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.