Saturday, April 24, 2010

Influence of Romans on Wesley

I have permission to post the final piece that I was working on when I posted this on Wesley and Romans. Here it is:
No one particular book of the Bible served as the center of Wesley’s thought. If we simply go by his standard sermons, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew gets the lion’s share. Nevertheless, nine of his first group of standard sermons were based on Romans, all of them focusing in some way on conversion. Together, they address 1) awakening to faith, the role of the law in making us aware of our inability to be righteous in our own power, 2) justification by faith, the idea that we become right with God only on the basis of our trust in Christ, and 3) the assurance of faith, confidence in our eternal destiny through the witness of the Holy Spirit with our spirit.

Awakening to Faith
Three of Wesley’s standard sermons deal with the question of the law in the progression of a person toward faith, based in Romans 7:12 and Romans 3:31. In his use of Romans 7, he surprisingly anticipates to a large degree the place to which contemporary scholars have only recently returned. Even in popular understanding today, it is extremely widespread for Christians to think that the latter part of Romans 7 refers to the inevitable struggle of the Christian with temptation: “what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (7:19). Few New Testament scholars today interpret Paul this way, since it requires us to ignore his entire train of thought from Romans 6 through Romans 8 (e.g., Rom. 6:17-18; 7:5-6; 8:1-4).

Wesley rightly understood that Paul is here talking about a person who is unable to keep the law because they do not have the Holy Spirit to empower them to do so. For Wesley, Paul refers to a person in the process of awakening to his or her sinfulness. Because they do not have the Holy Spirit, they are unable to keep the moral law. As we would expect, Wesley added some distinctively Christian elements to his interpretation that Paul probably was not thinking, and he makes Romans 7 a regular stop on every Christian’s pilgrimage. Yet the essence of his understanding is correct. The universal, timeless part of the Jewish Law is something we cannot keep in our own power, and God can use our powerlessness as a tool to awaken us to our condition, our need for God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s power. Once we have that grace and power, God expects us to keep this “moral” part of the Law (Rom. 3:31).

Justification by Faith
It was of course while hearing Luther’s preface to Romans at a Bible study on Aldersgate Street that Wesley had his famous heart-warming experience. He would later write of that moment that, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation.” The moment had been long in the making. Although the Anglican Church of his day was broadly Protestant, Wesley grew up largely with a sense that you tried to live a good life in order to be acceptable by God in the end. What he was missing was the fact that our initial acceptance before God is not something that we can bring about by our own goodness, that no amount of good and righteous deeds is sufficient to make us right with God.

It was this truth that God had so powerfully brought to Martin Luther in the early 1500s, the doctrine of “justification by faith.” Romans scholars today might question some of the specific interpretations of Luther and Wesley on specific verses, but their basic understanding of Paul is sound on this point. Paul taught that no human being can do enough good to be considered righteous or innocent in God’s eyes. For us to be in right standing with God, God must exercise grace, his willingness to accept us despite our sins. God decided to offer this grace on the basis of Christ’s death for our sins, and all God asks for us to receive this grace is our trust, our faith in Jesus as the exalted king he raised victoriously from the dead.

Assurance of Faith
Wesley’s journal of the Aldersgate event goes on to say, “an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This notion that you could know that you were right with God, that you could know you were converted, was perhaps Wesley’s key contribution to the flow of Christian theology. He did not get it from Luther but rather from his interaction with the Moravian, Peter Böhler. We are so used to this idea today that it is strange to realize how few Christians in Wesley’s day believed you could know for sure that you were “saved.”

Several of Wesley’s sermons from Romans reinforced this belief. His sermon on Romans 8:1 featured that we as Christians should no longer feel the condemnation of our past sins. Wesley’s sermon on Romans 8:16 focused on the witness of the Holy Spirit to us that we are indeed the children of God. One of his most interesting sermons was on the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:29) because Wesley first preached it before his Aldersgate experience and then he modified it after the experience. An added paragraph would point out to believers the “clear and cheerful confidence that their heart is upright toward God.”

So we see that while Wesley did not overly focus on Romans in his preaching and thinking, it played a fundamental role in his own conversion. It was while listening to Luther’s thoughts on Romans that the grand doctrines of justification by faith and the assurance of believers came together in his own thinking. It remained, however, for the nineteenth century holiness writers to hear in its words Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification.

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