Sunday 197, July 25, 2004John and Charles Wesley Experience Conversion, AD1738
I read to you a biographical sketch by Dr. Roger J. Green, professor and chair of biblical and theological studies at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.
John and Charles Wesley were two of nineteen children born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Samuel pursued the labors of an Anglican clergyman in Epworth, England, while Susannah, ever the model Christian, formed both the spiritual and academic inclinations of her children.
Although quite different in temperament, John and Charles pursued similar academic and religious interests. Both entered Christ Church, one of Oxford’s largest colleges; John began in 1720 and Charles in 1726. After receiving his education, John was elected Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, and ordained two years later.
"Holy Club" and Failed Mission
Charles’s first year at Oxford was uneventful, but by his second year he settled down to a more serious life. He and a number of friends formed a "Holy Club." They covenanted with each other to live disciplined Christian lives given to serious study of the Bible, prayer, fasting, and charitable works. Charles was the first of the group to be derisively labeled "Methodist" by fellow students, but his title became a badge of honor for these seekers of the Christian way. John Wesley joined the club after an absence from Oxford to help his ailing father in the parish ministry, and he eventually became its leader.
In 1735 the brothers Wesley sailed with General Oglethorpe on his second expedition to Georgia, but even in this missionary service, the old doubts about their experience of salvation surfaced. Neither John nor Charles could find assurance that he was indeed the child of God by grace. They returned to England believing their lives and ministry had failed. John Wesley wrote of his experience in Georgia, "I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me?"
Hearts "Strangely Warmed"
The answer to his question came shortly after his return from America. Both he and Charles were influenced by Moravian friends who bore witness to salvation by grace through faith in Christ.
Charles Wesley was the first of the two to be justified by faith, and on Whitsunday, May 21, 1738, he experienced Pentecost. He wrote in his journal that the Spirit of God "chased away the darkness of my unbelief." The prolific hymnist (eventually he wrote six to seven-thousand hymns) wrote a hymn to commemorate his day of salvation. While scholars debate which of three possibilities was this conversion hymn, one likely candidate is the hymn that asks, "And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood?" The last verse triumphantly proclaims:
No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine:
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.
Three days later, on May 24, 1738, John’s seeking for the grace of God ended in a meeting house on Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote in his journal that now-famous account of his conversion: "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."
John immediately shared the good news with Charles. Charles wrote that "Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, ‘I believe.’ We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer."
Until their conversions the Wesleys had what John described as "a fair summer religion." They were both ordained. They both preached, taught, wrote, composed hymns, and even gave themselves to missionary work—all to no avail. They had not Christ, or rather, Christ did not have them. They lived by good works, but not by faith.
With the established church closed to his ministry, John Wesley took to the fields, preaching to coal miners and commoners. Despite recurring opposition, his itinerant evangelism soon expanded throughout the British Isles. It is estimated that he rode over 250,000 miles on horseback and preached over 40,000 sermons. He also published selections of his sermons and wrote voluminously. His use of lay preachers and small "societies" spread the movement to some 120,000 followers by the time of his death.
Brother Charles also preached widely, eventually settling in London. He became the most prolific and skilled hymnwriter in English history, writing hymns that are sung widely today, such as "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling."
Yet the conversions and subsequent ministries of John and Charles Wesley were not isolated events whose impact ended with the passing of the eighteenth century. Their lives continue to greatly affect the church. Many Methodist denominations today (worldwide, the Methodist communion numbers some 50 million people) still embrace those notable elements of the Wesleys’ ministry: an emphasis upon preaching; the organization of small groups for prayer and Bible study (the equivalent of the Methodist societies, and an important element of present church-growth strategies); the importance of book and tract distribution; and a concern for the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised, which to the Wesleys and their followers was the natural expression of the religious life.
The theology of John and Charles Wesley also has an ongoing influence outside of strictly Methodist denominations. The Wesleys’ emphasis upon the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the church has affected the holiness movement, the Pentecostal movement, and even the recent charismatic movement.
An educated clergy and a knowledgeable laity were also concerns of the brothers Wesley, leading to the founding of many Wesleyan colleges and seminaries. The balance between the life of the mind and the life of the spirit is still critical to the Wesleyan tradition, which seeks to preach the gospel to whosoever, convert the sinner, and raise up the saint.
The 100 Most Important Events in Church History: Christian History, Issue 28, (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, Inc.) 1997.
WE ARE METHODISTS
Why? We have established and understand that salvation comes "only through" a heart warming experience. That is what we teach. That is what we believe. That is what we practice. Unless you have a personal "crisis" experience of heart-rending proportions, you are not saved. Unless you run crying to an altar after some fire-brand Evangelist has presented his emotion charged guilt-filled accusations, you are not saved. That "heart-warming" thing is critical -- AT LEAST IN THE METHOD OF CHURCH WE PLAY.
How different from the Calvinists who see the practice of Christianity as evidence of being elect, not cause.
How different from the Lutherans who see water baptism followed with Confirmation as assurance - got to ensure no works in there at all -- "by grace -- by grace."
How different from the Catholics who see church tradition and sacraments as the way -- "and we have apostolic authority"
NOW WE HAVE "HEART-WARMING." And we know and record even the exact moment it happens: 8:42 p.m. Is it in your diary? Do you know the day and hour you were saved? That seems to be part of our tradition.
For a while in Pentecostalism, we taught and practiced the importance of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with signs and evidence. But the mainline Pentecostal denominations have drifted away from that and replace it with drums and jumping -- or so it seems.
But there are a few things ahead of that "heart warming" that really should be noted:
John and Charles readily admit they were practicing Christians without being Christian. They had the stuff down pat; to the point that they were ridiculed and called "methodists."
-- They read their Bible; much more than we will ever consider reading our Bible; the burden on a lay preacher’s time is scary in today’s complex world. If there wasn’t 8 hours a day study (lay preacher), you were a slacker and not fit
-- They prayed; much more than we will ever consider praying
-- They did missions work going out preaching; and when the church venue was closed to them, they went out in the fields to the unlikable and preached to them.
We Pentecostals have established a method and it is based a lot upon the Wesley brothers. We like massive Bible reading. Prayer meetings are good. If you don’t have several "all-nighters" during the year, you are probably not really saved. And hell-fire preaching is absolutely needed. If you don’t have several of these a week, you are probably not saved -- you have to develop that "heart-warming" somehow. Even though you are saved and have been saved since that date in your diary or the front of your Bible, you need the guilt to get saved again -- just in case.
And we have the concept of the Sinner’s Bench. That is the front row which is reserved for the sinners who were planning on getting saved. The seat is reserved for them. It is planned.
We’ve got a METHOD.
WE ARE NOT METHODISTS
HOWEVER -- that "method" does not keep our children in church or even with a relationship with God.. The method, whether practiced or not practiced, has little to do with our daily interest in the Divine or even keeping our own lives righteous before God: the sun goes down on our anger without resolution; we have any number of excuses to avoid being equipped to do the work of the ministry: washing hair, shopping; children; headache; forgot; "God told me," previous engagements, work, relatives, boredom, "I don’t have time," "I just don’t like those people."
A few interesting observations about the conversion of the brothers.
Scripture was not used. They were not being beat up with the Four Spiritual Laws or the Roman Road of Salvation. They were being read to -- from a Preface to a Commentary written by a Lutheran.
They were not in their own venue. They had the method down pat. They probably had far more expertise than these poor simpletons who were having a kind-of prayer meeting reading a Preface to a book. John didn’t even want to be there. I can relate to that.
They did not seek this experience. This gives an argument for the Calvinists. God came upon them. They did not put God upon themselves through works. They had been doing godly things all their lives -- their mom made them do it -- and that did not save them. They knew something was missing and had no idea what even though they had been preaching for years -- even on the mission field
CONCLUSION: YOU CAN BE A PREACHER AND NOT BE SAVED! YOU CAN BE A PRACTICING CHRISTIAN AND NOT BE SAVED!
At Aldersgate, they were not reading Romans, but the Preface to a Commentary about Romans.
This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. Therefore I want to carry out my service and, with this preface, provide an introduction to the letter, insofar as God gives me the ability, so that every one can gain the fullest possible understanding of it. Up to now it has been darkened by glosses and by many a useless comment, but it is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture.
To begin with, we have to become familiar with the vocabulary of the letter and know what St. Paul means by the words law, sin, grace, faith, justice, flesh, spirit, etc. Otherwise there is no use in reading it.
You must not understand the word law here in human fashion, i.e., a regulation about what sort of works must be done or must not be done. That's the way it is with human laws: you satisfy the demands of the law with works, whether your heart is in it or not. God judges what is in the depths of the heart. Therefore his law also makes demands on the depths of the heart and doesn't let the heart rest content in works; rather it punishes as hypocrisy and lies all works done apart from the depths of the heart. All human beings are called liars (Ps 116), since none of them keeps or can keep God's law from the depths of the heart. Everyone finds inside himself an aversion to good and a craving for evil. Where there is no free desire for good, there the heart has not set itself on God's law. There also sin is surely to be found and the deserved wrath of God, whether a lot of good works and an honorable life appear outwardly or not.
Therefore in chapter 2, St. Paul adds that the Jews are all sinners and says that only the doers of the law are justified in the sight of God. What he is saying is that no one is a doer of the law by works. On the contrary, he says to them, "You teach that one should not commit adultery, and you commit adultery. You judge another in a certain matter and condemn yourselves in that same matter, because you do the very same thing that you judged in another." It is as if he were saying, "Outwardly you live quite properly in the works of the law and judge those who do not live the same way; you know how to teach everybody. You see the speck in another's eye but do not notice the beam in your own."
Outwardly you keep the law with works out of fear of punishment or love of gain. Likewise you do everything without free desire and love of the law; you act out of aversion and force. You'd rather act otherwise if the law didn't exist. It follows, then, that you, in the depths of your heart, are an enemy of the law. What do you mean, therefore, by teaching another not to steal, when you, in the depths of your heart, are a thief and would be one outwardly too, if you dared. (Of course, outward work doesn't last long with such hypocrites.) So then, you teach others but not yourself; you don't even know what you are teaching. You've never understood the law rightly. Furthermore, the law increases sin, as St. Paul says in chapter 5. That is because a person becomes more and more an enemy of the law the more it demands of him what he can't possibly do.
(from Luther: Preface to Romans, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2003 Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)
But there is more, much more. Did your "heart warm" yet? Can you relate to what John and Charles Wesley did? Is it enough?
DID IT WORK? WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH METHODISTS TODAY?
Oral Roberts became affiliated, not with a Pentecostal denomination, but the Methodists. A healing evangelist as a Methodist?
We look at Methodism as one of those cold and dying denominations that institutionalized certain things, however, the practice of Christianity in some groups seems at odds with what the hymns declare -- and even at odds with what their own liturgy declares in their hymnbooks.
But who are we to talk?
Our Pentecostal Method equally fails. Our early learning and experience at the altar has not produced a community changed with all -- and ALL means ALL -- residents and even passer-throughs changed by the power of God with a "heart-warming".experience that changes things.
What does it take? John and Charles had a method -- and it took a Preface -- and that resulted in thousands of hymns and 50 million in a denomination espousing their methods. A method of small groups, tracts, lots of Bible, preaching in strange venues and having a heart warmed by the Holy Spirit.
That sounds like a formula worth trying, but what is the formula for now? God is infinite and has infinite ways. I suspect He is also worshiped and served in infinite ways. In other words, there is not just one method and John’s method will not be our own. Maybe even the "heart warming" may not quite be described the same. The one assurance I have -- and the only scripture I have used today:
Rom 10:9 That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
In that salvation, Holy Spirit will, as you let Him, start making changes. Let Him work on you today.
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But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today,
so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.
Hebrews 3:13 NIV