Now is the time to ask for faith

In the closing exhortation at the end of his sermon “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley addresses many of the artificial barriers we put in the way of saving faith.

The first parts of the sermon deal with the difference between righteousness based on our own good works and righteousness based on faith in Jesus Christ. Wesley’s point is that we cannot attain righteousness by anything we do because we are sinners through and through. The only means we have to rest in the favor of God and restore within ourselves the image of God is by believing in Jesus Christ.

That part of the sermon and that argument is well worth attention, but I wanted to focus more on how Wesley addresses what he proposes to be the objections that people raise when invited to believe in Christ.

It is important to note here that Wesley is addressing those who actually desire to be forgiven and reconciled. In other words, he was speaking and writing to people who were aware that their lack of peace and happiness was because they were out of line with God. He is not here offering arguments to those who have no regard for God at all or who do not believe themselves to be out of step with God.

To those who do desire peace with God but do not feel it, Wesley outlines some objections – no doubt ones he encountered in his own life and pastoral work.

The first objection is the sense that we must do certain things prior to believing in Christ. Wesley imagines someone saying, ” I must first conquer every sin; break off every evil word and work, and do all good to all men; or I must first go to church, receive the Lord’s Supper, hear more sermons, and say more prayers.”

No, Wesley says, you have it all backwards. Belief in Jesus is the foundation that allows us – with God’s help – to do the very things we imagine we need to do before we can believe.

The second objection Wesley shares comes from the heart that says “I cannot be accepted by Christ because I am not good enough.” To which Wesley responds: Of course we are not good enough. We never will be. Indeed, the harder we try to establish our own goodness the more of a mess we make. Delay no longer, Wesley urges. God will make you clean.

The third objection I was not quite expecting when I first read this sermon, but it is one I have seen expressed in various ways. The objection is “I am not contrite enough. I am not sensible enough of my sins.”

The version I hear of this in my own ministry is slightly different. I have encountered many Christians who have the sense that they need to draw closer to God but also feel like they are not in the right place to get on their knees or cry out for Jesus. They will acknowledge as true the statement that they are sinners, but they just don’t feel it. They are not at ease in their relationship with God but are reluctant to name and shed tears over their own sins. I interpret such spiritual conflicts as at least standing near the ground that Wesley was pointing out in his third objection.

Here is part of his answer to that concern. “I would to God that thou wert more sensible of them, more contrite a thousand fold than thou art. But do not stay for this. It may be God will make thee so, not before thou believest, but by believing. It may be, thou wilt not weep much till thou lovest much because thou hast had much forgiven. In the mean time, look unto Jesus. Behold how he loveth thee!”

I hear Wesley calling us here not to get hung up on having the right amount of grief or sorrow for our sins before we seek out the Lord. We don’t need to match our story or our faith journey up with someone else or some set of steps we’ve been taught. Are you aware that you need God and that you are not in line with him? Yes? Great. You are ready to believe.

The great catch — and one illustrated perfectly by Wesley’s own life — is that wanting to believe in Jesus and being able to believe in Jesus are not the same thing. Faith itself is a gift that God gives us. When Wesley says we are ready to believe, what he is really saying is that we are ready to cry out and ask God to help us believe. We are ready to “seek God while he is near” and not cease asking until we have been given what we seek.

For Wesley, that belief did not arrive until one night at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. For us, the same belief lies waiting for us to seek to have it.

Wesley’s sermon concludes in this way: “Unto thee saith the Lord, not, ‘Do this,’ — perfectly obey all my commands, — ‘and live;’ but, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.'”

Now, Wesley says, is the time. There is no reason to wait. Believe the good news and God will remember yours sins no more.

Now is the time.

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.

Learning at Daniel’s feet

Brent White shares his testimony of his conversion to being a strong conviction about the truthfulness of the Bible.

Included in the post are comments on a British podcast by a Christian apologist and Oxford mathematician. The full transcript of his lecture explaining how the Book of Daniel is a perfect book for Christians trying to figure out how to live in the 21st century. The speaker, John Lennox, speaks specifically of Great Britain, but I think many of his observations apply to us — or will in the coming years. This is how he frames the story of Daniel.

So, we have a young man who has been brought up to believe in God and he’s suddenly without warning precipitated into a completely alien culture. He’s moved physically. Now we haven’t been moved physically in this country, but in recent years and with increasing acceleration, we’ve been shifted from a culture that has been broadly monotheistic, in a culture that is increasingly relativistic, that’s increasingly atheistic, and that’s increasingly marginalising the capacity of the possibility of articulating faith in God in public….

To maintain your faith in God and your public witness in that kind of a situation is not easy. My view is that if we can gain anything from looking at this book that will help us to unpack the secret of Daniel’s stability and his conviction and his power and understanding, then it is worth doing.

If you prefer to listen, the lecture audio is here.