My Shameful Secret

My mother's twin sister married a Methodist minister which, in those days, was not considered a serious disgrace.  His first pastorate was in Calico Rock, Arkansas, and after a series of calls (or raises) to larger churches he was elected a bishop.  Soon after this elevation, I told my uncle the only thing he could now aspire to become was any kind of Presbyterian.

  I do not think he appreciated this smart aleck remark.  I know his wife didn’t because she had served countless fried chicken dinners to every bishop-voting Methodist in the whole world. 

            I learned early that Wesleyans reject predestination, but then I discovered some Calvinists do the same.  I was more shocked to find that Methodists have a doctrine called Christian perfection (based on I Thes. 5:23) and to get ordained Methodist ministers must swear they are on the way to being perfect (or holy) in this life.  I asked my uncle to explain Christian perfection to me, but he said Presbyterians could not understand Christian perfection because they had never produced any examples of it.  On the other hand, he said, Presbyterians endorse total depravity with considerable enthusiasm. 

            I think I understand total depravity.  Total depravity is the conviction that there is not, and in this life never will be, a human being, except Jesus Christ, who can stand before God as sinless.  Nothing about you, then, even the virtues which all your friends praise, is, or ever will be, entirely holy.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”  (I John 1:8).  John Wesley rejected and removed number 15 of the 39 Anglican articles which declares that Christ alone is without sin because he thought his Methodists could be sinless.

If I understand correctly, Methodists believe that Christian perfection is the goal of this life.  Presbyterians believe that Christian perfection is the gift of the next life.   Methodists believe that perfection is possible now;  Presbyterians that perfection shall be actual then.   For Methodists perfection is an expectable possession; for Presbyterians it is a necessary petition.  Since Pentecost and with the help of the Holy Spirit Methodists believe that perfection is our highest aspiration.  Until the second coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Presbyterians believe that the expectation of Christian perfection is our greatest sin.

All my conscious life I have cheerfully and emphatically believed I was totally depraved.  Therefore, my salvation depends entirely on my Lord, Jesus Christ, who unites me to himself through the gift of faith.  Presbyterians strive toward holiness (I Pet. 1:15, etc.) with all their totally depraved hearts and minds, but unlike the Methodists, no Presbyterian ever expects to reach Christian perfection in this life.

            I learned a lot of important stuff at seminary, but I regret that I did not catch onto the importance of the essentially dialectical relationship between justification and sanctification.  The former of these “twin graces” teaches us that our sins are once-for-all forgiven with the cross of Christ.  The latter teaches that with the advocacy of the Holy Spirit we must struggle every day to become more holy.  In their different ways, both Catholics and Methodists collapse these crucial theological distinctions by regarding justification as capable of improvement (the Catholics) or that sanctification can be a possession and process at the same time (the Methodists).  Reformed theology rejects both views with great vigor.

However, we are human beings before we become theological beings.  This means that fathers and mothers matter — especially mothers.  Jewish law recognizes this fact with the assertion that if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish.  Only recently have I applied this situation to myself.  You see — and this is my shameful secret — my own dear mother was a Methodist until she married.    Is it possible, I now ask myself, that I am only a head Presbyterian but really a heart Methodist?  This has become for me what used to be called “an existential question.”  Am I totally depraved as my father always suspected or on my way to perfection as my mother always hoped?

            To study this issue I appointed a committee (of one) which reported that of the 25 faculty members at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, only two grew up in families where both parents were born Presbyterian.  Five had born Presbyterian fathers and five had born Presbyterian mothers.  Four of the faculty were born into two-parent Methodist homes.  Seven had born Methodist mothers; seven had born Methodist fathers.  Interestingly, for more than half the present faculty, neither parent was Presbyterian or Methodist.  What is the significance of these facts?  I am sure I do not know, except that for each of us our family is an important part of our identity.

            Upon careful re-reflection, I am happy to conclude that I am not a Methodist mainly because I cannot get my head and heart around John Wesley’s conviction that Christian perfection can be both a possession and a process.  The truth is, I believe, justification is a possession; sanctification is a process; total depravity is a reality.

            Doubtless, interesting theological differences will remain between Methodists and Presbyterians.  However, I know that I am more brother to Methodists who truly believe and plainly affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ than to those Presbyterians who have figured out sophisticated ways to deny, and to replace, and to re-imagine God.  “No one has ever seen God; except the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). 

If you ask me how I know this is true, I can give you the best and most final answer in this man’s world, “My mother told me so!”


Charles Partee
Presbyterian Outlook
October 2001