By Hal Knight
In 1738, less than a month after John Wesley found faith at a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street, he stood in the pulpit at Oxford University to preach on “Salvation by Faith.” He began by distinguishing the faith by which we are saved from other kinds of faith.
The faith that saves, he says, is not “the faith of a heathen.” In Wesley’s day this term was not so much demeaning as it was descriptive: it was the catchall designation for anyone who was not Christian, Jewish or Muslim, from Hindus and Native Americans to Roman and Greek philosophers. God expects a heathen to believe there is a God who rewards those who seek God, give thanks to God for the blessings of creation, and practice moral virtue. Those who did not at least believe these things did not have the faith of a heathen—they did not have faith at all.
Second was the faith of a devil. The “devil believes, not only that there is a wise and powerful God, gracious to reward and just to punish, but also that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” The devil knows more about God than a heathen, and may tremble in believing. But this knowledge has no effect on the devil’s heart and life.
Third, there is the faith of the apostles while Jesus was upon the earth. Although they had faith in Jesus, it was inconsistent. They had left everything to follow Jesus, but also repeatedly showed weakness of faith, as Jesus himself told them.
The faith that saves is “faith in Christ—Christ, and God through Christ, are the proper object of it.” That it is “in Christ” distinguishes it “from the faith of ancient or modern heathens.” It is distinguished from the faith of a devil in that it is not “a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart.” And it differs from “that faith which the apostles themselves had while our Lord was on earth” in that it is “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….” His death redeems us from sin and death, and his resurrection restores us to life eternal. It is a faith only possible after Easter.
The salvation we receive by this faith is a present salvation “from not only guilt and fear but from the power of sin itself.” It is to be reborn such that the love we see in Christ takes root and grows in our hearts, and from there increasingly governs our motivations, desires, and actions. This salvation is offered to all, a gift of new life made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This Easter let us renew our faith in the risen Christ, and receive afresh this new life of love.