John Wesley: "preaching the faith I do not know"...

Note from Tim Bayly: The following is written by Rev. David Wegener, a missionary with Mission to the World who teaches theology at the Theology College of Central Africa in Ndola, Zambia. Mr. Wegener and his family are supported by the missions budgets of both Christ the Word and Church of the Good Shepherd.

This year the Wegeners are on home assignment and David has been teaching the men of the Reformed Evangelical Pastors College. I asked David to make some occasional contributions to the blog and this is his first. (If your congregation is looking for an excellent mission work and family to add to your support list, I commend David's work and family to you and suggest you send me an E-mail asking for David's contact information so they can visit you or your church.)

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One of the great joys of my life has been reading the books written by Iain Murray. Pastor Murray was the former assistant of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London. He also pastored churches in England and Australia, as well as working for the Banner of Truth publishing company. I could list all of Murray's books and tell of the impact they have made on my life but that would take too long.

Recently, I've enjoyed reading one of his books, Wesley and the Men Who Followed (Banner, 2003). He answered some questions I've had about John Wesley for many years.

Wesley's conversion was a difficult process, one that John himself struggled to understand. Though brought up in a pastor's home, he went off to Oxford University as an unconverted man...

He used to meet with a group of friends (including George Whitefield and his brother Charles) for Bible study. The members of the group rose early for lengthy devotions and tried not to waste a moment of the day. In the evening they wrote in a Diary and would examine the day's activities to see if they had committed any fault. They took the Eucharist each Sunday and fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. Saturdays were used to prepare for the Lord's Day. They were deeply committed to the Church of England and believed in its doctrine. They visited prisoners and the poor and contributed from their meager income to run a school for the children of prison inmates. These activities, they believed, would contribute to the salvation of their own souls. Clearly the group was not evangelical and it did not bring the satisfaction that each of the members sought from the group.

Wesley left Oxford still in an unregenerate state. Ordained in 1735 he and his brother left for the wilds of America to serve as missionaries to the Indians and colonists in the state of Georgia. Their time there was a failure. Three years later, Wesley wrote, "I went to America to convert Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?"

After their return to England, John sought out some Moravian Christians. He had had contact with some in Georgia and they had challenged his lack of assurance of salvation. One of the Moravians, Peter Bohler, was instrumental in helping the Wesley brothers toward an understanding of justifying faith. On 24 May 1738, John went to a meeting in Aldersgate Street in London. Someone read from the Preface of Martin Luther's commentary on Romans. Wesley wrote the following in his journal: "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."

Many people know this part of the story. What many don't know is that within a year (January 1739), Wesley was writing in his journal,

My friends affirm I am mad, because I said I was not a Christian a year ago. I affirm I am not a Christian now ... For a Christian is one who has the fruits of the Spirit of Christ, which (to mention no more) are love, peace, joy ... And I feel this moment I do not love God ... joy in the Holy Ghost I have not ... though I have constantly used all the means of grace for twenty years, I am not a Christian" (Murray 2003:8-9).

What's going on here? I never could figure it out. Then I recently came across this letter written by John to his brother Charles in June of 1766.

"In one of my last [letters] I was saying that I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen ... And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward nor backward! Surely there was never such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other evidence of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason's glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal.

"And yet I dare not preach otherwise than I do, either concerning faith, or love, or justification, or perfection. And yet I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it. I am borne along, I know not how, that I can't stand still. I want all the world to come to what I do not know." (Quoted in Stephen Tomkins, 2003, John Wesley: A Biography, Eerdmans, p. 168.)

Once again, what's going on here? How could Wesley criss-cross England on horse-back, preaching himself into exhaustion, for a faith he seems to wonder if he actually possessed? Murray helped me to understand that several things were at work.

Unfortunately, the Moravians believed that if one has true faith, then one is totally released from all doubts and Wesley, at least for a time, adopted this belief. If you have any remaining doubts, then you do not yet have true faith. Assurance of salvation, they claimed, always accompanies justification. This understanding of faith and assurance departed from the Puritan understanding that one may have true faith and yet lack an assurance of salvation. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, "This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it" (WCF, 18,3). Wesley and the Moravians denied this. So whenever any doubts or fears raised their ugly head, it meant that one was not a true believer. (See Murray 2003: 48-55.)

Similarly, Murray points out that Wesley was not clear about the meaning of the witness of the Holy Spirit. The eighth chapter of Romans says that the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are children of God. Murray has read several sermons on the witness of the Spirit and he is not sure if Wesley ever came to understand this doctrine (Murray 2003:76, note 1).

Finally, Wesley also appears to have had real questions on the nature of justification. At the beginning of his ministry (late 1730s, early 1740s), he clearly held to the historic Protestant doctrine. One of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England states, "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith," and Wesley wholeheartedly agreed. And yet, later on in his ministry, he started to waver. He began by questioning the reality of the imputation of Christ's righteousness in the 1740s and 1750s. The controversy got even worse when the minutes of the 1770 Methodist Conference of Ministers were published. They asked,

Does not talking of a justified or a sanctified state tend to mislead men? Almost naturally leading them to trust in what was done in one moment? Whereas we are every hour and every moment pleasing or displeasing to God, 'according to our works'; -- according to the whole of our inward tempers, and our outward behavior." Any other view of justification will not lead the believer to pursue holiness with vigor and will tend to promote "careless living" (Murray 2003:221).

After these minutes were published, Wesley had to do a lot of damage control, making clear that he abhorred the doctrine of justification by works. At the very least, however, these brief snippets show us that Wesley was not clear on the nature of justification. And if one is not clear here, you will always face real questions about whether or not you are a Christian.

The evangelicalism in which I was raised didn't help me on any of these topics. I heard many sermons growing up that promoted a Moravian understanding of faith and assurance. If I had any doubts or lacked a full assurance of salvation, I was not a real Christian and needed to receive Christ again. I can't think of any sermons I ever heard on the witness of the Spirit. That was unknown territory. And when I finally came to understand the historic Protestant teaching on justification, it seemed like I was hearing it for the first time. Maybe it was preached but I didn't yet have ears to hear; or maybe it wasn't preached with real clarity.

-by David Wegener

Comments

David
I too have read Murray's books and have received much blessing from them. My question is, have you received this assurance of the Holy Spirit? I believe it is clearly taught in scripture but this wonderful blessing seems to elude me. Why? Monty

Thank you, this was very helpful.

Hello, I came across this post doing a google search for one of the quotes you have of John Wesley. Just a quick question -- is the first quote actually Wesley himself speaking?

If you go to the works (available via google) and read the bottom of this page: http://books.google.com/books?id=x8cOAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA117&dq=john+wesley+%2..., you'll find that the quote is preceded by Wesley writing "One who had the form of godliness many years, wrote the following reflections - ". OK, is Wesley just speaking about himself in the 3rd person here? I guess that is an option, and perhaps that was common to do. It also seems possible that he is actually quoting someone else at that point.

Dear Aaron:

Sorry for the delay. I had to check out some of my sources and my books and computer are not in the same location. The reference for the quote you mention is wrong. The quote on Wesley's account of his conversion does come from Murray 2003:8-9. But, the quote about which you asked ("My friends affirm ...") is actually found in Murray 2003:49.

The reference in Murray is from Wesley's journal, vol. 2, pages 125-26. Murray is using the edition of "The Journal of Rev. John Wesley," edited in 8 volumes by Nehemiah Curnock (published in London by Robert Culley in 1909).

I haven't been able to check out the primary source yet, so I can't really answer your question. If your hunch is correct, then Murray has made a mistake. However, re-reading this section of Murray, I don't think he has. He is making the case that Wesley, early in his ministry, held to the Moravian view of faith and assurance: If you lack assurance, then you don't have faith.

Later in his life, Wesley changed his views (in a more Puritan direction) and marveled at what he used to believe and teach on the topic. Murray quotes a letter of Wesley to a friend named Melville Horne:

"When fifty years ago my brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, told the good people of England, that unless they knew their sins were forgiven, they were under the wrath and curse of God, I marvel, Melville, they did not stone us! The Methodists, I hope, know better now: we preach assurance as we always did, as a common privilege of the children of God; but we do not enforce it, under pain of damnation, denounced on all who enjoy it not."

So if Wesley really is referring to himself (in the quote on page 49 of Murray), it would fit with the way Murray has portrayed his thinking at this stage. And Wesley himself says that he used to believe one way and then slowly changed his views on faith and assurance.

If you are able to come upon the book by Murray, read the entire section on "Understanding Wesley's Thought." It is fascinating.

David,

Thank you for the response / explanation and for taking the time to look this up. I was trying to find information about some of those quotes on-line since I don't physically own any of the volumes mentioned. I'm sometimes amazed at what can be found on-line, though one does have to be careful. I've found some old out of print books digitized by various libraries or google. The quote in that journal entry ends with: "Though I have constantly used all the means of grace for twenty years, I am not a Christian." It was written in Jan. of 1739, so if Wesley would consider himself having used the means of grace since about 1719, I suppose it could fit with him just talking about himself. At any rate, the second quote from a letter he wrote speaks more or less along the same lines so I guess it doesn't change much even if in that first quote he wasn't really referring to himself. It's often difficult to discern the truth of what was going on in the past when you have people with different theologies and sometimes pre-determined conclusions "interpretting" things differently. Wesley seems to be one who was and is considered by people to be everything from an un-converted heretic to one of the most holy saints.

-Aaron

Dear Aaron:

I wouldn't go to either of the two poles you mention.

I think Wesley was wrong in judging himself to be unconverted. One thing I've been trying to show in these posts is that his wrong judgment about his own spiritual state was based on a wrong theology.

Now on the doctrine of faith and assurance, he later came to a better judgment, but I think he still had a ways to go in his understanding of this doctrine.

But in the bigger picture, there are several lessons to be learned. First, according to Murray, Wesley's preaching was much better than his controversial writings. There are even some near contrdictions between what he wrote when engaged in a controversy and what he preached. Murray amply demonstrates this when writing about Wesley's preaching on justification (which was orthodox) and some of his controversial writings on this doctrine (which were at least unclear and at times unorthodox).

A second lesson that I draw from all this is one must be very selective if one wants to learn theology from Wesley. He wasn't a very good guide in this area, even though vast segments of the church do follow his teachings. Wesley's genius lay elsewhere.

Aaron,

I highlighted the site you posted to give further light on Wesley's strange letter to his brother but it only gave this site, Bayly Blog, for a reference. In all of my reading which has been quite extensive- Wesley's writings, early Methodist writings, the Holiness Movement's writings, I have never ran across such a thing as this strange letter. So perhaps you could lead me to the site from which you obtained the additional information on Wesley's letter.

Sincerely,

Jim

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