Monday, February 7, 2022

Sung Il Lee: How Shall They Believe?

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Sung Il Lee. Rev. Dr. Lee is a missionary of Global Ministries and Missionary Practitioner in Residence at Candler School of Theology.

What does Wesley’s understanding of religions, as I described in my last post, mean for our practice of mission and evangelism? Wesley is concerned that “there are many heathen nations in the world that have no intercourse either by trade or nay other means with Christians of any kind” (#63. §24). Wesley, quoting Romans 10:14: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” emphasizes how God miraculously sends his gospel message to the unevangelized in the form of a negative question:

Yea, but is not God able to send them? Cannot he raise them up, as it were, out of the stones? And can he ever want means of sending them? No: Were there no other means, he can “take them by his Spirit,” as he did Ezekiel. (Ezek. 3:12) or by his angel, as he did Philip, (Acts 8) and set them down wheresoever it pleaseth him. Yea, he can find out a thousand ways to foolish man unknown. And he surely will: For heaven and earth may pass away; but his word shall not pass away.” (#63. §24).

In relation to this, the unevangelized cannot be blamed for failing to accept Christ, since they have never heard of him. So, Wesley believes in an impartial God who “never, in any age or nation, ‘left himself’ quite ‘without a witness’ in the hearts of men; but while he gave them rain and fruitful seasons imparted some imperfect knowledge of the Giver. He is the true light that still, in some degree, enlighten every man that comes into the world” (#113. The Difference Between Walking by Sight and Walking by Faith. §9). Here Wesley carefully expresses the possibility of salvation for the unevangelized but leaves the possibility of salvation to their own Master, saying:

Nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to him that made them, and who is “the Father of the spirits of all flesh;” who is the God of the Heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that he hath made. (#125. On Living without God. §14).

In another sermon, Wesley said that “if there be no true love of our neighbor that springs from the love of God, … does it not follow that the whole heathen world is excluded from all possibility of salvation?” (#91. On Charity. VI. §3). On this basis, he argues:

I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas. I believe he respects the goodness of the heart rather than the clearness of the head; and that if the heart of a man be filled (by the grace of God, and the power of his Spirit) with the humble, gentle, patient love of God and man, God will not cast him into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels because his ideas are not clear, or because his conceptions are confused. Without holiness, I own, no man shall see the Lord; but I dare not add, or clear ideas. (#125. §15).

Chester Gillis evaluates that even though concern for salvation is unique to religion, to John Wesley, “ethics, moral discourse and behavior, and ritual are not exclusively the domain of religion.”[1]

In the light of Wesley’s views, when it comes to Christian witness in a pluralist world, I hold the view that if we put our trust in Christ, we can listen to others without fear of losing our faith. And we can share with them the new life that we ourselves have found.[2] The way Wesley witnessed to the skeptic in his days gives us an example of how to share our testimonies with people of other faiths today. Wesley urges us to avoid replying with rational arguments, because even if rational arguments were successful in convincing, they would nonetheless leave the skeptic imprisoned within the realm of previous experience. Instead, he told us to let “experience speak to experience.”[3]

Wesley invited the skeptic to attend the meeting of a local society and become a member of a class, which proved to be the best apologetic method, because it invited a skeptic to be open to a new community of experience. Runyon said that Wesley shared his daily experiences of God's presence in his life and appealed to the testimonies of members of society, which opened up the existence of a reality where rational arguments can be met in reality. “Testimony functioned as a temptation to believe. Experience speaks to experience, not in some arbitrary way but as a catalyst that may trigger a response in those willing to risk participating in the same reality.”[4] And when participation in spiritual reality happens, it is experienced as self-certification. “Reason can then function … to compare the new faith-relation with the understanding of other members of the community, with the wider tradition, and with the Scriptures. In this process faith will grow and be enriched and the range of experience expanded.”[5]

In conclusion, I like Wesley’s humble attitude toward other religions, and I love to see his evangelistic enthusiasm that nevertheless leaves the possibility of salvation in other religions in the hands of God, beyond the limits of evangelism and mission. I like to interpret his inclusivistic attitudes as the enthusiasm of an evangelist who has the heart of Christ, who wants all men to be saved and know the truth of God.

In writing these articles, what I paid most attention to was doing my best not to let my intentions or greed distort what Wesley intended. In the case of theologians who insist on dialogue with other religions, I have often experienced that their intentions or greed distort their understanding of someone else’s intentions.

After being a Georgia missionary, the young Wesley returned to England to become a missional leader who revitalized the nominal Church of England. It should be remembered that Wesley considered that, in any era, more harmful than any other religion was Christianity that had lost its moral character (holy tempers), that is, a nominal Christianity that was too institutionalized to give room for the Holy Spirit to work.

[1] Chester Gillis, Pluralism: A New Paradigm for Theology (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1993), 131.

[2] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 224.

[3] Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 158.

[4] Ibid., 158

[5] Ibid., 158

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