As theologians we can often get wrapped up in thinking about God and the Scriptures. We want to understand our Creator and the truths that He has revealed. In order to do that we must use logic and reason. John Wesley cautioned those who would minimize the need for reason in theology and in living a virtuous life.
Wesley was a strong proponent of the use of reason. But was wise in reminding us of its limitations. In Sermon #70, Wesley warned us not to overestimate reason to the point that we regard it as “the highest gift of God”. Nor should we consider it the “great unerring guide” into either truth or virtue.
The key limitation of reason, for Wesley, was its inability to produce saving faith. Since reason cannot produce faith Wesley deduces that it is also unable to produce hope (for heaven), a love for God, or virtue. For Wesley virtue is defined as the love of our neighbor which flows from gratitude to our Creator.
Hope, Love, and Virtue are all rooted and grounded in faith.
Faith is not only a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart.
We must be careful not to mistake what Wesley is saying. He is not teaching us that faith is unreasonable. Nor that faith cannot be supported with good logical arguments.
Although it is always consistent with reason, yet reason cannot produce faith, in the scriptural sense of the word.
The Lord invites us to “come and reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) and Paul was known to present the Gospel using logical arguments to try and persuade those who heard him (Acts 17:16-34; 28:23-24).
… From morning until evening he explained things to them, testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to convince (or persuade) them about Jesus from both the law of Moses and the prophets. Some were convinced (or persuaded) by what he said, but others refused to believe
The Christian Faith consists of a set of accepted propositions. Wesley lays these out in Sermon #1 (Salvation by Faith):
- God exists and is wise and powerful
- God is just to punish
- Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah/Christ, the Saviour of the world
- Jesus’ death is the only sufficient means of redeeming man
- Jesus’ resurrection is basis for our restoration to life and immortality
Each of these can be examined and known with the mind. But, what Wesley wants us to understand is that faith must move past a set of facts if we are to receive eternal life.
Wesley breaks down the difference between a reasonable faith and a saving faith using Romans 10:9-10 as the basis.
it is not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart.
These ideas must be understood and reasoned through in our head but they must translate into a life that is lived with trust and reliance on God.
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 (or resting) upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us;
Where does this saving faith come from? This saving faith can only come from the grace of God (#70).
[God] alone can give that faith, which is “the evidence” and conviction “of things not seen.” He alone can “beget you unto a lively hope” of an inheritance eternal in the heavens; and He alone can “shed his love abroad in your heart by the Holy Ghost given unto you.”
For Wesley salvation was all grace. In Sermon #85, he writes:
Go on, in virtue of the grace of God, preventing, accompanying, and following you, in “the work of faith, in the patience of hope, and in the labour of love.”
Here we see that grace precedes faith and makes it possible. It also empowers us to work out our faith in hope and love. This is what reason alone cannot do.
The grace that precedes our faith is called prevenient (or preventing) grace.
Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace;
It is this grace that overcomes our resistance to God. Wesley understood this grace to be given to each and every person.
For allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man.
This reasoning comes from passages like Ezek 18:23 ; 33:11; and 1 Tim 2:4, which express God’s desire for all to be saved and for none to perish.
From this Wesley concludes that people are not saved because they do not receive grace, but because they do not use the grace which they were given.
That ye believe, is one instance of his grace; that believing ye are saved, another.