Wesley on Faith, Love, and Salvation

Amy Wagner

Any local church pastor will eventually be asked the question that the lawyer asked Jesus in Luke 10:25: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (NRSV) – or the more common wording in contemporary American evangelical circles, “How can I be saved?” It’s the sort of question that we both welcome and dread: welcome because it indicates an openness to and longing for God, but dread because the question is so big that any answer feels inadequate.

In Protestant theological circles, the ready answer points to faith: believe in God, trust Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and pray the sinners’ prayer with conviction that God will hear your prayer. The Protestant doctrine of sola fide – salvation by faith alone – lends itself to a modern understanding that believing the right things – accepting them by faith – leads to salvation.

We in the Wesleyan tradition preach the importance of faith, but we also ask a further question. Following Wesley’s example, we cannot answer, “How can I be saved?” without also asking, “How can I live the Christian life?”

John Wesley answered that question by noting that faith gives birth to active love:

Without faith we cannot be thus saved; for we cannot rightly serve God unless we love him. And we cannot love him unless we know him; neither can we know God unless by faith. Therefore, salvation by faith is only, in other words, the love of God by the knowledge of God; or, the recovery of the image of God, by a true, spiritual acquaintance with him. (A Further Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, I.3)

Wesley understood faith as a necessity for salvation, even calling it “the sole condition” of salvation, in the sense that it led to justification, the beginning point of salvation. At the same time, “as glorious and honorable as [faith] is, it is not the end of the commandment. God hath given this honor to love alone” (“The Law Established through Faith II,” §II.1). Faith is “an unspeakable blessing” because “it leads to that end, the establishing anew the law of love in our hearts” (“The Law Established through Faith II,” §II.6) This end, the law of love ruling in our hearts, is the fullest expression of salvation; it is Christian perfection.

Wesley, of course, received frequent criticism for his doctrine of entire sanctification, and it remains one of the most distinctive and misunderstood doctrines in Wesleyan theology today. Despite the criticism, however, Wesley continued to teach entire sanctification throughout his life, arguing in his sermon “Christian Perfection” that Scripture compelled him to do so when it calls human beings to “be perfect.”

Wesley did carefully qualify the ways in which he believed one could “be perfect,” however. Christian perfection, for Wesley, did not mean perfection of knowledge, ability, or strength. Nor did it imply freedom from mistake, error, or temptation. All of these Wesley consider consistent with our nature as created beings. Christian perfection meant, rather, a purity of intention, conformity to Christ, and above all love for God and neighbor. It referred not to a state of being, but to a relational reality.

Wesley’s discussion of soteriology was at its core relational, like his theology and anthropology. The renewal of the image of God in us, such that the law of love rules in our hearts, requires restoration of relationship with God. Whereas all human beings may have some sense of God’s existence, or even come to be aware of and fear God’s power, their relationship with God remains distant and impersonal until they become aware of God’s prevenient grace that allows them to seek relationship with God. Then, Wesley taught in his sermon “On Love,” “Believers enjoy the extraordinary privilege of ‘delighting’ in God.”

Wesley often invited Christians to delight in God. In contrast to the Anglican and Reformed traditions of his day, the Methodist movement encouraged (and was often criticized sharply for) enthusiastic, expressive worship. The movement over which Wesley presided affirmed open-air preaching, lay testimony, and physical manifestations of spiritual experiences. Ironically, the same people that were mocked as “Methodists” for their strictly “methodical” practice of spiritual disciplines were also derided as “enthusiasts” for their passionate and emotionally charged worship services. Their rigorous attendance to the means of grace – including Scripture reading, prayer, the sacraments, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy among the poor, the ill, and the imprisoned – grew out of a relational spirituality that was grounded in passionate love for God.

“How, then, can I be saved?” In an increasingly postmodern world, where belief may easily be challenged or doubted, Wesleyan soteriology offers us a reassuring answer. Salvation begins with love – God’s love for us, and our response of love for God and neighbor. This is reassuring because love is something that we can practice and perfect. We do not have to “summon up” enough faith to be saved. Faith – in the sense of believing in God and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior – grows naturally as love is practiced.

Posted Jan 20, 2014

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