We are saved by grace through faith, John Wesley asserted, but we are not saved for our benefit; we are saved for good works in the name of God. God blesses us so that we may be a blessing for others. Among all of Wesley’s sermons, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” is among the most important, and it may be his clearest statement on how God works through us to accomplish God’s purpose. After nearly three centuries, Wesley’s language needs updating, which I’ve tried to do, but his insights are fresh as ever.
It’s time to grow up, St. Paul tells us. It’s time to “put an end to childish ways” of thinking and living (1 Cor. 13:11) and “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5); to be weaned from the milk that infants in faith require and start eating solid food, to “go on toward perfection” (Heb. 5:11–6:2); to grow “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 5:13). “And this we will do, if God permits” (Heb. 6:3).
Even before we are aware of it God is already making us hungry for spiritual maturity and is enabling us to grow into it. Long before Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s reign, Moses knew the only thing God requires is that we show reverence and love for God, that we walk in all God’s ways, and that we serve God with all our heart and soul (Deut. 10:12-13). The prophet Micah summed it up in more familiar language. “What does the Lord require of you,” he asked, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)?
The best of this ancient wisdom, however, left out the two most important aspects of the good news Christ brings. The first of these aspects is justification, meaning that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Think of it! God was restoring the world, everything and everyone, to a complete and whole relationship with God, and not letting any of our brokenness or sin stand in the way.
The second aspect of the good news is sanctification. That means we are being renewed in the image of God in which we were created. God is cleansing us of everything that does not reflect our original, authentic God-nature. St. Paul calls us to cooperate with that work and to grow up spiritually.
First, he reminds us that this is God’s work, for God’s purpose. Without any merit on our part, God has chosen to work in the church – in you and me – to accomplish the healing of creation. God does this by giving us the inclination, the desire, and the will for it. Then God includes us as partners in the work God is doing, in God’s purpose for creation. The very first movement in us is from God – prevenient grace, Wesley calls it. God not only awakens in us every good desire; with every good desire, God also equips us with the ability to act on it.
So work out your own salvation, Paul urges. Participate fully in what God is doing in you. God has created you for something only you can do. Play the part God has given you to play, or the drama of divine history will forever be incomplete. The salvation we are to work out is given to us by God’s grace; it gradually increases as we cooperate more and more with it; and finally at some point our hearts are cleansed from all sin and filled with pure love for God and our neighbor. And even that abundant love continues to increase, until finally we grow to maturity, a maturity measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ (Eph. 5:13).
God’s grace in our lives, however, is not to be taken lightly. Work it out, Paul writes, “with fear and trembling,” in the same way servants are called to follow the instructions of the one to whom they are accountable – not with literal fear or terror, but single-mindedly, wholeheartedly, “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Make it clearly and without reservation your first priority; let nothing else come before it; and understand what it will cost you to do so (cf. Luke 14:25-35).
So what practical steps can we take to do this? Isaiah gives us the best place to start when he tells us, “cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isa. 1:16-17). You’ll recognize those as the first two of Wesley’s “Three Simple Rules” for a life of faith. The first simple rule, Wesley says, is “Do no harm,” and it’s a pretty solid place to stand while you’re listening to God for what will follow. Wesley’s second rule is “Do good.” “Do all the good you can,” he says, “by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
And Wesley’s third simple rule is to stay in love with God by practicing all the traditional spiritual disciplines, the ones that through the centuries have proven effective at building up a vital relationship with God. Learn to pray, he advised, both in corporate worship and in secret, withdrawn from the distractions of others and your own ego. Search the scriptures; hear them read in public; read and meditate on them in private. Partake in the Lord’s Supper at every opportunity. Let your conversation be filled with “saltness” (Matt. 5:13), let it be interesting and preserving. Deny yourselves and take up your cross daily, willingly embracing every opportunity to draw near to God.
Two themes sum it all up. The first is: God is at work in us, therefore we can work. If God were not at work in us, we could do nothing. None of us is completely separated from God, none of us completely empty of God’s grace. Because God is working in us, we are able – each one of us – to do something to help fulfill God’s purpose. Every one of us is an essential partner with God in the healing of a broken world.
The second theme is: God is at work in us, therefore we must work. By God’s grace we can do what God motivates us to do; we’re equipped for every good work. We may from time to time doubt ourselves, but look what trust God has placed in us, that we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). And by God’s grace we must do what God has chosen and motivated us to do. “You did not choose me,” Jesus said, “but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16).
What that fruit of your soul will be, I cannot say. It may not be what you think it is, not what you seem to be producing now. Your labor of faith may bear fruit in the next generation, among people not yet born – fruit borne of the seeds you plant today. But God’s word does not fail; it accomplishes God’s purpose and succeeds in God’s design (Isa. 55:11). So “be strong and steady, always enthusiastic about the Lord’s work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Cor. 15:58).