God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again, he does the work in us. The former changes our outward relation to God, so that of enemies we become children; by the latter our inmost souls are changed, so that of sinners we become saints. The one restores the favour, the other the image, of God.
The passage comes from a most interesting sermon by John Wesley called “The Great Privilege of Those That are Born of God.”
In it, Wesley compares spiritual new birth with the birth of a baby. Before being born, the baby lives in a world of darkness where sounds come to it distorted and muffled by its mother’s body and the waters of the womb. The baby cannot sense in any meaningful way the world that is so close to it, but also so distant.
At birth, its senses suddenly filled with a thousand stimulations that are new. And the body takes in air and food for the first time. It is not the beginning of life, but it is the start of an entirely new way of being alive.
And so, Wesley argues, is the spiritual experience of being born of God.
And those born of God, he argues both here and many other places, do not sin.
When he writes this, he is using a particular definition of “sin” that not all Christian thinkers would accept. By sin, Wesley means “outward sin,” that is the knowing and self-conscious violation of a command of God. He admits that not all sin is outward sin. In this very sermon he makes reference to inward sins and sinful thoughts, but when he argues that those born of God do not sin, he means they do not sin outwardly.
For Wesley, to sin outwardly is a result of falling away from God. It is a sure sign that we are no longer inwardly born of God. For Wesley, the fact that Christians commit sin is not a sign that holiness is unattainable – as some argue – but is rather a sign that even those born of God can backslide and give way to temptation, which is never blotted out so long as we live in the flesh.
So the fact that David sinned by arranging the death of Uriah is not an argument against the possibility of perfection. It is rather an indication that anyone can fall away from God.
Being Wesley, he even goes so far as to sketch out the process by which sin can take hold in one who has been born of God.
- A Christian born of God has the seed of faith and keeps and tends it.
- A temptation arises.
- The Spirit God gives warning that sin is near and urges the Christian to be watchful and prayerful.
- The Christian gives way to temptation in some way because it is pleasing, and it grows more pleasing.
- The Holy Spirit is grieved, faith is weakened, the Christians love of God grows cold.
- The Spirit reproves the Christian more strongly.
- The Christian, stung by the reproof, turns away and listens all the more to the tempter’s pleasing voice.
- Evil desire spreads in the Christian until faith and love are all but wiped out. The Christian become capable of outward sin.
And so, Wesley writes, we must be constantly open to the work of God’s grace in us. We must be watchful over our own souls and zealous to remain close to God.
For it plainly appears, God does not continue to act upon the soul, unless the soul re-acts upon God. He prevents us indeed with the blessings of his goodness. He first loves us, and manifests himself unto us. While we are yet afar off, he calls us to himself, and shines upon our hearts. But if we do not then love him who first loved us; if we will not hearken to his voice; if we turn our eye away from him, and will not attend to the light which he pours upon us; his Spirit will not always strive: He will gradually withdraw, and leave us to the darkness of our own hearts. He will not continue to breathe into our soul, unless our soul breathes toward him again; unless our love, and prayer, and thanksgiving return to him, a sacrifice wherewith he is well pleased.
God will not breathe into our soul unless our soul breathes toward him again. This is Wesleyan as it gets. If we a persuaded that Wesley was wise in this it has implications for everything we do as Christians and pastors.