God pardons sinners

I heard the preacher on the radio the other day talking about Jesus. He said that because of the cross God the Father no longer sees us when he looks at us. He said that when the Father looks on us, he sees Jesus. He said it was like we put on a brilliant white robe to cover up and hide our dirty real selves.

John Wesley had no love for such preaching.

In his standard sermon “Justification by Faith,” Wesley sets out his position quite directly:

Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom he justifies; that he thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that he accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that he esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous. Surely no. The judgment of the all-wise God is always according to truth. Neither can it ever consist with his unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, because another is so. He can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham.

In the Wesleyan account — which is to say the biblical account according to Wesley — justification is when God pardons us despite our sin. God is not confused about our merits or tricked by a slight of hand worked out by the Son. But still there is pardon and forgiveness.

This is an important distinction in Wesleyan theology for a couple of reasons.

First, it keeps a clear separation between justification and sanctification. Our pardon does not make us holy and it does not require us to be holy before we can be justified. Far from it. We are justified while sinners. Indeed, Wesley argues that until we know ourselves to be sinners we cannot have the faith that leads to justification because that faith is the belief that Christ died for my sins and forgives me, even me.

Second, justification as pardon means we must not rest passively on the cross. One of Wesley’s great concerns was that so many Christians did not live as Christians. They relied on the promises that Christ had done it all for them and that his righteousness had been imputed to them. And so with their ticket to heaven stamped, they felt no need to continue to work out their salvation and to grow in grace.

In a later sermon, in which Wesley was at pains to make peace with Calvinists who thought he did not use the phrase “imputed righteousness” enough, Wesley explained his reluctance to use the term.

In the meantime what we are afraid of is this: — lest any should use the phrase, “The righteousness of Christ,” or, “The righteousness of Christ is imputed to me,” as a cover for his unrighteousness. We have known this done a thousand times. A man has been reproved, suppose for drunkenness: “O”, said he, “I pretend to no righteousness of my own; Christ is my righteousness.” Another has been told, that “the extortioner, the unjust, shall not inherit the kingdom of God:” He replies, with all assurance, “I am unjust in myself, but I have a spotless righteousness in Christ.” And thus, though a man be as far from the practice as from the tempers of a Christian; though he neither has the mind which was in Christ, nor in any respect walks as he walked; yet he has armour of proof against all conviction, in what he calls the “righteousness of Christ.”

It is hard to deny that this temptation is any less among us today than it was in Wesley’s day. Many who wear the name of Christ hide behind that name tag, as it were. Pointing to the cross, they feel no strong need to live as Christ lived. Their preacher has set their soul at ease on such matters. In this, our experience confirms what Wesley worked so hard to counter.

And so we who are called United Methodists and have affirmed the doctrinal standards listed in our Book of Discipline are called to affirm with Wesley this biblical doctrine. While we are yet sinners we are forgiven, but we are forgiven not so we can remain sinners but become — by the grace of God — saints.