Fasting Reveals the Hidden You

image“Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.”  John Wesley

There is a certain irony in Wesley’s observation of fasting as he points out that a spiritual discipline that helps us to recognize the spiritually-dividing excesses in our life can, in itself, become an excess of its own. Fasting has largely fallen from favor as a spiritual discipline. Through the centuries excesses in asceticism gave the practice an undeserved reputation as a form of mortification but it also contrasts deeply with modern culture in a Church that views any deprivation as suffering.

The lack of understanding about the purposes of fasting also contributes to its negative reputation. Many continue to view it as a hair shirt, a form of self-imposed castigation but that is a flawed view. The singular purpose of fasting is to become more intimate with God. A fast is a personal matter between you and God in which you do without food in order to focus on how you are sustained by God alone. Spiritual fasting for any other reason is extra-biblical and borders on self worship. It is never to be used as leverage to gain favor from God or as an effort to divert His will.

The Bible Speaks on Fasting

Christians since the earliest days have sought the biblical mandate for all Christians to fast regularly, only to be disappointed in their efforts. There is no biblical law that commands regular fasting. Every case of fasting in the Scriptures is initiated by the Lord, as He sees necessary. The majority of the instances are individual in nature though, on occasion, God has called for corporate fasts. The discipline of fasting, its method and frequency are initiated by God and conveyed to the believer through the intimacy of relationship. We should interpret these facts cautiously. The spiritual discipline of fasting is a release of control on our lives meant to help deepen our intimacy with God. It is a privilege which we can practice as a part of our regular devotional life as long as we are certain of its purpose. If there is a specific reason for a fast (repentance, et. al) God will guide his people to it.

As people have searched the Scriptures to determine if there is a commandment to fast, the disciple discovers that Jesus simply takes for granted that you will include fasting in your devotional practices. In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “When you fast” (Mt 6:16). It is not offered as one selection among many (‘if you choose fasting’) or as an optional endeavor (‘IF you fast’). Instead, the Lord speaks to the topic as a regular component of the devotions of a disciple as are prayer and charity.

What Jesus brings to light in this passage is a warning against ostentation when one does fast. Our fasting is to remain a private matter between us and God. To make a public spectacle of ourselves in the process draws attention to us and immediately defeats the purpose of the fast. Glory shifts from God to ourselves and the growth and strength that derives from the fast is destroyed. We might as well not have fasted at all. If those around us become aware of our fast they should not be asking how we endure such torture. Rather, they should be seeking for themselves the source of our nourishment which, for the disciple, is the very word of God (Jn 4:32-34).

The real you and me that we mask with comforting things will also be revealed when we fast. It’s no secret that we are vulnerable to revelation when we are uncomfortable. Our irritations, feelings, and sometimes our actions bubble to the surface when our discomfort overrides our ability to suppress them. This is our true self that we contain under normal circumstances. This is the true self that Jesus directs the Spirit to address within us. Our deceitful minds are more than capable of convincing us that these attitudes are not a problem but the Lord knows the truth. Just as the desert revealed the purity of Jesus Christ, our 24 hours of fasting reveal the flaws within us that demand attention.

It’s Time to Stop Avoiding Fasting

Fasting can bring unparalleled vitality to our spiritual life in a way that none of the other disciplines can. Wesley closes the thoughts, “…it was not merely by the light of reason…that the people of God have been, in all ages, directed to use fasting as a means:…but they have been…taught it of God Himself, by clear and open revelations of His Will…Now, whatever reasons there were to quicken those of old, in the zealous and constant discharge of this duty, they are of equal force still to quicken us.” (Sermons on Several Occasions)

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Wesley on Wednesday ~ Purity of Heart

John Wesley comments on what it means to be pure of heart from one of his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount.

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“The pure in heart” are they whose hearts God hath “purified even as he is pure;” who are purified, through faith in the blood of Jesus, from every unholy affection; who, being “cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfect holiness in the” loving “fear of God.” They are, through the power of his grace, purified from pride, by the deepest poverty of spirit; from anger, from every unkind or turbulent passion, by meekness and gentleness; from every desire but to please and enjoy God, to know and love him more and more, by that hunger and thirst after righteousness which now engrosses their whole soul: So that now they love the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and mind, and strength.

The Wesleyan Perspective on Sanctification

Perhaps no doctrine of sanctification has undergone so many and varied permutations as the Wesleyan view. The Wesleyan’s view is best known by either of the two names given to the process: entire sanctification or Christian perfection. As Holiness churches have grown away from the Methodist beginnings of this theological idea, they have often radically transformed it to the point where an accurate definition is required to state what the idea is and is not. According to Wesley, sanctification is that part of God’s plan in which He renews the hearts of men and women in His own image. By His grace humanity would be turned from all willful sin and restored to the holiness that had been lost in the Fall. John Wesley’s words from a sermon serve to summarize:

Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God, after the likeness of Him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul…By nature ye are wholly corrupted. By grace ye shall be wholly renewed. [ Wesley, Works]

Far from a fabrication of Wesley’s intellect, he points to numerous passages of scripture in support of this doctrine, each one, he says, should bring the reader to a similar conclusion. Here are a pair of examples:

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Deuteronomy 30:5-6

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. 2 Corinthians 7:1

Taken in whole, Wesley sees in these and other passages the promise of freedom from the dominion of sin for every Christian. He states that God’s grace is ever at work in the heart of the believer progressively sanctifying the entire life of the Christian releasing the heart to fully love God and others. It is critical to note the difference here between Wesley and some later Holiness doctrine. He views entire sanctification as a continuum of grace and response, God giving and the believing transforming, with no conclusion prior to glorification. In other words, while the believer increases in holiness, there is no point of perfection this side of heaven in which every scintilla of sin has been removed and the believer is perfect, as a nominal definition of the word would have the reader understand. Some Holiness movement doctrine has evolved to this conclusion but it never originated with Wesley.

Some are also tempted to link Wesleyan sanctification to works. This can perhaps derive from Wesley’s insistence that the Christian faith is experiential; it is not simply head knowledge in which one believes, it is also practice that is a product of the transformed heart. As the believer was further and further sanctified, the new zeal for loving the Lord and others would be demonstrated through the interactions of the Christian. These actions are not quantitative measures of belief but products of the transformative power of that belief.

Conclusion

Though it has been modified considerably through the years, linked by Charismatic believers to a second baptism, taken to ultimate measures by some Holiness doctrine, Wesley’s idea of entire sanctification is thoroughly rooted in the Bible and the Royal Law of Love. Jesus serves to summarize the objective of this doctrine in his words of Matthew 22:

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Mt 22:37-40

Despite the name that is often attributed to it – Christian Perfection – Wesley foresaw no moment in which we would be entirely free from the possibility of sinning, only that our love of God and others would lessen our desire.

Eternal Security: The Wesleyan View

To understand Wesley and the doctrines and theology that bear his name, one must keep in mind that in all things, John Wesley is a practical theologian. That is, he is concerned not with theology and the lofty scholastic ruminations that it often devolves into but rather, theology as it affects you and I in our daily life as followers of Christ. His order of salvation does not have the immediacy of the Calvinist perspective; it is a justification in which Christ’s righteousness is immediately imputed to the believer giving them a forensic status as ‘forgiven’ followed by a lifetime of sanctification, a full salvation measured by perfection of love and obedience. Faith, teaches Wesley, is not the cause of salvation but the condition of receiving it. Our faith does not save us, but we are saved only by Christ, in whom we have faith. (Wynkoop, Wesleyan-Arminian Theology)

To adhere to Wesleyan Christianity is to devote oneself to a life of obedience and ever increasing love for God and fellow man. To be sure, there will be moments in which both love and obedience falter, but the Spirit provides the impetus and strength to restore both and continue along the path of holiness. This continuance of the process of sanctification is rooted in continued faith in Christ. It is at those moments where one turns from the faith in Christ, that the believer is in danger of losing his or her salvation. It is important to note the logical connection between the conditional nature of the Wesleyan receipt of justification (when a human agent responds to God’s prevenient grace and accepts the gift of salvation) and its conditional security. If this same human agent should turn from this grace and reject the gift in favor of returning to their unregenerate life, the salvation status is lost. Wesley believed, given his high view of a merciful, grace-giving God, that people who found themselves in this state could remedy the situation by a return to repentance and belief.

In Wesley’s piece, ‘A Call to Backsliders’ he looks to the warning passages of Heb 6:4-6, 1 Tim 1:19-20, and 2 Pet 2:20 – 22 and sees that even these dire warnings could be repaired. They must return to the saving faith that they once held and produce the repentance of their sins to be restored. Does Wesley ever see a permanent loss of salvation? Certainly; men will turn away from Christ without any further desire to be restored. Apostasy is a very real possibility for the Wesleyan. Though humankind may fall from grace, we never fall beyond grace. The Spirit will not abandon the believer but may be silenced by an ever harder heart.

Summary

There is an expected similarity between the Arminian and Wesleyan positions as they both root in the conditional nature of salvation and the subsequent conditional nature of security. Where the classical Arminian and the Wesleyan depart ways on this topic is in the possibility of remediation when one has apostatized. The Arminian sees this condition as a ‘shipwrecked faith’, a condition in which there is no hope of reassembling the faith again and thus, all is lost. Wesley’s theology of love built around a God of mercy and grace saw this type of permanent apostasy as a possibility but also saw that the mercy of his God would allow time and time again for the sinner to return to the altar, seeking forgiveness and a restoration of his righteousness.

Wesley on the catholic Spirit

Wesley does not speak here about theological compromise. Instead, he demonstrates a rare ability to segregate the essential from nonessential elements in the Christian faith.

Every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true; (for to believe any opinion is not true, is the same thing as not to hold it;) yet can no man be assured that  all his own opinions, taken together, are true. Nay, every thinking man is assured they are not… “To be ignorant of many things  and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity.” This, therefore, he is sensible is his own case. He knows in the  general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particular he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know…

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?”…

But what is properly implied in the question? … The first thing implied is this: Is they heart right with God?…Does the love of God constrain thee to serve Him with fear? … Is they heart right toward thy neighbor?… Do you show your love by your works?… Then, “thy heart is right, as my heart is with they heart.”

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot; It does no depend on my choice; I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion, I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute these points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: Only “give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Embrace my modes of worship;” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does no depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable government to be Scriptural and Apostolic. If you thing the Presbyterians or Independents are better, think so still, and act accordingly. I believe infants ought to be baptized; and that this may be done either by dipping or sprinkling. If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow you own persuasion. It appears to me, that the forms of prayer are of excellent use, particularly in the great congregation. If you judge extemporary prayer to be of more use, act suitably to your own judgment. My sentiment, is that I ought not to forbid water, wherein persons may be baptized; and that I ought to eat bread and drink wine, as a memorial of my dying Master; however, if you are not convinced of this, act according to the light you have. I have not desire to dispute with you one moment upon any of the preceding heads. Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into light. If thin heart is as my heart, if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “Give me thine hand” (Works, V, 494-499)

Perhaps we too can exercise some discernment and divide the essential from the non-essential, loving one another as the result.