Many Christians will have been through times when they doubted their faith, perhaps because of some tragedy or incident that happened in their lives, because faith or reading scripture simply does not interest them much, perhaps because they lack time to focus on the development of their faith. These times of Coronavirus have seen some people turn to faith and others turned off by it—how can such a terrible tragedy as this happen?
As times John Wesley also felt he did not have enough faith to continue preaching and that his faith gave him little comfort in his life. To Peter Böhler, a Moravian friend, he confessed his growing misery and decision to give up on ministry. Böhler advised him to “Preach faith till you have it, and then because you have it, you will preach faith”.
After this, John must have become even more frustrated. We read in his diary that on Sunday 7th May, 1738 that he preached at ‘St. Lawrence's in the morning, and afterward at St. Katherine Cree's Church’ and was told ‘that I was not to preach any more in either of those churches’. The same happened on future Sundays at St. Ann's, Aldersgate, St. John's, Wapping and St. Bennett's, Paul's Wharf. At these churches, likewise, he was ‘to preach no more’.
For the next three days, all Wesley records is this: ‘Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I had continual sorrow and heaviness in my heart’.
It was against this background that we read in Wesley’s diary that he opened his Bible at about five in the morning on Wednesday 24th May and read thes scripture readings:
‘Jesus gave his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.’ (Mark 12: 28-34)
‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ (2 Peter 1: 4)
Later that same day, Wesley writes these now famous words, which Deacon John F. Clarke reminded us of on Saturday in these pages:
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.
But this is not the end of the story. The next passage is perhaps even more significant. Later that evening, Wesley records the following:
After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He "sent me help from his holy place." And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.
Yes, Wesley wrote his diary with the intent it would be published and would be read by others. So are these words a simple and accurate recording of the day’s events? We do not know.
But surely here, in these words, Wesley is telling us something that is so significant to our faith both as Christians and specifically as Methodists.
We find ourselves in a world where there is violence; there is unjust action, where we feel unable to do anything about it. We find ourselves tempted, thinking things we would rather not, doing things we wished we had not. We are greedy; we are rude; we get angry too quickly. We feel isolated and alone; stressed, that we cannot cope with the conditions and poverty we find ourselves in.
But Methodists have always been clear that no-one is beyond the reach of God's love. Salvation is there for everyone who turns to God, and not just for a chosen few. That night when John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed, he felt a change in his heart. It did not mean that suddenly he did not sin or that bad things never happened to him, but he knew that his sins were taken away and he could conquer—rather than be conquered by—whatever happened to him.
Today we may find the Church (in the UK at least) in decline in terms of numbers. We may question if we or our church leaders and preachers have that same zeal as Wesley.
I recently came across these words written in 1961 in the Methodist Message, the magazine of the Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore (or Malaya as it was at that time):
We've had no end of instruction in methods, in education, in evangelism, and churchmanship; but these have not borne the expected results. What is needed is a new experience, the transforming power of Christ in the heart of the believer. This is something which, though earnestly sought, cannot be acquired without divine help. It is a gift of God. May the Holy Spirit be poured out upon the church, its pastors, and workers, upon every member in the pew. Then Aldersgate will be reclaimed, in South Eastern Asia and around the world.
So the day after Aldersgate Sunday 2020, let us remember that great summary of our Methodist teaching that: “All need to be saved. All may be saved. All may know themselves saved. All may be saved to the uttermost”, and may we have the faith to know it ourselves and to proclaim it to others. Amen!
We are truly part of a world church. Here is Charles Wesley's "Conversion Hymn" written around this same time 282 years ago, sung by the Korean Methodist Church (with English subtitles!):
The reflections here are written by members of our congregation.