In 1739, shortly after John Wesley started preaching the doctrine justification by faith, he met with the Bishop of Bristol who had some questions for the young preacher. In his works, Wesley records some of the conversation as reflected in his notes and memory of it.
Bishop: Why, Sir, our faith itself is a good work; it is a virtuous temper of mind.
Mr. Wesley: My Lord, whatever faith is, our Church asserts, we are justified by faith alone. But how it can be called a good work, I see not: It is the gift of God; and a gift that presupposes nothing in us, but sin and misery.
Bishop: How, Sir? Then you make God a tyrannical Being, if he justifies some without any goodness in them preceeding, and does not justify all. If these are not justified on account of some moral goodness in them, why are not those justified too?
Wesley: Because, my Lord, they “resist his Spirit;” because “they will not come to Him that they may have life;” because they suffer Him not to “work in them both to will and to do.” They cannot be saved, because they will not believe.
Bishop: Sir, what do you mean by faith?
Wesley: My Lord, by justifying faith I mean, a conviction wrought in man by the Holy Ghost, that Christ hath loved him, and given himself for him; and that, through Christ, his sins are forgiven.
Bishop: I believe some good men have this, but not all. But how do you prove this to be the justifying faith taught by our Church?
Wesley: My Lord, form from her Homily on Salvation, where she describes it thus: “A sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that through the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God.
Bishop: Why, Sir, this is quite another thing.
Wesley: My Lord, I conceive it to be the very same.
I am not certain what to make of this, so I offer a couple of reactions that are in no way intended as well-developed arguments or conclusions.
1) The Bishop of Bristol appears to be disturbed the notion that some sinners are saved and some are not. He resolves this by ascribing to “people of faith” some merit that comes from having a good mindset toward God. This eases his mind about those who are not saved.
2) Wesley’s offense that got him thrown out of churches was telling the good bishop’s congregants that they had not merit in them. I can’t help but wonder how many of us store up a private conviction that we have done something to merit God’s favor. We look at others from a position not of humility but spiritual pride, and we look to God in expectation of reward.
3) This issue that the bishop and Wesley are contending over — why some are saved and some are not — is dissolved for so many people today. Either they do not find the question of salvation important or they have determined that a good God would never condemn anyone to damnation, so the answer is that everyone is saved. Or perhaps that no one is in need of saving.