John Wesley was a Methodist minister through whose preaching and teaching God brought revival to England in the eighteenth century.
As a young man John Wesley believed that salvation had to be earned. He believed that to be accepted by God a person had to be holy—he had to strive to keep God’s moral law inwardly and outwardly. For this reason, he and his small band of followers endeavoured to introduce “method and order” into their lives, “so that every hour of the day had its proper use, whether study, devotion, exercise or charity.”1It was this rigorous and orderly manner of living that earned Wesley and his followers the nickname, “Methodists”.
It was not until he was almost thirty-five years of age, in May 1738, that John Wesley came to realise he could not be saved by his own actions. He declared at this time, “All my works, my righteousness, my prayers, need an atonement in them-selves. So that my mouth is stopped, I have nothing to plead. God is holy; I am unholy. God is a consuming fire; I am altogether a sinner, meet [fit] to be consumed.”2
It was at this time, too, that Wesley came to understand the way of salvation. Some friends took him to a small gathering of Moravian Christians. At the service someone was reading Martin Luther’s preface to Romans. Wesley wrote in his journal, “while [Luther] 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 to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”3
From this time on, Wesley began to preach that by God’s grace salvation was immediately available to anyone and everyone who would believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The great reformation doctrine of justification by faith became his principle theme, and he preached it throughout Great Britain, to the salvation of hundreds of thousands of souls.
Wesley correctly taught that “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.”4He maintained that faith “is the necessary condition of justification; yea, and the only necessary condition thereof.”5He defined faith in these terms: “Christian faith is, then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection; a recumbency [resting] upon Him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us.”6
Wesley’s preaching of justification by faith alone was revolutionary in eighteenth century England. But while some welcomed it, others cursed it. The clergy and the nobility in particular took offence at it.
The teaching was opposed by many of the clergy in the Church of England, who believed either that salvation was administered by the church through the sacraments of baptism and communion or that it was God’s reward to those who led a good life. Five days after his conversion, Wesley told people at a small religious gathering that “the way for them all to be Christians was to believe” in Christ. The parson was displeased by this and warned, “Have a care, Mr Wesley, how you despise the benefits received by the two Sacraments.” The parson’s wife later wrote to John Wesley’s brother, Charles, imploring him to convert John from “these wild notions”.7A year or so later, the bishop of Bristol summoned Wesley to give an account of his teaching concerning justification by faith. The Bishop hotly disputed the doctrine, claiming that there must be something good in us—“some morally good temper”—before God could justify us.8
The teaching of justification by faith was also opposed by the hyper-Calvinists, who emphasised predestination to the exclusion of faith. In his funeral sermon for the great Calvinist preacher George Whitfield, Wesley said that “the fundamental doctrines which [Whitfield] everywhere insisted on” were “the new birth, and justification by faith”. This loving and truthful tribute incensed many hyper-Calvinists, who claimed rather that “the grand fundamental doctrines, which [Whitfield] everywhere preached, were the everlasting covenant between the Father and the Son, and absolute predestination flowing therefrom.”9
The teaching of justification by faith was also opposed by the nobility, who liked to think that ancestry, wealth and rank counted for something with God. They resented the notion that they were sinners like everyone else, with no worthiness in themselves that would make them accept-able to God. The Duchess of Buckingham remarked, “It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting.”10
But Wesley was not intimidated by noblemen or clergymen. For half a century he went on preaching that the way of salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. Those who took his preaching to heart were converted and found they could say as he said at his conversion, “an assurance has been given to me that Christ has taken my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
And this assurance is available today to anyone who can sincerely say: “I also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law” (Galatians 2:16).
1. John Pollock, John Wesley (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), p. 48.
2. ibid, p. 94. 3. ibid, p. 95.
4. John Wesley, The Works of Wesley: WESLEY’S STANDARD SERMONS, Vol. 1, edited and annotated by Edward H. Sugden (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1955), p. 38.
5. ibid, p. 126. 6. ibid, p. 39.
7. John Pollock, John Wesley, p. 98.
8. ibid, p. 131.
9. WESLEY’S STANDARD SERMONS, Vol. 2, p. 507.
10. John Pollock, John Wesley, p.120
11. WESLEY’S STANDARD SERMONS, Vol. 1, p. 49