John Wesley, Justification by Faith

This is the 30th sermon in this series. It is very encouraging to see how many people are reading these posts and clicking through to read the sermon itself. 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!


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.

“The Law Established through Faith, I” is the 30th sermon of the Wesleyan Standard Sermons. This sermon outlines ways that Christian leaders nullify or void the moral law of God through the doctrine of justification by faith. Wesley shows the ways this happens and warns against these mistakes. Faith in Christ empowers one to obey the law, rather than making it irrelevant. Faith in Christ enables us to live the kind of life God intends for us to live out of loving response to God’s love for us.

In hopes of sparking interest in Wesley’s sermons and Methodism’s doctrinal heritage, here is my very short summary of “The Law Established through Faith, I.” 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: 

This, it must be acknowledged, comes home to the point, and is indeed the main pillar of antinomianism. And yet it needs not a long or labored answer. We allow, (1), that God ‘justifies the ungodly’, him that till that hour is totally ungodly, full of all evil, void of all good; (2), that he justifies ‘the ungodly that worketh not’, that till that moment worketh no good work – neither can he: for an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit; (3), that he justifies him ‘by faith alone’, without any goodness or righteousness preceding; and (4), that ‘faith is’ then ‘counted to him for righteousness’, namely, for preceding righteousness; i.e., God, through the merits of Christ, accepts him that believes as if he had already fulfilled all righteousness. But what is all this to your point? The Apostle does not say either here or elsewhere that this faith is counted to him for subsequent righteousness. He does teach that there is no righteousness before faith; but where does he teach that there is none after it? He does assert holiness cannot precede justification; but not that it need not follow it. St. Paul therefore gives you no color for ‘making void the law’ by teaching that faith supersedes the necessity of holiness. [II.7]

One sentence summary:  

This sermon warns of voiding the law through faith in Christ, when faith actually empowers one to obey the moral law.

Scripture passage for the sermon:

“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.”

– Romans 3: 31

Concise outline of “The Law Established through Faith, I”

1. Justification is by faith, without the works of the law.
2. It is easy to anticipate that someone might then ask, does justification by faith abolish the law? Paul replies, “God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.”
3. It is the moral law that is established by faith.
4. But many disagree with this.
5. Have those who disagree that the law is established by faith “observed the connection between the law and faith?”
6. This sermon observes the ways people wrongly void the law through faith. Secondly, the sermon teaches “how we may follow the Apostle, and by faith ‘establish the law.'”

I. The Usual Ways the Law Is (Wrongly) Voided by Faith
1. A preacher can void the law by faith by not preaching the law at all.
2. Not preaching the law “proceeds from the deepest ignorance of the nature, properties, and use of the law; and proves that those who act thus either know not Christ, are utter strangers to the living faith, or at least that they are but babes in Christ.”
3. They argue that preaching the gospel “answers all the ends of the law. But this we utterly deny. It does not answer the very first end of the law, namely, the convincing men of sin, the awakening those who are still asleep on the brink of hell.”
4. Some argue that there are Scriptural precedents for offering Christ to the “careless sinner” but Wesley does not believe there are any.
5. Paul should serve as our example for preaching. And Paul preached Christ crucified.
6. Wesley uses the example of Acts 13:39-45. “He first reminds them that they could not be justified by the law of Moses, but only by faith in Christ; and then severely threatens them with the judgments of God, which is, in the strongest sense, ‘preaching the law’.”
7. Paul then preaches that they should “turn from those vain idols unto the living God.”
8. Wesley gives further evidence from Scripture of Paul preaching in different ways based on the state of his listener.
9. To those who argue that Paul preached Christ differently in the epistles, Wesley responds that the epistles are 1. not preaching at all; 2. directed to Christians in various places, not unbelievers; and 3. every epistle is full of the law.
10. “Doubtless St. Paul judged himself to be preaching Christ both to Felix, and at Antioch, Lystra, and Athens: from whose example every thinking man must infer that not only the declaring the love of Christ to sinners, but also the declaring that he will come from heaven in flaming fire, is, in the Apostle’s sense, ‘preaching Christ.'”
11. “To ‘preach Christ’ is to preach all things that Christ hath spoken: all his promises; all his threatenings and commands; all that is written in his Book.”
12. Preaching the merits and sufferings of Christ can sometimes lead to a great blessing, but so can preaching that cuts to the heart and humbles to the dust.

II. A Second Way of ‘Making Void the Law through Faith’ Is Teaching that Faith Supersedes the Necessity of Holiness
1. There are many who void the law through faith by teaching that faith supersedes the necessity of holiness.
2. Those who make this mistake suppose that 1. holiness is “less necessary now than it was before Christ came; or, 2. that a less degree of it is necessary; or, 3. that it is less necessary to believers than to others.”
3. The first group teaches that “we are now under the covenant of grace, not works.” But only Adam was under the covenant of works.
4. “The case is not therefore, as you suppose, that men were once more obliged to obey God, or to work the works of his law, than they are now.”
5. We are justified by faith, without the works of the ceremonial or moral law.
6. But works of the law “are an immediate fruit of that faith whereby we are justified. So that if good works do not follow our faith, even all inward and outward holiness, it is plain that our faith is nothing worth; we are yet in our sins.”
7. That holiness does not precede justification does not mean that it does not need to come after it.

III. The Most Common Way of “Making Void the Law through Faith” Is Living as if Faith Was Designed to Excuse Us from Holiness.
1. Paul warns us against this in Romans 6:15.
2. Being ‘under the law’ may mean four things: “1. being obliged to observe the ceremonial law; 2. being obliged to conform to the whole Mosaic institution; 3. being obliged to keep the whole moral law as the condition of our acceptance with God; 4. being under the wrath and curse of God, under the sentence of eternal death; under a sense of guilt and condemnation, full of horror and slavish fear.”
3. From the moment someone believes in Jesus, they are not under the law in any of the preceding senses. “He obeys, not from the motive of slavish fear, but on a nobler principle, namely, the grace of God ruling in his heart, and causing all his works to be wrought in love.”
4. Shall we be less obedient to God as accepted and beloved children than as fearful servants?
5. Are you as careful to please God now that you have faith in Christ as you did when you were convicted of your sin and separation from God and seeking forgiveness and pardon?
6. How about in regards to being praised and the risk of pride?
7. “God forbid you should any longer continue thus to ‘turn the grace of god into lasciviousness!”
8. What about sins of omission, not doing what you know you ought to do (such as attending worship services)? Do not be less zealous for God now than you were before you received saving faith.


Read “The Law Established through Faith, I” in its entirety.

Check out my brief summaries of the first twenty-nine 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 Sixth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law

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. The sermon outlined in this post is in volume II. These books aren’t cheap, but this is the most important publication by Abingdon since its release. And they are designed to last. 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.