Late in his ministry, John Wesley looked back at the early days of Methodism and described in his sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” the truths first proclaimed by the Oxford students who started the movement:
Let us observe what God has done already. Between fifty and sixty years ago, God raised up a few young men, in the University of Oxford, to testify those grand truths, which were then little attended to: — That without holiness no man shall see the Lord; — that this holiness is the work of God, who worketh in us both to will and to do; — that he doeth it of his own good pleasure, merely for the merits of Christ; — that this holiness is the mind that was in Christ; enabling us to walk as he also walked; — that no man can be thus sanctified till he is justified; — and, that we are justified by faith alone. These great truths they declared on all occasions, in private and in public; having no design but to promote the glory of God, and no desire but to save souls from death.
Pulling this apart, we can list the key doctrines, according to Wesley, as these.
- Without holiness no one will see the Lord
- This holiness is the work of God who works in us both to will and do
- This holiness is grace, merited not by us but by Christ
- This holiness is having the same mind that was in Christ, enabling us to walk as he walked
- This holiness, or sanctification, must follow justification
- Justification is by faith alone
I wrote about point 1 in a recent post.
I wonder how we can communicate point 2: Holiness is the work of God — from first to last — who works in us both to will and do good. It seems people have a hard time hearing it.
In a recent comment here, someone wrote that telling a person to “try harder” when they cannot fulfill the demands of the law is not very helpful.
I agree, 100 percent. “Try harder” is at its heart Pelagian. It is why Pelagianism was actually a very harsh theology. If you were not holy, Pelagians said, the problem is that you did not work hard enough at it. A lot of Christianity, I think, is unintentionally Pelagian in that way.
What orthodox Christianity has taught since the settlement of the Pelagian controversy is that it is not our effort that makes us holy. God works in us so we can will and do what God desires.
What we are called to do is to trust in the grace we have been given. This grace stirs in us, convicting us when we do wrong, and drawing us to do right. But it is God’s initiative. We respond.
I’m not sure how to explain this. I think part of the problem is that it is all grounded on a doctrine of original sin and human depravity that is not well received in the church today.