From religion to faith
The Revd Gordon Newton delivered the following reflection during a special 'Wesley Day' service on 24th May 2023.
The reason for 24th May being called “Wesley Day” is linked to the event in John Wesley’s life on 24th May in 1738. He began the day in a state of spiritual depression, feeling – as he had for a long time – that his life wasn’t as it should be, where his relationship with God was concerned.
Starting his prayers at 5 am, he read some words from the letter of Peter: “there are given to us exceeding great and precious promise, even that you should be partakers of the divine nature”. (II Peter). In the afternoon he attended Evensong at St Paul’s cathedral, where he heard words from Psalm 130 sung: “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord”; words which matched his mood.
And then, as he records in his journal:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street (not a Moravian Society but a Religious Society of members of the Church of England. RED Methodism p 68), 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.”
John had always been a religious man. He had been brought up in a thoroughly Christian home, his father a Church of England vicar and his mother, Susannah, a devout Christian who talked about God to her children and prayed with them.
He had worshipped regularly; at Oxford University he had prayed with his brother Charles, and a group of other young believers – dubbed by some others as “the Holy Club”.
There was a practical edge to their Christianity as they practised acts of charity and visited prisoners.
His religious commitment led him to ordination in the Church of England and to missionary service in America, in Georgia.
He was a deeply religious man. He was a believer in God. But he felt something important was lacking; and it was to do with his relationship with God.
What took place on 24th May 1738 changed John from being a man committed to religious practices to being a man in a warm and loving relationship with God.
In his book about Methodism, Rupert Davies says:
“By coincidence, or Providence, his brother Charles had gone through the same spiritual development, in a lower key perhaps, but no less genuinely, just three days before”. (Methodism p.58-59)
John went to visit his brother Charles – late on the evening of 24th May – and shared with Charles what had happened earlier in the evening,
They sang together words of a hymn Charles had written to describe his experience.
“Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave, redeemed from death and sin,
A brand, plucked from eternal fire.
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great deliverer’s praise.” (361 MHB)
This experience, this great deliverance from a burden, led to John Wesley stopping the practice of constantly brooding over the state of his own soul and being passionately committed to sharing the good news of salvation with as many people as possible.
24th May 1738 was a turning point in John Wesley’s life; it led to a deep conviction of faith, a larger commitment to God’s work and to journeys up and down the country – often on horseback - totalling nearly a quarter of a million miles. But his experience on that day also made a deep impact on British society. This heart-warming experience had also been shared by his brother, Charles, and by some others – notably George Whitefield.
The result of this was nothing less than dynamic.
Because 18th century society was going through tumultuous times: Here in Britain, there was a major revolution in Agriculture and Industry, giving rise to massive shifts in population, the creation of some of our big industrial cities (with all their consequent grime and poverty). As one secular historian put it: “By the middle of the 18th century, there were “scores of industrial villages and suburbs that were without any church or priest and ignorance of the most elementary facts of the Christian religion were astonishingly widespread”. (p 90. J H Plumb)
In America and in France there were social revolutions that turned into civil strife and bloodshed.
The preaching and work of John Wesley - and his evangelical friends – is often described as yet another revolution, “the Spiritual Revolution”. It made a profound and positive impact on a society going through rapid change. A French philosopher and historian (Elie Helevy) (see footnote) went so far as to say that this “spiritual revolution” saved England from a French-type bloody revolution. Wesley’s preaching made its greatest impact among what another secular historian (J H Plumb) has described as “the ugliness of suburbs and industrial villages” by encouraging “discipline and toil”. “It strengthened those moral virtues which were to transform English society”. (p 97 (England in the Eighteenth Century).
*Wesley’s preaching touched people of all conditions were offered the joy and peace of salvation, a new relationship with God. This was reflected in the hymns of Charles Wesley, through which people were able to learn their bibles (even if they couldn’t read) and deepen their faith.
*The way he gathered his followers into small groups, that we know as “The Methodist Class system”, enabled people to nurture their faith in relationship with others. It inculcated a sense of belonging and worth..
He called the local groups that were formed “Societies” and formed these Societies into groups, which we call circuits. In this Methodist movement there was a sense of belonging to a wider group of Christians – and Wesley called this a Connexion; we still use the word, spelt with a X (not ct)!. He travelled tirelessly to visit many of these Societies-as well as preaching in the open air.
*He wrote many books and phamplets; He visited prisoners and campaigned for the improvements of prisons in general, and encouraged the great prisoner reformer, John Howard.
*He opened dispensaries for the sick and poor.
*Knowing what troubles drunkenness caused, he advocated Temperance amongst the Methodists and tried to forbid spirits altogether.
*Towards the end of his life he wrote letters of encouragement to William Wilberforce, in his campaign for the abolition of slavery.
The way Methodism preached and practised the gospel had massive impact on many individuals and various levels of society.
This 18th century “Spiritual Revolution” was a significant moment in history!
The heart of Wesley’s teaching is often said to be summed up in what we call “The Four Alls of Methodism”.
That wasn’t a phrase that Wesley used. It was coined by W B Fitzgerald.
He felt these four statements, each including the word “All” take us to the heart of Wesley’s teaching.
These four Alls are:
Firstly, “All NEED to be saved”; as in the letter of Paul to the Romans: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. That is a commentary on the words of Psalm 130: “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?”
Secondly, “All CAN be saved”. There have always been some Christians who feel that salvation is for some and not for all. Some claim that God has predestined certain people to be saved and other people to be damned. Wesley said: That isn’t scriptural. The offer of God’s salvation is for all. “Those who come to me, I will in no wise cast out”. (John 6:37)
Charles Wesley loved to use this word ALL in his hymns. In one of them (“Father, whose everlasting love thy only Son for sinners gave”) he uses the word ALL six times in five short verses! (MHB 75)
Thirdly, "All can KNOW they are saved". Wesley took the teaching of the apostle Paul seriously when he wrote about God’s spirit joining with our spirit to confirm and assure us of salvation. Assurance is one of the four Alls; and although it isn’t a Wesley hymn, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” has become one of the theological signature tunes of Methodism!
And fourthly, "All can be saved TO THE UTTERMOST." Wesley taught a lot about Christian perfection – the idea that a person could become completely Christ-like - and believed that it was possible, although he never claimed it for himself.
This teaching about being saved to the uttermost really focusses on the Christian life being a journey, a process of becoming more like Christ; the theological word use the word to describe this process is “sanctification”. Perhaps we’re a bit put off that word; we think about the word “sanctimonious” as describing a rather puffed-up-with-pride person who wants to be considered “holier than thou”! But sanctification is simply this process of becoming more set apart for God, more like Christ.
The “Four Alls of Methodism” are worth knowing – and committing to memory. They are scriptural. And they take us to the heart of Wesley’s teaching and the source of vitality and power in the evangelical revival of the 18th century.
By 24th May 1738 John Wesley was living in a prison of despair. He was oppressed by a sense of sinfulness and guilt. His experience of the “strangely warmed heart” brought him an assurance of forgiveness and peace.
He wasn’t the only well-known Christian leader to suffer from spiritual depression: Both Martin Luther (the great leader of the Reformation) and John Bunyan (famous Puritan preacher and author of “Pilgrims Progress”) suffered a heavy burden of sin and guilt, until they also realised that simply needed to trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation; and that they couldn’t “earn their salvation” or get things right in their lives through their own effort.
That opening words of that hymn: “Jesus, thy wandering sheep behold” are based on a verse in Matthew’s gospel (9:35) where we are told that “Jesus had compassion on the crowds, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”; they were “lost” – in many different kind of ways, and Jesus reached out to the lost, showed compassion and brought new life –
-He brought physical healing to the sick in body,
-He brought peace of mind to those suffering mental torment,
-He brought a sense of worth to those despised by their neighbours,
-and He gave an opportunity for a new beginning for those who had lived bad lives.
Whatever kind of prison people were held in, Jesus was able to bring release.
As John Wesley travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles for over 50 years he found many people imprisoned in various ways:
-some were literally “in our jails”, paying the price for crime they had committed;
-some were imprisoned by poverty, living in housing that was “drab and desolate” (J H Plumb p 89) and feeling they were under an oppressive economic system that offered no hope of them being “levelled up” or brought out of poverty;
-In British colonies there were people imprisoned by slavery;
-many people were imprisoned by ignorance of the gospel and had no chance of hearing about God’s love, or experiencing it;
-and there was a heavy weight of depression and despair amongst many people, partly to do with the state of their own lives (their sings and failures) and partly to do with their circumstances – and there seemed no way out.
And the Established Church of the day, the Church of England, offered no hope:
Their preaching often lacked conviction – with no assurance of the forgiveness for sin.
They offered no opportunities for people with anyone with a social conscience who wanted to change society.
The Established Church was a church of the status quo.
John Wesley’s message of personal salvation combined with “scriptural holiness” or “social holiness” brought freedom from all these “imprisoning forces” and offered a very full salvation.
And we need to remember that this is a timeless message: When we revisit the 18th century and celebrate the impact that the ministries of John and Charles Wesley, we aren’t just wallowing in history:
We are touching the nerve of New Testament Christianity which is about the power of God to bring us – and our society – release from all that is evil, through the grace of God.
And that good news is needed as much in the 21st century, with all the personal mental health issues we have along with so much global turmoil.
Only the grace of God, and faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, can bring us freedom!