‘By grace are ye saved through faith’

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.

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4 thoughts on “‘By grace are ye saved through faith’

  1. While this is true, we have to hold it within biblical tension of other scriptures which may seem paradoxical. For example, James 2:24 states, “You see that a person is justified [saved] by what he does and not by faith alone.” So bibically, we are saved by grace through faith – but not by faith alone. Our actions are critical to our salvation – see Matthew 25 where the “sheep” and “goats” are separated in the final judgment by what they did or did not do. Throughout the Old Testament, obedience to God was very important – and that theme continues into the New Testament. We are to love the Lord our God with ALL our heart, mind, soul and strength. That IS human effort on our part. While much more could be said, I believe these are complimentary (not opposing) views of salvation. In our efforts to deny human righeousness, let’s not dismiss or ignore other scriptural passages.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brian.

      Absolutely actions matter. Indeed, your comment highlights the part of the sermon I did not summarize: Wesley’s response to objections. The very first objection he posed was the notion that salvation by faith undermined good works.

      Wesley – of course – was quite zealous for good works. Such works are a necessary outward expression of true faith as well as an actual means of perfection or sanctification. He also urged works that reflect repentance prior to justification.

      He had quite an interesting take on James.

      “Faith hath not its being from works, (for it is before them,) but its perfection. That vigour of faith which begets works is then excited and increased thereby, as the natural heat of the body begets motion, whereby itself is then excited and increased.”

      This is from his Notes on the New Testament. His point – which you may disagree with of course – is that James and Paul were writing about different problems. James was writing about people who said that since they had faith, they had no need for works. The entire passage of 2:14-26 is pretty clearly in the context of a person claiming faith needs not lead to action. Wesley would side 100% with James on his response.

      Paul – Wesley would say – was writing about a different problem than James, though. Paul was writing to respond to those who taught that circumcision and food laws were essential for faith. No, Paul said, it is not your effort or merit that effects salvation, but the grace of God alone. And this grace is received by those who have faith in Jesus Christ.

      Whatever your take on the James/Paul discussion, nothing Wesley ever wrote or lived would support the conclusion that human actions are unimportant.

      If I created the impression that Wesley would support such statements, then the error is mine, not Wesley’s.

  2. Thank you very much for your comments – extremely insightful (far better than the published commentaries I have read!).

    I am still grappling with the notion that as Christians our good works lead to our sanctification (and not to our justification or salvation). The James 2 passage provides two Old Testament examples of good works that lead to justification. One was the example of Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar. If you look back into Genesis where this event is recorded, and put together a time line, it is evident that this occurred AT LEAST 15 years from the time that God initially declared Abraham righeous. This is tantamount to a person accepting Christ into their heart, and after walking with Christ for AT LEAST 15 years, their actions are still securing their salvation or justification – not something taught in American Protestant churches today – nor apparently taught by Wesley. This seems to indicate that salvation may be more of a process than a one-time event.

    Some commentaries suggest this example in James 2 is merely an outward or public expression of faith. But, again, a close review of the Genesis passage reveals that this event occurred just between Abraham, Isaac, and God (even his servants remained behind); it was not intended to be a public or outward expression of faith, yet according to James it lead to Abraham’s justification (not merely sanctification).

    I don’t think it is coincidental that the Holy Spirit caused James to select this example of Abraham rather than some other example from earlier in the life of Abraham, or a more public expression of Abraham’s faith.

    I would appreciate any further insight you may have. Thanks.

  3. I don’t have a ton of insight to add. Thank you for your kind comment.

    I think the matrix formed by Paul in Romans 4, James, and the Genesis accounts of Abraham is fascinating. Paul goes back to Genesis 15 and finds Abraham’s belief confirmation of his conviction that it is faith and not works of the law (which would not be handed down until Sinai) that sets us right before God.

    James – who appears to be troubled by people who claim to be faithful but deny help to the poor – goes to Genesis 22, which starts with the words that God wanted to test Abraham’s faith. James finds in the story of the binding of Isaac a rebuke to those who think the faith they have is sufficient without outward evidence. Abraham was tested. We are tested. Our response to such tests is the measure of our faith.

    None of this responds to your point about the meaning of the word “justfication,” which is a good point and suggests we need to remember James as we read Paul. For what it is worth, John Wesley agreed that salvation was not a momentary thing but a lifelong task. Or rather, we could lose our salvation by not working out our sanctification. Such teachings made him the target for Calvinists in his day and since.

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