Although this is the fifth sermon in his list, Wesley began preaching “Justification by Faith” soon after his experience at Aldersgate. He calls it one of the doctrines on which “the Church stands or falls.”
Others disagreed – the first time he preached it, people called him an “enthusiast, a seducer and a setter-forth of new doctrines.” Those words meant different things in Wesley’s day, as we know. At the very least, I’ve never heard of a sermon being seductive.
Later, when the Methodist movement was in full swing, Wesley visited Epworth, the parish where he grew up and where his father had preached. The church refused him the pulpit, so he went to the cemetery and stood on his father’s tomb and preached there to whomever would gather. He said he did more good preaching three days from his father’s tomb than he might have in three years preaching from his pulpit.
“Justification by faith” continues the effort to properly define the different roles of works, faith and grace in salvation. Justification was the name given to someone who was in a right relationship with God, and in Wesley’s day, many people thought it happened only after what they called sanctification, or becoming holy.
Wesley thought that was kind of silly – the Bible seemed pretty clear to him that “justification” was the pardoning of sin. The justified were free from the accusations of Satan and from the punishment they’d earned for disobeying God’s law. God didn’t pretend the justified had never sinned; he pardoned them so that in the final judgment they would be treated as if they had never sinned. If God had just wanted to pretend, then Christ would not have given his life.
So, if justification is pardoning those who have sinned – Wesley calls them “the ungodly” – then why in the world would those whose good works and sanctification had made them holy need to be justified? If God’s going to pardon a sin, it seems obvious there should be a sin there to pardon, and it also seems obvious that one finds sin in sinners.
When people face the reality that they are sinners, and that they have spent their lives turning their backs on God, then they will seek God’s help to be brought back. They hear God’s promise that they will be new creations in Christ, and they believe that promise comes to them as well.
The good works people do may be good in their impact on the lives of people around them – but until they flow from a heart that loves God first and foremost, they are not truly good works, Wesley said.
Think of the way words look printed on a page. When they’re all lined up on the left-hand side, they’re “left-justified.” If they’re lined up on the right, then they’re “right justified,” and when they’re even on both sides they’re “fully justified.” The same words, the same sentences, the exact same letters look different when they are justified and when they are not.
And that is why our works apart from God may not be good, even though the exact same charity and compassion shown after our relationship with God is restored can be called good.
Now, where does faith come in? We’re told it’s an evidence or conviction of things not seen, and when it comes to justification, it seems like that means we believe God justifies us even if the evidence isn’t there. Paul cites Abraham as an example. Eventually, Abraham believed that he would have a son, even though everything he could see about his wife and himself told him it was impossible.
Wesley says that as we keep depending on Christ’s sacrifice as the way our relationship with God will be healed, then our faith helps produce truly good works, and begins our sanctification. We are being made holy.
Even the faith itself is a gift from God. The ability to understand ourselves lost and admit it comes by God’s grace. I used to say that I was glad the New Jerusalem in the afterlife was so big, because there were probably plenty of people I thought didn’t deserve to live there. But none of us deserve it. Only God’s grace enables us to live like it’s true, and only God’s grace makes it true.
Wesley closes by asking anyone who’s listening who doesn’t yet have that faith to consider it. To realize that they are apart from God and that death apart from God is true death. And in their hopelessness, to cry out, “Abba, Father” to God with the full faith he will hear and respond.
To repent, in other words, and to believe the good news.