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.