John Wesley, Justification by Faith

I have been so encouraged by the number of readers who have emailed me directly about this series. I am delighted to see the interest in engaging the Wesleyan doctrinal heritage! Here is sermon #5 “Justification by Faith.”


Did you know that many of John Wesley’s sermons are part of the formal doctrinal teaching of multiple Wesleyan/Methodist denominations? Wesley’s sermons have particular authority because these were the main way he taught Methodist doctrines and beliefs.

We have already summarized the four Oxford sermons that served as a kind of preface to the Sermons on Several Occasions. “Justification by Faith,” as the titled suggests, is a sermon focused on the doctrine of justification by faith. Wesley is typically concerned with the relevance and experience of these doctrines, and this sermon is no different.

“Justification by Faith” is a foundational sermon for Wesleyan/Methodist doctrine.

In hopes of sparking interest in Wesley’s sermons and Methodism’s doctrinal heritage, here is my very short summary of “Justification by Faith.” I hope it will inspire you to read the sermon in its entirety yourself (check out the resources at the end of this post).

Key quote: 

Faith in general is a divine, supernatural ‘evidence’ or conviction ‘of things not seen,’ not discoverable by our bodily senses as being either past, future, or spiritual. Justifying faith implies, not only a divine evidence or conviction that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,’ but a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that he loved me, and gave himself for me. And at what time soever a sinner thus believes, be it in early childhood, in the strength of his years, or when he is old and hoary-haired [having gray or white hair], God justifieth that ungodly one; God for the sake of his Son pardoners and absolveth him who had in him till then no good thing. Repentance indeed God had given him before. But that repentance was neither more nor less than a deep sense of the want of all good, and the presence of all evil. And whatever good he hath or doth from that hour when he first believes in God through Christ, faith does not find but bring. This is the fruit of faith. First the tree is good, and then the fruit is good also. [IV.2]

One sentence summary:  

Justification is pardon or forgiveness of all past sins that comes solely through faith, which is “a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that he loved me, and gave himself for me.”

Scripture passage for the sermon:

“To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted to him for righteousness.” – Romans 4:5 (KJV)

Concise outline of “Justification by Faith”

  1. An important question: How can a sinner be justified before God?
  2. And yet, despite this question’s importance, how little has it been understood!
  3. I will show:
    1. The general grounds of the doctrine of justification.
    2. What justification is.
    3. Who they are that are justified.
    4. On what terms they are justified.

I. The general ground of the doctrine of justification

1. Humans were made in the image of God, holy, merciful, perfect.
2. God gave people a perfect law, to which he required full and perfect obedience.
3. God added one positive law: Don’t eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden.
4. In paradise, the first humans were holy and happy. But if they disobeyed they forfeited all.
5. Man did disobey and ate of the tree. And he died, his soul died and was separated from God.
6. Thus ‘by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin.’
7. This was our state when God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son so that we might not perish but have everlasting life.
8. The Son has tasted death for everyone. God has reconciled the world to himself.
9. This is the grand doctrine of justification where we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.

II. What is justification?

1. It is not being made just and righteous, that is sanctification. The one is what God does for us through his Son; the other what he works in us by his Spirit.
2. The conceit that justification is the clearing us from accusation; particularly of Satan, is not provable in Scripture.
3. Justification is also not the clearing of accusation brought against us by the law.
4. Least of all does justification imply that God is deceived.
5. Justification is pardon, forgiveness of sins. It is the act of God the Father whereby, for the sake of the propitiation made by the blood of his Son, he showeth forth his righteousness (or mercy) by the remission of the sins that are past.

III. Who are justified?

1. The ungodly. Forgiveness has an immediate reference to sin and nothing else.
2. Justification precedes sanctification. It is not a saint but a sinner that is forgiven.
3. The good Shepherd seeks and saves that which is lost.
4. The sick, guilty, and ungodly need pardon.
5. All works done before justification are not good in the Christian sense, because they do not come from faith in Christ.
6. A summary of the argument: No works are good which are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done; no works before justification are done as God hath willed and commanded. Therefore, no works done before justification are good.

IV. On what terms are the ungodly who have no good works justified?

1. By faith.
2. Faith is a divine, supernatural evidence or conviction of things not seen, not discoverable by our bodily senses as being either past, future, or spiritual. Justifying faith implies, not only a divine evidence or conviction that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, but a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that he loved me, and gave himself for me.
3. Faith is a sure trust and confidence that God has and will forgive our sins, that he has accepted us again into his favor for the merits of Christ’s death and passion.
4. There is no justification without this faith.
5. Faith is the only necessary condition of justification.
6. Faith is the only thing without which none is justified, the only thing absolutely required for pardon.
7. It does not become poor, guilty, sinful worms to ask God the reasons for his conduct.
8. One reason we may humbly conceive of God fixing this condition was to protect people from pride.
9. Go straight to God with all your ungodliness. Look unto Jesus! Plead only the blood of the covenant. Believe in the Lord Jesus; and thou, even thou, are reconciled to God.


Read “Justification by Faith” in its entirety.

Check out my brief summaries of the first four Standard Sermons:

Salvation by Faith

The Almost Christian

Awake, Thou That Sleepest

Scriptural Christianity

I highly recommend the critical edition of Wesley’s sermons, which has excellent references that show his reliance on Scripture throughout his preaching. There are four volumes if you want every known Wesley sermon. They aren’t cheap, but this is the most important publication by Abingdon since its release. Highly recommended!

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.