This is the second of the umpteenth attempt...
A Generous Tradition
Is it possible that a person’s “head” could be wrong on very many things, and yet that person be right with God? By the same token, could a person have all the right beliefs and yet be as far away from God as the most violent criminal? The best of the Wesleyan tradition says “yes.” In a very different context, 1 Samuel 16:7 puts it memorably: “the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (NRSV).
We can put it another way. Could a person “mess up” in very many ways for various reasons, and yet that person be right with God? Similarly, could a person’s outward actions appear virtuous and honorable and yet her heart be far from God? The best of the Wesleyan tradition says “yes.” God is able to divide “soul from spirit” and to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Let us ask the question one more time. Is it possible that a person be right with God because their heart is rightly oriented toward him, even if their understanding is thoroughly mistaken and their actions far from God’s ideal? The best of the Wesleyan tradition says “yes.” This sense of the heart as the focal point of God’s concern, more than your ideas or actions, reflects the Pietist influence on Wesley and, of course, ultimately traces its origins to Scripture.
One’s beliefs were certainly important to Wesley. And actions were even more important to Wesley than one’s beliefs. Certainly we will have great difficulty maintaining a good relationship with God for long outside of the community of faith. But the best of the Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that, for me as an individual, my heart is God’s focal concern. "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:20-21, NRSV).
This heart orientation manifested itself in Wesley’s definition of sin as a “voluntary transgression of the law.” Is it possible to sin unintentionally? Certainly it is—we can wrong others without meaning to do so. We can also do wrong without even realizing it. It is not incorrect to call such wrongdoing “sin,” because it is this sort of sin that is the primary interest of the Levitical law—“high handed,” intentional sins left little room for forgiveness (e.g., Num. 15).
But the New Testament says almost nothing about unintentional sin. And it would be quite mistaken to think that God’s standard for sin in the New Testament is absolute perfection. Paul came closest to giving us a New Testament definition when he said that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23, NRSV). This is the standard God has set for our relationship with him. It is not, “whoever does not believe the right things has sinned.” It is not even “whoever does not do the right things has sinned.” It is “the one whose thoughts and actions come from the wrong motivations has sinned.”
Some Christian traditions have struggled more than others with the postmodern challenge of these last decades. The postmodern critique pointed out how ambiguous language can be. The postmodern critique pointed out how often politics and power are involved in what we call truth. The postmodern critique exposed how unaware we often are of the cultural and historical influences on our paradigms, and how paradigms tend to change over time. We can learn from these critiques without abandoning our confidence that truth exists.
Indeed, somewhat ironically, the postmodern critique has actually reinforced the theological values the Wesleyan tradition has always had. We have always known the limitations of knowledge, even when it comes in Christian garb. Wesley was certainly a thinker, but he was also a pragmatist, the direction in which the postmodern critique pushes us. And our emphasis on transformation and divine encounter is completely unaffected. The best of the Wesleyan tradition has always known that truth is far more a matter of what is going on deep inside us than the relatively superficial thoughts we have with our conscious minds.