In his sermon “Salvation by Faith,” John Wesley explores the doctrine of the aforementioned salvation by faith in his proto-analytic style1 where he a) analyzes the concept of saving faith as distinct from other types of faith and b) the effects of salvation. Before getting into his analysis of the two concepts, he states the following relationship between grace, faith, and salvation that is based upon his sermon text of Ephesians 2:8: “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.”2
When Wesley says faith is the condition of salvation, it is better amplified by his comments in I.5:
And herein does it differ from that faith which the Apostles themselves had while our Lord was on earth, that it acknowledges the necessity and merit of his death, and the power of his resurrection. It acknowledges his death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality; inasmuch as he “was delivered for our sins, and rose again for our justification.” 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 upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and, in consequence hereof, a closing with him, and cleaving to him, as our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” or, in one word, our salvation.3
Faith is the condition of salvation insofar as it relies upon the atonement that Christ has bought. So, when Wesley’s speaks of a condition, he is not referring to some condition that arbitrarily has a certain result, without any sense of connection between the condition and the result. Rather, there is a connection between faith and salvation/justification in relying upon what God has provided in Christ to bring about salvation; there is a relationship between God’s work in Christ and faith to bring about the result of justification.
However, the precise nature of this relationship isn’t exactly clear for Wesley. As Matt O’Reilly observed Wesley did not have a doctrine of imputed righteousness until somewhere between 1739, the earliest date for his sermon “Justification by Faith” where he denies imputed righteousness and 1765, the latest date for “The Lord our Righteousness” when he affirms imputed righteousness. Meanwhile, “Salvation by Faith” was given less than a month after his famed Aldersgate experience, whereupon hearing Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans he felt his heart strangely warmed. Wesley had taken a whole of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith and immediately began preaching about it. However, that Wesley changed his mind about imputed righteousness over the years could suggest that the relationship between Christ’s atonement, faith, and salvation wasn’t entirely clear for Wesley, necessitating a later acceptance of the Lutheran and Reformed doctrine of imputation. But if we are to read the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as being the effectual act that establishes the relationship between faith and salvation/justification, then conditions, while not meant in an arbitrary manner is appropriate. Faith bears no causal effect that brings about justification, except that God chooses faith to be the condition of salvation. It is by God’s will and action that human faith causes salvation.
However, this is not the best way to understand Paul, including in Ephesians 2:8. Paul says that people are saved διά πίστεως (“through faith”). This prepositional phrase occurs two more times in Ephesians in 3:12 and 3:17. In 3:12 the prepositional phrase 1) includes also the genitive pronoun αὐτοῦ in reference to Christ and 2) probably stands in an adverbial relationship to the verb ἔχομεν (“we have”), which takes “access” as its direct objects. Here, Christ’s own faith4 is the basis upon which Paul can preach boldly the mystery that has now been made known. Since, it is a quality of Christ, Paul certainly intends διά τῆς πίστεως αὐτοῦ to refer to some causal relationship between faith and the action the prepositional phrase stands in relationship to. Then, in 3:17, Paul uses διά τῆς πίστεως to adverbially describe the verb κατοικῆσαι (“to live”). Paul has the desire that Christ live in the hearts of the Gentiles, and so “through (the) faith” describes the way his desire will become a reality for them. In both instances, διά (τῆς) πίστεως has an instrumental relationship to the verb it describes. It is no mere condition, but it plays an instrumental role.
This then should be read back into 2:8. Paul isn’t outlining a mere condition of being saved. Rather, Paul is suggesting that faith is somehow instrumental in God’s gracious salvation, which Paul defines as being made alive together with Jesus Christ in 2:5. What is this relationship? I would speculate it has something to do with the relationship between Christ’s own faith in 3:12 and our faith in 3:17. Paul says that there is “one faith” in 4:5. Then in 4:11-13, Paul describe the purposes of God’s gifting of leadership offices for the “building up the body of Christ” towards the goal of “the unity of Christ’s faith and knowledge.”5 Paul’s concern is being fitted into the pattern of Christ. Thus, he sees one type of faith, Christ’s own faith, that is becoming a reality.
This suggests the instrumental nature of faith in salvation for Paul. By faith, one is sharing in Christ’s own character, and thus one is being joined together with Christ’s own life. Faith is the way in which we realize the very life of Christ into our own person. But Paul is not a proto-Pelagian in this, suggesting we can merely muster up our hearts and minds to have this type of faith, therefore become saved. Rather, the access Paul describes in 3:12 is an access that is provided by the Spirit, as mentioned in 2:18. Paul’s desire for Christ to be in the Gentiles hearts is preceded by the expression of the prayer for strengthening by the Holy Spirit in the inner person, suggesting the possibility that Paul thought the Spirit impacting the person to cause the necessary and/or sufficient conditions for faith to become true.6 In other words, God’s gracious intentions are enacted through the Spirit, which could be argued should be construed in terms of regenerating grace in the Reformed tradition or prevenient grace in the Wesleyan tradition.7
If my exegesis of Paul is correct, that suggests that Ephesians 2:8 is not stating faith is the condition of salvation, in the sense that Wesley employs the term. Rather, it refers to something similar other parts of Wesley’s definition of salvation in II.7, “a deliverance from the power of sin, through Christ formed in his heart.”8 While Paul’s construal of salvation of Christ in the heart is more than solely a power over sin but rather includes also a sharing in the heavenly blessings and riches, Wesley’s recognition of the transformation of the person over and against sin is more consistent with the definition of salvation in Ephesians.
In this light, the inability of “works” isn’t about a misguided attempt at a works-righteousness that Luther saw and that was transmitted to Wesley through Luther. Nor do I think Paul is referring to precisely the same thing as he does in Romans and Galatians when saying the works of the Torah do not justify, though the two concepts are related. Paul barely addresses the notion of the Torah in Ephesians. Rather, I would suggest Paul is in a sense arguing that the Christian way of life is not realized through the standard patterns of the pedagogy of virtue within the wider Greco-Roman culture; for instance, the Stoic Epictetus saw the formation of habits through actions as a necessary condition for virtue.9 Paul’s response, which isn’t to adopt a theory of virtue but an alternative to virtue ethics, is to say that when one has faith in the pattern of Christ one is formed by God into the pattern of Christ’s life, which includes the both the overcoming the death-dealing power of sin and the blessings and riches that Christ Himself has. This implicit rejection of virtue theory could also incorporate the idea that the works of the Torah do not justify, but as part of a more general, global anthropological theory.
To use a different Wesleyan term, I would say Paul thinks of faith as the essential means of realizing salvation and its benefits. In a sense, faith is a means of grace, but a means of a totally different quality than the things Wesley referred to as the means of grace such as the sacraments, Scripture reading, prayer, works of mercy like service to the poor, etc.. I would say that faith is the means of grace that makes all the other means of grace effectual; however, I would add that faith firstly works in isolation from the other means of grace/works so that one is not merely creating a sophisticated form of virtue ethical theory that simply adds Christ on top of it.
- I refer to Wesley as proto-analytic because Wesley took a deliberate efforts to get terminology and descriptions accurate, which is consistent with modern analytic philosophy and analytic theology which appropriates the approach of analytic philosophy.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 5, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 8.
- Ibid., 9.
- I think the subjective genitive (“Christ’s/His faith”) is superior in many ways to the object genitive (“faith in Christ/Him”)
- I take the genitives in 4:13 to both be subjective
- The Reformed tradition would affirm the work of the Spirit brings the sufficient conditions for faith, whereas the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition would likely only affirm the Spirit providing the necessary conditions of faith.
- My own study of Paul would affirm a more Wesleyan view, although I would define “prevenient grace” a little differently than Wesley would.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 5, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 12.
- Jason Xenakis, Epictetus: Philosopher-Therapist. (The Hauge: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), 72-77.