7 Heroes Of The Faith Part 4B: John Wesley – English Reformer

In the last instalment, we saw how Wesley had failed as a missionary and had returned to England despondent and full of doubts. In fact, he had no assurance of his own salvation and was entrenched in religious traditions and convinced of his need to earn salvation through rigorous self-improvement.

But everything was about to change.

Upon his return to London, John Wesley reflected on the faith of the Moravian Christians whom he had encountered during his voyage to America. He sought out some Moravians in London and formed an acquaintance with one of their leaders, Peter Boehler, who encouraged Wesley to “preach faith until you have it yourself”. [1]

 

On May 24th, 1738, shortly after his return from America, he wandered into a Moravian church service in Aldersgate, London, and as he sat in that service, listening to the message that was delivered, he finally came to place his complete trust in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. Wesley was a changed man from that point onward and went on to become one of the greatest and most influential preachers in England.

But what was it that triggered his conversion in that church service? What was said in that service, that so transformed him? Strangely, there was no eloquent preacher present that night. In fact, there was no preacher there at all. The leader of the service, a layman, simply read out the preface to Matin Luther’s Commentary on Romans. It was that preface, written by Luther over two centuries earlier, which provided a simple summary of the gospel and which transformed John Wesley.

Later that night Wesley wrote this in his diary:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[2]

When he left that service, John Wesley was so excited that he immediately went to see his brother, Charles, who had been similarly converted only weeks before. Charles wrote in his diary:

“Towards 10 pm, my brother was brought to me in triumph by a troop of our friends, and he declared, ‘I believe.’ We sang a hymn with great joy and parted with prayer.”[3]

After their separate ‘born again’ moments, both John and Charles Wesley looked back on all their previous ministry and saw how empty and dry it had been. They been ordained ministers and had preached and lectured, written papers and composed hymns, and even served on the mission field, all done in the dryness of their own spirits. They had been immersed in man-made religious service to a God whose life-transforming presence they did not really know in their own lives. They had sincerely believed in God and had tried their best to obey and serve him but they had not fully understood the concept of salvation by grace through faith. They had been trusting in their own religious service, rather than resting completely in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross for their sins.

Many people today are trapped in a similar religious experience. It may sometimes take the form of a reliance upon ornate religious rituals, flowery liturgy and formal ceremonies as a means of approaching a holy God. At other times it may manifest itself in rigorous self-denial and ascetism in an attempt to purge oneself of sin and make oneself acceptable to God. In either case, religious observance becomes a means of trying to impress God and be deemed worthy of his acceptance. Those who are immersed in this kind of vain religion need to have an ‘Aldersgate experience’, just as John Wesley did. They are in the same position as Nicodemus, the theologically astute religious scholar who came to Jesus one night and heard the Saviour say to him, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). They must reach the same point as the criminal who hung on the cross beside Jesus, who had nothing of value to offer God and could only cry out for mercy and receive his forgiveness as a free and unmerited gift – only made possible because of the atoning sacrifice that Jesus was making for him at that very moment! It is only via this humble, repentant step of faith, that anyone can be saved, receiving God’s grace as an undeserved gift, unmerited by any religious observance.

Returning to the story of John Wesley, the rest of his life is the story of a man transformed by this personal and intimate experience of the grace of Jesus. His Aldersgate experience was a watershed moment that set him on fire in his service for God. Wesley went on to preach an estimated 40,000 sermons, often preaching in fields and villages outside of the licensing of the Church of England, which provoked much criticism from ecclesiastical authorities.

 

Wesley wrote and published some 400 books or papers. He advocated against slavery and was a mentor of William Wilberforce who was eventually influential in abolishing the slave trade. He championed the ministry of women and controversially allowed women to preach, prompting the ire of the traditional church. He founded the Methodist movement – so-called because of its methodical and rigorous process of discipleship which called people to repentance and a life of holiness.

However, Wesley was not perfect. His methodism and emphasis on personal holiness at times boarded on legalism – a legacy of his stringent religious upbringing. Wesley argued that it was possible for a Christian to achieve a level of holiness that approached or even attained perfection – a doctrine which is contradicted by many clear scriptural statements in Galatians and Romans which advocate the ongoing sinfulness and unworthiness of even the most faithful of God’s people.

Wesley was also a strong advocate of Arminianism (the belief that all people have the ability to freely choose to follow Christ) and was a staunch opponent of Calvinism (the belief that only the elect can be saved and that God has predestined those who will be saved and those who won’t). In this, he was regularly in strong conflict with many preachers of his day, including the great evangelical preacher, George Whitfield. Despite their disagreement on this issue, however, Wesley and Whitfield enjoyed a close friendship and, apart from a brief and temporary parting of the ways, strongly supported each other’s ministry.

At one point, George Whitfield was asked by some of his own followers whether they would see John Wesley in heaven (inferring that perhaps Wesley’s Arminian viewpoint might be so heretical as to exclude him from salvation). Whitfield famously replied:

“I fear not, for he will be so near the eternal throne and we at such a distance, that we shall hardly get sight of him.”[4]

By the time of his death, in March 1791, Wesley’s Methodist movement had grown to 492 preachers and 114,000 members in England and America. Wesley had also founded 19 overseas missions with 5,300 in their congregations. At his death he was lauded as the most loved person in all England.[5]

Today, the holiness movement that John Wesley founded continues to influence millions of people, not only in the ongoing Methodist church, but within the charismatic and Pentecostal movements which derive many of their emphasies from Wesley’s insistence on a personal encounter with the transforming grace of the Saviour.

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[1] Joy, James Richard (1937). John Wesley’s Awakening. Commission On Archives & History.

[2] Dreyer, Frederick a. “The Genesis of Methodism” Lehigh University Press, Bethlehem, 1999, p.27.

[3] Charles Wesley’s diary, quoted in Roger J. Green, “John and Charles Wesley Experience Conversion”, article in the Christian History Institute Magazine, Issue 28, 2020.

[4] Wiersbe, Warren W (1984). The Wycliffe handbook of preaching and preachers. Chicago: Moody Press, p.255.

 

[5] Kiefer, James (2019). “John & Charles Wesley: Renewers of the Church (3 March 1791)”. The Lectionary. Retrieved 9 December 2019.