I have known for years that the Standard Sermons of John Wesley are a part of the official doctrine of the United Methodist Church. However, these sermons are not required reading for clergy or laity in the denomination. I have read many other parts of our church’s doctrine along with interpretations of John Wesley’s thoughts. However, it is about time that I pick up Wesley’s sermons and read what he preached.
First, I must acknowledge that there is some debate over how many sermons are included in the Standards. I am not an academic theologian, Wesley scholar or denominational official. I do not desire to enter that debate at this time, but I will begin my study with the 44 sermons that are not in question. The first of these is “Salvation by Faith.”
“By grace are ye saved through faith. Ephesians 2:8.” John Wesley begins his sermon with this text. It is his belief that God has freely given grace to persons regardless of any sense of having deserved that grace and mercy. Indeed it is impossible for a sinful person to move beyond a corrupt life without God’s grace. Thus, we must give thanks to God for any sinful person who changes his or her life because of that grace. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation,” says Wesley.
Wesley then moves on to describe this faith through which salvation comes. His 18th century language is difficult to understand at times, so I would be glad to hear other people’s interpretation of these sermons. What does it mean that this faith is “not barely the faith of a heathen” or “not barely that which the Apostles themselves had while Christ was yet upon earth”? It seems Wesley is saying that we need a little bit more faith for salvation. We need a faith that “acknowledges the necessity and merit of [Christ's] death, and the power of his resurrection.” We must move beyond accepting that God is God, the only God whom we are to follow. The entirety of Christ’s saving action (life, death and resurrection) must be in our hearts.
“What is the salvation which is through faith?” Wesley goes on to answer. Salvation is attainable on earth. There is no limit on who may receive this as long as they believe in Christ. This salvation saves us from the guilt of our sin. Thus, we do not need to fear. We will not be locked up forever because of our sin. God brings us into the household and adopts us as children. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Here, then, is my next question about the meaning of Wesley’s writing: How does one, “by faith, born of God sinneth not”? Wesley gives four points by which this one “sinneth not”: 1) sin cannot rule as a habit in one who believes, 2) one’s will is against sin, 3) desire is for God and not for the unholy, and 4) infirmities cannot lead to true sin since they are not connected to one’s will. Does this mean that if my habit, will and desire are for God that anything I do wrong is because of my “infirmities” and not really sin? Perhaps, because even if I have the slightest inkling that it may be a sin, I would surely root it out of my life. That is how I am treating those areas of my life that still feel sinful. I need to turn from them and move toward “the fullness of Christ.”
The last part of Wesley’s three-part sermon is the matter of “some objections.” First, it should be clear now that this is not a sermon against good works. Rather a holy life comes along with this faith. However, it is the faith that saves and not the works. Wesley does caution against pride with this faith, but this faith is of God and is unmerited. Therefore, what is there to be prideful of? Accept God’s goodness and move with a sincere heart toward repentance. It is this sincerity that has convinced thousands, and we must share the message of Salvation by Faith with all the world.