Love through faith by grace

In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley began with a definition of the “better religion” that he sought to introduce to the men and women of England. He summed it up as nothing more or less than love, love of God and love of all humanity.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men.

Here is a statement that I imagine most United Methodists would embrace. Whatever the forces are that pull and tug at us, we would all give a good “Amen” to the conference speaker that said these words.

The great challenge, Wesley discovered after many years of seeking this religion for himself, was that we cannot will ourselves to love in this way. No amount of effort on our part can sustain us for more than the briefest moments of true and pure love. We cannot grind our teeth hard enough to find our hearts filled with love, peace, and joy in God.

This was the lesson that Wesley learned after so much agony and frustration. The only way to the religion of love is faith.

But here again, we must be careful. Faith is not a decision to believe in spite of the evidence. It is not a leap in the dark, not for Wesley. For Wesley, faith has two essential attributes. First, it is a kind of spiritual perception — the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the perception of God and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is the opening of the eyes of heart to a truth we had not seen before (Eph. 1:18). Second, it is a gift of God, not something we do by our own power. We receive faith; we do not decide to have it. It is grace.

This notion of faith differs quite a bit from the idea of faith as trust. Or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure how well we receive Wesley’s notion of faith, and therefore his description of the means to attaining the religion of love. I suspect many would argue with him on this definition of the word “faith.”

Does Wesley’s chain of thinking here — love, faith, grace — still ring true as an encapsulation of the heart of Christianity? Is he still relevant or an 18th century museum piece?

A barber testifies

From John Wesley’s journal of April 11, 1751:

The barber who shaved me said, “Sir, I praise God on your behalf. When you was at Bolton last, I was one of the most eminent drunkards in all the town; but I came to listen at the window, and God struck me to the heart. I then earnestly prayed for power against drinking; and God gave me more than I asked: He took away the very desire of it. Yet I felt myself worse and worse, till, on the 5th of April last, I could hold out no longer. I knew I must drop into hell that moment unless God appeared to save me: And he did appear. I knew he loved me; and felt sweet peace. Yet I did not dare to say I had faith, till yesterday was twelvemonth, God gave me faith; and his love has ever since filled my heart.”

Do you love God?

Do you love God?

That is the first great commandment, yes?

Love God.

Do you love God?

Please note, this question is not “Do you think highly of God?” or “Do you admire God?” or “Do you like it when God does good stuff for you?” or even “Do you sing a good praise song and lift your hands in worship?”

Do you love God?

Of course, if you do not know God, the answer must be “no.” We cannot love the idea of God or the rumor of God. We must know God to love him.

Too many Christians spend their spiritual might trying love a God they neither know nor experience. They try. They say all the right words. They do all the right things. But they, as John Wesley put it once, have no more love of God than a stone.

And as a stone our hearts will remain until our eyes of faith are opened to the great truth that we tell during Holy Week. Jesus Christ loved you, loved me, so much that he died to free us from sin and death. He knelt in the garden that night — when he could have run — because he loved us. He bore the lash because he loves us. He took the nails because he loves us. He died humiliated, tortured, and mocked because he loves us.

Do you know how much God loves you?

Do you know?

Do you know?

Faith is a miracle

If you were to ask John Wesley the meaning of the word “faith,” he would quote Hebrews 11:1.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)

Only he would most often quote the original Greek and then explain that the word “evidence” means “conviction” as well.

For Wesley, faith was a supernatural gift of spiritual insight. It is a gift of God that allows us to see things that are hidden from our natural senses. More specifically, the faith that saves is the conviction not only that God exists but also that Jesus Christ loved me and gave himself for me.

This is not something we can decide to believe. We can only be convinced of it by the work of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Wesleyan theology is always suspicious of “decisions for Christ.” Such decisions are not bad, but they are not faith and certainly not saving faith. That only comes as a gift from God.

The good news, according to Wesley, is that anyone who seeks such faith will be granted it. Ask, and it shall be given, but not necessarily on our timeline.

I return again and again to Wesley’s definition of faith — he would undoubtedly say the biblical definition — because the word is defined differently by so many people inside and outside the church. Behind so many exhortations to “have faith” or to “believe the good news” is the unstated assumption that we could generate that faith ourselves. If we just tried harder to believe, we could believe.

It is often described as a willful clinging on to something for which we cannot have any rational grounds to trust. It is described as a willful ignoring of the brute facts of the world. Even though I have no reason to trust God’s promises, I will.

That could not be farther from a Wesleyan understanding of faith. Faith is trust based on conviction born of the Holy Spirit. It is an opening of spiritual awareness that allows us to see, hear, and know God. It has no more to do with effort than seeing a sunrise.

We can repent. We can ask God to give us faith. But we can only receive faith. We cannot produce it.

This is how I understand Wesley’s doctrine regarding faith.

Does that ring true to you?

Are there problems with this teaching?

The heart of Methodism in 16 lines

If you want a concise summary of Wesleyan theology, read the lyrics to Charles Wesley’s “Let Us Plead for Faith Alone.”

Let us plead for faith alone
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is Who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies.

Active faith that lives within,
Conquers hell and death and sin,
Hallows whom it first made whole,
Forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
Sure salvation is the end;
Heaven already is begun,
Everlasting life is won.

Only let us persevere
Till we see our Lord appear,
Never from the Rock remove,
Saved by faith which works by love.

Every line of this hymn is packed with points of Wesleyan emphasis. You get free grace. You get the faith-works linkage. You get God’s agency and our response. You get the overcoming of sin and the distinction between justification and sanctification. You get the need to work out our salvation and persevere to the end. You get present salvation and eternal life. And you get the overall focus on the saving of our own souls that was the heart of Wesleyan preaching and practice.

I’m not a huge fan of the standard tune that this hymn is set to in our hymnal. I do find the words of this hymn to be a wonderful gift to Methodism and the wider church.

The stages of faith, Wesleyan style

I see from time to time on Christian bookstore shelves a book called Stages of Faith. I gather it is still read fairly widely and is deemed helpful to many in ministry. I have not read it. But stumbling over it recently reminded me of the Wesleyan outline of the stages of faith.

Here is my summary, as Wesley explained in his sermon “Salvation by Faith.”

Stage 1 Faith – Awareness that there is a god or gods and that they interact with the world. We seek to know and please the god or gods by giving them glory, thanking them for the blessings they bestow, and practicing moral virtues, including the showing of justice, mercy, and truth to all. The god or gods reward those with whom they find favor, and they punish those whom offend or reject them.

Stage 2 Faith – Trust that the one God has revealed himself through the life of his chosen people and the revelation witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures, and that God was incarnate in the flesh and broke the power of all evil and the enemies of God.

Stage 3 Faith – Trust enough to leave all that we have and cling to so we might follow Jesus. The witness and receipt of the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and strengthen those beset by the enemies of God. Faith sufficient to preach the kingdom of God and proclaim Jesus is Lord.

Stage 4 Faith – Or saving faith. Faith in Christ. Faith that moves not just the mind, but heart. Faith that acknowledges the necessity of Jesus’ death for our good and the power of his resurrection for new life. It is not something we attain by effort, but we receive. An assurance that Jesus Christ by his life, death, and resurrection has saved me, even me, from the power of sin and death. That he was given for us and now lives in us.

It would be imposing something on Wesley that I do not think was his aim to describe these stages as developmental ones. He did not teach that we necessarily move through these. He offers them more as historical alternatives, I think, than a personal pathway. But I do find the “stages” he outlines helpful in thinking about my own faith and in trying to reflect prayerfully on the faith of others.