The legacy of a ‘strange’ warmth
The shofar’s hum on the evening of 21 May signalled the start of the Aldersgate SG 2017 Sunday Celebration at Paya Lebar Methodist Church (PLMC) amidst a heavy downpour. However, the deluge could not keep away the crowd that numbered about 1,000 who quickly filled PLMC’s sanctuary.
For 15 years, the Singaporean Methodist community has gathered at the annual Aldersgate service to commemorate the day when Methodism’s founder John Wesley experienced a personal revival, a “strangely warmed” feeling in his heart that assured him of God’s grace and redemption.
With his faith in Christ renewed and bolstered, John, together with his younger brother Charles, kick-started Methodism in England more than 250 years ago in 1738 – a movement that would spread across the six continents and touch the lives of a multitude of people today.
Catching the flames of Holiness
This year’s Aldersgate SG events were centred upon the tagline “Catch the Flame: The Wesleyan Pursuit of Holiness”, a theme that proved relevant in this day and age of uncertainty and undesirable influences that seek to draw our focus away from God, who is holy. Only by abiding in Him and living a life of holiness can we find joy and satisfaction.
In his opening message titled “The Joy of Holiness”, Bishop Dr Chong Chin Chung placed firm emphasis on the importance of holiness in the lives of not just Methodists, but also disciples of Christ.
“John Wesley’s methods of evangelism were not pompous or loud; he was not one who fancied empty slogans or highbrow messages. In fact, John Wesley’s brand of theology espoused practicality and exhorted holiness as an important virtue of the faithful. When he wrote his explanatory notes on Psalm 24, he defined holiness as part of a person’s lifestyle as one lives out the Christian faith,” said Bishop Dr Chong, who gave his message in Mandarin which the Rev Jasper Sim translated simultaneously in English (see inset pic below by PLMC Comms).
The Bishop continued, “Holiness is not just about our behaviour in the sanctuary, but more of how we live a godly life, and how seriously we regard godliness. Outward and inward holiness are inextricably linked, as the heart is the source of all our actions and thoughts. If our hearts are pure, it will be reflected in our daily lives. A pure heart is a pre-requisite to living a holy life.”
His sermon was drawn from Psalm 24, which reading was accompanied by a dance interpretation. The service also saw vibrant participation from the Methodist Festival Choir, the Methodist Festival Orchestra, and Filipino, Indonesian, and Tamil groups.
Ms Debra Yap of PLMC, a first-time attendee at the Aldersgate SG celebrations, said: “I praise God for the fact that despite coming from different churches, we are able to gather this evening to pray and worship in unity. It is indeed a blessing to see members of all three Annual Conferences in the same hall, singing the same songs of worship, and showing the true meaning of being in the Body of Christ. The entire service left me feeling blessed and on fire at the same time – it was an experience that will not be easily forgotten.”
The evening also saw three pastors – the Rev Dr Goh Nai Lat, the Rev Dr Jonathan Seet, and the Rev Lim Jen Huat – receiving their 25-year Long Service Awards.
A moving moment was when the whole congregation rose and, with flickering LED candles in hand, read together the Aldersgate SG Prayer of Commitment. The prayer had earlier been distributed to all Methodist churches so the entire 43,000-strong Methodist family could read it in solidarity during their worship services that very same day.
The Sunday service was a precursor to two nights of lectures given by keynote speaker Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon, who spoke on “The Face of Holiness” and “The Power for Holiness”.
Throughout both his lectures on 23 and 24 May, Dr Solomon adroitly weaved in several relevant Wesleyan hymns as well as John Wesley’s own sermons and writings to lend weight to his points.
The hymns not only kept the sessions engaging, but also bore witness to the songwriting talents of Charles Wesley, who was able to incorporate and summarise important Christian ideas on holiness in these memorable forms.
The lectures, which saw more than 800 attendees per night, also featured Q&A sessions where Dr Solomon fielded questions from attendees (see selected questions in sidebar).
The Face of Holiness
Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon began his first lecture with one of John Wesley’s most famous quotes, “The first priority of my life is to be holy, and the second goal of my life is to be a scholar.”
Wesley, the founder of Methodism, distinguished himself from the theologians of his day by being especially interested in the concept of holiness and how we can incorporate it in daily living. Wesley defined holiness as ‘Christ-likeness’, for Jesus is the perfect face of holiness. He emphasised that as believers, our eyes are to be kept on Jesus so to grow into holiness as we imitate Him.
However, we cannot express ‘Christ-like’ holiness without first undergoing the process of Christian salvation. Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon outlined the salvation process as one that begins from justification (what God does for us in forgiving our sins), continues in sanctification (renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Spirit, received through faith in Jesus Christ), and ends with glorification (the display of perfect Christian love that is wholly Christ-like).In all the stages, grace – the undeserved favour of God, and God’s enabling power – is needed.
Dr Solomon rounded up the first lecture saying, “If we are serious about growing into Christ-likeness, we must expect suffering and setbacks, allowed by God not to punish us but to shape and strengthen us, to mould our character into permanent shape.”
“Thus, when we pray, it is more important not to ask for our uncomfortable circumstances to change, but for God to shape our character. Hebrews 12:10 tells us that ‘…He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness’, but for this to even happen, we need the Holy Spirit.”
The Power for Holiness
What exactly drives us to be holy? Although God has called us to be holy (see 1 Pet 1:16), it is still an intrinsic and personal choice that must be driven by a desire or a force.
“The character of Christ cannot be manufactured by self-effort,” said Dr Solomon. “Holiness is achieved by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.”
Quoting John Wesley, Dr Solomon said, “The Holy Spirit is the cause of all holiness in us; enlightening our understandings, rectifying our wills and affections, renewing our natures, uniting our persons to Christ, assuring us of the adoption of sons, leading us in our actions; purifying and sanctifying our souls and bodies, to a full and eternal enjoyment of God.”
Revealing Christ in our lives
Dr Solomon listed three visible ways that we manifest Christ in our daily lives – surrender, obedience, and the bearing of spiritual fruit.
Christian maturity does not come with self-effort, but by continuing surrender to the rule of Christ and the work of the Spirit within us. However, our sinful nature (the flesh) will sabotage such attempts. Not only is it active when one is openly sinning, but it is dangerously and subversively active when we try to be religious.
We are to ‘live by the Spirit’ – which we can do so if we submit to the rule of Christ by dying to the sinful self (Gal 5:24).
We show obedience when we exhibit the disciplines of waiting and patience which are important in the Christian life, especially in our increasingly impatient, ‘quick-fix’, and restlessly activist modern culture.
Obedience can also be seen when we engage in good works in tandem with our faith. We are not to give up doing good, but continue to do good unto all people (Gal 6:9-10). It is important that we do not end up trusting in our good works as a basis for our salvation. After all, we are not saved by good works but we are saved for good works.
Bearing spiritual fruit is the natural consequence of being in submission to the rule of Christ and being obedient to His will.
“Ultimately,” said Dr Solomon, “how we bear spiritual fruit will come from how much we are living in Christ; maintaining a firm relationship with Him, and being wholly Christ-centred. Imagine a solar system where the planets revolve around the sun – so shall we do the same with Christ being in the centre of our lives.”
Audience Q&A with Bishop Emeritus Dr Solomon
Here are some questions that were posed to Dr Solomon after his two lectures on holiness.
Q: How can we as individual Methodists and as a Methodist church love God more perfectly?
A: The love for God comes from knowing God, because knowledge of God and the love for God are closely connected. One of the reasons why we do not love God is because we do not know God that well. We also need to overcome our own sinful tendencies to love ourselves more than God. In a sense, we need a spiritual Copernican Revolution where we will see Christ as the centre of our universe. So the more we recognise this, the more we can come to love Him.
Q: How can we increase in holiness as a Church?
A: I think the biblical answer lies in the phrase, “the fear of the Lord”. As we all know, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. Acts 2:42 described four things that the early Church did – attending the Apostles’ teachings, prayer, fellowship, and the breaking of bread – but immediately after that we read about there being a great awe amongst the believers. The word “awe” is not like how we define it in modern terms; rather it comes from the Greek word phobos which meant “fear”.
And there was much fear and trembling in the early Church. I think that contributed to their holiness.
Q: How does a father lead his family in holiness?
A: In Deuteronomy 6, there is a lot of guidance on how parents should bring up their kids in the fear of God, and in that book there is something we ought to notice – a quote that says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” (Deut 6:4-6, NIV). God must already be in the hearts of the parents before everything else. So I think the best way a father can lead his family in holiness is to be holy himself.