This Sunday I’m preaching on Jesus’ difficult Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14. (There’s an entirely different wedding feast parable in Luke, which I’m preaching next week.) This parable challenges us modern Christians for a number of reasons: many reject the idea that God has wrath toward sin, that God punishes people because of sin, or, indeed, that God sends anyone to hell. (Verse 13: “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”)
And what does the mysterious “wedding garment” of verse 12 represent?
Resisting the modern Methodist tendency to blindly enlist Wesley into whatever cause we champion, I actually went back to his sermons, one of which concerns this very text, Sermon 120: “On the Wedding Garment.”
As usual, Wesley makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Apparently in his day, many Christians believed that partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner was what it meant to be found without proper wedding attire. Wesley, along with all serious commentators on this text today, rejects this interpretation out of hand.
But Wesley also rejects an interpretation of the “wedding garment” that is as popular in our day as it was in his: the wedding garment is Christ’s righteousness alone, the only means by which we’re made acceptable to God. According to this view, as one of my seminary professors said, “Jesus paid it all, and I don’t owe a dime!”
I definitely see the appeal: No need to worry about my own personal holiness if Jesus’ holiness is all that matters!
But doesn’t this seem like wishful thinking?
Wesley probably thought so. Regardless, he’ll have none of it. For Wesley, the wedding garment is our personal holiness—made possible by Christ’s righteousness alone.
The righteousness of Christ is doubtless necessary for any soul that enters into glory: But so is personal holiness too, for every child of man. But it is highly needful to be observed, that they are necessary in different respects. The former is necessary to entitle us to heaven; the latter to qualify us for it. Without the righteousness of Christ we could have no claim to glory; without holiness we could have no fitness for it. By the former we become members of Christ, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the latter “we are made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”
Does Wesley’s emphasis on personal holiness detract from his belief, affirmed at Aldersgate 50 years earlier, that we’re justified by faith? Not at all, he says, although he’s aware of the criticism:
Indeed, some have supposed, that when I began to declare, “By grace ye are saved through faith,” I retracted what I had before maintained: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” But it is an entire mistake: These scriptures well consist with each other; the meaning of the former being plainly this, — By faith we are saved from sin, and made holy. The imagination that faith supersedes holiness, is the marrow of Antinomianism.
The sum of all is this: The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made. This he has proclaimed to them in his word, together with the terms of salvation, revealed by the Son of his love, who gave his own life that they that believe in him might have everlasting life. And for these he has prepared a kingdom, from the foundation of the world. But he will not force them to accept of it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel; he saith, “Behold, I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: Choose life, that ye may live.” Choose holiness, by my grace; which is the way, the only way, to everlasting life. He cries aloud, “Be holy, and be happy; happy in this world, and happy in the world to come.” “Holiness becometh his house for ever!” This is the wedding garment of all that are called to “the marriage of the Lamb.” Clothed in this, they will not be found naked: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” But as to all those who appear in the last day without the wedding garment, the Judge will say, “Cast them into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
For Wesley, being a Christian isn’t merely the decision we make to receive Christ as Savior and Lord, however necessary that decision is. Rather, it’s a lifelong series of decisions that we make—day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. We “choose holiness, by [God’s] grace; which is the way, the only way, to everlasting life.”
So… Personal holiness matters. No Christian can say, “It doesn’t matter what I do, so long as I accept Christ.”
A theologian friend (who isn’t Wesleyan) attempted to reconcile Wesley’s view with the popular Reformed view in one succinct text message: “A healthy reformed perspective would say that you cannot accept Christ and keep yourself from doing better. You can’t help but do better. If the spirit of Christ really is at work within you.”
That’s not bad.
As I preached during my sermon series on James, saving faith cannot be opposed to good works. We can’t have saving faith without them. Christ’s imputed righteousness and our personal holiness, therefore, are two sides of the same coin.