History of Hymns: John’s sermon, Charles’ hymn celebrate justification by faith

“Let Us Plead for Faith Alone”
Charles Wesley
UM Hymnal
, No. 385

Let us plead for faith alone,
faith by which our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

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

This is the central scripture upon which John Wesley based his doctrine of “justification by faith” as found in his sermon of the same title. (For the complete sermon, visit UMC Global Ministries resources at John Wesley Sermons / Sermon 5.)

Wesley’s sermon provides a complete and carefully reasoned explanation of this doctrine. A few highlights will suffice here:

Charles Wesley

Section II:5 notes, “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sins. It is that act of God the Father, hereby, 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.’ . . . God will not inflict on that sinner what he deserved to suffer, because the Son of his love hath suffered for him. And from the time we are ‘accepted through the Beloved,’ ‘reconciled to God through his blood,’ he loves, and blesses, and watches over us for good, even as if we had never sinned.”

On the subject of faith, we turn to Section IV:3 which claims, “I cannot describe the nature of this faith better than in the words of our own Church: ‘The only instrument of salvation’ (whereof justification is one branch) ‘is faith; that is, a sure trust and confidence that God both hath and will forgive our sins, that he hath accepted us again into His favour, for the merits of Christ’s death and passion.’”

It is at this point we may turn to Charles Wesley’s hymn “Let Us Plead for Faith Alone,” published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1740) under the title “The Love Feast.” The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that this hymn “eloquently elaborates on Paul’s teaching that good works result from salvation and not the reverse.” Ephesians 2:8-10 is the central scripture for this hymn: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (KJV)

Wesley scholar, the Rev. S T Kimbrough Jr., notes that our hymn is “one of Charles Wesley’s most succinct summaries of ‘justification by faith alone.’” The first stanza clearly states that “faith alone” precedes works. The second stanza declares that the source of our power is an “active faith that lives within.” Such a faith is stronger than “hell and death and sin.” Such a faith sanctifies the believer, or as Charles Wesley states, “hallows whom it first made whole.”

John Wesley

The third stanza stresses that such faith leads us to heaven. As “sure salvation is the end,” thus “heaven already is begun, / everlasting life is won.” Our faith moves us toward perfection in Christ.

The final stanza continues the eschatological tone as the hymn writer implores us to “persevere till we see our Lord appear.” In an interesting twist on the word “works,” the hymn concludes that we are “saved by faith which works by love.” Our faith is the response of the outpouring of God’s love toward us. The “works” are not anything that we can do on our own, but love working in us.

United Methodist professor and Wesley scholar Ted Campbell places this discussion in the broader historical and ecumenical context: “This hymn text points to a cardinal doctrine of the Protestant Reformation and a doctrine that—with some nuances—has become common to Catholics and Protestants alike as a result of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ) between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999. The World Methodist Council became a signatory to the JDDJ in 2006. This declaration affirms, as Charles Wesley’s hymn does, that true Christian faith leads to good works.”

When the text of John Wesley’s sermon is juxtaposed with Charles Wesley’s hymn, one can quickly see the value of both. Even in the small portion of John’s sermon, his dense and carefully developed arguments on the topic are evident. To absorb the profound theology of John’s sermon orally would have been a challenge for all but the most astute listener then, and especially today. However, to sing the hymn composed by Charles on this theme allows the singer to absorb the essence of the doctrine. This is a wonderful example of how the lyrical theology of hymns may complement theology.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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