John Wesley's thoughts before his conversion
This month sees a tercentenary for John Wesley who was born on June 17 1703 in Epworth, Lincolnshire.
It was on May 24 1738 that Wesley received assurance of salvation in a momentous experience of conversion. It lit the fire of evangelistic zeal in his heart which continued until his death in 1791.
Before his conversion, he had met Peter Bohler, a Moravian missionary, and had been convinced by him that salvation is by faith alone. It is interesting to read two letters John Wesley wrote just prior to his Aldersgate experience. The first is to William Law, who for 12 years had been his mentor and whose Serious Call and Christian Perfection he had previously studied avidly. The second is to an unidentified friend, who, like Wesley, was seeking salvation.
To William Law
[London, May 14 1738]
It is in obedience to what I think to be the call of God that I, who have the sentence of death in my own soul, take upon me to write to you, of whom I have often desired to learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ.
If you are born of God, you will approve of the design, though it may be but weakly executed. If not, I shall grieve for you, not for myself. For as I seek not the praise of men, neither regard I the contempt either of you or of any other.
For two years (more especially) I have been preaching after the model of your two practical treatises; and all who heard have allowed that the law is great, wonderful and holy. But no sooner did they attempt to fulfil it, but they found that it is too high for man, and that by doing 'the works of the law shall no flesh living be justified'.
To remedy this, I exhorted them, and stirred up myself, to pray earnestly for the grace of God, and to use all the other means of obtaining that grace which the all-wise God hath appointed. But still, both they and I were more and more convinced that this is a law by which a man cannot live; the law in our members continually warring against it, and bringing us into deeper captivity to the law of sin.
Under this heavy yoke I might have groaned till death, had not an holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once: 'Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all thy heart, and nothing shall be impossible to thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find. Strip thyself naked of thy own works and thy own righteousness, and fly to Him. For whosoever cometh unto Him, He will in no wise cast out.'
Now, sir, suffer me to ask: How will you answer it to our common Lord that you never gave me this advice? Did you never read the Acts of the Apostles, or the answer of Paul to him who said, 'What must I do to be saved?' Or are you wiser than he? Why did I scarce ever hear you name the name of Christ? never, so as to ground anything upon 'faith in His blood'? Who is this who is laying another foundation? If you say you advised other things as preparatory to this, what is this but laying a foundation below the foundation? Is not Christ, then, the first as well as the last? If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all. I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not in the heart. But what is this to the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus? the faith that cleanseth from sin, that gives us to have free access to the Father, to 'rejoice in hope of the glory of God', to have 'the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost' which dwelleth in us, and 'the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God'?
I beseech you, sir, by the mercies of God, to consider deeply and impartially, whether the true reason of your never pressing this upon me was not this - that you had it not yourself; whether that man of God was not in the right who gave this account of a late interview he had with you - 'I began speaking to him of faith in Christ: he was silent. Then he began to speak of Mystical matters. I spake to him of faith in Christ again: he was silent. Then he began to speak of Mystical matters again. I saw his state at once.' And a very dangerous one in his judgement, whom I know to have the Spirit of God.
Once more, sir, let me beg you to consider whether your extreme roughness, and morose and sour behaviour, at least on many occasions, can possibly be the fruit of a living faith in Christ. If not, may the God of peace and love fill up what is yet wanting in you! - I am, reverend sir,
Your humble servant
To a friend
[London, May 24 1738]
Oh why is it that so great, so wise, so holy a God will use such an instrument as me! Lord, 'let the dead bury their dead'! But wilt Thou send the dead to raise the dead? Yea, Thou sendest whom Thou wilt send, and showest mercy by whom Thou wilt show mercy! Amen! Be it, then, according to Thy will! If Thou speak the word, Judas shall cast out devils.
I feel what you say (though not enough), for I am under the same condemnation. I see that the whole law of God is holy, just, and good. I know every thought, every temper of my soul ought to bear God's image and superscription. But how am I fallen from the glory of God! I feel that 'I am sold under sin'. I know that I, too, deserve nothing but wrath, being full of all abominations, and having no good thing in me to atone for them or to remove the wrath of God.
All my works, my righteousness, my prayers need an atonement for themselves. So that my mouth is stopped. I have nothing to plead. God is holy; I am unholy. God is a consuming fire; I am altogether a sinner, meet to be consumed.
Yet I hear a voice (and is it not the voice of God?) saying, 'Believe, and thou shalt be saved. He that believeth is passed from death unto life. God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'
Oh let no one deceive us by vain words, as if we had already attained this faith! By its fruits we shall know. Do we already feel 'peace with God' and 'joy in the Holy Ghost'? Does 'His Spirit bear witness with our spirit that we are the children of God'? Alas! with mine He does not. Nor, I fear, with yours. O Thou Saviour of men, save us from trusting in anything but Thee! Draw us after Thee! Let us be emptied of ourselves, and then fill us with all peace and joy in believing; and let nothing separate us from Thy love, in time or in eternity!
Wesley records his conversion at Aldersgate Street in these famous words from 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 next morning Wesley wrote: 'The moment I awaked "Jesus, Master" was in my heart and in my mouth.'