Methods Of Spiritual Maturity - A Methodist Approach to Spiritual Formation

This is the first part of a four-part series regarding Methods of Spiritual Maturity. It is an introduction to not just theory but some of the practices of our heritage as Christian people. This first session explores some of that theory from both modern writers but connects specifically to John Wesley and the practices and emphasis of the Methodist strain of Christian faith expression.

(17) Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (18) And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 ESV

In Matthew Henry's Commentary, he writes, “This light and liberty are transforming; we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory (2Co_3:18), from one degree of glorious grace unto another, till grace here be consummated in glory for ever.  How much therefore should Christians prize and improve these privileges!” 

We are a people of the Book.  This Book is more than any book we might pick up and read because it is a book, throughout the centuries, which reads us.  We find ourselves in these pages, in its poems, stories, histories and Gospels.  It tells us many things for sure and in these four weeks, I hope that you'll see that in these pages and in our history, God is desiring to move us to maturity.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul describes our journey in faith, hope and love as that of a child to man when he says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”  God may find us anywhere but He never leaves us where he finds us.

Many different theories informed the education process in the 20th century.  The moral development theory was one such area. Like most theories, the initial practitioner paved the road and this case it was Jean Piaget.

But Piaget was followed by a number of his students and others who not only stood on his shoulders but directed his theories in differing and very fruitful directions.  Most of this work has been very academic and most often directed at curriculum development in schools and churches. 

Moral Development theory sought to give understanding and descriptions to how we, as human beings, reason and process events and feeling in our lives.  Not surprisingly, spirituality was an area of interest but it was not one which Piaget sought to pursue.  James Fowler was the one who took up that mantle.

Names like psychologist, Scott Peck and Father Richard Rohr are a couple of current writers who have greatly influenced through their reflecting and writing, this field where psychology and theology overlap. Janet Hagberg however, began work examining, studying and developing a theory first, in the stages of power.  Doing that research and work, she discovered as well, a parallel in the spiritual life.

I know that many of you work and have employees or work in large companies with large staffs.  I have found that as a Christian and pastor, understanding the developmental stages of others to be beneficial in not only leading others but working through problems and achieving goals.  More to the point, as a pastor, this understanding helps me in preaching, leading Bible Studies and providing spiritual direction to others.

One of the problems or temptations about talking about stages is that later stages or number sounds better than others.  Each stage builds on the other and often we even “go back” through stages during times of transition.

These are not law.  They are not in stone.    There is nothing holy about these nor are they law.  Using them as labels does little to benefit us or others though they can help us better understand and give grace rather than judgement.  They are intended to be descriptive, guideposts on life's journey.  Saying that is a good reminder that we need to be able to offer others grace during their journey through this life. As Janet writes, “God's grace does not make us move.  God's grace allows us to move (pg 14, Critical Journey)”

That understanding of grace is a good transition to move from a modern take on state of our moral development, with a jump back in history where we discover, this developmental view of things isn't so new after all.  While I’m stopping today at John Wesley, we could go back farther into history and would find other writers of the Christian mystic tradition who identified the flow of growth in our lives.  For Methodists, it is from John Wesley that we find our “Method” which does make this an appropriate beginning.

Wesley's semons, journals, books, and letters are an incredible resource and picture of who he was and how John lived out his faith and how he passed it on to others.  Wesley Theologian Thomas Oden, notes that Wesley's thoughts on Sanctification – our growth in grace were formed by the writings of Jeremy Taylor, William Law and Thomas a Kempis.  Oden writes: “Mark well: the teaching of perfecting grace is not finally about the power of human freedom, but the power of grace to transform freedom (John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity).”  This is an important observation – Methodists don't simply believe in free will but what we believe in is the abundance of God's free grace!

For John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, the recognition of growth in grace was a significant element to how he approached his ministry.  The Christian life was defined by this growth in grace.  Wesley took time to observe, reflect and even interview believers about their spiritual life.
As he did this work and studied Scripture, history and theology, Wesley gave description to a person's growth grace.  So while there was/is only one grace, Wesley gave names to different ways he observed grace at work.

Prevenient grace describing how grace is always working behind the scenes.
Convicting grace describing the grace which helps us recognize our need for God.
Saving grace describing the grace which empowers our decision to choose Jesus.
Perfecting grace describing that grace which transforms our freedom.

What Wesley was convinced of and believed the Methodist movement existed for was reintroduce the idea of Scriptural Holiness, Christian Perfection or the idea of being made perfect in love.
As such, Wesley was describing a process of Growth In Grace.  Dr. Allan Coppedge, professor of Wesley Theology, was the one who first made this clear to me.  But as we reflect today, I think there is good reason to position these two models, one of Hagberg’s and the one of Wesley’s to give us a fuller picture of our growth in spiritual maturity.

God does not force one on the journey nor can you simply choose to go from stage to stage, grace to grace.  As I said in the beginning, these are descriptions of the life journey – of the faith journey.  Far more can be said than what I've done today. 

What such a model does, is offer us hope, hope that who we are is not who we are destined to stay.  What we have lived through will not have to be what defines us.  By going on in grace, we have the opportunity to mature spiritually.

Like Wesley, my message is not for us to become entrenched in navel gazing.  Our hope is what Paul said to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another!”

In a letter to John Trembath in 1760, John Wesley wrote:
"Oh begin!  Fix some part of every day for private exercise.  You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.  Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow.  Do not starve yourself any longer.  Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you, and in particular yours."

There are methods for aiding us in our growth but these methods are nothing new to the faith.  They were the methods that have been tried and tested throughout the centuries.  Many forgotten, some cast aside or neglected but thoroughly Christian nonetheless.

In the coming weeks, I will look at these methods in more detail.  Not merely teaching but taking the time to practice.  In Scouts, we call this the EDGE method – Explain, Demonstrate, Guide and Enable.  In our faith, we call that discipleship, the journey to spiritual maturity


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