In Church or In Christ? (Lessons from John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience)
Robert Wurtz II
Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. (2 Corinthians 13:5 NKJV)
The renowned Evangelical theologian J.I. Packer, in his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, reminds us that “Aspiration, resolution, and religiosity are no substitutes for faith. Martin Luther and John Wesley had all these long before they had faith.” This is a sobering consideration, but a true one.
One of the primary strategies of evangelists in the era leading up to the 20th century was to call into question the hearer’s assurance of salvation. We do not hear preaching like this in the main stream, so it is necessary to experience it for ourselves in order to understand the effect it would have on the hearer. George Whitefield (1714-1770) began his soul-searching sermon with this standard type of enquiry:
And, I think, if I know anything of mine own heart, my heart’s desire, as well as my prayer to God, for you all, is, that I may see you sitting down in the kingdom of our heavenly Father. But then, though we all hope to go to heaven when we die, yet, if we may judge by people’s lives, and our Lord says, “that by their fruits we may know them,” I am afraid it will be found, that thousands, and ten thousands, who hope to go to this blessed place after death, are not now in the way to it while they live. Though we call ourselves Christians, and would consider it as an affront put upon us for anyone to doubt whether we were Christians or not; yet there are a great many, who bear the name of Christ, that yet do not so much as know what real Christianity is. Hence it is, that if you ask a great many, upon what their hopes of heaven are founded, they will tell you that they belong to this, or that, or the other denomination, and part of Christians, into which Christendom is now unhappily divided. If you ask others, upon what foundation they have built their hope of heaven, they will tell you, that they have been baptized, that their fathers and mothers, presented them to the Lord Jesus Christ in their infancy; and though, instead of fighting under Christ’s banner, they have been fighting against Him, almost ever since they were baptized, yet because they have been admitted to church, and their names are in the register book of the parish, therefore they will make us believe, that their names are also written in the book of life. But a great many, who will not build their hopes of salvation upon such a sorry rotten foundation as this, yet if they are, what we generally call, negatively good people; if they live so as their neighbors cannot say that they do anybody harm, they do not doubt but they shall be happy when they die; nay, I have found many such die, as the Scripture speaks, “without any hands in their death.” And if a person is what the world calls an honest moral man, if he does justly, and, what the world calls, love a little mercy, is now and then good-natured, reaches out his hand to the poor, receives the sacrament once or twice a year, and is outwardly sober and honest; the world looks upon such an one as a Christian indeed, and doubtless we are to judge charitably of every such person. There are many likewise, who go on in a round of duties, a model of performances, that think they shall go to heaven; but if you examine them, though they have a Christ in their heads, they have no Christ in their hearts.
This opening statement was designed to call to question whether or not one was truly converted. It asks the question, “On what is your hope built?” This was akin to John the Baptist saying, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree that does not bring forth good fruit will be hewn down and cast into the fire.” It matters not your affiliation or pedigree, but whether or not you have truly repented and trusted Christ. Have you begun in the Spirit? Does your life yield the fruit of the Holy Spirit? This is the true evidence that one has passed from death unto life.
George Whitefield had a dear friend named John Wesley (1703-1791). As a child Wesley had been saved from a fiery building and true to form he was indeed a man “plucked from the burning.” He became an Anglican priest in England that had studied at Christ Church, Oxford. There he helped found the “Holy Club” along with his brother Charles and George Whitefield. This was the beginning of the Methodists. He traveled to the Colonies to do a work for God, only to realize on the ship and in a raging storm that he was not truly converted himself. As shocking as that may seem, this man at the age of 35, that was raised to know the Word of God at his mother’s knee, had all his life trusted in his own righteousness for salvation. He wrote in his journal:
All the time I was at Savannah, Georgia I was thus beating the air. Being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, which by a living faith in him brings salvation “to everyone that believeth,” I sought to establish my own righteousness, and so labored in the fire all my days. I was now, properly under the Law; I knew that the Law of God was spiritual; I consented to it, that it was good. Yea, I delighted in it, after the inner man. Yet was I carnal, sold under sin. Every day was I constrained to cry out, “What I do, I allow not; for what I would, I do not; but what I hate, that I do. To will is indeed present with me; but how to perform that which is good, I find not. For the good which I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.
He admitted that he was neither freed from sin, nor did he have the witness of the Holy Spirit. His own diagnosis was that he had sought these things by the works of the Law and not the hearing of faith. All the while, the ministry went on. He wrote, “And I continued preaching and following after and trusting in that righteousness, whereby no flesh can be justified.” Returning home, he diligently sought the Lord. He renounced his own righteousness. He added:
During this whole struggle between nature and grace, (which had now continued above ten years,) I had many remarkable returns to prayer; especially when I was in trouble. I had many sensible comforts, which are indeed no other than short anticipations of the life of faith. But I was still under the law, not under grace: (the state most who are called Christians are content to live and die in).
Wesley struggled for a while coming to a place of complete trust in the finished work of Christ. Herein is the Reformers position of man’s estate before God validated—in that man is helpless in his own strength to reform himself sufficiently to become a child of God. Repentance? Wesley had much of it. Sorrow for sin? Wesley had it in superabundance. A desire to do what was right in the sight of the Lord? Indeed, Wesley burned with a desire for righteousness but he was going about it his own way. God had to arrest his attention and bring a great light upon the subject. It was on that ship somewhere in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that God brought him into reality. As the Roman soldiers and prisoners in Acts 27, Wesley experienced the fear of imminent death by drowning in darkness. The whole experience must have been a foretaste of hell. He didn’t want to die like this—in fear rather than faith. As the Moravians prayed and sang peacefully in the ship Wesley’s nerves were frayed like no other time. All of his life he had done as the shipmaster in Acts 27, doing everything he could to get rid of things that offend. He bolstered his “ship” with all kinds of earthly disciplines, but in the midst of the sea, the chords that held his soul secure were melted before this flame. When it seemed that all of his life was destined for one massive shipwreck, he arrived in the place where God could really save him. John Wesley continues his testimony:
God prepared Peter Border for me as soon as I came to London, affirmed of true faith in Christ, (which is but one,) that it had those two fruits inseparably attending it, “Do minion over sin, and constant peace from a sense of forgiveness.” I was quite amazed and looked upon it as a new Gospel. If this was so, it was clear, I did not have faith. But I was not willing to be convinced of this. Therefore I disputed with all my might and labored to prove that faith might be where these were not; especially where the sense of forgiveness was not: for all the Scriptures relating to this I had been long since taught to construe away and to call all “Presbyterians” who spoke otherwise. Besides, I well saw, no one could (in the nature of things) have such a sense of forgiveness, and not feel it. But I felt it not. If then there was no faith without this, all my pretensions to faith dropped at once.(emphasis added)
One morning Wesley woke up and opened his Bible to the passage, There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that you should be partakers of the divine nature(2 Peter 1:4). Returning later he opened to another verse, you are not far from the Kingdom of God. In the evening, he went to hear a message. The experience he describes would mark a radical change in his life:
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 that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, 1 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. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.
This marked John Wesley’s conversion. It is commonly referred to as his Aldersgate experience. He was 35 years old. It is instructional for those who may have been involved in Christianity all of their lives and yet have not truly been born of the Spirit. Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. (2 Corinthians 13:5 NKJV)