Essay / Theology

Grace and then Law

Even if all you read from Wesley’s Standard Sermons is the table of contents, you can see the basic shape of the Christian life. There are two major blocks of material in the Sermons, just as there are two major factors in the Christian life. The collection begins with a loud, clear, trumpet-blast of grace. Wesley starts with the epochal Sermon 1, “Salvation by Faith,” and continues through “The Almost Christian,” “Awake, Thou That Sleepest,” and “Scriptural Christianity,” and then on to the great trilogy of salvation sermons (5-7): “Justification by Faith,” “The Righteousness of Faith,” and “The Way to the Kingdom.” Wesley could not be more emphatic: he begins with the gospel of grace, the atonement, faith, justification, and free forgiveness.

But around the middle of the collection, Wesley turns a corner and launches into an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. This series of discourses “upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount” extends from Standard Sermons 20 to 32. It is by far the longest series of sermons in the collection. If you group it with a few other related sermons, such as the two-part “The Law Established through Faith” and the programmatic Sermon 34 on “The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law,” you have a block of sermons about the law that is the equally imposing counterpart to the opening sermons on grace. “One way and another,” comments Rupp, “within this definition, one-third of the standard sermons of John Wesley are concerned with the preaching of the law to believers.”

The law… to believers. First they must be believers; first they must believe in salvation by grace, then they begin hearing and applying the law to their lives. This is the inescapable order of Wesleyan spirituality. Some theologians talk as if grace and law are mutually contradictory, and can never mix. Law may come first to condemn and drive you to Christ, but it has no place in the Christian life itself. In contrast, Wesley insisted on preaching the law to Christians, because the law is God’s means of crafting a holy people. But Wesley knew the perils of the law as well as any Lutheran ever did. He was well aware that the preaching of the law brings with it certain dangers: legalism, condemnation, and pharisaic judgmentalism. So he placed his preaching of the law in the context of free grace. Grace first, then law. The result of this combination, in this order, is the dynamo that drives Wesleyan spirituality.

And though John Wesley and his tradition are the best at preaching this, it is not something unique to Wesleyanism. J. I. Packer testifies that “Holiness means law keeping as one’s way of love.” Packer claims that “The Wesleyan voiced this most vigorously… however, no evangelical Christian can ever have been wholly unaware that the heart of holiness is love.”

“How,” asks Packer, “is love to God and men to find expression? The answer is by keeping God’s commands and holding to his revealed ideals for human life—in other words, by keeping his law, as interpreted for Christians in the New Testament. Law keeping out of love is the true path of holiness.” Packer goes on:

But this is something biblical Christians have not always managed to grasp well. There have always been those on the one hand who have claimed that if the Spirit indwells you and the motive of love is strong within you, you do not need to study God’s law in Scripture in order to learn his will, for you will always be made immediately aware in every situation what it is that he wants.” “The way to show that you love God and men is to keep God’s law.” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 165-166)

For Wesley, the priority and provenience of grace over law is critical. It is built into every sermon; in fact, it is built into the structure of the Standard Sermons. But if the Table of Contents of the Standard Sermons is too large a field to survey, you can also find the same point, and the same order, put into seven words by Charles Wesley, in the hymn that comes first in any decent Methodist Hymn Book, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

He breaks the power of cancelled sin.

First the sin is cancelled, then its power is broken. God’s order is to justify the sinner freely, and then go on to liberate the forgiven sinner from the power of sin. If we reversed the order, God would first break the power of sin in our lives, and only then cancel its guilt. But that would be a scheme of self-salvation, even if it were grace-empowered self-salvation. The Wesleys would have recognized it as a Roman Catholic ordering. Their whole evangelical breakthrough was to understand that God forgives and then empowers. We may even say that God forgives specifically so that he can go on to empower; that he cancels sin so that he can go on to break its power; that he says to the soul, “Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven: So forgiven, that they shall no more rule over thee.”

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