It has often been claimed that Methodism is more about good works than it is about faith. This is a natural criticism from that strand of Calvinism — understanding grace as irresistible — that views any linking of faith to works as inviting trust in ourselves rather than God. It is more surprising when it comes from Methodists themselves. Yet throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some Methodists have reduced sanctification to doing good works, and even some have believed that talk of personal faith was a diversion from concern for the needs of the neighbor.
John Wesley understood grace, faith, and works as necessarily connected. In fact, without grace we cannot have faith at all. God must first free us from the deceptive power of sin so that we can recognize our condition and turn to God for a cure.
When grace awakens us to the power of sin in our lives, we are enabled to respond with the faith of a servant, a knowing and fearing God that evokes a dutiful attempt at external obedience. There are those in the church today who describe the Christian life much this way: a trying to do the right thing, even when we desire to do otherwise. But for Wesley this is not the fullness of the Christian life, but preliminary to it. Our inability to obey the law of God should make us yearn all the more for the real entry into the Christian life, which is justification (forgiveness of our sins by God) and the new birth.
When God justifies us and brings us to new birth through grace, we have the faith of a child of God. This faith enables us to know, love, and trust in God, decisively reorienting our hearts. We begin to love as God loves, and desire what God desires. With our hearts beginning to be governed by new motivations and desires, so our lives begin to reflect that change. Holiness of heart leads to holiness of life, and that is manifested in works.
The linkage between faith and works is as unbreakable as that between heart and life. “It is incumbent on all that are justified to be zealous of good works,” says Wesley, “And these are so necessary that if a man willingly neglects them, he cannot reasonably expect that he shall ever be sanctified” (“The Scripture Way of Salvation” in Sermons II [vol. 3; ed. A.C. Outler; Abingdon, 1985], 164).
There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, as James says (3:14), faith without works is dead. Wesley notes that in this James does not “oppose faith to works,” but insists “true faith…cannot subsist without works” (Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament [Epworth, 1950], 862). A dead faith is not faith at all, and a faith is only living if it produces works as the fruit of repentance (provided there is both time and opportunity).
The second reason is that works are not only manifestations of living faith and a changed heart, but also means of grace. Works of piety such as searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting, and Christian conferencing not only put love into action, but are means God uses to enable our growth in the knowledge and love of God. Works of mercy are likewise both manifestations of obedience to God and love for others as well as means used by God to increase that love. These are, says Wesley, indispensible for our sanctification.
Thus Wesley believes at one and the same time that salvation is by grace alone (for without it we have no capacity or reason for faith), faith is the condition for salvation (for grace enables us to know God and invites our response), and faith without works is dead (because true faith necessarily involves a change in our desires and motivations, which is then reflected in our actions). In this we see the nature of their linkage: grace enables faith; faith, in turn, produces works. Wesley’s is a theology of grace and love, which has at its center the promise of transformed hearts and lives.