If you were to ask John Wesley the meaning of the word “faith,” he would quote Hebrews 11:1.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)
Only he would most often quote the original Greek and then explain that the word “evidence” means “conviction” as well.
For Wesley, faith was a supernatural gift of spiritual insight. It is a gift of God that allows us to see things that are hidden from our natural senses. More specifically, the faith that saves is the conviction not only that God exists but also that Jesus Christ loved me and gave himself for me.
This is not something we can decide to believe. We can only be convinced of it by the work of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Wesleyan theology is always suspicious of “decisions for Christ.” Such decisions are not bad, but they are not faith and certainly not saving faith. That only comes as a gift from God.
The good news, according to Wesley, is that anyone who seeks such faith will be granted it. Ask, and it shall be given, but not necessarily on our timeline.
I return again and again to Wesley’s definition of faith — he would undoubtedly say the biblical definition — because the word is defined differently by so many people inside and outside the church. Behind so many exhortations to “have faith” or to “believe the good news” is the unstated assumption that we could generate that faith ourselves. If we just tried harder to believe, we could believe.
It is often described as a willful clinging on to something for which we cannot have any rational grounds to trust. It is described as a willful ignoring of the brute facts of the world. Even though I have no reason to trust God’s promises, I will.
That could not be farther from a Wesleyan understanding of faith. Faith is trust based on conviction born of the Holy Spirit. It is an opening of spiritual awareness that allows us to see, hear, and know God. It has no more to do with effort than seeing a sunrise.
We can repent. We can ask God to give us faith. But we can only receive faith. We cannot produce it.
This is how I understand Wesley’s doctrine regarding faith.
Does that ring true to you?
Are there problems with this teaching?