Faith has a variety of definitions. It is common to refer to the essentials of Christian teaching as “the faith” and to describe our faith as believing those essentials. Wesley makes clear that a Christian does indeed affirm those essentials, but he is reluctant to call that faith.
In “A Letter to the Reverend Dr. Conyers Middleton,” Wesley argues that faith “is not an assent to any opinion, or any number of opinions. A man may assent to three, or three-and-twenty creeds: He may assent to all the Old and New Testament, (at least as far as he understands them,) and yet have no Christian faith at all” (¶ 5). Wesley embraces Christian orthodoxy, but ardently rejects a dead orthodoxy. Knowing about God is not the same as actually knowing God.
In the wake of philosopher John Locke’s empiricism, how we can know God was a serious question. Locke argues that knowing occurs through our five senses. But by their very nature they are limited. Wesley says that while they “supply us with such knowledge of the material world as answers all the purposes of life, “they cannot “reach beyond the bounds of this visible world. “(“On the Discoveries of Faith,” §3) This leaves us with a faith that assents to Scripture and creeds but does not enable us to know God in a way that is analogous to our knowing one another.
It is faith that gives us the capacity to know God. God “hath appointed faith to supply the defect of sense; to take us up where sense sets us down, and help us to get over that great gulf.” “Sense is an evidence of things that are seen; of the visible, the material world; while Faith, on the other hand ‘evidence of things not seen; of the visible, the invisible world …” (“On the Discoveries of Faith,” §4). Faith, for Wesley, is a “spiritual sense.”
Unlike our five senses, Wesley does not believe persons naturally have this faith. As he learned from the Moravians, faith is a gift of God, a work of the Holy Spirit. “No man is able to work it, in himself,” Wesley wrote. “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 saved by this faith in that through knowing God we are able to trust in God. Without faith we are unable to trust in God due to sin. In our fallen condition our dispositions, desires and motivations are governed by sin, and thereby we put our trust in either ourselves or those things we value, consume or acquire. We have a disease but at best only intimations (through prevenient grace) of how seriously ill we are. Without the work of the Spirit we would be unable to trust in God or even know we need the salvation offered through Christ.
Wesley later came to realize that there is a preliminary sort of faith—the faith of a servant—that is prior to justification and new birth as well as the faith of a child of God through which we are justified and begin to be sanctified. With the faith of a servant, the “Holy Spirit prepares us for “God’s” inward kingdom by removing the veil from our heart, and enabling us to know ourselves as we are known by him; by ‘convincing us of sin,’ of our evil nature, our evil temper, and our evil words and actions ….” Thus persons “feel themselves at once altogether sinful, altogether guilty, and altogether helpless” (“On the Discoveries of Faith,” §12).
In other words, the faith of a servant “awakens” us to our condition, and to the recognition that we cannot cure it ourselves. Our desire to be both forgiven and cured of sin leads us to turn to the promise of salvation In Jesus Christ. Thus, while those with the faith of a servant fear God and work righteousness, and are to that degree accepted by God, they “should be exhorted not to stop there,” not resting until they attain adoption as children of God, now obeying God not out of fear but out of love (§13).
Then they will have Christ revealed in their hearts enabling each one “to testify, ‘The life that I now live in the faith I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’—the proper voice of a child of God.” The Holy Spirit then witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God, and the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us (§14) This is the new birth, the beginning of the restoration of our hearts in love.
Wesley notes that “many doubts and fears may still remain, even in a child of God, while he is weak in faith ….” But faith will be strengthened, and in time the promise of sanctification fully realized, finally removing those doubts and fears (§15). It is then that love for God and neighbor fills and governs the heart, as we are drawn ever closer to the God who loves us even unto death on a cross.