John Wesley has a theology of faith only because, at a deeper level, he has a theology of grace. The reason for this is the effect of sin. Due to sin, our hearts and lives are governed by motivations and desires for things other than God. What Wesley says concerning the desire for riches applies to all forms of sin. It is “the desiring happiness out of God.” Our lives are then oriented toward satisfying those desires, whether they be “the desire of the flesh” (pleasures), “the desire of the eye” (gratifying the imagination, chiefly through continually seeking new ideas or experiences), “the pride of life” (the esteem of others), or a life of ease (“The Danger of Riches,” §I.12-17). Our trust is placed in who we are in the eyes of others, on what we possess, or on the power we exercise.
Ensnared by this way of being and living, we are no longer able on our own to know God or relate to others freed from self-interest. We see the world through the lens of what we desire and value. We think of this as a “normal” life, unaware that we are in the grip of a spiritual disease that brings only death.
We can only be set free from the outside, through the free grace of God, that is, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Prevenient grace begins the work of liberation by giving us a conscience that raises convicting questions about our way of life, and enables us to resist our unholy desires. When we encounter the gospel we may acquire the faith of a servant, through which we come to know and fear God, and respond with attempts to dutifully obey the law of God instead of our desires. At the same time we begin to yearn to experientially know that through Christ, our sins are forgiven (justification) and to receive a new birth (initiating sanctification) that instills new motivations and desires in our hearts.
To know God in this way is Christian faith in its proper sense. This too is necessarily a gift of grace. As Wesley says, “‘It is a gift of God’ [Eph. 2:8]. No man is able to work it, in himself. It is a work of omnipotence. It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul than to raise a body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation, and none can create a soul anew but he who at first created the heavens and the earth” (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” §9).
We are both justified and sanctified by faith. Thus Wesley’s entire way of salvation depends on grace enabling us to respond to God, to know God, and to trust in God. Without grace, the Christian life would be impossible, because without grace we could not turn to God in faith.
Faith enables us to know God. “It is with regard to the spiritual world what sense is with regard to the natural”; it is “that divine evidence whereby the spiritual man discerneth God and the things of God” (“Earnest Appeal,” §6). It is our spiritual eyes through which we see God, the spiritual ears through which we hear God, the means through which taste and see that God is good (cf. Ps 34:8; 1 Pet 2:3).
When Wesley speaks of knowing God, he does not mean believing that there is a God, or even having information about that God. “A string of opinions is no more Christian faith than a string of beads is Christian holiness” (“A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity,” §II.5). He is speaking of actually encountering the reality of God, and entering into a relationship with God. Much as we know another person, we come to know God; and as we know persons better over time, so we grow in the knowledge and love of God.
To know God is to know God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Faith enables us both to know (experience) that love and to trust in that love. We begin to love God in response. Our desires become increasingly centered on God, and our motivations on worshipping and serving God. And the love we then know by faith makes its home in our own hearts, where it begins to shape our lives and relationships.