This is part of a larger project on “John Wesley’s Sermons for Today.”
Preached at St. Mary’s Oxford, before the university, on June 18, 1738
“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith.” Ephesians 2:8
1. Everything we have comes from God – from God’s grace, gift, and favor – and his favor is entirely free and undeserved. From that free grace, God “formed us from the dust of the ground, and breathed into us the breath of life.” He stamped us with the image of God, and “put everything under our feet.” That same free grace comes today, giving us life, and breath, and everything else we have. So we can truly say that we have earned and deserved nothing from God. It all comes by God’s grace. “All that we have accomplished, you, O Lord, have done for us.” Even our accomplishments are more examples of God’s free mercy – whatever good things are found in us are gifts from God.
2. We ask how we can make up for any of our sins. With our own works? No! Even if they were so many or so holy, we’ve just seen that they aren’t our own, but from God. Alone, our hearts are corrupt and vile. We were stamped with the image of God, but all of us have “fallen short of the glory of God.” So neither our righteousness nor our works can make up for any of our own sins.
3. Instead, if we find favor with God, it’s “grace in place of grace already given.” If God still chooses to give us fresh blessings, what can we say, but, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” And that’s what it is. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died” to save us. “It is by grace,” then, “you have been saved, through faith.” The source of our salvation is nothing but grace. And faith is the one condition of that salvation.
Now, so that we don’t miss this grace of God, it will be important to ask a few questions:
I. What do we mean when we talk about faith?
II. What do we mean when we talk about salvation?
III. Answers to some questions that come up.
I. What do we mean when we talk about faith?
1. First of all, we don’t just mean the faith of a pagan…
Now, God expects even pagans to “believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him,” and that he should be worshiped as God, and that we should live moral lives and treat others well. The Greeks and Romans — even more primitive groups — were without excuse for believing in God’s existence and attributes, a belief that there is some form of future punishment and reward, and belief that we should live morally. But to have only that much faith is to have the faith of pagans.
2. We also don’t mean the kind of faith a demon has, although this actually goes much further than that of a pagan. The devil believes, not only that there is a wise and powerful God; but also, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. We find demons declaring, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!“ We can’t doubt that the devil believes everything Jesus said, and everything in Scripture. In the book of Acts, one demon even follows Paul around saying, “These men are servants of the most high God, who are telling you the way to be saved.“ So even the devil believes that God “appeared in a body;” that he will trample all enemies under his feet; and that “all Scripture is God-breathed.“ The faith of demons goes even this far.
3. Third. The faith we’re talking about is even more than what the Apostles themselves had while Christ was with them; even though they believed in him enough to “leave everything and follow him;“ even though they had power to work miracles, to “heal every disease and sickness;“ and even “power and authority to drive out all demons;“ and, even beyond all of this, they were sent by their Teacher to “proclaim the kingdom of God.“
4. So then, what do we mean by faith? First, in general, it is a faith in Christ: Christ, and God through Christ, are the objects of our faith. This makes our faith clearly different from the faith of pagans. And from the faith of a demon it is fully distinguished by this: this is not some speculative, rational thing, not a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head. This is also a disposition of the heart. Scripture says, “It is with your heart that you believe and are justified;“ and, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.“
5. This is how our faith is different from even the Apostles’ faith when they were with Jesus: it recognizes the necessity and the purpose of his death, and also the power of his resurrection. It recognizes his death as the only real way to redeem us from eternal punishment, and recognizes his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality; since he “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.“ Christian faith, then, is not only agreeing with the whole gospel, but also fully relying on the blood of Christ; trusting the value of his life, death, and resurrection; trusting that he has paid for our sins and is living in us; and, because of that, clinging to him as our “wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption,“ or, in one word, our salvation.
II. What do we mean, then, when we say salvation?
1. First of all, whatever else it implies, this is a present salvation. It is something attainable, actually attained, on earth, by anyone of faith. Paul doesn’t write to the Ephesians, You will be saved (though that is true, too), but he writes, “You have been saved, through faith.”
2. We have been saved (in a word) from sin. An angel comes to Joseph before God has even sent his firstborn into the world and says, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.“ And no part of Scripture gives a limitation or restriction to what this means. He will save all his people from all their sins; from original sin and actual sins, past sin and present sin. Through a faith in Jesus, we’re saved from the guilt of past sin and also from the power of sin over our lives.
3. First. From the guilt of all past sin: all the world is guilty before God. And “through the law we” only “become conscious of our sin,“ but aren’t freed from it, so that, “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law“: now, “righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.“ “They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.“ “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.“ Now Christ has taken away “the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.“ He has “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, taking it away, nailing it to the cross.“ “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who” believe “in Christ Jesus.“
4. And when we are saved from guilt, we are also saved from fear. Not from a respectful fear of offending; but from all fear like servants or slaves; from that type of fear that can torment; from fear of punishment; from fear of the wrath of God, whom we can now see as our Father, rather than our Master. “The Spirit we received does not make us slaves, but brought about our adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.“ We are also saved from the fear, though not from the possibility, of falling away from the grace of God, and falling short of God’s great and precious promises. In this way, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We boast in the hope of the glory of God. And God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.“ Because of this, we are persuaded (though maybe not at all times, or always as strongly), that “neither death nor life, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.“
5. Again: through this faith we are saved from the power of sin, as well as from the guilt of it. So 1 John says, “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.“ Again, “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil. Everyone who believes is born of God. And no one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.“ Once more: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.“
6. Anyone that is, by faith, born of God does not continue to sin (1.) by any habitual sin; because anyone who sins habitually has sin reigning: But sin can’t reign in anyone that believes. (2) No one born of God can continue to sin by any willful, deliberate sin: for our will, while we remain in the faith, is entirely set against all sin, and rejects it as deadly poison. Nor (3.) can we sin by any sinful desire; because we continually desire the holy and perfect will of God, and any tendency to an unholy desire, we stifle in its birth, by the grace of God. Nor (4.) do we sin by natural weaknesses or shortcomings, whether in act, word, or thought; for our natural weaknesses don’t have to do with our wills, and without our willing, they are not exactly sins. Thus, “no one who is born of God will continue to sin,” and though they cannot say they have not sinned, yet now they “do not keep on sinning.”
7. This then is what we mean by salvation, even in the present world: a salvation from sin, and the consequences of sin; this includes a deliverance from guilt and punishment, by the atonement of Christ applied to anyone who believes, and a deliverance from the power of sin, through Christ formed in our hearts. In this sense, any of us with faith are born again. We are born again into a new life, which “is hidden with Christ in God.“ And as newborn babies we gladly receive “pure spiritual milk, and grow up in our salvation;“ going on in the strength of the Lord our God, from faith to faith, from grace to grace, until we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.“
III. The first usual question about all of this is,
1. If we preach salvation by faith only, are we preaching against holiness and good works? The short answer: “That would be true if we were speaking of a faith totally separate from works; but we’re talking about a faith that isn’t separate. We’re talking about a faith that produces all good works and holiness.”
2. But it may be helpful to consider this more, especially since this is no new objection. The apostle Paul heard it! Even then people asked, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?” First of all, anyone who does not preach faith nullifies the law, either directly and blatantly, by making qualifications and limitations that eat out all the spirit of the text; or indirectly, by not pointing out the only way it is possible to follow the law. And secondly, “we uphold the law” both by showing its full extent and spiritual meaning, and by calling everyone to the way in which “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in them.” These people, while they trust in the blood of Christ alone, also follow all the laws he has established, do all the “good works, which God prepared in advance for them to do,” and enjoy and display holy attitudes, even the same mindset as Christ Jesus.
3. But doesn’t preaching this faith lead people into pride? It could accidentally do that. So we should all hear the warning the Apostle Paul gave: the first branches “were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” And we can continue by remembering the words of Paul, foreseeing and answering this objection (Rom. 3:27), “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith.” If people were justified by works, we would have reason to boast. But there is no boasting for the one “who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).
The words that go before and after our text show the same (Eph. 2:4ff.): “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. In order that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves.” From yourselves come neither your faith nor your salvation: “it is the gift of God,” the free, undeserved gift. The faith through which you are saved, as well as the salvation which God adds to that, come from his own good purpose and favor. That you believe is one example of his grace. That you have been saved by believing is another. “Not by works, so that no one can boast.” For all our works, all our righteousness, which came before we believed, earned nothing from God but condemnation, so far as they were from deserving faith, which, whenever given, is not by works. Neither does salvation come by the works we do when we believe, for it is then God who works in us. So he gives us a reward for what he himself works, only commending the riches of his mercy, but leaving us nothing to boast in.
4. If we speak about God’s mercy this way — as saving or justifying freely by faith only – couldn’t that encourage people to keep sinning? Indeed, it will. Many people will “go on sinning so that grace may increase.” But their blood will be on their own heads. God’s goodness ought to lead them to repentance; and it will do that for those with sincere hearts. When they realize they can still have forgiveness from him, they will cry out to him, asking that he would blot out their sins also, through faith in Jesus. And if they sincerely cry out and don’t lose heart, if they seek him, if they refuse to be comforted until he comes, “he will come and will not delay.” And he can do much work in a short time. There are many examples in the Book of Acts that show God working faith in people’s hearts, even like lightning falling from heaven. So in the same hour that Paul and Silas began to preach, the jailer repented, believed, and was baptized, as were three thousand, by Peter, on the day of Pentecost, who all repented and believed at his first preaching. And, praise be to God, there are now many living proofs that he is still “mighty to save.”
5. Yet when they look at it another way, people make a quite opposite objection to the same truth: “If people cannot be saved by all that they can do, this will drive them to despair.” It’s true; it will cause them to despair over being saved by their own works, their own merits, or righteousness. And so it should! No one can trust in the merits of Christ until they have completely renounced their own. People that “seek to establish their own righteousness” cannot receive the righteousness of God. The righteousness that is by faith cannot be given to them while they still trust in the righteousness that is by the law.
6. But people say this is an uncomfortable doctrine. The devil spoke like he always speaks – without either truth or shame – when he dared to suggest it is uncomfortable. It is the only comfortable one. It is “very full of comfort” to all self-destroyed, self-condemned sinners. For “anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame that the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” That’s comfort – higher than the heavens, stronger than death! What?!? Mercy for all? For Zacchaeus, a public robber? For Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute? I think I hear someone say, “Then I, even I, may hope for mercy!” And so you may, you afflicted one, whom no one has comforted! God will not cast out your prayer. No, perhaps he may say after that, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven,” – so forgiven that they will no longer reign over you and that “the Holy Spirit will testify with your spirit that you are a child of God.” What good news! News that will cause great joy for all people! “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; Come and buy without money and without cost.” Whatever your sins are, “though red as crimson,” though more than the hairs of your head, “turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on you, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
7. When people have no more objections, then they simply say that salvation by faith alone shouldn’t be preached as the first doctrine or shouldn’t be preached at all. But what does the Holy Spirit say? “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” So then, the foundation of all our preaching is, and must be, that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” As the foundation, it must be preached first. “Well, but not to all,” object some people. To whom should we not preach it? The poor? No, they have a special right to have the gospel preached to them. The unschooled? No. God has revealed these things to unschooled, ordinary people from the beginning. The young? By no means. “Let the little children come to Christ, and do not hinder them.” The sinners? Least of all. “He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” So then, if any, we should leave out the rich, the educated, the respected, the moral. And, it’s true, they often exclude themselves from hearing. Still we must speak the words of our Lord. For our commission is, “Go and preach the gospel to all creation.” If anyone distorts it – or any part of it – to their destruction, they must bear their own burden. But still, “as surely as the Lord lives, we can speak only what the Lord tells us.”
8. We will especially speak “by grace you have been saved, through faith” right now, because maintaining this doctrine has never been more seasonable than right now. Nothing but this can effectively prevent the increase of the Romish delusion among us. It is endless to attack, one by one, all the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. But salvation by faith strikes at the root, and all fall at once where this is established. It was this doctrine, which our Church rightly calls the strong rock and foundation of the Christian religion, that first drove Popery out of these kingdoms; and this doctrine alone can keep it out. Nothing but this can give a check to the immorality that has “spread over the land like a flood.” Can you empty the great deep one drop at a time? Then you may reform us by dissuading us from particular vices. But let the “righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” be brought in, and the proud waves of the great deep will halt. Nothing but this can stop the talking of those who “glory in their shame,” and openly deny the sovereign Lord who bought them. They can speak as magnificently of the law as the one that has it written by God on his heart. If you heard them speak about this, it might make you think they were not far from the kingdom of God, but take them out of the law into the gospel – begin with the righteousness that comes by faith, with Christ, “the culmination of the law for everyone who believes” – and those who appeared to be almost, if not altogether, Christians, stand confessed as ones doomed to destruction; as far from life and salvation (God have mercy on them!) as the depth of hell from the height of heaven.
9. For this reason the enemy so rages whenever “salvation by faith” is declared to the world: for this reason he stirred up earth and hell, to destroy those who first preached it. And for the same reason, knowing that faith alone could overturn the foundations of his kingdom, he called together all his forces, and employed all his arts of lies and slander, to frighten Martin Luther from reviving it. Nor can we be surprised at this; for, as that man of God observes, “How would it enrage a proud, strong man, fully armed, to be stopped and reduced to nothing by a little child coming against him with a staff in his hand!” especially when he knew that little child would surely overthrow him, and trample him down. Even so, Lord Jesus! So has your strength been ever “made perfect in weakness!” Go forth then, little child that believes in him, and his “right hand shall achieve awesome deeds!” Though you are helpless and weak as an infant but a few days old, the strong man shall not be able to stand before you. You shall prevail over him, and subdue him, and overthrow him and trample him under your feet. You shall march on, under the great Captain of your salvation, “a conqueror bent on conquest,” until all your enemies are destroyed, and “death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Now, thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ; to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength, for ever and ever. Amen!
See more at “John Wesley’s Sermons for Today.”
 Gen 2:7
 Ps 8:6
 Isa 26:12
 Rom 3:23
 John 1:16
 2 Cor 9:15
 Rom 5:8
 Heb 11:6
 Luke 4:34
 Acts 16:17
 1 Tim 3:16
 2 Tim 3:16
 Luke 5:28
 Matt 10:1
 Luke 9:1
 Luke 9:2
 Rom 10:10
 Rom 10:9
 Rom 4:25
 1 Cor 1:30
 Matt 1:21
 Rom 3:20
 Rom 3:20
 Rom 3:22
 Rom 3:24
 Rom 3:25
 Gal 3:13
 Col 2:14
 Rom 8:1
 Rom 8:15–16
 Rom 5:1, 2, 5
 Rom 8:38–39
 1 John 3:5–6
 1 John 3:7–9
 1 John 5:18
 Col 3:3
 1 Pet 2:2
 Eph 4:13
 Rom 3:31
 Rom 3:31
 Rom 8:4
 Eph 2:10
 Rom 11:20–22
 Eph 2:9
 Rom 6:1
 Heb 10:37
 Isa 63:1
 Rom 10:3
 Rom 10:5
 From the Anglican Articles of Religion, XI
 Rom 10:11–12
 Matt 9:2
 Rom 8:16
 Luke 2:10
 Isa 55:1
 Isa 1:18
 Isa 55:7
 1 Cor 3:11
 Rom 10:13
 Matt 19:14
 Luke 5:32
 Mark 16:15
 1 Kgs 22:14
 Phil 3:9
 2 Pet 2:1
 Rom 10:4
 2 Cor 12:9
 Ps 45:4
 Rev 6:2
 1 Cor 15:54
 Rev 7:12
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™