(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
A Crisis of Faith
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
John Wesley tried hard to be holy—and outwardly did quite well. Yet sailing back to England after two hard years in the colony of Georgia, he wrote in his journal, “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?….I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well….But in a storm I think, ‘What if the gospel be not true?….I left my native country to teach the Georgian Indians….But what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God.” He’d found, as the apostle Paul did, that “trying harder” to earn God’s love doesn’t work.
Wesley’s inner struggle opened his spirit to hear and trust the good news that God accepts us by grace, not based on our work. Here’s how he described the moment in his journal: “I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation.”
1 John 5:10-13
As John Wesley accepted that God saves us solely by grace, he was able to quit “hoping” or “wishing” to be saved. He recorded the change in these words: “An assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.”
1 Timothy 2:2-6, Luke 24:44-49
The gospel of God’s grace, planted in John Wesley’s heart, fueled him to lead an explosive revival of Christian faith in Britain, and then America. Despite having grown up in a restrained church that seldom touched ordinary people’s lives, Wesley couldn’t imagine not sharing the good news that had changed his life. Of preaching outdoors to those who wouldn’t darken the door of a church, he wrote, “Field-preaching is a cross to me. But I know my commission and see no other way of ‘preaching the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).’”
In Wesley’s class-conscious England, many people thought the Christian faith was only for the “proper” people. But Wesley knew, like Paul before him, that the good news was for all people. More than that, they both knew that God’s people were encouraged to share their Christian hope with others. Wesley once wrote in his journal about a group he’d preached to, “I am apt to think many of the hearers scarcely ever heard a Methodist before, or perhaps any other preacher….Are not their souls also precious in the sight of God?”
Jesus lived among many religious people who recoiled at the idea of sharing God’s kingdom with “sinners” (a term they defined roughly as “not as good as I am”). To some of them, Jesus told a shocking story about a king who invited even the town’s street people to a royal banquet. In that spirit, John Wesley and the early Methodists preached faith to people of all social classes. In 1739, Wesley wrote ironically in his journal about his own inner struggle with his “upright” background: “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord God, we thank you for calling us to be your servants, working to invite others to fill your banquet table. We thank you for your gift of salvation and for the help of your Holy Spirit. Fill our hearts with the assurance of your love and forgiveness, and with hope and love for all humanity. Remove our guilt and free us in spirit and truth. Be with us every day. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
Without discussing specific actions: How hard do you find it personally to determine what is right and wrong for you (not to assess the actions or attitudes of others)? What factors tend to cloud the issues in your own mind? Can you, for yourself only, tend to “feel” the rightness or wrongness of the daily choices you have to make, or is that often unclear and confusing?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Galatians 2:16-21. Do you tend to see yourself as a “good, holy Christian” because of your good deeds, or because of your deep and abiding faith in Christ’s grace and forgiveness? Should we as Christians rigidly follow “the rules” of how we should behave, or should we follow Christ’s leading through the Holy Spirit in our hearts?
Read Romans 3:9-28. Do you find it hard to accept that, no matter how hard you try to do right, you are a “sinner”? How can your sin be erased and forgotten? When you realize you have done wrong, do you tend to feel like a failure before God? What can you do then? One preacher said the moral law is like a sheet of glass. If it’s broken anywhere, it’s broken. So as a community of believers, what is our shared need? Can that shared need (for forgiveness through faith; for mercy and grace) free us from shame? Can meeting together help us encourage one another to throw off our shackles of guilt?
Read 1 John 5:10-13. The Message captured verse 13 this way: “My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life.” Do feel as confident in your path to heaven as this verse promises? What makes some of us doubt our own salvation? How can we overcome this doubt? When does “eternal life” begin–now, or after our earthly death? How can your answer affect the way you live your life and how you approach each new day?
Read 1 Timothy 2:2-6, Luke 24:44-49. Do you think the gospel has been preached to everyone, even in America? What are some of the things that make it harder to spread of the gospel in America? Do you have personal acquaintances who you really wish could hear the gospel message? What could we do differently in this electronic age to spread the gospel? What would be some equivalents in our world of being a “field preacher”? Are you, like many Christians, embarrassed to overtly share the gospel? How do you feel, for example, about putting Bible verses at the bottom of your personal emails?
Read Titus 2:11-15. Is the Christian message really for everyone (even for, say, terrorists who threaten our country?) What about people of non-Christian faiths, atheists, drug dealers, prostitutes, thieves, addicts, etc.? Do we tend to see some people as “respectable sinners,” while others are “really bad sinners”? What’s the danger in doing that? How do we classify ourselves? Why would a “respectable sinner” need God’s grace as much as any “really bad sinner”? Can you think of any “really bad sinners” in the Bible saved by their faith in God? What about any “respectable” sinners?
Read Luke 14:12-24. How do you interpret this story? What invitation is Christ referring to? Being honest, how open are you to inviting and welcoming into God’s kingdom the “ragamuffins” of all kinds who live around you, even if at first you might feel uncomfortable in their company? Don’t condemn yourself if you are uncomfortable with the idea of reaching into the “highways and back alleys” with the gospel. How can we all stretch at least a little beyond our comfort zone?
From last week: Did you prayerfully consider the list of spiritual disciplines, and ask yourself which disciplines needed your greater attention? Did you, each day, try to incorporate those disciplines into your life? Please share with the group how you did.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, September 1, 2013:
Last week we left Wesley with the desire to be an altogether Christian. He hoped to glorify God in everything he did, to be holy in his thoughts, words and deeds. He got up early to pray. He fasted two days a week. He studied the Bible each day. He received the Eucharist weekly and sometimes daily. He was regularly visiting the prisons, the sick, the elderly. He refused to cut his hair but instead gave the money he would have paid a barber to the poor.
All of these were good things in and of themselves. And Wesley was clear that salvation was not the result of doing all of these things, but a gift from God. Yet while he knew this with his head, he did not know it in his heart. So Wesley noted that “I have been charged with being too strict…with carrying things too far in religion and laying burdens on myself, if not on others, which were neither necessary nor possible to be borne.” Wesley dismisses the charge, but there was truth to it….
As long as our spiritual life is about guilt, rules, and the obsessive compulsion that we’ve never done enough, we’ll miss the point of the gospel and lack the joy our faith is meant to have. Today we come to the moment when Wesley experienced the key to a healthy, passionate, authentic Christian faith—the match that struck the fuse to an explosive revival that could not be stopped….
[After many rejections and failures in the colony of Georgia,] Wesley was arrested but released without bail until the date of the trial. Soon church attendance plummeted. His ministry was compromised. The trial date was postponed, but the magistrate issued orders forbidding Wesley to leave. Finally, on December 22nd, having snuck out of Georgia, he boarded a ship back to England, a complete failure. Jilted, humiliated, and rejected he arrived back in England in January of 1738. His hopes and dreams for ministry in America, for missions among the Native Americans were lost.
Wesley did not know it at the time, but his rejection, his spiritual and pastoral failures, would have a vast impact on his world and ours. His fear in the face of death during the storms at sea led him to search for something more than simply knowing the truth and doing all he could to be holy. His failure in America would pave the way for him to launch a movement in England that would eventually spread across America with, at its peak, more than 40,000 churches in every town and county across the country.
My experience watching you over the last 23 years is that our failures, placed in God’s hands, lead to our greatest successes. Our most painful experiences become our defining moments by the grace of God, provided that we learn from them. Which is what Paul was teaching in Romans 8:28, a passage many of you know by heart: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
The challenge for many of us is that we spend so much time blaming others for our failures, and maybe a great deal of time expressing disappointment in God, that we fail to be teachable, to learn from the experience….
Remember, the faith Wesley had been pursuing was built around rules and an obsessive quest for holiness. In many ways the Apostle Paul, when he was a Pharisee, had struggled with the same thing until he heard the gospel of Jesus. Martin Luther had struggled with the same obsessive, guilt and rules-based faith when he was a Catholic monk until he heard Paul’s words in Romans. Wesley had rules. He had plenty of guilt. He had a head knowledge of the gospel, but it hadn’t sunk into his heart….
This led to Wesley’s crisis of faith. It was as he was most discouraged—we might say when he had hit bottom—realizing that all of his attempts to please God had failed, and he was a miserable failure, that he attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s listen to his own words about what happened the night of May 24th, 1738: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”…
This is hugely important. Pursuing holiness is a good thing. Seeking to do everything for the glory of God is wonderful, IF these are not seen as efforts at winning God’s approval, but instead as a response to an acceptance and love for us that’s already been given. Paul found freedom from a guilt-ridden, rule-based faith. He found, as he saw that Christ died for our sins, that he gives us God’s righteousness, that he has bought us with a price, and that we are his dearly loved children, a deeply different relationship with God which changed his relationship to everyone and everything else.
One of my favorite passages captures the idea of what happened to Wesley on Aldersgate Street, which would propel him to passionately proclaim the gospel across the British Isles. I want you to listen carefully to what 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote. He begins by describing the state that guilt and rule-based faith creates: “Year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear…the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, [and] despair destroys all joy and courage. At that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”
Here’s the key to the life God intends for us—not that we work as slaves with salvation as the appropriate wage for us, but that we live in relationship as children to a Father who has already said, “I accept you! I accept you! You are accepted!” Have you accepted God’s acceptance of you? This simple trust changed Wesley’s life, and it could change your life too.
Trust God with your failures. Don’t give up! Placed in God’s hands they can become our greatest defining moments, or lead to outcomes we never expected but are profoundly grateful for. God makes all things work together for our good.
And trust God’s love. You are accepted already. You are loved. Your sins have been forgiven. When you rest in that, your life is no longer about guilt, shame and obsessively trying to get God to like you, but instead living in grateful response to “a love that will not let you go.”
What others have said about Christian struggles
• A wise and good man will turn examples of all sorts to his own advantage. The good he will make his patterns, and strive to equal or excel them. The bad he will by all means avoid. – Thomas a Kempis
• The hardest struggle of all is to be something different from what the average man is. – Robert H. Schuller
• Press forward. Do not stop, do not linger in your journey, but strive for the mark set before you. – George Whitefield
• Our first problem is that our attitude towards sin is more self-centered than God-centered. We are more concerned about our own “Victory” over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve the heart of God. We cannot tolerate failure in our struggle with sin chiefly because we are success oriented, not because we know it is offensive to God. – Jerry Bridges
• Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
• Though there is nothing more dangerous, yet there is nothing more ordinary, than for weak saints to make their sense and feeling the judge of their condition. We must strive to walk by faith. – Thomas Brooks
• Give up the struggle and the fight; relax in the omnipotence of the Lord Jesus; look up into His lovely face and as you behold Him, He will transform you into His likeness. You do the beholding—He does the transforming. There is no short-cut to holiness. – Alan Redpath
• The truest help we can render an afflicted man is not to take his burden from him, but to call out his best energy, that he may be able to bear the burden. – Phillips Brooks
• There are some fires you can’t get out of–you’ve got to go through the fire–you’ve got to go through the flood–you’ve got to go through the test–you’ve got to go through the struggle that you might decrease and he might increase. – T.D. Jakes
• No matter what storm you face, you need to know that God loves you. He has not abandoned you. – Franklin Graham
• The next time you find yourself alone in a dark alley facing the undeniables of life, don’t cover them with a blanket, or ignore them with a nervous grin. Don’t turn up the TV and pretend they aren’t there. Instead, stand still, whisper his name, and listen. He is nearer than you think. – Max Lucado
This week, prayerfully consider whether you have fully accepted God’s acceptance of you. When you are confident that your heart, too, has been “strangely warmed” by the gospel, ask yourself if God is calling you to do anything more or different as his ambassador. Recommit yourself to your faith and God’s work and seek opportunities to take part in that work. Next week, share with the group anything significant you discovered.