In setting goals for 2017 one of my goals was to begin to again blog regularly and to get into podcasting (more on that later). However, so much of the blogosphere and social media has become a place of mudslinging and partisan fighting. I have no desire to join in the melee of bickering centered on the major conflict of the current 24 news cycle. Instead, I will spend the next 50 weeks reading, meditating, and writing about John Wesley’s Standard Sermons.
The Standard Sermons, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, and a hymnal of Methodist songs were given to Methodist preachers and circuit riders. They were used as a theological resource for the preachers, a primer of theology and Methodist doctrine for the people, and often the sermons were read and preached on Sundays. These sermons being written, curated, and distributed by Wesley himself offer us valuable insight into the theology of Wesley and his original view of Methodist doctrine. However, I must confess that I have not read any of these sermons in any meaningful way since seminary and I would venture that the average UMC lay member has had little contact with these texts.
In choosing to focus on the Wesley’s Standard Sermons for the majority of the year I am hoping to grow spiritually and in my understand of what it means to be a United Methodist. As a pastor so much of my work is centered on the Bible or theology but often I struggle to find a source for personal spiritual growth and therefore my first and primary goal is that through reading and meditating on these sermons and the Scriptures they are based on that I will grow in my personal walk with Jesus Christ. Secondly, I realize that I and others often reference John Wesley but we mostly use the same 20 or so quotes and stories. Throughout this process I hope to broaden my knowledge of Wesley and his works and by doing so better understand the man who started the Methodist movement. Thirdly, the better I can understand John Wesley and the Standard Sermons the better my insight into the beginnings of the Methodist movement and the start of a large spiritual revival in England, America, and eventually the world. I believe that if we can understand the crucial theology that impacted the hearts of the people then and lead them into service and witness then we can apply it to our current time and begin to sow the seeds of revival.
The first sermon of the series is “Salvation by Faith” first preached by John Wesley at St. Mary’s Oxford on June 18, 1738. Wesley based this sermon on Ephesians 2:8a “For by grace you have been saved through faith”. Wesley wrote all of his sermons using a very formal structure almost like a formal paper and that structure and the 18th century English can make his sermons difficult to understand. I have organized the my reflections on Wesley’s sermon into three major points and will work through the sermon that way.
Wesley’s sermon begins with an emphasis on how people are saved which is actually very important considering the popularity of Calvinism among many popular church leaders today. The center point of the critique of Methodist/Arminian/Free Will theology is that humans are the ones responsible for their own salvation because the first move of a person towards faith is their own decision to believe. The second critique is that Arminianism (Free Will) is nothing more than a cover for Pelagianism. In the first two points of his sermon Wesley dismisses both of those issues. He begins by stating “All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty and favour; his free, undeserved favor; favour altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies.” What Wesley is saying here is that we do not earn or deserve that grace and gifts that we receive. It is God’s free will to give to us what he desires and that includes the gift of prevenient grace that points people towards an understanding of their sinful state and need of forgiveness. Later Wesley writes “shall a sinful man atone for any the least of his sins with his own works No…indeed they are all unholy and sinful themselves, so that every one of them needs a fresh atonement….Therefore, having nothing, neither righteousness nor works, to plead, his mouth is utterly stopped before God.” We cannot earn our salvation. Though we might be tempted to think that doing enough good things can change the balance on some celestial scale weighing out our deeds we are truly unable to do good without God’s grace. Therefore, we cannot earn our salvation or merit it in anyway. That means that it is in grace alone that we are saved. Grace given and sourced in God alone. Our faith is initiated in the grace of God or in other words or profession of faith is a response to God’s prevenient grace. In the words of Wesley “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.”
After establishing salvation rooted in God’s grace and obtained by faith alone Wesley begins to describe the exact nature of Christian faith. Wesley discusses three types of faith other than Christian or saving faith: the faith of a heathen, the faith of a devil, and the faith of the apostles. According the Wesley the faith of the heathen is one who has not heard of the Gospel and yet because of his or her ability to reason believes “that God is; that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” and they seek to live out this faith to others. What is not clear is if Wesley is suggesting that for those who do not know of the Gospel of Jesus Christ would a heathen’s faith be enough for salvation. The faith of the devil is a faith that believes with their head all aspects of Jesus and God yet do not have a faith of the heart that moves them towards repentance. The faith of the apostles was challenging to understand the distinction made by Wesley; however, it seems to be based on the faith the apostles had while Christ was alive. The apostles believed in Jesus during his earthly ministry and worked miracles in his name. Yet they did not believe or have knowledge of his death and resurrection. Which for Wesley is the defining nature of true saving faith. In his own words “Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection…cleaving to him, as our ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,’ or in one word, our salvation.” According to Wesley is was not possible to separate the facts about Jesus’s life, the teachings of his ministry, and his death and resurrection from each other. We cannot pick and choose the “Jesus” we like and leave behind the parts that we do not. We cannot have a moral teacher without an atoning sacrifice. We either believe in all and find true faith and salvation or we believe in less and have a faith that is lacking.
The final focus from Wesley’s Sermon “Salvation by Faith” is what exactly it means to be “saved”. So often we discuss salvation as being saved from a future eternal punishment or being saved from God’s punishment. Wesley understood salvation to be a present reality not only a future promise. Salvation changed the nature of a person so that they were able to act and live differently than before they were saved. This is because Wesley believed that salvation freed us from sin and particularly the guilt of past sins and the fear of the punishment from those sins. To be freed from sin meant a reviving of souls that changed our desires and wants to start to conform to the nature of Christ. We were set free from our sinful nature that before Christ ruled in our lives. Christians being freed from the fear of sin no longer have to fear God’s punishment and now can relate to God as a loving Father from whom no one or no thing can ever separate us from again.
For me the most powerful part of Wesley’s understanding of salvation is the way salvation empowers us to live as we could not before. We are freed from sin not to sit around and wait to die but we are freed from sin that we might live abundantly now. In doing this we are able to love and serve others in a manner that can point them to the truth of Christ and gives our living now purpose as we continue to grow and mature as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Wesley believed that these good works were not done to earn or maintain our salvation but were the fruits of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. We love because God first loved us and we serve because Christ served us. This does not gain us favor with God because through salvation God has already called us children and loves us fully. We love, serve, and share because our nature is being conformed to the likeness of Christ as we have been, are being, and will be saved through faith.