An Earnest Appeal: The meaning of faith

I started this series of posts with a look at the way John Wesley describes Christianity as a religion of love in his 1744 pamphlet “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” I continue in this post by looking at the means by which this religion comes to us.

The trick, the secret, the good news, Wesley writes, is that the religion of love is not something we do but something we receive. It is something that God plants and grows in us. We do not will ourselves to this. We can only do it by faith. And this faith, as Wesley describes it, is not a cognitive assent to some set of propositions. It is the growing of a new set of sense organs. Drawing heavily on Hebrews 11, Wesley writes of faith as a kind of spiritual perception that allows us to perceive God and the things of God. Faith is an opening of eyes that were dark.

By this faith, we are saved from all uneasiness of mind, from anguish of a wounded spirit, from discontent, from fear and sorrow of heart, and from inexpressible listlessness and weariness, both of the world and ourselves, which we had so helplessly laboured under for many years; especially when were out of the hurry of the world, and sunk into calm reflection. In this we find that love of God, and of all mankind, which we had elsewhere sought in vain. This we know and feel, and therefore cannot but declare, saves every one that partakes of it, both from sin and misery, from every unhappy and unholy temper.

It is hard to hear Wesley as he intends to be heard here because he uses faith in such a different way than we do. But he is unwavering. Faith is not anything that we do. It is itself a gift of God. Indeed, it is something that only God can give.

No man is able to work it in himself. It is a work of omnipotence. It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave. … May not your own experience teach you this? Can you give yourself this faith? Is it now in your power to see, or hear, or taste, or feel God? … It is the free gift of God, which he bestows, not on those who are worthy of his favour, not on such as are previously holy … but on the ungodly and the unholy; on those who till that hour were fit only for everlasting destruction …

It is by this opening of our spiritual eyes, that we are said to “have faith.” This faith, Wesley writes, saves us.

By  those words, “We are saved by faith,” we mean, that the moment a man receives that faith which is above described, he is saved from doubt and fear, and sorrow of heart, by a peace that passes all understanding; from the heaviness of a wounded spirit, by joy unspeakable; and from his sins, of whatsoever kind they were, from his vicious desires, as well as words and actions, by the love of God, and of all mankind, then shed abroad in his heart.

Where, we might ask, is justification in all this? Where is Jesus Christ and his cross? We can find in other places Wesley writing of the atoning work of Christ on the cross that would make any contemporary evangelical well pleased. But in this pamphlet, Wesley writes of justification in a different way, which will be the subject of another post.