John Wesley was consistent in how he understood salvation. In The Scripture Way of Salvation, he asks, “What is salvation. He answers, “The salvation which is spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness …. It is not a blessing that lies on the other side of death ….” “No,” he says, “it is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of” (§I.1).
It is a gift of God in this life, a gift that death cannot take from us. In its broadest sense it is a process that begins with prevenient grace. In “Working out Our Own Salvation,” Wesley says it is then “carried on by ‘convincing grace,’ usually in scripture termed ‘repentance,’ which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a further deliverance from the heart of stone.” Following this is “the proper Christian salvation, whereby ‘through grace’ we ‘are saved by faith,’ consisting of those two grand branches, justification and sanctification. By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God: by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God” (§II.1).
Salvation, then, is the project of God, with the goal of restoring us to the condition in which we were originally created. The heart of this divine renovation is love: God is love, and salvation enables us to love as God loves. We receive this new life as a free gift.
If this gift is what salvation is, and it is so wonderfully life-transforming, why do so many in the church seem to settle for less? I think there are two misunderstandings that keep persons from the fullness of life that God promises. Both have one thing in common: they understand Christianity as fundamentally about the life to come — about what happens when you die.
The most common of these misunderstandings is that most people are basically good enough that a loving God will let them into heaven. Most Americans believe that being good enough is fairly easy — it is simply being a nice person. If someone is a mass murderer, most believe the case is hopeless — God would never forgive such a person. But most of us aren’t mass murderers. We are ordinary people who are not perfect but good enough to make the cut.
The second misunderstanding has been called by Dallas Willard a “bar code faith.” The scanner at the check-out line reads only the bar code on a product. If the bar code for ice cream is placed on dog food, the scanner will read “ice cream.” The content of the package is irrelevant.
Willard says a “bar code faith” operates much the same way. We take some action — we have faith, get baptized, join the church — and that gives us a new bar code. God then pays no attention to our actual sinful content. When we are scanned across the divine scanner, it reads “Christ’s righteousness.” We remain the same, only now we go to heaven. As Willard says, our present life “has no necessary connection with being a Christian as long as the ‘bar code’ does its job” (The Divine Conspiracy [Harper Collins, 1998], 37).
Wesley faced both misunderstandings. The first was common in his Church of England. For many, “by a religious man is commonly meant, one that is honest, just and fair in his dealings; that is constantly at church and sacrament; and that gives much alms, or (as it is usually termed) does much good” (Journal, 25 November 1739). Persons who met these criteria would go to heaven when they die.
The second was found among preachers in the evangelical awakening who offered forgiveness without new life. Wesley said, let a preacher “bawl out something about Christ, or his blood, or justification by faith, and his hearers cry out, ‘what a fine Gospel sermon!’ Surely the Methodists have not so learned Christ. We know no Gospel without salvation from sin” (Letters to Miss Bishop, 18 October 1778).
For Wesley this was missing the point of salvation. He and his Methodists were “grieved at the sight” of persons with “no religion at all” or with “a lifeless, formal religion.” They sought to convince them “that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it. And this we conceived to be no other than love: the love of God and all mankind: the loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made … as our own soul” (An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, §2)
This is the life God wants to give us. It is a life that mends broken relationships, infuses us with hope, has a peace and joy that abides, and motivates us to worship God and serve others. To proclaim the promise of this life was at the heart of Wesley’s Methodism.