- We believe that God created human beings in God’s image.
- We believe that humans can choose to accept or reject a relationship with God.
- We believe that all humans need to be in relationship with God in order to be fully human.
We Separate Ourselves from God
Genesis 1:27 asserts that we’ve been made in the image of the Creator. Like God, we have the capacity to love and care, to communicate, and to create. Like God we’re free, and we’re responsible. We’ve been made, says Psalm 8, “a little lower than God” and crowned “with glory and honor.” We believe that the entire created order has been designed for the well-being of all its creatures and as a place where all people can dwell in covenant with God.
But we do not live as God intends. Again and again, we break the covenant relationship between God and us. We turn our backs on God and on God’s expectations for us. We deny our birthright, the life of wholeness and holiness for which we were created. We call this alienation from God, sin.
A distinction should be made between sin and sins. We use the word sins to denote transgressions or immoral acts. We speak of “sins of omission and commission.” These are real enough and serious, but they’re not the essential issue.
The issue is sin in the singular. Sin is our alienation from God, our willful act of turning from God as the center of life and making our own selves and our own wills the center. From this fundamental sin, our various sins spring. Sin is estrangement of at least four kinds:
Separation from God. Sin is breaking the covenant, separating ourselves from the One who is our origin and destiny. It’s trying to go it alone, to be out of touch with the God who is the center of life. Based on the story in Genesis 3, the church has described this break in dramatic terms: the Fall.
Separation from other people. In our sin, we distance ourselves from others. We put ourselves at the center of many relationships, exploiting others for our own advantage. Instead of loving people and using things, we love things and use people. When confronted with human need, we may respond with token acts of kindness or with lip service or perhaps not at all. Toward some people and some groups, we’re totally indifferent or actively hostile. Sin is a denial of our common humanity and our common destiny on this one small planet.
Separation from the created order
In our sin, we separate ourselves from the natural environment. Greedily we turn upon it, consuming it, destroying it, befouling it. As natural resources dwindle, as possibilities increase for long-term damage to the atmosphere and seas, we pause to wonder. But our chief concern is for our own survival, not for the beauty and unity of all God’s creation.
Separation from ourselves. We turn even from our own center, from the goodness, happiness, and holiness that is our divinely created potential. Sometimes it seems that there are two wills warring within us. As Paul put it, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Paul continues: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Like Paul, we discover that we are powerless to extricate ourselves from sin. Though we work ever so earnestly at various means of saving ourselves—being good, going to church, reading the Bible—these in themselves cannot save us. Sin is not a problem to be solved. It’s our radical estrangement from God, a separation that only God can heal by a radical act of love. We yearn for this reunion, this reconciliation, this redemption, this salvation.
We Yearn for Reunion with God. What does it mean to be saved and to be assured of salvation? It’s to know that after feeling lost and alone, we’ve been found by God. It’s to know that after feeling worthless, we’ve been redeemed. It’s to experience a reunion with God, others, the natural world, and our own best selves. It’s a healing of the alienation—the estrangement—we’ve experienced. In salvation we become whole. Salvation happens to us both now and for the future. It’s “eternal life,” that new quality of life in unity with God of which the Gospel of John speaks—-a life that begins not at death, but in the present. But how does salvation happen?
By grace through faith. Salvation cannot be earned. There’s no behavior, no matter how holy or righteous, by which we can achieve salvation. Rather, it’s the gift of a gracious God.
By grace, we mean God’s extraordinary love for us. In most of life, we’re accustomed to earning approval from others. This is true at school, at work, in society, even at home—to a degree. We may feel that we have to act “just so” to be liked or loved. But God’s love, or grace, is given without any regard for our goodness. It’s unmerited, unconditional, and unending love.
As we come to accept this love, to entrust ourselves to it, and to ground our lives in it, we discover the wholeness that God has promised. This trust, as we’ve seen, is called faith. God takes the initiative in grace, but only as we respond through faith is the change wrought in us.
This is the great theme of the Protestant Reformers, as well as John Wesley and the Methodists who followed: We’re saved by grace alone through faith alone. We’re made whole and reconciled by the love of God as we receive it and trust in it.
Conversion. This process of salvation involves a change in us that we call conversion. Conversion is a turning around, leaving one orientation for another. It may be sudden and dramatic, or gradual and cumulative. But in any case, it’s a new beginning. Following Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “You must be born anew” (John 3:7 RSV), we speak of this conversion as rebirth, new life in Christ, or regeneration.
Following Paul and Luther, John Wesley called this process justification. Justification is what happens when Christians abandon all those vain attempts to justify themselves before God, to be seen as “just” in God’s eyes through religious and moral practices. It’s 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’re justified by God’s grace through faith.
Justification is also a time of repentance — 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).
Growing in grace. Conversion is but the beginning of the new life of wholeness. Through what Wesley called God’s “sanctifying grace,” we can continue to grow. In fact, Wesley affirmed, we’re to press on, with God’s help, in the path of sanctification, the gift of Christian perfection. The goal of the sanctified life is to be perfected in love, to experience the pure love of God and others, a holiness of heart and life, a total death to sin. We’re not there yet; but by God’s grace, as we United Methodists say, “we’re going on to perfection!”