Consider Wesley

Knowing God

Henry H. Knight III

In the first article for this series I highlighted the universality of grace. Keeping in mind that for Wesley grace is both the unmerited favor of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can now look at a second aspect of grace, namely, that it is epistemological. That is, it enables us to know God. It does this in two ways.

The first is foundational: God is known in Jesus Christ. The incarnation is itself a gracious act of God, taken at God’s own initiative, out of love for us. Christ’s coming as one of us to die for all of us is for Wesley revelatory of the very nature of God. It shows to the fullest and deepest extent possible what it means to say, “God is love.”

The second way grace enables us to know God is through giving us faith, which at the same time is a trusting in the God we know. That faith is a gift may seem odd. After all, don’t we all have faith, but just put our faith in many different persons or things? Many theologians have understood faith to be a natural human capacity, but one that is misdirected unless it is centered in God.

Wesley is not among them. Wesley believes fallen humanity is held captive by sin, in that our dispositions, motivations, and desires are directed away from God. Our fallenness seems to us as a “normal” life, or at least it would if not for the fact that prevenient grace gives us a moral conscience and the freedom to obey that conscience instead of our own will.

Faith breaks us out of the prison within which sin has placed us. We cannot generate this faith on our own; it is, as the Moravian Brethren taught Wesley prior to his attending the meeting at Aldersgate Street, a work of the Holy Spirit. As Wesley says about faith in An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,

No man is able to work it, in himself. It is a work of omnipotence. It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul than to raise a dead body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation, and none can create a soul anew but he who at first created the heavens and the earth. (§9)

This grace-given faith enables us to know God. But we need to look closer at the nature of this knowledge we have through faith.

First, Wesley makes a clear distinction between knowing God through the created order and knowing God through faith. “The whole creation speaks there is a God,” he says, “But that is not the point in question. I know there is a God …. But who will show me what that God is?” (A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part II, §iii/21). Faith enables us to know not just that there is a God but the nature of God.

But, second, this knowledge is not simply information. Faith doesn’t only enable us to know about God but to know God, analogous to how we know one another. Through faith we encounter God; we become aware of God’s presence. Wesley says:

Without faith we cannot be saved; For we can’t rightly serve God unless we love him. And we can’t love him unless we know him; neither can we now God unless by faith. Therefore salvation by faith is only … the love of God by the knowledge of God … by a true spiritual acquaintance with him. (Farther Appeal, Part I, §i/3)

This encounter with God, which is an ongoing relationship over time, takes place through means of grace such as Scripture, preaching, sacraments, prayer, Christian conversation, and serving others; through congregational worship, daily devotions, and faithful living.

By the 1770s, Wesley had made a distinction between two kinds of faith. The faith of a servant was that of sinners awakened to their condition and seeking to know their sins are forgiven. They now know God as a God whose laws they have broken, and they seek to obey and serve God in spite of the inclinations of their hearts. Wesley amends his Journal entry for April 25, 1738, to say that, prior to Aldersgate, “I certainly had the faith of a servant, though not the faith of a son.”

The faith of a child of God accompanies and follows justification and a new birth. At this point one encounters God’s love in Jesus Christ as our crucified and risen savior and Lord, and puts our trust in him for forgiveness and to receive a new life. It is here that the inclinations of the heart begin actually to become aligned with God’s love.

It is important to underscore that both the faith of a servant and the faith of a child of God are gifts of grace, works of the Holy Spirit. As Stanley J. Rodes has shown in From Faith to Faith (Wipf and Stock, 2013), while Reformed theologians consistently understood the law of God within a covenant of works, Wesley saw both law and gospel as dispensations within the covenant of grace. The faith of a servant, then, is a divine gift as much as the faith of a child of God to which it ideally will lead.

One final aspect of faith as knowing God is Wesley’s belief that it is a spiritual sense analogous to our five senses, which enables us to know the “invisible world”—faith as the evidence of things not seen, as it says in Heb 11:1. We might expect Wesley to be saying here that faith enables us to experience the unseen presence of God, especially through means of grace, and we would be partially correct. But in addition to its present dimension, the invisible or spiritual world has for Wesley past and future dimensions.

For example, we were not there when Jesus was crucified. But by faith we nonetheless experience the terrible and wonderful reality of the cross, evoking repentance but also gratitude for the love of God in Christ. As Charles Wesley put it in one of his Hymns on the Lord’s Supper,

Christ revives His suffering here,

           Still exposes them to view;

See the Crucified appear,

           Now believe he died for you.

Likewise, Charles Wesley expresses the future dimension in another of these hymns, writing: “By faith and hope already there, Even now the marriage-feast we share …,” referring to the eschatological feast to come.

Faith then not only transcends the natural world to connect us to the unseen present, but transcends temporal barriers, enabling us to experience what God has done for our salvation as well as a foretaste of the new creation to come.

Posted Nov 27, 2019