Each fall, I plan a message series exploring our roots in the Christian tradition. This year, we’re going to dig up these relics of the church – John Wesley’s sermons on salvation, sin, grace, and faith – and rework them for today. Today we tackle the very first of the 53 sermons, “Salvation by Faith”, preached before Oxford University on June 11, 1738. His focus text was one line from Ephesians 2: “By grace are ye saved through faith”.
And, Wesley addressed, from this text, a critical stumbling block in our coming to God. It is this: We don’t believe we need God. Or, we believe that we need Jesus only a little bit. We speak about being “good people”, and we are content with “good enough”. Our approach to salvation, which we may describe as “going to heaven”, is generally that we earn our own way. One dimension of that is pride – I am a good person … you might not be. The other dimension of that is compassion – “He didn’t go to church, he didn’t know Jesus, but he was a good person.” Wesley does not address the compassion side of the coin in this message, but he does address the pride. In fact, the Scripture is very clear on that. “By grace are ye saved”. That is, it’s ALL GOD, 100% God and 0% me. I get no credit and I deserve no credit. Wesley says:
Remember the story of Simon the Pharisee, at whose house Jesus was eating? A woman comes in to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, and all Simon could think was, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (Luke 7.39). John Wesley’s point, and the Scripture’s, is that we are ALL that sinner, “altogether corrupt and abominable”, yet loved by Jesus and “saved by grace through faith”. “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7.48, 50).
But we will never hear those words unless we get past our pride. As Wesley writes, “None can trust in the merits of Christ, till he has utterly renounced his own” (III.5).
In Wesley’s sermon, he addresses three areas: First, what kind of faith is saving faith; second, what kind of salvation comes through faith; and, third, common objections to these core doctrines of the church. We’ll focus on his first and second areas, and let some of the answers to objections show up sprinkled among the rest.
In discussing faith, he first of all describes the faith that is not sufficient for salvation. First, the “faith through which we are saved” is not the general faith of persons who “believe in God”. Wesley summarizes this general faith, a faith shared by most of us: “that God is; that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and that He is to be sought by . . . a careful practice of moral virtue” (I.1). This is exactly what most folks believe today. Most folks believe in God. Most believe that our eternal – and even earthly – reward depends to some degree on our effort and our “practice of moral virtue”. It is not wrong, it has biblical support, but it is not saving faith. It is only a beginning for the journey. What does Paul say? “You were dead through sins…. We were by nature children of wrath…. But God, who is rich in mercy, . . . even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2.1-5).
Second, the “faith through which we are saved” is not the “faith of a devil, though this goes much further than that “general” faith. “For the devil believes, not only that there is a wise and powerful God, gracious to reward, and just to punish; but also, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, the Saviour of the world” (I.2). A demon-possessed man comes to Jesus and cries out, “I know who you are: the Holy One of God” (Luke 4.34, and see James 2.19). It is not wrong, it has biblical support, but simply knowing that is not saving faith. It is only a beginning for the journey.
So, what then is saving faith? Saving faith is faith in Christ, specifically and particularly. A general faith in God will not do. Saving faith is faith in Christ, not mere intellectual assent to a creed. It is a thing of the heart. What does Jesus say of the woman washing his feet? “She has shown great love” (Luke 7.47). Why? Because she has been forgiven. And, this is where saving faith is anchored not only in theology but in history: It is faith in Jesus, in his death and resurrection for us sinners, so that, in the words of Paul, “we who were dead through our trespasses” could be “made alive together with Christ”. Faith is decisive trust in Christ. Faith is committed love to our Savior Jesus. Faith is rest in the embrace of Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Lord.
And, what is the salvation that comes through faith? Wesley points out, first, that it is a “present salvation” (II.1). “Ye are saved through faith.” Some of our English translations read “you have been saved” The Greek grammar indicates who we are – present tense, now – as people who are saved – a completed action with continuing results (see “Greek Verb Tenses”).
Wesley quotes the tough language of 1 John, “No one who abides in [Jesus] sins” (3.6). Being saved from the power of sin, in Wesley’s language, includes “habitual sin”, “wilful sin”, and even “sinful desire”. These things no longer have power over us. It is a spiritual fact, easier said than done. That’s why it is 100% Jesus and 0% me. That’s why even faith through which we are saved – from guilt, from fear, from the power of sin – is a “gift of God” (Ephesians 2.9).
Perhaps you hear this and you have questions. You’re not comfortable being described by Wesley as “corrupt and abominable”. Join the club. But don’t deceive yourself. I don’t know anyone who claims 100% sinless perfection. So, in that absolute sense, we are corrupt. But even our goodness is too often compromised by impure motives. It is only the goodness of God that keeps us from being worse than we are.
On the question of saving faith, perhaps you say, “I have this general faith, but not a specific trust in Jesus alone.” Or, “I have the faith of a devil; I agree with the Bible about who Jesus is. But my life isn’t any different because of it.”
On the question of salvation, perhaps you say, “I’ve been so focused on eternity, on heaven, that I haven’t experienced salvation from guilt, fear, and sin’s power in my life today.” Or, “I think I believe, I think I am saved, but sin has a persistent hold on me.” So, what’s my status?
I can’t answer the status question. Only you and God can answer that one. I can assure you that the Bible is clear that we can know. We don’t have to be uncertain of where we stand before God. We may be a bit more obsessive and anxious by personality. When those anxious moments pass and our hearts are still, what do we know? “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5.13). Note, that even here “eternal life” is a gift we may possess here and now. And, it is a gift that has real results – a gift that generates change.
As to our self-evaluation, as to whether we have a general faith, the faith of a devil, or saving faith, please remember that general faith, devil faith are only a beginning for the journey. No matter where you are on the journey, you have the wonderful opportunity and joy of taking a new step, experiencing more of God’s love and mercy and experiencing the fullness of salvation even from the power of sin in your life.
“It is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2.8). There’s no day like today to say “Yes”.