One of the first sermons John Wesley preached after his “strangely warmed heart” experience was called “Salvation by Faith,” and it focused on verse 8: “By grace are you saved through faith.” After a long spiritual dry spell, one night at a Bible study meeting, Wesley found himself absolutely certain that God had accepted him. It was the first time he’d ever felt that, and the experience fueled the preaching and piety movement that later became the Methodist church.
In the sermon, first he tackled grace. Here, it has its more general meaning and reminds us that God doesn’t owe us salvation. God chooses salvation, meaning that God chooses to heal the relationship that human sin damaged beyond human ability to repair.
Then he goes after the idea of faith in general, and compares it to “saving faith,” or salvation by faith. Saving faith is more than just the proper awareness of God, he says. Paul tells the Romans that since the beginning of time, people could learn what they needed to know about God by looking at his creation. They could know that the world had a Creator and that they should respect that Creator and treat what he had made with similar respect. Including each other. Saving faith is also more than just intellectual knowledge about God and who he is. At this level of faith, a person would know God was the creator. They would even know Jesus was the Son of God, somehow God made flesh in creation. The demons Jesus faced as well as the devil himself had this kind of “faith,” because they knew who Jesus was and they obeyed his commands. They accepted his power.
Saving faith takes all of these ideas about faith several steps further. Saving faith totals up all the knowledge about God we have and adds in real action, a real life change that orients us towards God instead of ourselves or the world around us.
Our lives are not ruled by fear of the unknown or our own desires for the things we think we need. They are ruled by God’s directions to love and care for one another, even as we praise and worship God.
Our lives are not even ruled by the sin that’s separated us from God. In Christ, God healed the broken relationship sin caused, allowing us to live lives connected to God. We may still make mistakes or even slip up now and again, but those are echoes of a broken power, one which no longer governs our lives.
Wesley addressed several objections to his idea, but I’ll cover just a few, since they are more likely to be a part of our modern world than some of the others.
If people had saving faith, could they decide things like charity and compassion for others were unnecessary? Wesley asked, in turn, how having a faith that didn’t produce a changed life differed from having no faith at all.
Could people with saving faith grow prideful and look down on people who they thought weren’t saved? Yes, Wesley said, they could. In our day, many of us probably wouldn’t insult someone with a direct put-down of their faith. But haven’t we make little jokes and things at their expense? I have and suddenly I have a hard time saying that doesn’t come from pride.
In the very verse Wesley uses, though, Paul shoots that down – “not because of works,” he says, “lest anyone should boast.” It’s the mirror image of Dizzy Dean – since you didn’t do it, you shouldn’t be braggin’.
And last, might the doctrine of saving faith – that we aren’t saved with works or with our own goodness, but only through God’s grace – bring people to despair? “I can’t ever get it right,” they might say. “It's no use.” Of course it might, Wesley said. That’s the point – to get us to understand that only God can save us and that he’s already done it.
Maybe it’s better to say that he’s already doing it. Salvation didn’t happen once and quit – it keeps on going. If saving faith means that we live our lives oriented towards God’s desires for us, then we should really say that we are being saved by God. Every day. Every hour. Every minute.
Thanks be to God for this good news.
(These next several sermons are my attempt to preach some of the "Standard Sermons" of John Wesley that are cornerstone explanations of a lot of basic Methodist doctrine. Thorough readers are invited to check out the many published editions of these sermons to get the real thing.)