Holiness, justification, and new birth

If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two, — the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth: The former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter, to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature.

This is how John Wesley starts his sermon “The New Birth.” For all his “think and let think” he had this rather persistent habit of raising up some doctrines as essential or, in this case, fundamental to his understanding of Christianity.

Here’s my thought about why these doctrines matter so much to Wesley.

If you believe that holiness is the very meaning of salvation, then you might — like Wesley — spend years and years exerting every effort trying to follow the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of the gospels. You might labor with great earnestness to be good and just and merciful.

But you would discover the bitter truth. This is not something you can do with willpower. John Wesley tried as hard as anyone likely ever has, and he was utterly defeated by the effort.

Which is why Paul came as such liberating word to him. By grace you are saved by faith.

Justification by faith and new birth are such important doctrines to Wesley because they explain why the impossible is possible. They make holiness of heart and life – which is just another way of saying salvation – something that we might attain, but not by our own efforts.

For those who do not hold to holiness, to those who still imagine their own efforts will force open the doors of the kingdom, and for those who believe they need no help from God, none of this makes sense or has the sound of good news.

To Wesley it was. To some of us it still is.

2 thoughts on “Holiness, justification, and new birth

  1. John- I am trying to pull together 4 people to write a guest post on my blog. (My blog is by no means prolific enough for guest posts but I am trying anyway.) What I want to do is have 4 people in 1000 words or less write about justification from their perspective. I was wondering if you would like to write on justification specifically from the Wesleyan vantage point. I would not be looking for your complete understanding of justification, just what makes it distinctly Wesleyan. I am also looking for a Reformed Calvinist, a Confessional Lutheran, and a Catholic.

    If you are interested let me know. Normally I would not put the request in a blog comment, but this idea is pertinent to your post.

  2. I was a first year seminarian when I read “The New Birth”. A professor, not the one who assigned it, questioned whether it should be offered, because, as he put it, it offers a view of baptism that seems at odds with this initial statement. Later in that same sermon, Wesley castigates those who “cling to the slender reed of their baptism” as hope against the wrath of God. Yet, it seems to me that Wesley here is being quite clear; justification and sanctification are not magic, but grace, something that has to change our lives. We cannot rest easy upon our baptism, if it has done nothing to alter our lives.

    Over the years, I have returned to this “equivocal” sermon and discovered many beautiful fruits within it, keys to unlocking much that is in the rest of Wesley’s thought.

    John, enjoy your hiatus, have a Blessed Christmas and I hope to continue this conversation in 2011.

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