United Methodists profess the historic Christian faith in God, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and is ever at work in human history through the Holy Spirit. Living in a covenant of grace under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we participate in the first fruits of God’s coming reign and pray in hope for its full realization on earth as in heaven.
Our forebears in the faith reaffirmed the ancient Christian message as found in the apostolic witness, even as they applied it anew in their own circumstances. Their preaching and teaching were grounded in Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened in experience, and tested by reason. Their labors inspire and inform our attempts to convey the saving gospel in our own time.
Our Common Heritage as Christians
United Methodists share a common heritage with Christians of every age and nation. a heritage grounded in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, which is the source and measure of all valid Christian teaching.
Faced with diverse interpretations of the apostolic message, leaders of the early church sought to specify the core of Christian belief in order to ensure the soundness of Christian teaching. They did this through the formation of the canon of Christian Scripture and the adoption of
ecumenical creeds, such as those of Nicaea and Chalcedon, which helped preserve the integrity of the Church’s witness, set boundaries for acceptable Christian doctrine, and proclaimed the basic elements of the enduring Christian message. These statements of faith, along with the Apostles Creed, contain the most prominent features of our ecumenical heritage.
The Protestant reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries devised new confessional statements that reiterated classical Christian teaching in an attempt to recover the authentic biblical witness. These documents affirmed the primacy of Scripture and provided formal doctrinal standards through their statements of essential beliefs on matters such as the way of salvation, the Christian life, and the nature of the Church. Many distinctively Protestant teachings were transmitted into United Methodist understandings through doctrinal formulations such as the Articles of Religion of the Church of England and the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed tradition.
Various doctrinal statements in the form of creeds, confessions of belief, and articles of faith were officially adopted by churches as standards of Christian teaching. Some of these statements, as well as certain sermons, writings, liturgies, and hymns gained considerable practical authority in the life and thought of the Church by virtue of their wide and continuing acceptance as faithful expositions of Christian teaching. But in every case, the basic measure of their authenticity has been their faithfulness to the apostolic witness grounded in Scripture and evidenced in the life of the Church through the centuries.
Basic Christian Affirmations
With Christians of other communions we confess belief in the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This confession embraces the biblical witness to God’s activity in creation, encompasses God’s gracious involvement in history, and anticipates the fulfillment of God’s reign.
Creation is designed for the well-being of all creatures and as the place of human dwelling in covenant with God. As sinful creatures, however, we have broken that covenant, become estranged from God, wounded ourselves and one another, and wreaked havoc throughout the natural order. We stand in need of redemption.
We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture witnesses to the redeeming love of God in Jesus life and teachings, his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence in history, his triumph over the powers of evil and death, and his promised return. Because God truly loves us in spite of our willful sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given to us in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal.
We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers. Through faith in Jesus Christ we are forgiven, reconciled to God, and transformed as people of the new covenant. The community of believers is the Church, which the Spirit has brought into existence for the healing of the nations. As individual believers in Christ, as well as a Christian community, we are called to “Life in the Spirit.” This “Life” involves the diligent use of the means of grace such as praying, fasting, attending upon the Sacraments, and inward searching in solitude. It also encompasses the communal life of the Church in worship, mission, evangelism, service, and social witness.
We understand ourselves to be part of Christ’s universal Church when by praise, proclamation, and service we become conformed to Christ. We are initiated and incorporated into the community of faith by Baptism, receiving the promise of the Spirit that re-creates and transforms us. Through the regular celebration of Holy Communion, we participate in the risen presence of Jesus Christ and are nourished for faithful discipleship. Further, we pray and work for the coming of God’s realm and reign to the world and rejoice in the promise of everlasting life that overcomes death and the forces of evil.
With other Christians we recognize that the reign of God is both a present and future reality. The Church is called to be that place where the first signs of God’s reign are identified and acknowledged in the world. Wherever persons are being made new creatures in Christ, wherever the insights and resources of the gospel are brought to bear on the life of the world, God’s reign is already effective in its healing and renewing power. We also look to the end time in which God’s work will be fulfilled. This prospect gives us hope in our present actions, as individuals and as the Church. This expectation saves us from resignation and motivates our continuing witness and service.
We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, the confession that our justification as sinners is by grace through faith, and the sober realization that the Church is in need of continual reformation and renewal. We also affirm the general ministry of all baptized Christians who share responsibility for building up the Church and reaching out in mission and service to the world.
With other Christians, we declare the essential oneness of the Church in Christ Jesus. This rich heritage of shared Christian belief finds expression in our hymns and liturgies. Our unity is affirmed in the historic creeds as we confess” one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” It is also experienced in joint ventures of ministry and in various forms of ecumenical cooperation.
Nourished by the common roots of shared Christian heritage and understanding, the branches of Christ’s Church have developed diverse traditions that enrich the Church universal. This is especially true of United Methodism, and if we are to offer our best gifts to the common Christian treasury, we must make a deliberate effort as a church to strive for critical self-understanding. It is as Christians involved in ecumenical partnership that we examine and embrace our distinctive heritage.
Our Distinctive Heritage as United Methodists
The energy of Wesleyan theology stems from an emphasis upon practical divinity, the day-to-day practice of genuine Christianity in the lives of believers. Methodism did not arise in response to a specific doctrinal dispute, even though there was no lack of theological controversy.
Early Methodists claimed to preach the scriptural doctrines of the Church of England as contained in the Articles of Religion, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer. Their task was not to create new doctrine, but to call people to experience the justifying and sanctifying grace of God and to encourage them to grow in the knowledge and love of God through the personal and corporate disciplines of the Christian life. The thrust of the Wesleyan movement and of the United Brethren and Evangelical Association was to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.
John Wesley’s orientation toward the practical is evident in his focus upon the scripture way of salvation. He considered doctrinal matters primarily in terms of their significance for Christian discipleship.
The Wesleyan emphasis upon the Christian life — through faith and love put into practice — has been the hallmark of those traditions now incorporated into The United Methodist Church. The distinctive shape of Wesleyan theology is seen in its emphases upon the creating, redeeming, and sanctifying activity of God.
Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases
Although Wesley shared with many other Christians a belief in grace, justification, assurance, and sanctification, he combined them in a powerful manner to create distinctive emphases for living the full Christian life. The Evangelical United Brethren tradition, particularly as expressed by Philip William Otterbein, from a Reformed background, gave similar distinctive emphases.
Grace pervades our understanding of Christian faith and life. By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit. While the grace of God is undivided, it precedes salvation as prevenient grace, continues in justifying grace, and is brought to fruition in sanctifying grace.
We assert that God’s grace is manifest in all creation even though suffering, violence, and evil are also everywhere present. The goodness of creation is fulfilled in human beings, who are called to covenant partnership with God. God has given dignity and freedom and has summoned us to responsibility for our lives and the life of the world.
In God’s self-revelation, Jesus Christ, we see the splendor of our true humanity. Even our sin, with its destructive consequences for all creation, does not alter God’s intention for us, which is holiness and happiness of heart. Nor does it diminish our accountability for the way we live. Despite our brokenness, we remain creatures brought into being by a just and merciful God. The restoration of God’s image in our lives requires divine grace to renew our fallen nature.
Prevenient Grace. -We acknowledge God’s prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our first slight transient conviction of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.
Justification and Assurance. -We believe God reaches out to the repentant believer in justifying grace with accepting and pardoning love. Wesleyan theology stresses that a decisive change in the human heart can and does occur under the prompting of grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In justification through faith, we are forgiven our sin and restored to God’s favor. This righting of relationships by God through Christ calls forth our faith and trust as we experience regeneration, by which we are made new creatures in Christ. This process of justification and new birth is often referred to as conversion. Such a change may be sudden and dramatic, or gradual and cumulative; yet it marks a new beginning and is part of an ongoing process. Christian experience as personal transformation always expresses itself as faith working by love.
Our Wesleyan theology also embraces the scriptural promise that we can expect to receive assurance of our present salvation, as the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Sanctification and Perfection. -We hold that the wonder of God’s acceptance and pardon does not end God’s saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we can increase in the knowledge and love of God and our neighbor.
New birth is the first step in this process of sanctification. Sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor and as having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked. This gracious gift of God’s power and love, the hope and expectation of the faithful, is neither warranted by our efforts nor limited by our frailties.
Faith and Good Works. -We see God’s grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God’s grace calls forth human response and discipline. While faith is the only response essential for salvation, the Christian life itself requires more.
The General Rules remind us that our salvation is made evident through our good works. For Wesley, even repentance should be accompanied by fruits meet for repentance, or works of piety and mercy. Both faith and good works belong within an all-encompassing theology of grace, since they stem from God’s gracious love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Mission and Service. -We insist that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world. By joining heart and hand we assert that personal religion, evangelical witness, and Christian social action are mutually reinforcing.
Scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor and a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world. The General Rules are one expression of the relationship between Christian life and thought as understood within the Wesleyan tradition.
The Nature and Mission of the Church. -Finally, we emphasize the nurturing and serving function of Christian fellowship in the Church. The personal experience of faith is nourished by the worshiping community. For Wesley there was no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness. Communal faith in the Wesleyan tradition not only promotes personal growth, but also equips and mobilizes us for mission and service to the world.
The outreach of the Church springs from the working of the Spirit. As United Methodists, we respond to that working through a connectional Church based upon mutual responsiveness and accountability. Connectional ties bind us together in faith and service in our global witness, enabling faith to become active in love and intensifying our desire for peace and justice in the world.