As a United Methodist pastor, I am charged with – among other things – teaching and upholding United Methodist doctrine. As a result, I find myself seeking to understand it. And for me, the sermons of John Wesley serve as an important guide to what we mean as United Methodists when we use words like “faith” or “salvation.”
We should never substitute reading John Wesley for reading Scripture, of course. He was a man and prone to errors and faults. But if we serve in a tradition that is committed to read the Bible the way he did, then knowing how he interpreted and taught Scripture is important. We can always reject John Wesley as a spiritual and doctrinal guide if we like. Many pastors plant non-denominational churches and do just fine.
If we do not reject Wesley’s teaching and example, though, it is good to know what he preached.
When he collected together his sermons for distribution to Methodists, Wesley arranged them consciously to touch upon what he considered the most important and central issues of the faith first. And so, as I wrestle with my own ministry, I open up my book of Wesley sermons to see where he started.
I open to this sermon on Ephesians 2:8, “Salvation by Faith.”
The sermon is arranged by considering the meaning of the three key words in the verse: grace, faith, and salvation. He turns to each in sequence, giving us a starting point as we seek a Wesleyan understanding of these terms.
The sermon starts with a three paragraph elaboration on the word “grace.” The verse is introduced by grace and the sermon’s introduction becomes an elaboration on the meaning of that term.
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.
Grace is favor and a gift, but the key element for Wesley’s sermon introduction is the unmerited and undeserved quality of it. A gift is a gift because we cannot demand it or have no right to it. It is not like a card on Father’s Day that is expected or required. If God were to give us nothing, we would have no grounds to complain because the fact that we have anything at all – even life – is a gift that we could never have done anything to deserve.
Wesley cuts hard against our entire way of understanding the world right out of the shoot with this sermon introduction. He does not argue it – at least not much – but rather states it. We have no rights to anything from God. We deserve nothing from God. We have no claim on God.
God owes me nothing. This is not how we usually start our conversations about grace. But for Wesley – in this sermon at least – it is an essential quality of grace.
From grace, he moves on to discuss faith, which he describes as the condition of salvation. Grace is the cause of our salvation, Wesley writes. Faith is only a condition of it. In other words, faith without grace would do nothing.
I love the way Wesley builds in the sermon toward a Christian definition of faith. He uses an old sermon organizing device. Faith is not this or this or this, but this. He explains – in an ascending order – how Christian faith is more than the faith of heathens or devils or the apostles. It is more than each of these, but includes all three.
It includes common morality and an awareness of a judging God. It includes an intellectual knowledge of Scripture and assent to the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. It includes following the life and teachings of Jesus and the witness of his miracles. But to have all of these falls short of saving faith.
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.”
And herein does it differ from that faith which the Apostles themselves had while our Lord was on earth, that it acknowledges the necessity and merit of his death, and the power of his resurrection. It acknowledges his death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality; inasmuch as he “was delivered for our sins, and rose again for our justification.” 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.
That phrase “as given for us, and living in us” is a touchstone for so much of Wesley’s preaching. Christ’s death and resurrection are atonement and source of life. It is not he either died for our sins or he rose to give us the power of life. It is both/and. He died and rose both to take away our sin and to give us life. Trust in Christ for both is the saving faith.
We might take much from this, but as I read it I am struck by how much contemporary discussion about Christianity appears to be striving for what Wesley would call the faith of the apostles. It is an attempt to make following Jesus’ example and teaching as the summit of faith. Wesley would interpret that as stopping short of the true goal. It is rejecting with Peter Jesus’ teaching that his death and resurrection are necessary.
It is not saving faith.
But what, then, is salvation?
Salvation – in this sermon – is salvation from sin. It is the breaking of chains. It is the washing away of the guilt of past sins. It the shattering of the power of present sin. It is the assurance of meeting the bar of final judgement without the stain of sin on our hands or hearts.
Salvation for Wesley did not just punch a ticket for heaven. It changes the quality of lives right now. It removes fear and guilt and gives us power to live free of sin. Right now. This is what being “born anew” is all about for Wesley. It is not only the cleaning of a ledger, but the working of Christ within us. As he will preach and write elsewhere, it is holiness of heart and life.
As I reflect on this, however, I am reminded that this salvation is not a product of my own effort. Trying harder is not a means of grace. Salvation is not something we can achieve by our efforts.
It is – looping back to the beginning of the sermon – a gift. It is grace that works this salvation without any deserving of it on our part. The condition – but not cause – of that gift is a true and saving faith, a deep and abiding trust in the work Christ does for us and in us.
If Wesley’s sermons help guide our understanding of Christian doctrine, then here is the starting place for United Methodist conversation about these words. When we talk about grace, faith, and salvation, this is the ground from which we start.