When the first Methodist conference gathered in 1744 the very first question dealt with in its minutes was about salvation.
We began with considering the doctrine of justification: The questions relating to, with the substance of the answers given thereto, were as follows: –
Q.1. What is it to be justified?
A. To be pardoned and received into God’s favour; into such a state, that if we continue therein, we shall be finally saved.
Q.2. Is faith a condition of justification?
A. Yes; for every one who believeth not is condemned; and every one who believes is justified.
It may not be obvious from the bare words, but the doctrine at the very center of this thing called Methodism aims to cure those who are doomed to eternal death. The starting point for all Methodist preaching and doctrine was the notion that human beings are far from God and condemned to eternal destruction. That is the default state of a human being. We are on a highway to hell. No matter how nice we seem on the outside, even if we do all kinds of lovely works and care for the sick and poor, without faith in Jesus Christ we are doomed.
This is what John Wesley preached in 1738. It is what the Methodist conference set down as settled doctrine in its first meeting in 1744. It is what Wesley continued to preach into his dying days.
There is a reason proper Anglican priests kept telling him he would not be invited to preach a second sermon at their church. The doctrine of justification by faith is outrageous to sensible middle-class and wealthy people everywhere. It says they are not good in God’s eyes just because they have managed to get a nice job and a good house and raise kids with only minor character flaws. It says there are worse things than being poor and illiterate. It says our sins are but a sign of the wicked heart inside us that rebels against God.
And so my question, one that burns at me: Did we stop preaching this because it is not true? Did we decide the doctrine of justification by faith was not biblical or that the Bible got God wrong?
This question bedevils me so much because I don’t know what we are doing in the church if our conclusion is that John Wesley — and millions of other Christians — have been wrong about this basic theological issue. If people are basically good and everyone is going to heaven regardless of whether they have faith or receive forgiveness, then why did Jesus die? Why do we need a church at all? We have plenty of people giving us moral platitudes and inspiring video clips on Facebook. Why bother with all the rest?
And if John Wesley was right, then what, dear Lord, are we doing in church when we act as if the biggest problem most people have is finding meaning in their lives or getting their kids to behave? If Wesley was right that men and women are hurtling toward eternal death unless they receive pardon by the grace of Jesus through faith, if he was right about this, then why are we so quiet about it?
It was a big enough topic that it was agenda item #1 at the first Methodist conference. Is it still important for us today?