Deserving a butt kicking

Consider for a moment the opening moves of John Wesley first standard sermon “Salvation by Faith.”

Wesley opens the sermon with an assertion that few today would grant:

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.

We deserve nothing from God. We have already received more than we could ever claim. Everything we are and have is a gift out of God’s abundant generosity. God did not have to give us life or pleasure or people who love us. This is what free grace means. God was free not to give it but did anyway.

And as a consequence of the fact that nothing we are or have is really ours, we are without power to atone for even the smallest of our sins. For our sins are the only things that we can rightly say belong only to us and not to God.

Wherewithal then shall a sinful man atone for any the least of his sins? With his own works? No. Were they ever so many or holy, they are not his own, but God’s. But indeed they are all unholy and sinful themselves, so that every one of them needs a fresh atonement. Only corrupt fruit grows on a corrupt tree.

Here we come to the lurking doctrine of Original Sin, which is fundamental to everything in Wesley’s doctrine of salvation and anathema to the spirit of our age. Far from viewing the human condition as fallen, we are all good students of Thoreau. Human nature, to the extent that there is anything wrong with it, has been damaged and restrained by institutions and social pressures.

Be yourself, we say. Trust yourself. Have faith in yourself. Our god is named three times in these three sentences.

So, it would be little surprise if Wesley’s third move is ignored out of hand.

If then sinful men find favour with God, it is “grace upon grace!” If God vouchsafe still to pour fresh blessings upon us, yea, the greatest of all blessings, salvation; what can we say to these things, but, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!” And thus it is. Herein “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died” to save us “By grace” then “are ye saved through faith.” Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.

When your god is yourself, you are not anxious about finding favor with your god. You, therefore, have no need to cry out “grace upon grace!” The entire edifice of Wesleyan salvation is devoid of meaning.

You might talk a good game about grace. You might extol over and over how Wesley is such a great preacher of grace. You might even explain to some benighted fool how Wesley’s grace theology has eliminated the need for that old time religion and all those hymns about the blood of Jesus.

You can say all that, but you do not understand what Wesley means by grace.

Grace is the incomprehensible gift of God to a person who deserves punishment. God loaned you his car keys and you went out and wrecked it on purpose. You should be beaten up or arrested or forced to buy a new car — if you only had money that was worth anything.

Grace is that we deserve a butt kicking but we get a hug.

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