches. Local churches are congregations, a gathered community of believers, who meet together and organize to (A) evangelize unbelievers, (B) establish people in the Christian faith, (C) provide a context for mutual care and edification, and (D) worship the Triune God. While not stated here, Article 10, “Repentance and Faith,” makes clear that Wesleyans believe that involvement in a local church is necessary for continuance in the Christian faith.
Finally, this Article addresses specifically the Wesleyan Church. The Wesleyan denomination is comprised of local Wesleyan churches, made up of individual members, which are organized into districts. These local churches are united through their mutual belief in the Wesleyan Church’s Articles of Religion and submission to the polity of the Wesleyan denomination.
Article 17: The Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
We believe that water baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the sacraments of the church commanded by Christ and ordained as a means of grace when received through faith. They are tokens of our profession of Christian faith and signs of God’s gracious ministry toward us. By them, He works within us to quicken, strengthen and confirm our faith.
We believe that water baptism is a sacrament of the church, commanded by our Lord and administered to believers. It is a symbol of the new covenant of grace and signifies acceptance of the benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ. By means of this sacrament, believers declare their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.
We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death and of our hope in His victorious return, as well as a sign of the love that Christians have for each other. To such as receive it humbly, with a proper spirit and by faith, the Lord’s Supper is made a means through which God communicates grace to the heart.
From these doctrinal statements, three important points may be gleaned about The Wesleyan Church’s general understanding of the sacraments. First, Wesleyans believe they are permanent visible signs. Through simple earthly elements - bread, grape juice, and water – the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion convey in tangible form God’s mercy, covenant faithfulness, suffering love, and atonement. They are visible re-enactments of God’s greatest acts in history on humanity’s behalf. In Scripture there are many visible signs of God’s grace and mercy - the rainbow, the pillar of fire, Gideon’s fleece, the sun standing still, etc. All might be cited as visible signs of God’s grace. However, they are not sacraments because they were temporary signs circumstantially given. Baptism and Holy Communion are permanent, recurrent celebrations. In any place or time of the Church there are Christians breaking bread and performing baptisms as outward signs of God’s grace.
Second, Wesleyans teach that the sacraments point the worshipping community to God’s real presence and His grace made available through them. Through these visible re-enactments, God’s grace awakens and empowers individuals in the life of Christ. The grace of God is offered to the Church in and through these sacraments in a way that cannot be grasped by the human mind. In the Reformation Protestants revolted against what they perceived to be the superstitions of medieval sacramentalism. However, they never lost sight in their confessions of the basic idea that grace is being offered and, by faith, communicated to the believer in baptism and Holy Communion. They are means of grace. This Wesleyan teaching on the sacraments is rooted in this Protestant tradition.
Finally, Wesleyans teach that Christ initiated the sacraments. They are not human inventions, but are appointed by Christ. Minimally, these acts are not to be viewed as commandments of other human beings or socially determined conventions or psychologically derived routines, but as God’s own invention through Christ’s direct institution. The Gospel accounts make clear that baptism and Holy Communion are offered as a result of God’s initiative.
(F) THE DOCTRINE OF LAST THINGS: ARTICLES 18-21
Article 18: The Second Coming of Christ
We believe that the certainty of the personal and imminent return of Christ inspires holy living and zeal for the evangelization of the world. At His return He will fulfill all prophecies made concerning His final and complete triumph over evil.
With consensually orthodox Christianity, the Wesleyan Church believes in the physical return of Jesus Christ. By “imminent return,” Wesleyans believe Christ’s second coming could happen at any moment. This understanding means that Christ could return right now or at any point in the future. Christ’s coming could be very soon or much later in time. Because Christians do not know the exact time in which Christ will return and that Christ’s return could happen at any moment, Christians should live holy lives, ready to meet the Lord and should be inspired even more to do the work of evangelism
Again, with consensually orthodox Christianity, the Wesleyan Church believes that with Christ’s second coming all evil, injustice, suffering, sickness and sin will be brought to an end.
Article 19: The Resurrection of the Dead
We believe in the bodily resurrection from the dead of all people— of the just unto the resurrection of life, and of the unjust unto the resurrection of damnation. The resurrection of Christ is the guarantee of the resurrection which will occur at Christ’s Second Coming. The raised body will be a spiritual body, but the person will be whole and identifiable.
This statement on the bodily resurrection from the dead of all humanity is reminiscent of the Apostles’ Creeds’ declaration, “of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” The Wesleyan Church believes in the bodily resurrection of the dead of both the “just” and the “unjust” at Christ’s second coming. The just will experience a bodily existence of life everlasting with God and the “unjust” will experience a bodily existence of life everlasting in damnation.
While not exactly clear about what this bodily existence will be like, the Wesleyan Church points to the bodily resurrection of Christ for clues. Christ’s resurrected body, a body that was physical, yet not bound by the physical laws of the universe, is the model of humanity’s future resurrected state. Hence, the Wesleyans describe this as a “spiritual body.”
Article 20: The Judgment of All Persons
We believe that the Scriptures reveal God as the Judge of all and the acts of His judgment are based on His omniscience and eternal justice. His administration of judgment will culminate in the final meeting of all persons before His throne of great majesty and power, where records will be examined and final rewards and punishments will be administered.
With consensually orthodox Christianity, the Wesleyan Church believes in final judgment. At the end of human history people will stand before God to give an account of their lives. As an omniscient and fair Judge, God will evaluate each person and distribute “rewards and punishments” accordingly. Although not stated in this Article, but made clear in the next (Article 21), the final judgment is unchangeable, with no appeal. There will be two classes of judgments: heaven and hell.
Article 21: Destiny
We believe that the Scriptures clearly teach that there is a conscious personal existence after death. The final destiny of each person is determined by God’s grace and that person’s response, evidenced inevitably by a moral character which results from that individual’s personal and volitional choices and not from any arbitrary decree of God. Heaven with its eternal glory and the blessedness of Christ’s presence is the final abode of those who choose the salvation which God provides through Jesus Christ, but hell with its everlasting misery and separation from God is the final abode of those who neglect this great salvation.
While Article 19 teaches that final human destiny is a bodily existence, this final article also clarifies that it is rational and conscious, maintaining the essence of what it is to be constituted a human person. While not specific, this Article primarily describes heaven as a place defined by the “blessedness” of Christ’s presence” and describes hell as a place characterized by “misery” and “separation from God.”
The Wesleyan Church concludes her Articles of Religion by emphasizing the distinction between the Wesleyan understanding of salvation and the Reformed/Calvinist perspective. Wesleyans maintain any person can be saved by cooperating with God’s gracious initiative through Jesus Christ by repenting and believing in Christ. The ability to choose to cooperate or not is made possible through prevenient grace (Article 8). Therefore, a person’s “final destiny” in heaven or hell is determined by the individual person. In contrast, the Reformed/Calvinist tradition teaches that a person’s “final destiny” is determined by an “arbitrary decree of God.” A person has no choice, contributes nothing, in the work of salvation. A person’s destiny in heaven or hell is determined by God alone.