Though it may seem to be the most difficult to define of the three, Wesley insists on including spirit with doctrine and discipline because right doctrine (belief) and right discipline (practice) are not enough in themselves.
I have always been intrigued by how much easier it is to destroy things than it is to build them. It takes years and months to build buildings, and when buildings are demolished, only days and seconds to destroy them. This is what a critical tongue does: it takes aim at a person, a church or organization, a project, an effort, a habit, an incident, a conversation, and it sets the charges to blow it up. What is amazing is how powerful our words can be, how easily they can offend and how deeply they can wound.
So holiness is not a static concept. It isn’t a condition where a Christian desperately tries to avoid thinking the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, lest his spotless purity be marred by sin. Instead, it is the dynamic reality of love—transforming the believer’s life and giving the believer a new set of values and commitments that are in harmony with God’s desires for his children.
I have heard numerous people in various ecclesial and academic contexts use this reformulation as if it were the direct equivalent of the original. What I have not heard, however, is much in the way of critical reflection upon such usage. “Stay in love with God” is perhaps easier to say (and memorize) and sounds more modern than the rather cumbersome original, “attend upon all the ordinances of God.” Yet does that new, popularized rendering accurately express the point that Wesley was trying to make? At a deeper level, is the phrase “stay in love with God” theologically adequate?
How shall we struggle to identify what keeps us rooted and grounded in our shared covenant even when we are not in agreement? How shall we “hang in there” with each other – not in spite of, but because of our different views? We share deep roots. Our Wesleyan heritage is rich and grounds us deeply in the love of God and love of neighbor. We share deep roots and from what I’ve noticed over the last fifteen months, our branches spread wide.
We Methodists don’t “believe” in backsliding, as some have accused us, but we’re honest enough to confess a fact when it stares us in the face, and we’re sensitive enough to our spiritual condition that we can tell the difference.