All Christians are justified by faith.
No one justified by faith sins.
Therefore, Christians do not sin.
That’s John Wesley’s view of the Christian life in a nutshell—or, rather, in a transitive syllogism. Wesley believes that while sin “remains” in the believer’s heart, it does not “reign” (Sermon XIV.I.2); thus, “there is no sin in a believer” (Sermon XIII.III.7).
Of course, my interpretation of Wesley is surely rife with flaws. He was a genius and I’m a twenty-year-old kid. So, determined to ferret out the truth, my roommate and I grabbed decaf coffee and bush tea, curled up in sweats outside Common Grounds, and struggled through Wesley’s soteriology (the theology of salvation) late one Wednesday night. One Scripture verse we continually referred to—one of Wesley’s main proof texts—was 1 John 3:9. It’s not exactly helpful. Wesley, who lived in 18th century England, used the King James Bible, which translates 1 John 3:9 thusly: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” On the other hand, the ESV I’ve been studying reads, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”
There’s a big difference between “he cannot sin” and “he cannot keep on sinning,” let me tell you.
Wesley takes the New King James’ translation—“he cannot sin”—and runs with it: “Many will endeavor…to persuade you,” he warns, “that you may be unrighteous, that you may commit sin, and yet be children of God” (Sermon XVIII.I.7). No one with faith in Christ as their only hope for salvation can sin. In order for a Christian to sin, he must first lose his faith (Sermon XIX.III.1). Since, at least in my experience, “Christians” sin regularly, each “Christian” spends each day of his entire life being continually unsaved and resaved each time he sins and repents.
Here’s how my roommate, Elizabeth, imagines the entrance to Wesley’s heaven: there’s a big billboard with “BOOK OF LIFE” posted on the top in Plantagenet Cherokee or some other decorous font. Beneath the words “BOOK OF LIFE” are several dozen rectangular panels with numbers on them. The numbers—indicating the number of people who are saved—continually rotate like on a slot machine, perpetually flicking down whenever a person sins and loses his salvation and up whenever a sinner repents.
So sad. I rather liked the idea of an old scribe etching names on a papyrus scroll and eternally refusing to buy white-out.
In contrast to Wesley, both Liz and I took the English Standard Version—“he cannot keep on sinning”—to gesture both to time and intention. “He cannot keep on sinning” may mean that although a Christian will sin daily, his sins will slowly decrease in gravity and quantity throughout his life. If “he cannot keep on sinning,” he may sin today, but he will not continue to do so indefinitely. Someday, he will stop sinning. That day may be in this life on earth, or perhaps in heaven. Or perhaps in Terrestrial Paradise when we’ve finished with Dante’s Purgatory. I don’t know. I do know that God never gives up on us: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6, ESV). “The day of Jesus Christ,” for us mortal beings, is effectively the day we die. God will “bring” our sanctification “to completion” when we die. We finally stop sinning, perhaps, at that moment when we have reached Terrestrial Paradise—that moment in the hospital bed or on the battle field when we look up and out of the cave, see the rising Sun, and give our hearts wholly to it.
Much more can be said about Wesley, but in the interests of time, I must conclude with a thought and a question.
First, a thought: Essentially, Wesley is one step away from salvation by works—according to his theology, a person is saved by faith, but can only keep his salvation by works. This simply does not stand up with Scripture. Here’s one of countless passages affirming salvation by faith alone: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:24, ESV).
Second, a question I cannot dismiss:
Is Wesley right, and I just can’t see it?