By Jay Therrell
On May 24, 1738, 285 years ago, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, went “very unwillingly” to a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote about what happened next in his journal:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, 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.”
The world has never been the same since. John Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart led to a revival that is still going to this day. Granted, it’s taken some twists and turns along the way, but Wesley’s vision still guides us, especially as we work to help churches disaffiliate from the UMC and hopefully join the Global Methodist Church.
As we celebrate this pivotal day in the life of the Methodist Movement, here are some tenets from John Wesley’s vision that I pray will still guide us.
The Almost Christian
On July 25, 1741, Wesley preached a sermon called “The Almost Christian.” Wesley Scholar Kevin Watson points out the crux of the message, “While an almost Christian lives an outwardly Christian life in every way, an altogether Christian adds to this love for God and neighbor, and genuine faith (trust and confidence) in God’s love for them through the merits of Jesus Christ.” Throughout the sermon, Wesley paints the picture of an almost Christian: one who has the outward appearance of a Christian – one who does and says the right things. Wesley confesses that he was an almost Christian for many years.
In the second half of the sermon, Wesley delineates what an “altogether Christian” looks like, and the hallmark is faith in Jesus Christ alone. Wesley said, “The right and true Christian faith is not only to believe that Holy Scripture and the articles of our faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ – it is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God that by the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favor of God – whereof doth follow a loving heart to obey his commandments.”
Wesley still calls us to be crystal clear that only Jesus saves and that Jesus’ righteousness is credited to us only by grace through faith in Him. Today, more than ever, we need to embrace the depth and breadth of that idea. Only Jesus saves. And Jesus saves us by His amazing grace that is given to us when we place our full trust in Him. As my friend, J.D. Walt likes to say, “Jesus is the Gospel!”
Wesley wrote 12 rules for his “helpers” (lay preachers). All of them are important, but number 11 has always been my favorite, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most.” John Wesley’s vision calls us to ensure that we lead people to put their full faith and trust in Jesus and become an “altogether Christian.” We have far too many “almost Christians.” We don’t need anymore. It’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in. We must spend and be spent in this work in the coming years.
Perseverance is Key
John Wesley annoyed people. After his heart was “strangely warmed,” he tried to share his message across England. It was met with extreme hostility from the “institution” of the Church of England. He was banned from most churches including his home church in Epworth. He had to stand on his own father’s grave to preach at his childhood church. Instead, Wesley took to the fields to preach to coal miners and farmers. He would preach from the market crosses in the centers of towns. His message led people to faith in Jesus by the tens of thousands.
The “institution” wanted Wesley stopped so badly that sometimes local priests would hire town drunks to heckle Wesley while he was speaking. Once while in Bristol, several detractors released the meanest bull they could find into a crowd listening to Wesley preach. Wesley wrote in his journal how the moment the thugs slapped the bull on the rear the bull simply bowed its head and stood in the middle of the crowd. They tried to slap it again and the bull wandered off back to its farm where it came from. People threw rotten eggs and tomatoes at Wesley. This happened for close to two decades.
Wesley could have given up. Many of us would have after 20 years of that kind of opposition. That wasn’t in John’s DNA, however. Wesley’s father, Samuel, taught him to persevere. After all, the Wesleys’ home was burned down because people didn’t like what Samuel was preaching, and yet Samuel rebuilt and carried on.
John Wesley’s revival that changed England and the world happened because he wouldn’t give up. He persevered in the face of great difficulty. For 20 years people tried to stop him, but he refused to give up. After those first 20 years, however, John Wesley became a celebrity. He went from not being welcome in most churches to achieving a level of fame reserved for very few in the 1700s. When he died every newspaper in the country carried a headline of his death and he was mourned nationwide.
This present season has been intolerably hard. The “institution” has come down hard on churches and pastors trying to move to a better theological home. They have seized church property citing “exigent circumstances,” they have threatened retired clergy with being brought up on charges for even attending a disaffiliated church, and they have added punitive and onerous costs to churches trying to depart. The easy thing would be to give up. Wesley didn’t. We can’t either. Wesley persevered for two decades, and we must follow in his footsteps by contending for the faith so we can be free to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
John Wesley’s persistence changed not only England. He changed the world. His Methodist movement still does. People who end up changing the world are people who have the courage to get up when they’re knocked down. People who quit after being opposed never accomplish anything. We have no choice but to rely on the strength of the Holy Spirit and be inspired by our Methodist founder, John Wesley, to press on toward the prize.
Not Goodbye, but a Transition to New Life
John Wesley preached his last sermon three days before he died at age 87. He got home and didn’t feel well. He got into bed and never got out again.
Wesley wanted to be spent in the cause of Jesus Christ until the end. Many say his final words were, “Best of all, God is with us!” They weren’t. They were close. He said those words and then prayed a brief prayer. Afterward, he tried to sing a hymn, “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath.” He began, “I’ll praise…I’ll praise…” and then he simply said, “Farewell.”
The first verse of the hymn Wesley tried to sing was, “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath; and when my voice is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall ne’er be past, while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures.”
Wesley’s life begs the question of whether we’re willing to “spend and be spent” in this work until the end. Are we just going through the motions, or are we deeply engaged in helping to form “altogether Christians?” Are we okay with people saying they believe in God and trying to be “good,” or are we focused on helping people understand that faith is all about a relationship with Jesus who loves you more than you can ever hope to imagine?
Departing The United Methodist Church isn’t “goodbye.” It’s a transition to a new life. John Wesley went through the very same thing when he began the Methodist movement out of the Church of England. He led a powerful transition that has led to millions finding faith in Jesus and moving on toward entire sanctification.
Wesley was all used up by God at the end of his life. He led people to a full and devoted faith in Jesus. He persevered through decades of awful opposition. He praised God to his last breath.
Will we learn from his witness and follow in his footsteps?
The Rev. Jay Therrell is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Global Methodist Church.
Photo of John Wesley is a sculpture by Adam Carr located in Melbourne, Australia. Public domain photo by Adam Carr/Wikipedia.