This is an abridged version of Bishop Dr Chong Chin Chung’s sermon preached at the Aldersgate SG 2020 Thanksgiving Service. It was pre-recorded and screened by the Methodist churches on their online channels on 24 May 2020. Watch it at https://tiny.cc/AldersgateSG2020 or scan the QR code below.
Scripture text: Romans 12:1–2, 9–21
Today, on 8 May, we are pre-recording the Aldersgate SG 2020 Thanksgiving Service. The annual Aldersgate Conference has run for two decades, and despite the coronavirus outbreak, the Combined Worship Service is still meaningful for us to organise.
John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience
Many consider John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience on 24 May 1738, when he felt his heart “strangely warmed”, to mark his spiritual breakthrough, genuine conversion and spiritual revival, where he received assurance of salvation and baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Like many Christians, Wesley had waged a constant struggle with sin and felt powerless against it. He also had nagging doubts about his faith and if he was indeed saved.
That evening, while listening to someone read Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he had a profound experience: “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me.” This made his heart feel “strangely warmed”.
It was this experience that led Wesley to realise that Jesus Christ had already freed him from the bondage of the law of sin and death, and he was assured of receiving freedom and release. It was a milestone in his spiritual journey. It was followed by the eager anticipation of continued growth in his spiritual life, and when he reached the next milestone, he would be closer yet to a state of perfection.
Today, from the experience of a broad spectrum of Christians, we can understand John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience as an instantaneous and decisive turnaround in his spiritual life. It was one of many defining moments in his spiritual life journey. These contribute to what Wesley calls our “gradual lifelong growth”.
The message of Romans 12
I chose Romans 12:1–2 and 9–21 because I feel that the Epistle to the Romans is the most important book to help us understand John Wesley’s commitment to faith and its practice, and have an Aldersgate-like experience like his, to be part of a gradual lifelong growth in our pursuit of perfection.
The first part of Romans discusses doctrines, and in the second part Paul encourages his readers—that is you and I—to live out our beliefs. John Wesley took very seriously loving God as well as how one’s faith is acted on. To him, holiness means to love God with our whole heart and mind and to love others like ourselves, also with our whole heart and mind. If we say our heart is full of holy love for God and yet are unable to love others in the same way, then it does not qualify as “loving God”.
1. Loving God with all your heart and strength (vv1–2)
In Romans 12:1, Paul appealed to the Christians of the Roman church, with great urgency, to fear and serve God, to worship and honour him fully and absolutely. These words, “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (NIV) is similar to what Jesus said to the lawyer who asked him about eternal life: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your mind and all your soul.”
One must voluntarily, willingly and cheerfully go up to the altar to make an offering. Why do we call this holiness? Because the original phrase “to present” was used to refer to our offering ourselves. Such a sacrifice in the Old Testament system of offerings is related to the burnt offering, the grain offering and the peace offering (thanksgiving offering), which are given by free will and cheerfully as an expression of devotion to God. These are called fragrant offerings.
Sin offerings and guilt offerings are required for the purpose of atonement and remission of sins. They are necessary and are done for our own sake, not for God.
That such offerings are holy and acceptable in God’s sight is because what is being offered must be separated, dedicated to God. It is not about what we can gain from making that offering, but about fully submitting everything to God.
2. Unwavering devotion to God (v2)
Living a life that is set apart from the world and submitted to God does not mean that we can keep sin away or have reached the peak of spirituality.
The Christian faces many distractions and temptations daily. The world has many different voices and values. During the current coronavirus pandemic, we hear many questioning the value of life versus the value of freedom, or if life is more important than the country’s economy, or if personal advantage is more important than the people’s needs. It is dangerous for any religion to abuse freedom for religious practices and disregard others’ safety.
Right from the beginning of Romans 12, Paul reminds us to be alert, because the ways of this world generally do not conform to God’s good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom 12:2b). Paul asks that we do not take the ways of this world as our model. Instead we are to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind”.
Much of the views and news in today’s pervasive social media are mixed with false, fabricated and fake news. Therefore, test everything against God’s will—that is the best way for every Christian to maintain their devotion to God.
In the experience of Methodist spiritual formation, this is a real and daily struggle. Wesley regards prayer, Bible study, Holy Communion, fasting, fellowship, as well as private and public worship as means of grace. Through these we may continuously receive grace from God, the only way to a sustainable godly life.
3. Love others with your whole heart and whole mind (vv9–21)
Let’s reflect on what Paul brings up as regular Christian living. If we go by what John Wesley said, that holy living is to love God with our whole heart and mind, and also to love others with our whole heart and mind, then this passage is about total submission to God. Those who fully offer themselves on the altar to God must similarly fully offer themselves to love others. Every day, in whatever we do for others, we must get the fundamentals right, to move us to do the right things and to deal with others in love.
Let me give a simple explanation to this passage, using what Paul wrote in Colossians 3:18–4:6. There it was explained very clearly that whether it is for our spouse, parents or children; superiors or subordinates; those who serve the Lord or those who do not believe; in all matters big and small, Paul says: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23–24). Put this passage side by side with Romans 12:9–21 and you will see clearly how they relate to each other.
As Christians, in everything we do, it is by love that we serve. Whether it is loving God with our whole heart and mind, or loving others with our whole heart and mind, both are impossible to achieve in an instant. Wesley stressed that all Christians can, by the God-given means of grace, sustain lifelong growth and maturation, till they reach perfection.
This is the spiritual formation that John Wesley pursued and practised throughout his life. Loving God and loving others with our whole heart and mind involves a life of pursuing holiness, a gradual lifelong growth, until we meet the Lord again.
At no point during the pursuit of holiness can anyone think that one has already reached perfection and there is no need to continue that pursuit. In the Christian’s journey, there will be ups and downs, starts and stops, discouragement and despair. For this reason, Christians must continuously drive themselves towards Christian perfection through the means of grace.
As Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8) and “love never ends” (1 Cor 13:8).
But let us not fall into the idea that Christians can depend on good works to please our Lord or that good works gain us salvation.
From 1739, when the United Societies were formed, John Wesley made it clear that all Methodists “shall continue to evidence their desire of salvation” (General Rules, The Book of Discipline, ¶71.)
Our society today is complex and disturbing, and it is hard to discern the heart of man. Even within the Church there are many who are difficult to get along with and may even disappoint us through their words and deeds. In 2017, the Christian Post estimated that in any church, 5 per cent of the people will disappoint you or hurt you. But do not be despondent, because 95 per cent are sincere and care for others, and are devout and God-fearing. Even in our community and neighbourhoods, it is the same where most people are good and kind. Christians must ensure they count among the majority who are good.
John Wesley’s counsel to all is “By doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have opportunity, do good of every sort and as far as possible to every man.” (Methodist General Rule 2).
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and other healthcare workers have served at the frontline in the worst-hit areas, fighting to save those who are ill. For the sake of their patients, they have spent many weeks or even months in the hospital or hostels, some unable to return home and staying apart from their spouse, parents, children and siblings. Among them are our children and family. They are using their lives to help another life—an admirable spirit that moves our hearts and demands our deepest gratitude. This is what is meant by “being in every kind merciful, and doing good of every possible sort to all man.”
Some of our Methodist churches have reached out to take care of the homeless, or provide help for foreign workers. There are those who build our nation with their hard work. Whether it is the government or employers, the society at large or the Church, we must treat these people as our neighbours, even if they are here just for a short year or two, or longer.
Paul, in Galatians 6:9 said, “Do not lose heart in doing good.” Do not worry about not getting credit from doing good, nor worry whether you have done well enough, or if you have done enough. Social holiness is the Christian’s act of mercy. Much good can be done by individual Christians. But of course, it is more effective when the whole body of Christians unites in good works.
I sincerely wish you keep the love and fear of God within your hearts, to lean upon Him, and to be there for your neighbours when they have need, offering care and help with your whole heart and mind. And to pray and give thanks for our country to overcome this pandemic peacefully.
The Methodist Church in Singapore has journeyed 135 years. We must sustain our “strangely warmed” hearts, love God with all our heart and mind, and love our neighbours with all our heart and mind. When the pandemic is over, we will roll up our sleeves and with all our strength, join in the rebuilding of our community, and help those in need. We pray to the Lord to help keep the fire ablaze in our hearts, to bravely meet the challenges facing us.
Photo courtesy of the MCS Communications Team