“To anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” Romans 4:5
In a world full of increasingly clever scams, we have learned to be wary of any opportunity that appears too good to be true. Most of us would rather error on the side of caution than suffer the pain and humiliation of falling victim to the latest fraudulent scheme. We are quick to reject any offer accompanied by a “free gift” or a once-in-a-lifetime deal. While this may be a wise decision in our day-to-day transactions, we often apply this same type of skepticism to God’s offer of grace in our lives. This is especially true when we consider the doctrine of justification. While we can mentally assent to the fact that God has freely offered to pardon our sins, most of us can hardly dare to believe that it is a “no-strings-attached” gift. Instead of living in the joy and freedom of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, we continue to battle the shadows of doubt and fear wondering if we have done enough to earn God’s approval.
We are not alone in this struggle. Early in John Wesley’s ministry, he suffered under the assumption that he needed to earn God’s acceptance and pardon. After years of discouragement and failure, the utter impossibility of ever becoming “good enough” to merit God’s forgiveness became clear to him. Much like the Reformer, Martin Luther, Wesley became convinced that “the just shall live by faith.” From that point forward, Wesley stressed the “free gift” of justification. “Justification is the act of God, pardoning our sins, and receiving us again to his favour,” he declared. “This was free in him, because undeserved by us, undeserved, because we had transgressed his law, and could not, nor even can now perfectly fulfil it” (Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained. Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley. 9:179). For Wesley, our utter unworthiness of God’s pardon, is not a point of despair; rather a humble acknowledgment of our depravity is what qualifies us to be recipients of this work of grace. We must come before God with an awareness of our “guilt and helplessness… pleading nothing of [our] own but sin and misery” before we can “be found in him and receive the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Justification by Faith. 1:198). A clear understanding of our desperate need for the atoning work of Christ makes justification the very foundation of our hope.
Wesley’s hallmark work on justification was his sermon Justification by Faith. He chose Romans 4:5 as the introductory text: “To anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” Our reconciliation with God is not dependent upon anything we do; the only condition to the free gift of justification is faith. Faith as a condition of pardon does not detract from the utter “giftedness” of this work of grace; rather, Wesley argued that God also gives us the capacity for justifying faith. He explained, “So that for the sake of his well-beloved Son… God now vouchsafes on one only condition (which himself also enables us to perform) both to remit the punishment due to our sins, to reinstate us in his favour, and to restore our dead souls to spiritual life, as the earnest of life eternal” (1:186). Elsewhere, Wesley clarified that the faith leading unto justification was itself given as a gift of free grace so that justification was wholly an act of divine favor. “Of yourselves cometh neither your faith nor your salvation,” declared Wesley. “‘It is the gift of God,’ the free, undeserved gift – the faith through which ye are saved, as well as the salvation which he of his own good pleasure, his mere favour, annexes thereto. That ye believe is one instance of his grace; that believing, ye are saved, another” (Salvation by Faith. 1:126).
If we truly believe that justification is a work of free grace, there are resounding implications for us. It means we are to be a people marked by Godly confidence, hope and freedom. Instead of struggling to prove ourselves worthy of God’s love and pardon, we can have a holy confidence that God has redeemed and reconciled us to Himself. If there are lingering doubts, we can also be assured that God will provide the faith we need to overcome these fears. Furthermore, if justification is a free gift, then we can never give up on people who seem hopelessly lost in sin. In fact, when Wesley made the life-altering discovery that justification was a work of God alone, the first person with whom he shared the Gospel message was a convicted criminal who was awaiting execution. No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Finally, we have been called to a life of freedom: freedom from the guilt and power of sin and freedom from doubt and fear. Whatever we lack in these areas, we know that God will provide out of his abundant grace.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1-2
By Christine Johnson
Dr. Christine Johnson serves as the Registrar and is an Adjunct Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.