Two months before his famous Aldersgate experience in 1738, John Wesley was ready to give up on preaching altogether. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea of salvation by faith alone, and he told himself, “How can you preach to others if you don’t have faith yourself?”
His friend Peter Böhler, a Moravian missionary, didn’t let Wesley off the hook so easily. When John asked Peter if he should stop preaching, Böhler replied, “By no means.”
So Wesley asked, “But what can I preach?”
Böhler answered, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
Wesley then proceeded to share the gospel and offer salvation through Christ to a guy on death row. (The guy’s name was Clifford, in case you’re wondering.) And remember, this was all before Aldersgate. Wesley wasn’t even sure about his own salvation yet! This concept has been nicknamed the Böhler Principle.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV) and in Romans 4:17 Paul writes that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (NRSV).” The world tells us that seeing is believing, but God says to believe and then you will see. The world says, “Fake it till you make it,” but the Böhler Principle says, “Preach faith till you have it.” It’s not the same thing. It’s not even two sides of the same coin.
What role does the Böhler Principle have in our life and ministry? I have a couple of ideas:
A new movement of people who speak with certainty and authority even when they have doubts. This idea flies in the face of some of the current spiritual trends doesn’t it? Asking questions (without really looking for answers) and affirming each other’s doubts have become hallmarks of postmodern spirituality, but I honestly I don’t much appeal in that approach. I’m convinced that one of the reasons Christianity is on the decline in many areas is that we’re training our spiritual posterity to wear their doubt like a straitjacket. Instead we should be teaching them to cultivate a faith that rests on God’s word (as opposed to a faith that rests on something else or is suspended in mid-air.) More of us need to learn to look past circumstances so we can see possibilities. And we need to be willing to go out on a limb for God even when we don’t think we have it all together ourselves.
Dearest Lord Jesus, thank you that I can come and bring my doubts, as did Thomas; my fears, as did Joseph of Arimathea; my shame, as did the woman caught in adultery; my questions, as did Nicodemus. Amen.