Bishop Willimon has a very engaging and easily readable style. He also has an uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter. This is very helpful in a book intended to help neophytes negotiate the new territory of church beliefs, where it is so easy to get distracted amid unnecessarily complicated details.
Toward the end he makes a very revealing statement. He is writing about the purpose of theology and, whether unconsciously or consciously, gives us a very well-stated mission statement for his book.
The purpose of United Methodist doctrine is Christian discipleship, a person changed by encounter with Christ, religion of the heart constantly formed and reformed by engagement of the mind that results in hands dedicated to working with Christ. (P. 114)
The chapter topics of the book read like an outline for a course in basic Christian theology. Each chapter except the last begins with two crucial words, “We believe!” This gives a tremendously positive tone to the short volume as well. The first two chapters, covering our belief in God and our understanding of salvation, review the shared core of Protestant theology. In the third chapter on the Holy Spirit, as Willimon talks about the relationship between the Spirit and the church, one begins to see the exuberance and positive expectancy of Wesley. Consider these quotes.
The church is therefore that human gathering that wouldn’t be here, and certainly could never survive, without the creative, convening work of the Holy Spirit… The church ought to be that sort of community whose work is so risky, whose mission is so bold, and whose success is so unimaginable that the church will fail utterly unless the Holy Spirit empowers it to be that which God calls the church to be… The tasks undertaken by the church ought to be those tasks that, if accomplished, can only be ascribed to the Holy Spirit. (pp. 33, 34)
One of the things I absolutely love about this book is Dr. Willimon’s robust understanding of the church. This comes through in all the chapters, but especially in chapter 4.
Our church isn’t simply a helpful human institution for the betterment of humanity. Our church is “from heaven” the result of God’s gracious intrusion into our affairs, a wind that blows apart our usual means of gathering people and thrusts us toward a new experience of giftedness and togetherness that is nothing short of miraculous. Church is called to be a clear alternative to the way the world gathers people, a foretaste of the kingdom were social practices are pioneered that the world as yet even to dream. (P. 50)
The book also does not mince words about God’s intention to change us as opposed to our desire to reinterpret God.
When someone says that Scripture, contrary to the way United Methodists see it, is impractical and unrealistic, tell them that what they probably mean is that Scripture is difficult and demanding. When we read Scripture, allow it to have its authoritative way with us, and submit to its peculiar way of naming the world, we are being changed, transformed, sanctified in the hearing. (P. 69)
Chapter 6 entitled, “We believe in transforming and perfecting grace” helps us to a very Wesleyan understanding of our Christian experience. It handles well and makes understandable terms like prevenient grace, justification, atonement, and sanctification. Dr. Willimon also has a wonderful and inspiring grasp of the practical side of Wesleyan theology. Chapter 7 deftly handles the topic of how faith relates to works. Chapter 8 ties it all together by helping us understand our accountability before God.
I highly recommend this short volume both for personal edification and for small group study. Newer believers will gain a greater understanding of their faith. More established believers will find it a welcome and encouraging review of basic beliefs and an integrative reflection on what it means to be a theological heir of John Wesley.