from John Wesley’s Sermons
Aug-1 Sep 2019, Christ Mountain Top
the Scripture, Psalm 107, selections
Moment, new sign
Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, published a series of 53
“standard sermons” to serve as a resource to his preachers and to
“the people called Methodist”. Many of them focus on the themes of
salvation, sin, grace, and faith. For John Wesley, a priest in the Church of
England, much of the church had forgotten about its core message, the gospel,
and its implications for life. Beyond that basic foundation of grace and faith,
these standard sermons also addressed a number of other important themes – 13
messages on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the nature of Christian unity beyond
the brand names of denominations and traditions, bigotry, money, manners, and
even a eulogy.
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:
then shall a sinful man atone for any the least of his sins?
With his own works? No. Were they ever so many or holy, [those works] are not
his own, but God’s. . . . And his heart is altogether corrupt and abominable
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”).
not in the future. Our salvation is already accomplished, and its results continue
in the present time and into God’s future. When we talk about God’s salvation
only in terms of “going to heaven when I die”, we miss out on the
we are saved from the “guilt of all past sin” (II.3).
we are saved from “fear” that comes with guilt (II.4).
we are saved from “the power of sin” (II.5).
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
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
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