John Wesley

Jun 3, 2010 2409

John Wesley (1703-1791)

—Desmond Ford*

John Wesley’s beech trees,
Lambeg Co. Down

During one of his visits to Ireland in the late eighteenth century, John Wesley stayed at Chrome Hill. He twisted together two beech saplings as a symbol of the friendship of the Methodist Church and the Church of Ireland, the trees still stand today.

In the century preceding the Napoleonic wars religion in England seemed extinct. It was truly a post-Christian age. Christianity came near to its death-swoon, says W. H. Fitchett. It was the Cinderella of the centuries. ‘Soul extinct, stomach well alive’, summarized Carlyle.

Every sixth house in London was a gin shop, and gin seemed to have debauched most of London’s inhabitants, but not London alone. Open revolt against religion and the churches existed in both extremes of English society. The historian, Green, tell us that, ‘the poor were ignorant and brutal to a degree impossible now to realise; the rich linked a foulness of life now happily almost inconceivable.’ Judges swore on the bench, and naval chaplains during their sermons. The King and his court were profane to such an extent it was as though they had no other vocabulary. Not only parents, but children, were rendered without ability or hope, because of drunkenness.

Then came the revolution—not one like that of France with its Reign of Terror, but a revolution in religion and morals. Three men found the gospel and changed their world—John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. Why are religious people in general, even religious leaders, so slow to accept God’s good news? Because every man, regardless of his church affiliation, or lack of it, is at heart a Pharisee. He believes he can establish his own righteousness, and then God will love him. A close study of the diary of John Wesley shows the spiritual pilgrimage of many.

Note his biographer’s comment:

‘He had sat at the feet of many instructors and had read many books. He had been a sacerdotalist, an ascetic, a mystic, a legalist, all in turn, nay, all together! And yet, through all these stages, he had persistently misread the true order of the spiritual world. He believed that a changed life was not the fruit of forgiveness, but its cause. Good works, he held, came before forgiveness and constituted the title to it; they did not come after it and represent its effects. He had, in every mood of his soul missed the great secret of Christianity, lying so near, and level to the intelligence of a child; the secret of a personal salvation, the free gift of God’s infinite love through Christ; salvation received through Christ and by faith; a salvation attested by the Spirit of God and verified in the consciousness.’ (W. H. Fitchett, Wesley and His Century, p. 128).

What had Fitchett read in Wesley’s diary, which revealed the secret of that spiritual giant’s original poverty, and ours? Note the following extracts:

[As a child] I was carefully taught that I could only be saved by universal obedience; by keeping all the commandments of God; in the meaning of which I was diligently instructed … but all that was said to me of inward obedience, or holiness, I neither understood nor remembered. So that I was indeed as ignorant of the true meaning of the law as I was of the gospel of Christ.’

[As a schoolboy] And what I now hoped to be saved by was: (1) Not being so bad as other people; (2) having still a kindness for religion; (3) reading the Bible, going to church, and saying my prayers.’

[In later years before conversion] And by my continued endeavour to keep his whole law, inward and outward, to the utmost of my power, I was persuaded that I should be accepted of him, and thought I was even then in a state of salvation.’

[After failure as a missionary] I was strongly convinced that the cause of my uneasiness was unbelief, and that the gaining of a true, living faith was the “one thing needful” for me. But still I fixed not this faith on its right object; I meant only faith in God, not faith in or through Christ. I knew not that I was wholly devoid of this faith, but only thought I had not enough of it.’

Wesley’s mother, Susannah, may have been the most capable woman in England, and the prettiest. She was the twenty-fifth child of Dr. Annesley, and after her marriage brought nineteen children of her own into the world. Her husband Samuel did not have his wife’s uncommon sense, though there can be no doubting the integrity of his faith and life. Susannah knew Greek, Latin and French, and was able to hold her own in any religious controversy. She possessed multifarious talents and virtues, but she did not know the gospel. As religious as she was, as conscientious as she was, as faithful as she was in even that which was least, she lacked the joy of Christian assurance— because the New Testament gospel was still a sealed book to her. Because a child rarely exceeds the religion of its mother, her famous son toiled in spiritual chains until he was thirty-five years of age.

When John was only six-years-old the rectory took fire, perhaps because of unhappy parishioners who thought little of damaging the property of their parson. A tiny face was seen through the window of the upper storey—behind that tiny figure was a wall about to collapse. One farmer stood by the wall of the burning house and invited another to mount his shoulders. So they rescued the endangered lad, and ever afterwards he thought of himself as ‘a brand plucked from the burning’.

At Oxford University, many years later, John became the leading figure of The Holy Club—a group of intelligent, educated and devout men of the university. They were punctilious in all known duties, prayer, fasting, church services and ministry to the poor. But one thing they lacked—the gospel.

After his ordination and early service beside his father, Wesley went to America. He wrote in his dairy that he was going there to convert the Indians and then he added, ‘But who will convert me?’ En route, a great storm threatened to send his ship to the bottom, but a group of Moravian pilgrims sang on, apparently unperturbed. He never forgot the incident and it encouraged him to fellowship with the Moravians back in England. Through that association (after his absolute failure as a missionary) he found himself one evening listening to a reader of Luther’s Epistle to the Romans. In his diary Wesley tells us what happened:

‘About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change that 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.’

This was the moment that would result in the transformation of England. According to historian, Lecky, the event of that hour was more important for England than all her famous victories by land and sea. At approximately the same time his brother Charles was converted, and on meeting, they sang a hymn with great joy and parted with prayer.

Often we use the expression, ‘It is too good to be true’, but in the case of the gospel: ‘It is so good it must be true’. Note this well, what argument cannot accomplish, the Spirit of God can. Millions of Christians can testify that their conversion came by a movement of the Spirit upon them, convincing them of the love of God and the glorious truth that salvation is free. Wesley, the learned reverend minister of the church, who knew not the gospel, received it in a flash from God himself. And so it has been and will continue to be with millions. We cannot hammer a rosebud open, and we cannot argue a person into believing in the love of God. But God can love us into loving him. And that is exactly what he does.

Later, the converted can think on the fact that the good news is such that no one could have invented it. It has to be from God. Who can read the words of Luke 15, ‘When he (the prodigal) was yet a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20), without sensing that only God could have told that story about such forgiving love. The Bible is self-authenticating to all who have an honest desire to know and do the will of God (John 7:17). As the days go by in the Christian life, the believer is more and more convinced that such a wonderful plan as that of redemption had its origin only in a divine heart.

Marvel at the manner in which the gospel reconciles mercy and justice, and thereby God and man. It would not have been enough for any of us to be merely forgiven. We want to know that our forgiveness is just, that mercy and justice have been reconciled by the intervening act of God on Calvary.

Think how marvellous is the fundamental truth of the Trinity—God over us, God for us and God in us. The Son executes the Father’s plans, but the Spirit applies his saving work to the hungry soul. Then we sense that ‘only one subject should prevail in Christian conversation, and that it should swallow up every other, for it is the sweetest melody from human lips— Christ our Righteousness.’ Surely this is the most amazing truth under heaven, that God should devise a plan whereby he might justify the ungodly.

Tell the world: ‘You don’t have to be good to be saved; you have to be saved to be good.’ ‘It’s not who you are, but whose you are.’ ‘Whosoever will may come,’ and Christ has promised: ‘Him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out.’ Who would invent such words as found in Matthew 12:31: ‘All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men.’?

Wesley went forth from the night meeting at Aldersgate Street to open more tollgates than any man in England. He would travel about 4,000 miles a year [about 6,500 klm] (250,000 miles over his lifetime [about 400,000 klm]—all by horseback until he reached his seventies). Ultimately, his sermons reached the figure of over 44,200. Whitefield’s reached 18,000, but his life was over thirty years shorter than Wesley’s.

What sort of man was Wesley? He was physically diminutive, but compact and sturdy. He was humble but dignified; supremely intelligent, but bowing with tender regard to every member of the human family. He was a God-intoxicated proclaimer of the good news, and neither threats nor illness, nor the peculiarities of nature could hinder him. He personified faith, hope and love. All sensed that here was a truly happy man, not swayed by any untoward circumstance, but rejoicing in the benign sovereignty of God, his friend. Yet Wesley could write to his brother Charles to say that he did not love God as he should.

He was the best-known figure in the land during the last half of the eighteenth century:

‘[He had] a calm intensity of energy, which has been rarely paralleled in any generation. In range, speed, intensity and effectiveness, Wesley must always remain one of the greatest workers known to mankind. He seemed to live many lives in one, and each life was of amazing fullness. He preached more sermons, travelled more miles, published more books, wrote more letters, built more churches, waged more controversies, and influenced more lives than any other man in English history. And through it all, as he himself, in a humorous paradox puts it, “he had no time to be in a hurry”’ (Wesley and His Century, p. 431).

He believed his body to be the temple of God, and throughout his long life he studied the laws of health and obeyed them. He almost spanned the eighteenth century. He gave minute health counsels to his associate preachers regarding sleep, exercise, diet and the like. As with many impressive figures before and after him, he saw advantages in vegetarianism.

‘Wesley was exactly that “most formidable and terrible of all combinations,” a practical mystic. His life thrilled with forces which streamed upon him from spiritual realms; and yet he kept his feet on the solid earth and had the keenest vision for the facts of earth … No man ever moved more quickly and none was ever less in a hurry than he. There was something of the inexorable and unhurrying swiftness of a planet about him; and something, too, of its shattering impact. And yet a strange air of repose—the quiet which is born of problems solved and of victory attained—lay upon him …

Wesley had ideals beyond the reach of other men’s vision, but absolutely clear to himself. He trod with an assured step; he spoke as one who knew. He was absolutely emptied of selfishness. So he became for those about him, in a sense, an embodied conscience. Here was one human spirit, at least, utterly given up to divine things; one human soul in which religion had fulfilled all its offices. And with all his radiant cheerfulness, there was something of the un conscious loftiness of Alpine peaks about him;   a remoteness—as though caught from some purer air—from the pursuits and desires of ordinary men. His very face was a rebuke to all mean things …

A sort of perpetual radiance shone in him and streamed from him. … unclouded cheerfulness. Alexander Knox, who knew Wesley well said, … “My acquaintance with him has done more to teach me what a heaven upon earth is implied in the maturity of Christian piety, than I have elsewhere seen or heard or read.” His countenance and conversation expressed an habitual gaiety of heart. Wesley himself declared that, “he had not felt lowness of spirits one quarter-of-an-hour in his life. Ten thousand cares were no more weight to his mind than ten thousand hairs to his head.”…

Dr. Johnson, himself a glutton in talk, complained to Patty Wesley of her brother: “I hate to meet John Wesley,” he said. “The dog enchants you with his conversation and then breaks away to go and visit some old woman.” …

Once, when tempted to linger in a lovely landscape, Wesley cried, “I believe there is an eternity, I must arise and go hence”; and those words express the temper of his life. He lived in the spirit of Andrew Marvel’s strong lines: “Ever at my back I hear Time’s winged chariots hurrying near”’ (Wesley and His Century, pp. 431-434).

‘Few men have ever been more systematically generous than Wesley. He lived with the utmost economy himself, and gave away the whole surplus of his income. “When he had thirty pounds a year, he lived on twenty-eight, and gave away two. The next year, receiving sixty pounds, he still lived on twenty-eight, and gave away two-and-thirty. The third year he received ninety pounds, and gave, away sixty-two. The fourth year he received a hundred and twenty pounds. Still he lived on twenty-eight, and gave to the poor ninetytwo”’ (Ibid., pp. 436-437).

And what did he preach? We quote from a few of his recorded sermons, though the originals were much more lively.

‘What is justification? … It is not the being made actually just and righteous. That is sanctification; which is, indeed, in some degree, the immediate fruit of justification, but, nevertheless, is a distinct gift from God, and of a totally different nature. The one implies what God does for us through his Son; the other, what he works in us by his Spirit …’

‘Justification is the clearing us from the accusation brought against us by the law, …’

‘Who are they that are justified? … the ungodly …’

‘Faith is the necessary condition of justification; yea, and the only necessary condition thereof … the very moment God giveth faith (for it is the gift of God) to the “ungodly” that “worketh not,” that “faith is counted to him for righteousness,” the very moment he believeth’ (‘Justification by Faith’, Sermons, Vol. 1, p. 56 ff.).

‘But in what sense is this righteousness imputed to believers? In this: All believers are forgiven and accepted, not for the sake of anything in them, or of anything that ever was, that is, or ever can be done by them, but wholly and solely for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered for them. … and this is not only the means of our obtaining the favour of God, but of our continuing therein. It is thus we come to God at first; it is by the same we come unto him ever after. … and this is the doctrine which I have constantly believed and taught, for nearly eight and twenty years. … the righteousness of Christ is imputed to every believer’ (‘The Lord our Righteousness’, Sermons, Vol. 1, p. 238 ff.).

While justification was Wesley’s main theme, he often preached on other topics pertinent to the Christian life. When Fitchett wrote his chapter, ‘The Secret of the Great Revival’, he included these comments upon the matters preached on by Wesley and his helpers:

‘What are evangelical doctrines? A chain of mountain peaks that pierce to the crown of the heavens, and on whose summits brood perpetual sunshine! They constitute a close-knitted succession of truths that break out of eternity and have its scale—truths that relate to sin, and proclaim its measureless guilt, its hurrying and inevitable doom; but which also reveal an immediate and personal deliverance from sin—a deliverance which comes as an act of divine grace, and on the simplest terms of penitential acceptance. But it is no light and easy deliverance, which costs the Deliverer nothing. It is the supreme miracle of the spiritual universe, made possible only by the mystery of Christ’s redemption. It is brought near by the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s grace. It sets the forgiven soul in a personal and rejoicing relationship with a reconciled and loving Father.

A divine redemption; a realised pardon; a restored relationship to God through faith; the entrance of supernatural forces into the life by the grace of the Divine spirit; the present and perfect attainment of God’s ideal in the character. And all this made intelligible and credible by the redeeming work and offices of Jesus Christ—and by the saving energies of the Holy Spirit in the human soul! This is the evangelical version of Christianity!’ (Ibid., p. 171).

* This article is an extract from Dr. Ford’s recent book, The Coming Worldwide Calvary: Christ verses Antichrist (2009), pp. 126-134, available from Good News Unlimited.



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