SERMON: SALVATION BY FAITH
By grace are ye saved through faith. (Ephesians 2:8)
1. All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour; his free, undeserved favour; favour altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies. It was free grace that “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into him a living soul,” and stamped on that soul the image of God, and “put all things under his feet.” The same free grace continues to us, at this day, life, and breath, and all things. For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand. “All our works, Thou, O God, hast wrought in us.” These, therefore, are so many more instances of free mercy: and whatever righteousness may be found in man, this is also the gift of God.
2. Wherewithal 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, they are not his own, but God’s. But indeed they are all unholy and sinful themselves, so that every one of them needs a fresh atonement. Only corrupt fruit grows on a corrupt tree. And his heart is altogether corrupt and abominable; being “come short of the glory of God,” the glorious righteousness at first impressed on his soul, after the image of his great Creator. Therefore, having nothing, neither righteousness nor works, to plead, his mouth is utterly stopped before God.
3. If then sinful men find favour with God, it is “grace upon grace!” If God vouchsafe still to pour fresh blessings upon us, yea, the greatest of all blessings, salvation; what can we say to these things, but, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!” And thus it is. Herein “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died” to save us. “By grace” then “are ye saved through faith.” Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.
I was raised Baptist but my Dad started his Christian walk as a Methodist. He always said a Methodist was just a Baptist who could read (that’s still funny.) No, he was a Methodist because of a Methodist Circuit Rider who traveled to his rural community to bring the gospel.
These were tough, hearty men who preferred mules due to their durability and ability to endure harsh weather and terrain. Dad said it wasn’t unusual for the preacher to hitch his mule to the plow for extra help on Monday after a Sunday meeting. I can’t imagine anyone who could bring a more credible Gospel message than a man like this.
In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds wrote the following:
John Wesley, Oxford man, theologian, and preacher, was an evangelical with balance. He preached with evangelical zeal and with classical training. He wanted souls to be saved from hell forever but for men to become better subjects of Christendom today.
He was a social reformer who never preached merely a social gospel. He burned to know God, but his passionate arguments likewise showed logical rigor. Though Wesley didn’t despise education, he didn’t worship it. He lived the Great Conversation in his deeds and writings, not just in a classroom.
It was an example that compelled evangelical ministers for centuries.
My own great-grandfather rode circuit, spreading the gospel, emulating the example of generations of preachers in America inspired by the Wesleyans. This country preacher worked with multiple Bible translations and tried to emulate the scriptural and thoughtful style that was at the heart of the best of American revivalism. The Wesleyan tradition demanded Great-Grandfather’s best efforts: body, mind, and emotion.
How does hard work on another’s behalf promote the gospel?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
John Wesley’s sermon “Salvation by Faith” stands at the head of his collection. Along with the Bible and the Methodist hymnbook (hymns mostly composed by his younger brother, Charles), the Standard Sermons were the basic equipment of the evangelists and circuit riders who proclaimed the message of salvation throughout England and America.
Wesley preached this sermon at St. Mary’s, Oxford, on June 11, 1738. That year, when Wesley—the Oxford don and Anglican priest—turned thirty-five, was a turning point in his own life and in the life of the church. It was the year of Wesley’s true personal conversion, which he described in his journal entry for May 24, 1738:
“In the evening I went very unwilling to a meeting of a society in Aldersgate street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
That year also saw the beginning of the evangelical awakening that has come to be called the Wesleyan Revival. John Wesley later reported that although his preaching in the thirteen years before 1738 had produced little fruit, after that year, “the word of God ran as fire among the stubble . . . multitudes crying out, ‘What must we do to be saved?’ and afterwards witnessing, ‘By grace we are saved by faith.’”
“Salvation by Faith” thus can be seen both as Wesley’s personal testimony of how salvation came to him and as the testimony of thousands who found salvation though his message. Of course, Wesley would insist that the message did not come from him but from the Bible. His work in the sermon is simply to explicate the statement, “By grace are ye saved by faith” (from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians), by clarifying what Paul meant by “faith” and what he meant by “salvation.”
Faith, explains Wesley, is “not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent.” Instead it is a “disposition of the heart” in the context of a personal relationship, a “cleaving to [Christ]” best expressed in words like “trust,” “confidence,” “reliance,” and even “recumbency.” This understanding assumes but goes beyond the definition offered by Augustine and Aquinas: “thinking with assent.” Although faith certainly includes mental assent to the propositional truths of the Gospel, Wesley maintains that it also includes a believer’s trust in his or her personal significance.
Wesley defines faith by personalizing the words of an Anglican homily:
It is a sure confidence which a man hath in God, that through the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God.
The repeated personal pronouns echo his account of his conversion: “He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me.” They also echo Luther’s message of trust in Christ’s work, “pro me, pro nobis,” and of course Paul’s profession of “faith in the one that loved me and gave himself for me.”
Salvation, in Wesley’s understanding, includes more than justification. Pardon from sin and deliverance from the fear of death and damnation are only the beginning. Salvation also entails transformation, or regeneration, that enables happy and holy living in the present. Wesley’s striking affirmations of God’s power to save the believer from the power of sin caused controversy in his own time and continue to be controversial today. However, Wesley could point to the teaching of the apostles, particularly (as he does in this sermon) the statement in 1John that “those who are born of God do not sin.”
Although Wesley’s later sermons offer a more nuanced interpretation of this truth (arguing against the quietist claim that conversion frees Christians from sinful desires), he never wavered in his proclamation that Christ could save believers not only from the guilt of sin but also from its power. Wesley’s message of salvation can be distinguished from his Protestant forebears chiefly in this: his presentation of the broad scope of salvation available in this life, that it makes possible victory over sin, conformity to the character of Christ, and perfection in holy love.
If John Wesley’s preaching of salvation allowed multitudes to witness, “By grace we are saved through faith,” Charles Wesley’s hymns allowed them to sing their testimony. He wrote two of his best-known hymns, “And Can It Be” and “O for a Thousand Tongues,” to help believers celebrate the day of their conversion, when God’s grace and salvation reached them. (The latter was originally titled “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion.”)
Charles, who experienced conversion a few days before his brother, sounds the same note of the Gospel brought home to the individual believer: Christ’s atoning blood was “to my soul applied”; His infinite grace “found out me”; Christ is “my own.” As in John’s sermons, Charles’s hymns celebrate freedom from both the guilt and the power of bondage: “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free.”
The hymn “O for a Heart to Praise my God” is a prayer for the holiness, or perfection in love, that John preached. Whereas John’s affirmations about the kind or degree of holiness possible to attain in this life may excite debate, Charles’s earnest supplications for a more Christ-like heart express the longings of believers across many different traditions. His words appear in the hymnbooks of many denominations so that the church can sing with one united voice, asking for renewed hearts “full of love divine.”
Joe Henderson, PhD, is an assistant professor of Old Testament and Hermeneutics at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).