By Hal Knight
Last month I talked about faith as one of the three marks of the new birth, one aspect of the transformation of the heart given through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This month we look at hope.
Biblical hope is not what we often mean by that word. I may say “I hope it doesn’t snow” if I know I have to be on the road, but that is simply wishful thinking. Biblical hope is a kind of assurance because it is grounded in the promises of God. Because God is always faithful, our hope in God’s promises cannot be disappointed.
For Wesley there is an ultimate hope and a present hope. In the present we hope for forgiveness of sins, and a new life in Christ increasingly governed by love. Our ultimate hope is that as children of God we now belong to the kingdom of God which Jesus will fully establish upon his return.
With regard to present hope Jesus is asked in Matthew 22:34–40 to identify the greatest commandment. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second greatest is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NRSV) Some Christians believe the purpose of these two commandments is to show us that we fall short of God’s law and need forgiveness. Others have argued that while we can never fulfill these two commandments we are called by them to try.
But Wesley saw a commandment of God as a promise of God. If God commands us to love God and our neighbor, then God will enable us to do it by grace. This begins with the new birth and increases until the heart is filled with love. The promise of this new life of love is for this life, and our hope to receive it from God will not be disappointed.
With regard to ultimate hope Wesley speaks of a present assurance. We have both a testimony of our own conscience that we are living and growing in love, and a witness of the Holy Spirit that we are children of God. As Paul says in Romans 8:14–16, we have “received a spirit of adoption,” and when “we cry, Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (NRSV)
This witness of the Spirit is described by Wesley as a kind of inner confidence. To have this assurance is the common privilege of all Christians, and those who do not have it should pray for it. It was not always constant—we may still have doubts and fears—but it is real.
Wesley cites I Peter 1:3 which says that by God’s “great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (NRSV) The resurrection is the foundation upon which all Christian hope rests. The world is afflicted by sin, suffering, injustice and death, but through hope we know it will not always be so, and God is already at work bringing new life and love. To live in hope enables us be participants in this work of God.