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John Wesley, Justification by Faith

This is the 22nd sermon in this series, which means we are half way there! You can expect to see a new post in this series by 10am EST on Tuesday mornings. Just joining the growing number of people reading these sermons? Feel free to start at the beginning by reading the first sermon by John Wesley in this series, “Salvation by Faith,” or jump right in with us!


Background:

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 doctrine and belief.

“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Seventh” is the 22nd sermon of the Wesleyan Standard Sermons. It is also the 7th of 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon focuses on works of piety, works of mercy, and the Lord’s Prayer. The fact that 13 of the 44 original Standard Sermons focused on the Sermon on the Mount gives an idea of the importance John Wesley placed on Matthew 5-7. Wesley spends so much time on these three chapters of the Bible because he believed they provide essential teaching from Jesus on “the true way to life everlasting, the royal way which leads to the kingdom.”

In hopes of sparking interest in Wesley’s sermons and Methodism’s doctrinal heritage, here is my very short summary of “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Seventh.” I hope it will inspire you to read the sermon in its entirety yourself. Links to the sermon and other resources are included at the end of this post.


Key quote: 

Here then is the natural ground of fasting. One who is under deep affliction, overwhelmed with sorrow for sin, and a strong apprehension of the wrath of God, would without any rule, without knowing or considering whether it were a command of God or not, “forget to eat this bread”, abstain not only from pleasant, but even from needful food. Like St. Paul, who after he was “led into Damascus, was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.”[II.2]


One sentence summary:  

Fasting is an instituted means of grace that connects embodied practice with inner trasformation.


Scripture passage for the sermon:

“Moreover, when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face;

That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”

– Matthew 6:16-18


Concise outline of “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Seventh”

1. From the beginning, Satan has worked to separate inward from outward religion.
2. It is by this very device of Satan that faith and works have been put in opposition to one another.
3. In the same way have the end and the means of religion been put at odds with each other.
4. Of all the means of grace there is scare any concerning which men have run into greater extremes than fasting.

I. The Nature of Fasting

1. “All the inspired writers, both in the Old Testament and the New, take the word to ‘fast’ in one single sense, for not to eat, to abstain from food.”
2. Other practices were sometimes added to abstaining from food in the Old Testament, but they were not essential to fasting.
3. There are a variety of lengths of fasting, but the most common is “one day, from morning till evening.”
4. Abstinence is a supplemental term added by the church for those who cannot fast entirely and means to eat little. It is not spoken of in scripture one way or another.
5. The lowest kind of fasting is abstaining from pleasant food.
6. There were called fasts in the Old Testament and there have been seasons of fasting in the early church and contemporary churches. There have also been national fasts. The directions here primarily refer to private times of fasting.

II. The Grounds, Reasons, and Ends of Fasting

1. First, people in extremely difficult circumstances often fast, sometimes because eating is such a low priority they don’t even think about it.
2. “The natural ground of fasting” is when someone “under deep affliction, overwhelmed with sorrow for sin, and a strong apprehension of the wrath of God,” forgets to eat out of their anguish.
3. People sometimes fast because they are aware of their tendency to eat too much of what they are permitted to eat.
4. People fast to “remove the food of lust and sensuality, to withdraw the incentives of foolish and hurtful desires, of vile and vain affections.”
5. People sometimes fast in order to “pushing themselves for having abused the good gifts of God.”
6. More importantly, they fast as a “help to prayer.”
7. Fasting is undertaken sometimes in hopes of averting the wrath of God. (Ex. of Ahab.)
8. Example of fasting in Jonah 3.
9. “It is a means not only of turning away the wrath of God, but also of obtaining whatever blessings we stand in need of.”
10. “The apostles always joined fasting with prayer when they desired the blessing of God on any important undertaking.” (Acts 13, 14, Matthew 17)
11. Fasting is a means of grace given to us by God directly.
12. The main reason for Christians to fast is because Jesus tells us to in Matthew 6.

III. Objections

1. Objection: Christians should fast from sin, not food.
Answer: “That a Christian ought to abstain from sin is most true. But how does it follow from hence that he ought not to abstain from food?”
2. Objection: But is it not better to abstain from pride, from peevishness, and anger, and discontent, than from food?
Answer: “Without question it is… We abstain from food… that by the grace of God, conveyed into our souls through this outward means, in conjunction with all the other channels of his grace which he hath appointed, we may be enabled to abstain from every passion and temper which is not pleasing in his sight.”
3. Objection: We tried fasting and did not find benefits.
Answer: It is possible to fast in a way that makes things worse, makes you more unhappy and unholy. The fault is not in the means itself, but in the manner of using it. “Do what God commands as he commands it.
4. Is it not mere superstition to imagine that God regards such little things as these?
Answer: If everyone who has fasted was superstitious, “all the generation of God’s children” who have practiced this before us would be condemned.
5. Objection: If fasting is so important, shouldn’t we fast always?
Answer: “By all means use as little and plain food, exercise as much self-denial herein at all times, as your bodily strength will bear… But this is not fasting, scriptural fasting.”
6. Answer continued: Abstain from unnecessary eating and indulgence as much as possible. This is good. But this is not fasting and fasting is still an instituted means of grace.
7. Scriptural examples.

IV. In What Manner We Are to Fast

1. Fix your eyes singly on the Lord.
2. Do not think of fasting as a way of earning merit.
3. Do not imagine that “the bare outward act will receive any blessing from God.”
4. Fasting should be done in a way that is prudent and cares for our bodies and our own bodily strength.
5. Fasting should be a season of “exerising all those holy affections which are implied in a broken and contrite heart.”
6. Join fervent prayer with fasting.
7. Add works of mercy, concrete expressions of care for the bodies and souls of other people, to fasting.


Resources:

Read “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Seventh” in its entirety.

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

Salvation by Faith

The Almost Christian

Awake, Thou That Sleepest

Scriptural Christianity

Justification by Faith

The Righteousness of Faith

The Way to the Kingdom

The First-Fruits of the Spirit

The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption

The Witness of the Spirit, I

The Witness of Our Own Spirit

The Means of Grace

The Circumcision of the Heart

The Marks of the New Birth

The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God

Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the First

Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Second

Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Third

Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fourth

Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fifth

Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Sixthth

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!

There is also a three volume edition of Wesley’s sermons in modern English, which is easier to read if you find the 18th century English frustrating. Here is the first volume.


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.