This is the sixth and final column in which we explore John Wesley’s spiritual journey toward Aldersgate. We are not doing this to idolize Wesley. Rather, our mission is to provide a playbook for individual readers and for local churches to study in small groups as they seek to help their congregations become more vital.In previous columns we looked at Wesley’s pre-Aldersgate efforts to be a good Christian, following the Anglican tradition of “holiness of heart and life.” In 1735, en route to Georgia to serve as a missionary, he came under the influence of Moravians who remained his mentors in the prelude to May 24, 1738, when he would feel his “heart strangely warmed” during a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London.
And after that? First, he went to Germany and spent most of the summer of 1738 learning from the Moravians’ home-base faith community. That summer, he heard for the first time that we can acknowledge Jesus’ dying for us and experience forgiveness for our sins—before we experience freedom from sin. This thought is helpful to those of us who cannot point to a dramatic conversion in our own lives. We can trust God’s love for us as authentic and “bet our lives” on the demonstration of that divine love in Jesus’ death on the cross, though the full measure of the Spirit’s work in us is yet to be made known.
Now for a big surprise: Wesley’s spiritual dilemmas did not end with Aldersgate. He still had doubts, as he kept reprocessing the nature of assurance.
From spring 1738 to summer 1740, Wesley sometimes preached with more certainty than he wrote in his diary. Has not almost every preacher done the same? It isn’t edifying to the congregation for us to “preach our doubts,” so we follow the advice that the English Moravian Peter Böhler gave Wesley: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” In a sense the same is true when laypersons make a commitment to Christ but don’t find the inner peace they expect. The answer lies in moving away from our moods and feelings as the source of our faith, and trusting that God loves us.
The weak and strong
Wesley’s Anglican heritage and pastoral insights convinced him that Christians have degrees of faith. St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “[As infants in Christ] I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. . . . For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. . . . Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
Does Paul say the immature, fractious Corinthians are not Christians? No! Rather, they are similar to typical United Methodists in 2012.
Wesley said that some Christians are weak and some strong. The Moravian minister Philipp Heinrich Molther insisted that a person who at any time feels doubt or fear has no faith; Wesley eventually rejected this rigid posture. Likewise, even under the Moravians’ tutelage, he held to the Anglican tradition of Christian works—deeds of kindness and acts of mercy. He still had Oxford Methodism in him, characteristics of which include: self-discipline, holiness of heart and life, and the “means of grace,” namely prayer, searching Scripture, communion, holy conversation, public worship and fasting.
Richard Heitzenrater notes that Wesley found answers to his questions not in the Moravian experience but in his own tradition, even if the answers were not easy. Five months after Aldersgate, Wesley wrote that “although I have not yet that joy in the Holy Ghost, nor the full assurance of faith, [and am much less] ‘in Christ a new creature,’ I nevertheless trust that I have a measure of faith and am ‘accepted in the Beloved.’ I trust . . . that I am ‘reconciled to God’ through his Son.”
What a wonderful passage for a small group sharing session! Have we not a lot in common with his confessional feelings? He is claiming anew what he found in Germany—that God’s love, not our faith, is the source of the salvation which we are “working out.”
Returning to our call
In his description of the Aldersgate experience, Wesley wrote: “I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation.” Theologian Ted Runyon parses this to mean that Wesley realized Christ—not his own feelings—was the guarantor of his salvation. That confidence lifted a weight from him, and should do so for us. Reconciliation to God through the work of Christ in us is based on an objective, divine action, not our personal feelings.
If we are to walk the walk as Wesley did, we come to a place of the radical doctrine of grace: God loves me, warts and all. My identity is “child of God.” Some critics misunderstand us as believing we are saved by free will choices. Others accuse us of basing our salvation on our feelings. Both are wrong. We are saved “by grace, through faith.”
Wesley came to use what Randy Maddox calls “clinical language” more than “juridical language.” We need not break fellowship arguing over “how” Jesus saves us. Rather we should employ Wesley’s language of our salvation—“taking the cure” and being “restored to the image of God.”
That is good news! That is our United Methodist message. That is what the world is waiting to hear! Oh, that we could by God’s grace perceive the message with confidence, and design ways and means to reach a post-modern culture with competence.
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.