This essay is the first in a series on the sermons of John Wesley, inspired by Andrew Conard and Matt Lipan, who are guiding others in an eight week conversation concerning the continued importance of Wesley's Sermons for today. You can follow that conversation on Twitter each Monday night by searching the hashtag, #jwchat. These essays will be long-form, and are my attempt to draw out Wesley's primary themes, offer critiques of Wesley's theology in classical expression and modern adaptations, and to explain the implications these writings may have for the practice of Christianity going forward. This essay is written in response to John Wesley's Sermon 1, Salvation by Faith. In this sermon, Wesley makes the case that grace is in fact freely given in Jesus Christ, and the implications for its acceptance include freedom from the guilt of sin, the power of sin, and a motivation to preach this same gospel to all peoples, both in word and deed.
A sermon beginning, "All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour; his free, undeserved favour; favour altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies", should be as water to the thirsty soul. But for most Christians, and most people whom I know, Wesley could have placed a period in place of his first semicolon, and omitted the rest of his statement altogether.
The grace of God has become an expectation, but the thirst which that grace does quench, is too often overlooked. Both the grace of salvation and the sin of humankind are indispensable to the announcement of the Christian gospel, and for this reason, John Wesley’s “Salvation by Faith” holds relevance, not only due to his depiction of the grace of God, but the boldness with which he names the depravity of the human condition.
The ongoing Pelagian/Augustinian controversy, and the accusations that are wrongly levied against the Wesleyan tradition, are baseless when one returns to Wesley’s Sermons themselves. Wesley is so bold as to say, "whatever righteousness may be found in man, this is also the gift of God", and he is right. Wesley further observes that the heart of each person, "is altogether corrupt and abominable; being ‘come short of the glory of God,’ the glorious righteousness at first impressed on his soul, after the image of his great Creator."
If one learns anything from reading Wesley himself, it is that those who have come after him and sought to further his theology have been guilty of neglecting this crucial aspect, either through ignorance or denial. Serious thinking and preaching about sin, as well as serious thinking and preaching about grace, are vital for the church. Grace abounding apart from bravely facing our depravity leads to sentimentality, while naming every sin and ignoring the boundlessness of grace leads to legalism and a culture of spiritual death.
Returning to the wellspring of belief and the necessity of grace as agent, Wesley writes, "Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation." Even the impetus of our believing in Jesus Christ is the work of divine grace. But this does not render Wesley a determinist, for elsewhere in his writings he emphasizes the freedom of the will to exercise faith, in so far as the will has been set free by virtue of Christ’s work on the cross, and the grace which leads to repentance “goes before” to lead the sinful man or woman to a place of confession and full reliance on God’s grace for salvation.
Concerning this faith that brings salvation, Wesley argues in I.4-5:
What faith is it then through which we are saved? It may be answered, first, in general, it is a faith in Christ: Christ, and God through Christ, are the proper objects of it. Herein, therefore, it is sufficiently, absolutely distinguished from the faith either of ancient or modern heathens. And from the faith of a devil it is fully distinguished by this: it is not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart. For thus saith the Scripture, "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness;" and, "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thy heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved."
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Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection; a recumbency upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and, in consequence hereof, a closing with him, and cleaving to him, as our "wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption," or, in one word, our salvation.
Wesley is clear: the faith that is spoken of here is a trust or reliance on Christ--God is the proper object of our faith. This faith is not simply a cognitive assent, a confession of right doctrine or a declaration of right belief, but is “a disposition of the heart.” It appears that true faith, as described in the Bible, presupposes a relationship of affection and love toward the object of trust and reliance. Wesley makes this plain by saying the “assent” is only one aspect of faith; “full reliance” is the true mark, which brings us in to communion with Christ himself, “closing with him, and cleaving to him” as the source of our salvation. Christ, if we are in close fellowship with him, not only justifies us and allows us to stand righteous before God, but also instructs us in wisdom, makes us holy, and rescues us from eternal as well as temporal pitfalls.
Salvation, then, is both more simple and more complex than it appears. Yes, salvation is rescue from the coming wrath of God and from the prospect of hell. But Wesley has a more robust understanding of salvation, and for the Christian to discover and revel in the fullness of life, he must explain how the salvation Christ brings is both freedom from the guilt of sin and a freedom from the power of sin. There is both eternal peace and temporal victory, a progression toward the city of God that has a determinative starting point, accomplished on Calvary, enacted in the present, and carrying us forward on our way to the Celestial City, where if we receive what Christ offers, we will see our vices burn away, and our virtues increase, day by day as we advance in holiness.
Freedom from the Guilt of Sin
It is my impression that Wesley's examination of present freedom, particularly pertaining to guilt, may seem quaint to the modern reader. David F. Wells, among other critics of contemporary Christianity, has noted that the guilt and shame that has traditionally been associated with the afflictions of conscience has eroded and fallen out vogue. In its place, a moral neutrality has taken hold in our collective imagination, and the Christian gospel, then, has been reduced to the therapeutic. Jesus can help us “Become a Better You,” can instruct us concerning how we lead a business, can offer a veneer of peace, cohesion, and serenity in your marriage, and, in general, affirm you as you are. But a return to the Bible itself, and to the greater overall testimony of the history of Christian theology, should enable us to see this is a modern error, or, in what should convict us more deeply, a return to Pelagianism.
The language Wesley employs, then, may be archaic or even passé. That does not make it less valuable, nor less true. The God of the Bible is a God to be feared, not in the sense that this God is malicious and vengeful, fickle and indiscriminate in judgment, but instead in the sense that this God is perfectly righteousness and holy, aware of our shortcomings and our wrongdoings, fully cognizant of our sins of omission and commission. Who can stand before such a God? The question, “What must I do to be saved?” remains a relevant question, and in one manner or another, human beings have sought to answer it ever since its first utterance.
Wesley sees that if we do feel guilty before God, we are also right to feel fear, but being released from guilt, we are then released from fear. Wesley writes, "being saved from guilt, they are saved from fear. Not indeed from a filial fear of offending; but from all servile fear; from that fear which hath torment; from fear of punishment; from fear of the wrath of God, whom they now no longer regard as a severe Master, but as an indulgent Father."
The last sentence is powerful, yet dangerous, if not read with caution. There is a subtle declaration made concerning our perception of God and the reality of God as God truly may be experienced in light of the work of Christ. The sermon is entitled “Salvation by Faith”, and in it Wesley intends to invite people to believe through an embrace of the love of God. Outside the bounds of faith, we are right to fear God if we believe that God is in fact angered by sin, both our own sins and the sins we see committed in our world, such as the genocide in Rwanda, or the alleged abuse of children at Penn State University.
If God is not angry at such things, possessing a character that perfectly and justly punishes sin, would that be a God worthy of worship? Thus, sinners who have not been set right with the True Judge are right to feel anxiety, fear of punishment and wrath, concerned with living up to a standard in service of a “severe Master.”
But the gospel, as Wesley has explained it in this sermon, is an announcement that this felt experience, this anxiety, has been alleviated by the blood of Christ. We need no longer fear God, for the punishment we rightly deserved, Christ took upon himself on the cross of Calvary. And it is by that work we have been redeemed, given a status by which we can stand confident before God, receiving his love not because of our own work, as Wesley declares in his first sentence, but because in Christ, when God looks upon us, he sees those to whom, by virtue of Christ, the status as sons and daughters has been conferred.
Freedom from the Power of Sin
It is within this status then, and this release from guilt and fear, that Wesley then moves to the implications for this release. The grace of God unveiled and unleashed in Jesus Christ has not only given us the assurance of salvation from an unfavorable eternal judgment, but has set us free in this life from the reign and power of sin in our lives. Wesley writes:
He that is, by faith, born of God sinneth not (1.) by any habitual sin; for all habitual sin is sin reigning: But sin cannot reign in any that believeth. Nor (2.) by any wilful sin: for his will, while he abideth in the faith, is utterly set against all sin, and abhorreth it as deadly poison. Nor (3.) By any sinful desire; for he continually desireth the holy and perfect will of God. and any tendency to an unholy desire, he by the grace of God, stifleth in the birth. Nor (4.) Doth he sin by infirmities, whether in act, word, or thought; for his infirmities have no concurrence of his will; and without this they are not properly sins. Thus, "he that is born of God doth not commit sin": and though he cannot say he hath not sinned, yet now "he sinneth not."
This paragraph will not sit well with many of my Reformed friends. Could it be that the salvation Christ brings, once entered in to by faith, truly leads the one who believes to “sinneth not?” The distinction, again, is fine. Wesley here addresses habitual sin, willful sin, sinful desire, and finally, failings of character, which he calls infirmities, that do not have “the concurrence of the will.”
I, too, struggle with these assertions, and with the accompanying logic Wesley employs. I have faith that Christ has indeed set me free from the power of sin, yet sin I do. Does this mean that I do not believe? Has the desire for “the holy and perfect will of God” come to hold a firm place in my heart, and if not, do I remain “in sin”, rather than entering in to God’s fellowship “by faith”? Are not “infirmities” a cop-out, a catch all category within which my failings could be classified “not properly sins”, thus allowing for my status as a true believer to be maintained? Do these categories result in a different kind of anxiety? Has Wesley offered with one hand what he has taken away with the other, freedom from the fear arising from guilt, and replacing it with the fear arising from a burden of perfect obedience?
I hope Wesleyan theologians more skilled than I will help me resolve this tension. When Christ commands us to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, I believe that Christ does not command us to do anything which he himself will not provide us with the grace to in fact do. I believe that the salvation offered in Christ is full and complete, while at the same time it is being made complete through the perfecting of the saints. I believe it is true that we have been set free from the power of sin, and now have laid before us the possibility of being a person who “sinneth not” if we truly abide in Christ. But the possibility is itself different from the reality.
Does the Offer of Free Grace Empty us of Our Motivation for Good Works?
Any cursory reading of Scripture will reveal that the tension between faith and works has been there all along, from the life of Abraham through the writings of James. And the preaching of free grace, as Paul discovered, would inevitably lead to abuse. It is my contention, and that of many others throughout church history as well, that any understanding of grace that does not result in complete peace before God apart from works and as a catalyst for action as a citizen of Christ's Kingdom is reflective of a deep misunderstanding of both grace and works. Wesley writes:
The first usual objection to this is, that to preach salvation or justification, by faith only, is to preach against holiness and good works. To which a short answer might be given: "It would be so, if we spake, as some do, of a faith which was separate from these; but we speak of a faith which is not so, but productive of all good works, and all holiness."
Wesley also states, "for none can trust in the merits of Christ, till he has utterly renounced his own." This is itself a remarkable statement, and a stumbling block for many. What Wesley is saying is this: you must not only repent of your sins, but your righteousness. Your righteousness must be claimed as a gift from God, and the source of that gift must never be forgotten. The moment you begin to believe that your desire to do good works, to pray, to read the Bible, etc. did not first arise from the work of God’s grace in your life, you will begin to believe that you are your own savior. You will then place salvation by works before and above salvation by grace. And for this reason, we must renounce even our good works as deserving of merit before God, and instead place our good works before God’s throne as a testament to his grace and glory.
This kind of grace is scandalous, and has been since it was first announced in the life of Jesus Christ, and furthered in the ministry of Paul. Reading between the lines of Wesley’s sermon, there is a somewhat humorous undercurrent: grace as the pervasive and dominating theme of the preaching of Jesus Christ is being discouraged by Wesley’s opponents because, it is supposed, it will demotivate others from doing the good works we are commanded to do. But Wesley himself accused the Anglicanism of his day of being lukewarm, and apathetic toward care of the poor, orphan, and widow, the work of evangelism and commitment to piety, while the people to whom Wesley preached and discipled were accused of excessive fervency for those very things the established church had ignored. It was the evangelicals, like Wesley, who were accused of being nut-jobs, yet they were the people truly working for the good of society as well as the up-building of the saints.
Thus, having dismissed all objections to the preaching of salvation by grace through faith, Wesley declares with passion:
When no more objections occur, then we are simply told that salvation by faith only ought not to be preached as the first doctrine, or, at least, not to be preached at all. But what saith the Holy Ghost? "Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, even Jesus Christ." So then, that "whosoever believeth on him shall be saved," is, and must be, the foundation of all our preaching; that is, must be preached first. "Well, but not to all." To whom, then are we not to preach it? Whom shall we except? The poor? Nay; they have a peculiar right to have the gospel preached unto them. The unlearned? No. God hath revealed these things unto unlearned and ignorant men from the beginning. The young? By no means. "Suffer these," in any wise, "to come unto Christ, and forbid them not." The sinners? Least of all. "He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Why then, if any, we are to except the rich, the learned, the reputable, the moral men. And, it is true, they too often except themselves from hearing; yet we must speak the words of our Lord. For thus the tenor of our commission runs, "Go and preach the gospel to every creature." If any man wrest it, or any part of it, to his destruction, he must bear his own burden. But still, "as the Lord liveth, whatsoever the Lord saith unto us, that we will speak."
The same calling remains today. For Wesleyans, and for all Christians, the gospel of free grace is to be preached. But it is to be preached with the same robusticity and boldness of Wesley himself, and, before him, so many others who were faithful to the gospel. Grace is preached in light of the depth of sin, and is thus amplified by contrast. The implications then, of grace, and the salvation it brings are vast, both in the fact that Christ has redeemed us so that we might experience loving communion with God, and so that we might be free from sin. And, then having been freed from guilt and sin, we are called to preach this gospel to every creature, inviting all to experience that very same love of Christ, to the blessing and transformation of the whole world.