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.