“All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favor…” Everything we have is from God's grace, and grace alone. Our existence, the image of God, the fact that we're alive right now, and even our good works are all only by God's grace. This is a helpful reminder for today, when we live in a theological climate in which people sometimes use creation, the image of God, our present experiences and our good deeds as ways to hide from God's grace. Contrariwise, John Wesley firmly believes that all of these things hold together only by grace, only by God's gift. I take that to mean that such things as these can’t be thought of independently of the action of a grace-ing God. The good that we have we have only by grace, though we really do have it.
For instance, our good works aren’t really good, but are tainted by our sinfulness. And if they are genuinely good, credit is due to God, not to us.
So what of salvation? It has to be only by grace. But anyone who knows even a little about John Wesley knows that his understanding of salvation takes up our agency as well, engages and invites our action, if only by God’s own primary primal action. God alone by grace does the saving, but God also graciously calls out our involvement. This place where God’s action meets our action is called faith (or faithfulness). In other words (Wesley’s words from “Sermon 1: Salvation by Faith”): “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.”
This faith is a faith in Christ, especially in his cross and resurrection, and this faith goes much deeper than mental assent, but is a “disposition of the heart” (which, it should be noted, is itself also much deeper than a mere emotional assent). Salvation by Faith doesn’t discourage holiness and good works, but requires them; Salvation by Faith doesn’t lend itself to pride but necessarily excludes it; Salvation by Faith doesn’t encourage sin but rules it out; Salvation by Faith isn’t an uncomfortable doctrine - it’s the only comfortable one.
Wesley’s underlying assumptions about total depravity on the one hand and God’s grace and mercy on the other shine through in a big way throughout this sermon. There’s a real gift there. Sometimes people today try to understand grace while forgetting that to be human in God’s world is to be in an overwhelmingly humble position. This leads to a cheap understanding of grace. Then others make the opposite mistake. In an effort to take sin seriously, grace becomes a mere footnote. Wesley talking about these topics in this sermons seems more like a feedback loop. In saying something serious about sin, Wesley can’t help but talk about grace. And grace necessarily reminds Wesley of human sin.
And then faith and salvation: because they are what happens when God’s grace meets up with sinful humanity.