In 1738 John Wesley returned from the mission field convinced of one thing: He was not a Christian. He wrote in his journal, “I am fallen short of the glory of God… my heart is altogether corrupt and abominable… alienated as I am from the life of God I am a child of wrath and heir of hell.” (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitfield, vol 1, p179)
He was certain at this point that the only way of salvation was “by faith” – whatever that meant. He knew he needed “faith” and he also knew he didn’t have it.
“I was strongly convinced [he wrote] that the cause of my uneasiness was unbelief, and that gaining a true, living faith was the ‘one thing needful’ for me.” (p181)
At this point the Moravians made a lasting impact on both John and Charles. Yet the “faith” which they preached was oftentimes an internal religious experience rather than an outward-looking reliance on Christ. This was the kind of “faith” which the Wesleys sought.
Arnold Dallimore comments “The views to which the Wesleys were led by these means became of historic importance, for these views influenced the beliefs they held throughout life. They both spoke of ‘seeking Christ’, yet as one analyses the pertinent passages in their Journals it becomes evident that they were actuallly seeking faith more than they were Christ. Faith had become the great desideratum in their thinking, insomuch that they began to look upon it as an entity in itself. Under [the Moravian] Bohler’s instructions they had forsaken their trust in personal endeavours and works, but faith had become a kind of new endeavour which they substituted for their former endeavours and a work which took the place of their former good works. They had still learned nothing about receiving Christ in the fullness of His person and the completeness of His saving work, but were concerned about faith itself and what measure of it might be necessary for salvation. Charles expected that the coming of this faith might be associated with some visible presence of Christ, and John looked for an experience which would be accompanied by an emotional response. ‘I well saw’, he wrote, ‘that no-one could, in the nature of things, have such a sense of forgiveness and not feel it. But I felt it not.'” (p181-2)
They both embarked upon a tortuous spiritual path in order to discover this faith. On the 24th May 1738, at a religious society meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, John heard someone reading Luther’s preface to Romans. As Wesley described it, Luther’s writing was a “description of the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.” That in itself is an interesting take on Luther’s concern! But, understood in this way, Wesley found himself responding to these truths. He famously wrote in his Journal:
I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my 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 is considered by many to be John’s conversion. Yet other factors cast doubt on it.
Within a week Wesley was, in his own words, ‘thrown into perplexity’ when a friend asserted that faith must be fully assured or it is no faith at all. He took a trip to Herrnhut, home of the Moravians, to enquire about ‘the assurance of faith.’
But this gave no clarity. As Dallimore writes, “since the Moravians formulated their beliefs to a considerable degree on personal experience, their answers to Wesley’s enquiry were many and vaious. One preacher said that ‘the full assurance’ was a blessing received at the same time as justification, but another asserted that it was a separate experience to be entered into after conversion. Another stated that it was the coming of the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion… and still another claimed that it was no more than a rich Christian maturity and was attained simply by steady Christian growth.”
Dallimore lists the effects of this confused spiritual counsel on a perplexed Wesley:
“First, it influenced him towards combining Scripture and experience in formulating doctrinal beliefs. Secondly, it increased in him that introspective tendency. Thirdly, it caused him to believe that the Moravians possessed something which he did not have, and therefore that (as some of them intimated) a second Christian experience was possible – an experience, he believed, which would accomplish in him that larger victory in which the experience at Aldersgate Street had failed. By the time he returned to England, Wesley had become something of a Moravian himself.” (p194)
And what was the result for Wesley personally? Well in the short term he continued to be greatly perplexed about his spiritual state. So much so that eight months after his Aldersgate Street experience, John wrote this in his Journal:
“My friends affirm that I am mad because I said I was not a Christian a year ago. I affirm I am not a Christian now. Indeed, what I might have been I know not, had I been faithful to the grace then given, when, expecting nothing less, I received such a sense of forgiveness of sins as till I then never knew. But that I am not a Christian at this day I as assuredly know as that Jesus is the Christ.” (p196)
What an astonishing thing to say! Completely assured that Jesus is the Christ. Completely convinced he’s not a Christian.
What do we learn from this? Class?