Heathen, Devil, Apostle, Christian

When John Wesley published his first book of sermons, he intended for his traveling preachers to use it as a guide for their preaching. The sermon “Salvation by Faith,” first preached a month after his Aldersgate experience, is one of those.

The sermon was one of the first of Wesley’s I ever read, and it made a strong impression on me. In it, Wesley first describes what “faith” it is by which we are saved. He does this steps. He walks through several things that are not saving faith before landing on the actual definition. My overwhelming experience when I first read the sermon and when I read it today is to notice how much of what passes for faith in the church — then and now — does not rise to what Wesley describes as saving faith.

Here are the steps Wesley climbs on his way to that destination.

Faith of a Heathen -The faith of one  who believes that God exists and is righteous and mighty and just, who believes as well that there is a future state of reward and punishment, and that moral virtue is required of all people.

Faith of the Devil – The devil believes what the heathen does, but believes as well that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior. The devil knows as well that Scripture is given to us by the inspiration of God and knows full well the contents of that holy book.

Faith of the Apostles – The faith in Jesus that led people give up all to follow him and receive during Jesus’ earthly ministry power to perform miracles and wonders of various kinds.

None of these are saving faith. They are faith but they do not rise to faith that saves. What that faith looks like we find when we see what is lacking in each of these three lesser versions of faith.

Contrary to the faith of a heathen, saving faith is faith in Christ. Contrary to the faith of the devil, it is not merely about knowing the truth about God and having full knowledge of the contents of Scripture. It is rather a disposition of the heart, to use Wesley’s phrase.

And contrary to the faith the apostles had before the crucifixion, saving faith is a faith that acknowledges the necessity of Christ’s death and the power of his resurrection. It is a faith grounded on our need and reliance upon the blood of Christ as the source of our redemption from sin. Saving faith is faith in — and utter dependence on — Jesus as the one who gave his life for us and who now lives within us.

As I read these paragraphs in Wesley’s sermon, I bring to mind names and faces attached to these different kinds of faith. I think as well of my own faith and times in my life when I could have said I had rested on each of these. I remember as well the time when I had no faith at all, not even the faith of a heathen.

For Christians I know, I think the greatest challenge is to not stop short with the faith of the devil or the apostles. I know many who have filled their minds with a great depth of knowledge about God and the Bible. They know so much and speak so well about the truths of our faith, but their hearts are not stirred by what they know. A preacher friend of mine used to say that some of the meanest Christians he knew could quote the Scripture really well. So, too, can the devil.

For another group of followers of Jesus, the risk is falling into the faith of the pre-Easter apostles. They associate faith in Jesus with being willing to make all sorts of sacrifices to follow him. They are very busy and very active people. And they do a large amount of good in the world and the church. Like the apostles, they are often most interested in the miraculous works of Jesus. They believe in and pray with great passion for healing and the breaking of spiritual strongholds. For all this, though, they have not yet come to a saving faith in Christ. They confuse “good works” for saving faith.

As a pastor and as a Christian, I recognize all these various manifestations of faith. The great challenge I see for the church is how to partner with the Holy Spirit in moving people from forms of faith that do not save into a saving faith.

Wesley had his own style in doing that. He was very direct. He spoke “plain truth for plain people” and it got him disinvited from many pulpits. He did not have a regular church to serve, and so was an invited guest preacher for most of his pulpit preaching. A very common notation in his journals was that he would get invited to preach at a place and then be told never to come back.

I can imagine sermons such as “Salvation by Faith” are a big part of that.

Few people want to be told their faith is barely even the faith of Satan. Wesley never cared much whether he bruised the ego or feelings of those who heard him preach. It made him both a powerful preacher and a despised figure.

I do not have Wesley’s temperament and I often think he would not have abided to keep me among his preachers had I been in that company. As a pastor with a settled and established congregation — rather than a saddle bag and a circuit to ride — I value Wesley’s clarity of vision and language about our faith, but I am still striving to learn how best to teach, preach, and lead God’s people more fully into this living and saving faith.

Digging through the sand

[N]one can trust in the merits of Christ, till he has utterly renounced his own.

— John Wesley, Salvation by Faith

This is so hard.

We are so good at polishing our own resume. We do such a good job listing off our own merits. We spend so much time telling ourselves “I am good enough” and “I deserve to be happy” that we cannot easily say “I am a sinner.” Indeed, some of us cannot say it at all and are upset at the notion that we need to.

I meet so many Christians who cannot comprehend the idea that they are sinners or that they need a Savior.

Other people, yes. But not them.

They have never murdered anyone or committed adultery. They go to church. They pray. They give. They do good works. Surely, this is enough. This is what they have been taught by example it means to be a Christian. Surely, Jesus must smile when he looks upon them.

We fight our whole lives to get ahead and prove we are worthy. As a result, we often cannot admit the one true thing and the first most necessary thing for our salvation — that we are sinners. We cannot admit that we need saving. We feel entitled to heaven and can explain why we deserve to get in. We do not worship God. We worship ourselves.

It is the most heart-breaking thing I see as a pastor because I know it is all sand.

I know the day will come for each of us when we look death in the eye, and in that day we will discover that there is only one foundation strong enough to support us. We are not enough. I am not enough. I need a Savior because I am a sinner, full of pride and self-righteousness. My resume means nothing. Only Jesus Christ can save me.

There is nothing more heart-breaking as a pastor than seeing someone who imagines themselves to be a Christian finding out in the midst of a hurricane that their confidence has been built upon the sand of their own self-righteousness rather than the solid rock of faith in Christ. I’ve found no work more difficult, more challenging, or more holy, than getting on my knees with someone as the waters rise and digging through that sand to find that rock. I wish I had time and skill enough to do this better. I am repeatedly humbled by the importance of the work and my limitations in doing it. I am constantly reminded that without the grace of God, we would all drown.

There is nothing more heart-breaking as a pastor than seeing the ones who never found that rock and got carried away by the waves when the sand beneath their feet gave way. There are a many things I need to learn to do better as a pastor. This is the one area I most feel at a loss — helping people to see, to understand, and to embrace the most basic truth of our faith. We are sinners. We need a Savior.

But I will keep digging so long as God and the United Methodist Church call me to dig.

How to love our neighbor

Christians are called to love God and love their neighbor.

This is the command of Christ.

When I hear or read these words, my thoughts go something like this.

As a Christian who looks to John Wesley as a spiritual teacher, I know that the commands of Christ serve many functions, each one beneficial and fitted to the needs of individuals at different places in their spiritual life.

For the non-spiritual, non-believing person, these commands are rocks to break up our pride and self-confidence. We no more contemplate them before we begin to squirm under their heavy burden. We know that in our heart we are selfish, self-indulgent, full of pride, and hungry for praise. We can no more make these commands a rule of our life from moment to moment than we could make a command to grow wings and fly to the moon a plan for tomorrow.

The person in a state of nature will experience these commands as unpleasant and either put them out of mind or justify their disobedience in some way — often by denying the very notion that obedience to the one who gave the command is required.

For the one who does not dismiss of self-justify their way out of the fetters of this double command of Christ, these words bring us by painful degrees to the recognition that we are the problem, not the giver of the command, and that we are equally powerless to obey as we are to break free of our rebellion. We come to understand that we need salvation — not from an external enemy but from ourselves. Our sin runs deep.

Whether we wrestle with these truths for a few moments for for years, we come at last to know the saving faith of Jesus Christ. We come to know that he won the victory we could not and will pardon us for all our wicked and rebellious ways. He will set us free from the chain of sin, which until recently we treasured as our most cherished possession. He will make us new by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the fruit of this spiritual process, often painful and always transforming, is that we discover we have, by the grace of God, the ability to truly love God and neighbor. We become capable of love that is not tainted by our selfishness and neediness. We become capable of love that is not just another form of self-justification or another way to prop up our own self-esteem. We have overcome the need to regard ourselves highly, and thus by Christ won the great prize of being able to actually love. With this prize in hand, we discover that these commands of Christ confirm and guide us, teaching us again and again what it is to follow our Lord, which we are able to do now thanks to his grace.

As I write these words, I am aware this is not what the world means when it says love is the answer to the world’s problems. I know that the way I write about love here is not what many of my Christian brothers and sisters mean when they say “love wins” or something similar.

I do believe it is how Christians should speak of such things. I believe it is in keeping with what the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church enjoin upon its preachers to preach. To the best of my ability, I hope I do so.