In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley describes true religion “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” (The Works of John Wesley [vol. 11; Oxford, 1975] 45). Wesley is not saying the Christian life is a matter of extraordinary obedience to the two greatest commandments. Instead he understands a command of God to also be a promise: what God commands, God will enable us to desire and do through grace.
Grace is inherently relational—it seeks our response in faith. Wesley insists “we cannot rightly serve God unless we love him. And we cannot love him unless we know him; neither can we know God, unless by faith” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” I, i/3, in Works [vol. 11; ed. G.R. Craig; Abingdon, 1989] 106). 1 John 4:19 says “We love because he first loved us” (NRSV); faith is how we know God’s love.
But God not only seeks our response in faith, God enables it. Because of sin, we on our own cannot respond to God. Our inclinations, values, and frameworks of understanding automatically reinterpret what God has done in Christ in more familiar terms. Sin prevents our seeing things as God sees them; it reframes the gospel message. This is why so many in Wesley’s day and our own cannot seem to understand grace, and persist in describing the Christian message as an exhortation to be good so one will go to heaven.
It is God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who gives us eyes to see and ears to hear. We cannot work faith in ourselves, says Wesley “It requires no less power to thus quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave” (“Earnest Appeal,” in Works, 11:47-48). Faith coming as a gift was the teaching of the Moravian Brethren that so surprised Wesley in 1738 and set the stage for his experience at the prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street.
Initially, Wesley focused on faith as trusting in Christ. But it became clear that there was a deeper element to faith as well, what Wesley called a “spiritual sense.” We cannot trust someone we do not know; hence, the capacity to truly know God is necessary for us to trust God.
Knowing God means more for Wesley than knowing about God. It is more than acquiring information. Faith enables our participation in a relationship with God which is transformational. To grow in the knowledge of God through faith is to also to grow in love for God and our neighbor.
In Wesley’s mature thought he distinguishes between the “faith of a servant” and the “faith of a child of God.” The faith of a servant entails living a life that seeks to dutifully obey God’s law, and fearing the consequences of disobedience. It is also a life that, however sincere, still finds sin to be the dominant power in one’s life. The faith of a child of God is linked to justification and the new birth, in which the power of sin is broken and growth in love begins. The faith of a servant is meant to lead to the faith of a child, but many may be living as servants because they do not know God can make them children through grace.
This experiential understanding of faith is not an abandonment of Wesley’s commitment to the primacy of Scripture, which is the authoritative and inspired account of God’s revelation through Israel and Jesus Christ. There is “objectivity” to this revelation. To know God through faith is not an “inward” experience but an encounter with God as a distinct tripersonal reality. Wesley, then, would urge us to have receptive hearts so that we might receive faith and come to know and grow in God’s love for us in Christ.