Wesley's Sermon 19: The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God

[This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.]

"Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God." (1 John 3:9, NRSV)

"So shalt thou always believe, and always love, and never commit sin."

You may wonder about the title of this sermon: What is the "great privilege of those that are born of God"? Wesley's answer: You can live without sinning again. Ever.

If you can consider any 18th century sermon interesting, you'll like this one. It's really good stuff, and even if you don't agree with it, it will make you think and ask some important questions. The second quotation above is the last sentence of the sermon, and you can see that Wesley says some big things in this message. Thankfully, he doesn't just through a sentence like that out there without laying a solid foundation first.

Claiming that Christians can live without sin has always been a tricky thing to do. (I tried it on myself earlier this year. See my New Year's Resolution 2011: Quit Sinning.) Part of the reason any of us today still know names like John or Charles Wesley, or words like Methodist, is because John made this claim very adamantly, and this sermon is one of the occasions when he did so.

The sermon has two parts, each really interesting of themselves. First, Wesley gives attention to the first phrase from the 1 John passage quoted above and offers a description of those that have been born of God. Although it is a topic he has covered in previous sermons, he goes about it very differently than he did in The Marks of the New Birth. In this sermon, rather than describing characteristics of someone who has been born of God, he describes the immense difference in their mode of existence between their lives before and after their "new birth." In shaping this description, he draws a great analogy between physical birth and spiritual birth. Although we are alive before physical birth, our senses are extremely limited, and therefore also our knowledge and interaction with the world around us, even though it is so near to us. Wesley says that it is the same with our spiritual birth; before being born of God, we are still alive in some degree, but the change in the nature and quality of our life is just as drastic at the moment of our spiritual birth as it is at our physical birth. Afterward, our senses become awakened, and we can begin knowing and interacting with the real world around us. (Read through Part I of the outline for a short, but fuller, version of his analogy- it's good stuff.)

After answering the question of what life is like for those born of God, he turns his attention to the second phrase of 1 John 3:9, and offers a case for how it can be true that those born of God do not sin. Wesley wasn't naive; he knew that plenty of people, including himself, sinned after having sincere, legitimate faith in God. So, he makes some distinctions here that very important in understanding him: between inward sin vs. outward sin, and between sins committed by notdoing something (omission) and sins committed by doing something (commission). Again, Part II of the outline is worth checking out for a fuller understanding here if you don't want to read the entire sermon, but to summarize: Wesley believed that what John meant by stating that children of God could not sin was that we cannot not commit known outward sin (instances where we know we are breaking God's law and choose to do it anyway), as long as we "keep" ourselves in God. Referring to his analogy of physical birth, we have to continue "breathing" in God, taking in God's grace, then returning all that we can to God through our lives. When we live like this, we cannot choose to go against God's commands. When we do not continue living in God in this way, all kinds of sin again become possible for us. Also in Part II, Wesley gives a very interesting progression "from grace to sin," using David and Peter as examples. Again- see the outline.

My summary is getting too long, but I couldn't help it- this is really good stuff, and Christians everywhere (particularly Methodists!) would be much better off to understand what Wesley says here. If you have any interest in Getting to know John, dig more deeply into this sermon!

Options for how to do so:

  • See my pdf outline of the sermon
  • Read the full text of the sermon electronically with my ePub file
  • Read the entire sermon online here