In a previous post, I wrote about the nature of faith as described in John Wesley’s “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” Here we look at the role of Christ in the religion of love that Wesley expounds in that pamphlet.
Wesley had described faith as like growing a new set of spiritual eyes. It is by grace being given the perception of God and the things of God. When we have this faith, Wesley wrote, we experience a radical change that breaks sin, implants peace, and saves us.
But this talk of being saved by faith must have raised some objections. Where was the work of Christ in this faith and religion that Wesley was describing? The answer to this question lead to some of the more interesting passages in the entire pamphlet.
Wesley’s argument on this topic arises out of his discussion of assurance. In describing faith, he closely connects it with assurance, which makes sense as he defines faith in terms of Hebrews 11 — a confidence or evidence or conviction of things not seen. Having confidence in the love of God is the very definition of faith as Wesley describes it here.
But that confidence arises not, again, from some sort of intellectual assent to a doctrine or argument. The confidence arises as we experience the love of God. That love that we experience — Wesley will use the words know and feel — is the love of a forgiving and pardoning God. We know that God loves us because we have witnessed by faith the forgiveness of God.
Pardoning love is still at the root of all. He who was offended is now reconciled. … A confidence then in a pardoning God is essential to saving faith. The forgiveness of sins is one of the first of those things whereof faith is the evidence.
Wesley writes elsewhere of the atoning work of Christ and the death of Christ as the meritorious cause of our justification. Here, however, he contends for the experience of Christ’s forgiveness rather than the doctrine of it.
In some circles, the description of it all these concepts — faith, pardon, the nature of religion — appears to run like this. We hold a mental commitment that Christ died for us. This is called faith. Because of this faith, we appropriate the forgiveness of sins that Jesus accomplished on our behalf on the cross. This makes us new creatures. We strive to live as God’s people.
This is how I hear it working for Wesley, at least in this pamphlet. We are blind. We do not see God. Even if we are zealous for every outward thing of religion, inside we are dead and blind to God. As a consequence, we are ill at ease. We are anxious. We are not happy in God. We are sin plagued and sin sick. By the grace of God, our dead eyes are opened. Our deaf ears are unstopped. We come to see and hear what before was hidden from us by sin. Among the things that we witness are the forgiving and pardoning love of God through Jesus Christ. Because he loves us, we find our hearts filled with the love of God, spilling over and out to the love of every man, woman, and child. And as we abide in this love, we grow in holiness.
The notes Wesley plays are the same as most evangelical theology, but the arrangement and key are different.
At least, this is how I read his argument in this particular piece of writing. My reading may be off, or he may have later modified his own understanding, but I find his approach defies the easy formulas that I often see us trying to cram him into. This is why I keep reading him.