Wesley’s Greatest Hits: The Way of Salvation
John 3:16-18; Ephesians 2:8-9
It seems, more and more, loaded words are all around us making us cautious about what we say and to whom. What’s a loaded word? The term is used to refer to a word or phrase that induces a strong emotional response and carries a positive or negative connotation beyond its literal meaning. Are we experiencing global warming or climate change or a shifting climate? Do we have bureaucrats and public servants, or is one the same as the other? Do we engage in discourse or debate or are we just plain disagreeable? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be “woke” (because for my most of my life, being woke meant simply the opposite of being asleep). Unfortunately, when it comes to our faith and the church, we also have our loaded language. If someone accuses me of being religious, is that good? Is it better to be a Christian or a Christ-follower, and is there any difference between the two? Are these simply labels or is important to be identified in one or both of those ways? And, getting to the heart of the sermon for today, “What does it mean to be saved or born again?” Does it matter to our faith whether or not we say we have been saved? This is not a new question. Jesus talked about salvation and what it means to be saved – and in John 3, Nicodemus struggled in understanding how one could be born again. Over 1700 years later, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, faced the same questions. For the next few weeks, we will be focusing on “Wesley’s Greatest Hits,” and I’m not talking about Charles and his hymns. We will be looking at several of John’s most preached, and best known, sermons. You will be relieved to know I won’t be speaking in 18th century King James English and I’ve shortened the length of Brother John’s sermons, but otherwise these are his thoughts on what he considered to be the most important aspects of our faith. Today’s sermon: The Way of Salvation.
Nothing can be more complex and difficult to understand than “religion,” and it is a term often used and as often misused. There are many religions. There are many who claim to be Christian, may even be called pillars of the church, who don’t seem very Christ-like. Yet, the genuine religion of Jesus Christ is clear and simple, and easy to understand. We can comprehend it by looking at it in its original form, just as the Bible describes it. We can readily observe Christianity’s purpose and its means to accomplish its purpose. In a single word, the purpose of Christianity is salvation. And the means by which to attain salvation is faith. Because the substance of the entire Bible is summed up in these two words, salvation and faith, we need to form a true and accurate understanding of them both. Therefore, let us seriously examine: (1) What is salvation? (2) What is the faith by which we are saved? (3) How are we saved by faith?
First, we will examine the question, “What is salvation?” It’s often misunderstood to mean just going to heaven and possessing eternal happiness. Salvation is not a blessing that lies only on the other side of death. The very words of Ephesians 2:8 make this clear: “You have been saved through faith.” Salvation is not limited to the distant future. It is a present reality, a blessing, through which God’s free mercy we can presently possess. “You have been saved through faith,” not you “will be saved through faith.” So, what is this salvation that comes through faith? Are we saved from something or are we saved to something or both? Salvation consists of two components or parts – justification and sanctification. Justification is a synonym for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins and our acceptance by God. The price paid for our forgiveness is the blood and righteousness of Christ – and Christ alone. The price of our forgiveness consists of everything that Christ has done and suffered for us. We are saved from sin, and the immediate effects of justification are the peace of God and the joy that comes with a sharing in the glory of God.
Then, in the very moment we are justified, the process of sanctification begins. In that instant, we are “born again,” that is, we are born of the Spirit. We are saved to an inward change by the power of God. We sense that God’s love has been poured into our hearts and this experience produces a love for all humankind. God changes our minds into the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. This does not mean that all sin is gone. We know this from our own experience. Temptations return and sin revives, and our human nature opposes the grace of God. We still feel the power, believe in Christ and love God, and know within ourselves that we are children of God. But we also sometimes feel in ourselves pride, self-will, anger, and even unbelief. This process of sanctification, of becoming like Christ, is a gradual work. As we become increasingly dead to sin, as our faith matures, we become more and more alive to God. That’s our goal. Whenever we have the opportunity, we work for the good of all. We worship God and lean upon God’s grace. We anticipate a full salvation from all our sins, which comes to us as we love more deeply and fully. We become perfect in love – a love that fills the heart and occupies the whole capacity of the soul. It is love that “rejoices always, prays without ceasing, and gives thanks in all circumstances.”
The second question we will consider is: “What is the faith by which we are saved?” We can have faith in all kinds of things; but, according to the Bible, there is only one faith that leads to salvation. Saving faith involves a conviction regarding God and the things of God. It is the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is the belief that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself. It is believing, as Jim read: “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son. That whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.” It is the assurance that the Son of God loves me and gave himself for me. We receive Christ as our prophet, priest, and king. We accept Christ as Lord and Savior. God then sends the Holy Spirit into our spirit giving us the assurance that we are children of God. This assurance is the result of saving faith.
Third, “How are we saved – justified and sanctified – by faith?” Faith is the only condition; faith alone is sufficient. There are other things – such as repentance, bearing fruit, and doing good – that are commanded, but salvation is dependent only on faith in Christ. If we have faith – true faith – we will follow these commands provided we are given the time. It was not possible for the thief on the cross beside Jesus to do anything more than profess his faith; in his case, that was sufficient. For those of us who have time, the truth of our faith is shown through our growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We continue in faith by repenting of our sin, loving God and others, and doing good deeds. Repentance and the practice of all good works come from faith. Without them we cannot ever expect to be sanctified and without them we cannot retain the grace that we have received or continue in faith or in God’s favor.
Can we do this? How can we, who have hearts that are bent in turning away from God and flesh that loves the world and pleasure more than God, grow in grace and advance in the image of God? We rely on the power of God’s help and depend on God’s free, almighty grace preceding us and accompanying us every moment of every day. We engage in acts of piety such as regular prayer; receiving the Lord’s Supper; and hearing, reading, and meditating on Scripture. We engage in acts of mercy such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, showing hospitality to the stranger, and visiting imprisoned, sick, and suffering people. We confirm, comfort, support, and encourage others. We share our faith and, in every way, help save souls from death. God has ordained we do these things.
The takeaways from this sermon are Wesley’s conviction that salvation is the most important thing to which the Bible points because salvation is the means, and the only means, whereby we are reconciled with the God who created us. But salvation is not just about going to heaven (although it is about that); faith that is genuine and salvation that is real, changes how we live today. The minute we have saving faith, we are saved. Wesley did not believe reciting the words to a prayer, any prayer, was sufficient for salvation; faith is more than recitation of mere words. The faith that leads to salvation is a belief in who Jesus was and is; in all that Jesus claimed to be; and in what Jesus promised to do and has done. As Wesley often said, even the demons believe in Christ – that is, they know him to be real and the Son of God. They don’t, however, accept him as Lord and Savior. Only the true believer, the true Christian, does that. It’s also clear that Wesley believed that salvation was something to be grown and matured – and that if it wasn’t, it could be lost. As we come to the table for the Lord’s Supper, I invite you to reflect on your faith. Have you been saved? Have you accepted Christ as Lord and Savior and proclaimed your belief in his saving grace? Do you know yourself to be a child of God? In your life are you growing in the grace of God and knowledge of Jesus?
I want to return to Wesley’s sermon and his concluding remarks. If you are seeking salvation through your good deeds, you are looking to prior conditions before God acts. You may think, “I must first be this or do that.” You can never be or do enough. On the other hand, if you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are. If so, you can expect it now. There is an inseparable connection between these three points: expect it by faith, expect it as you are, expect it now. As a sinner, you have nothing to pay or plead except, “Christ died for me.” Wait for nothing. Why should you? Christ is ready. And he is all you want or need. He is waiting for you. Let your soul cry out, “Come quickly in and never leave me. Be with me and show me your everlasting love.."
There’s no question but that Wesley would’ve concluded his service with an invitation to come to the altar. Our bulletin each week indicates that the altar is open for prayer, professions of faith, or for uniting with the church. Salvation is not just an old church word; it’s an old church word because it’s the foundation for all we are and claim to be. If you have never accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, the altar is here for you. If you once had faith, but have ignored it for some time and need to get back on track, the altar is here for you. If you have questions about what all this means and want more details, the altar is here for you. You can come as we sing or after the benediction. If you are hearing or reading this sermon online and want to discuss what it means to be saved, please call the church and leave a message and I will return your call.