What do you do when you receive theological training at one of the finest schools in the nation, serve as a missionary to another land, initiate significant ministries to prisons and others, and demonstrate a life of spiritual disciplines marked by fasting, prayer, and hours of Bible study weekly, yet still feel like you are a miserable failure?
Young John Wesley had experienced all the above, yet could not find peace. On today’s date in 1738, John attended a small group meeting of Moravians on Aldersgate Street in London. Someone at the society gathering read from the prologue to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans.
Stop and think about this. In a day of packaging nearly everything in the church to woo readers/viewers/”likes” on social media, they read from a commentary! How will know God is working in mighty ways in a church or group? When a hunger for God, not the satisfying of consumers, marks the people.
On that night the Spirit of God moved in Wesley’s life. He wrote in his journal: “About a quarter to nine, while [Luther] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust Christ, Christ alone, for salvation.”
Wesley’s life parallels Luther’s at several points. Each missed a violent death; Luther by lighting strike, while John was rescued from a burning fire at the last possible moment. Each experienced years of anguish while yet seeking to serve Christ. Each experienced salvation after understanding the beauty of the gospel as expressed in the book of Romans. Each led a movement; in Luther’s case the Reformation, which changed the trajectory of the church until this day, and in Wesley’s the Evangelical Awakening, which by some historians’ estimation kept England from the blood bath the French experienced in the French Revolution.
Wesley’s life epitomized that of an evangelist. In his biography of Wesley aptly entitled John Wesley: The Burning Heart which I highly recommend, A. Skevington Wood called John the “evangelical centaur” as he rode on horseback to preach the gospel across his homeland.
Wesley wrote multiple volumes of journals and so many books and pamphlets he has been called the father of the Christian paperback. He once said: “God give me a hundred men who fear nothing but God and hate nothing but sin, and I care not whether they be clergy or lay, I will with them alone storm the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of God on earth.”
Once a young preacher came to ask Wesley’s advice for his church. Let God set you on fire, he said to the young minister, and people will watch you burn.
As the awakening began and spread through John, his brother Charles, the great young evangelist George Whitefield, and others, John demonstrated a remarkable acuity toward organization. Taking the example of society meetings (both secular and religious), he organized the growing movement into classes, bands, and societies. Though he never left the Anglican church, his organization of the masses played no small role in the birth of the Methodist church, which for the next century spread the gospel across the globe.
I like to read the questions that were asked at the society meetings each week to my students:
1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
2. What temptations have you met with?
3. How were you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
I always want to answer #5 with “all the answers to 1-4”!
So much could be said about Wesley: his relationship with Whitefield, his theological views (I am not with him at all points), his views on slavery (he was dead right and influenced Wilberforce on this issue), his writings, etc. In his life he covered nearly 250,000 miles, mostly on horseback. He preached over 40,000 sermons and wrote approximately 250 books and tracts. He and Whitefield preached in the fields, a remarkable innovation in their time. Although his brother Charles wrote far more, John also penned many hymns. To a largely illiterate population they sang the gospel well. I will simply offer a few more quotes for you to consider:
“Untold millions are still untold.”
“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God’s creational intentions.”
“Vice does not lose its character by becoming fashionable.”
“In using all means, seek God alone. In and through every outward thing, look only to the power of His Spirit, and the merits of His Son. Beware you do not get stuck in the work itself; if you do, it is all lost labor. Nothing short of God can satisfy your soul. Therefore, fix on Him in all, through all, and above all…Remember also to use all means as means-as ordained, not for their own sake…”
“By salvation I mean not barely according to the vulgar notion deliverance from hell or going to heaven but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, to its original purity, a recovery of the divine nature the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness in justice mercy and truth.”