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John Wesley
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John Wesley: Knowing God as Savior

By Stephen Reed
The Colson Center

CBN.comThe history of the Christian faith has many colorful examples of those individuals, many of them already believers of a sort, whose approach to God was to treat Him as a gigantic mathematical equation. You know the type: They want to successfully figure God out.

The stories of Paul, Augustine, John Wesley, and Soren Kierkegaard are similar in this respect, despite their diversity of experiences. All were supreme intellects. All were very interested in God, loved to try to figure Him out, only to find that they were the ones who needed figured out first. Each of them discovered that their minds—especially their approach to using their minds—could only take them so far.

The Patron Saint of Reason Over Emotion

Wesley may well be the patron saint of all those intelligent types who tried as hard as any man could to figure God out. Born into a very religious home with a father who was an Anglican minister and a mother who was a well-read Christian in her own right, Wesley carried both reason and disciplined Bible study with him throughout his life. He and his brother, Charles, always stressed both the keeping of the moral law and a dedicated, sacrificial living to their fellow “Holy Club” members at Oxford.

Does the name of his club give you an indication of what was to come?

The intricacies of the moral law, along with the order of the methods he employed to perform his religious duties, could have been a great strengthening for Wesley’s spiritual life. At times they no doubt were. But something was missing. And as he built up his inner religious edifice, he found it much easier to not only make demands on others, but to have that self-righteous propensity of claiming a divine mandate for simply a demand of his own devising.

For example, when Wesley went on a mission trip to Georgia early in his ministry, where he hoped to minister to both English colonists and evangelize the Native Americans, he was ill-equipped to deal with matters of the heart when it came to the opposite sex. He was always a handsome young man, and enjoyed a certain repartee with women in his college days. But he never quite let himself connect with them too deeply, no doubt as part of his religious instincts toward avoiding sexual temptations. This is reflected in some of his journals of the time.

This aspect of his life is a window into the larger problem of Wesley’s disconnect between reason and emotion. When emotion threw him a curve ball that he either couldn’t control or feared, he didn’t deal with it. He just ran away from it. Many such hyper-reasoning individuals do that. They are far more comfortable in the world of ideas, abstractions, even romantic reveries; but actually incorporating the emotional dimension properly into their lives is perhaps their most difficult challenge. Kierkegaard’s Regine can certainly testify to that!

In Wesley’s case, he was involved to some degree with a young woman during his time in Savannah. But he could never commit to marry her. After waiting around for some time, the young woman finally left him and eventually became engaged to another young man. When she wanted to be admitted to the local church’s communion with her new husband, Wesley, for some reason, promptly refused! Her husband responded by indicting Wesley for defamation of his new bride’s character, and it went downhill from there.

Overcome by Buried Emotion

In a very human moment, John Wesley had used his religious authority as a way to mask his own emotional discomfort in a prickly situation. For this pettiness, he was practically run out of Georgia. Wesley was washed up at an early age, returning to London a dejected failure at age 35.

Incidents like this began to work on him. He wasn’t able to figure it all out just with his own excellent mind—because his mind was part of the fallen order, too. It was a fine mind, one that could do an incredible number of tasks well. It could debate the non-believers at Oxford, master a theological text, and write with verve. But it could not save his soul, no matter how hard he tried.

No one in England in the mid-18th century was more qualified to know God than Wesley if God was to be known only through intellectual means. He had studied the Scriptures and the great Christian theologians for years. He knew the words of Jesus, knew whole books of Scripture in their original Greek and Latin. He understood the sacraments and how to explain their merits to others.

There was only one problem: He didn’t know God at all.

On one hand, Wesley knew all about God. However, he had no intimate understanding of the key aspects of God’s nature. The only way for Wesley to find that out, given his religious upbringing, was by understanding his own nature first. How else could grace steal up on him?

The Scriptures, the theology he had known since being a small child, were of no surprise to him. He had a mastery of them, could even think them under his control. What were all those little rules and methods at his Oxford Holy Club really about anyway? Were they so that God could master Wesley or so that Wesley could master God? God had to find another way to get to this successful young man.

Only when Wesley was forced to see his own dark side, a self-reliance that could lead to permanent failure, did he start to look around in new places, within and without, for the answers he needed. As for the state of his own inner self, he didn’t like what he saw.

Time for a Change

The debater who never lost an argument, the bright minister’s son, the dandy who could turn women’s heads—suddenly was at a loss following the failed ministry in Georgia.

Only when he came face to face with his genuine need for a savior, not a theoretical need but a real need, did the lighthouse begin to come into view for John Wesley. Grace finally stole upon the spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally exhausted Wesley at the famous Aldersgate prayer meeting where the book of Romans was being taught. The defenses he had cultivated for a lifetime were finally down. Then the connection with Jesus was made at last. Of the change God worked in him at Aldersgate, Wesley wrote:

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 what I now first felt in my heart.

God gave him the sense to realize that all that he had been preaching so confidently to others was directly applicable to his own desolate soul. He freely, even joyfully embraced the gift of free grace, something he could never do before when he was convinced that his methods, his intellect, his discipline and works would be enough to earn him God’s favor.

He said famously of this prayer meeting that he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” Now, lest the rationalists suggest that Wesley’s conversion is a dangerous tango with unreliable emotion, consider the following.

First, this was a man who had clamped down his emotional side for so many years that one drop of emotion in a spiritual context was significant. That drop was God showing Wesley that he loved him even when he did not have it all together—at all. Seen rightly, Wesley’s connection—at last—with the emotional aspects of his devastated career and now new hope in Christ was simply the Spirit reintroducing him to another important side of nature that had been wasting away for years: his God-given emotions.

Now, he was on his way to becoming integrated, more empathetic with other sinners, and possessing a truly grateful heart.

Secondly, Wesley was very much a religious man of his times. He was not one who put great stock in highly emotional evangelical tactics and for the rest of his life admonished those in his fellowship who were too “enthusiastic,” a term with more negative connotations than we have today. Wesley never wanted his followers to base their faith strictly on emotion at all. But Aldersgate left him with an appreciation that God is known best when we know our own spiritual and emotional state, rather than attempting to fully comprehend Him with our mental abilities alone. Otherwise, what can be said for those without great minds? Will they have a chance to know God in this life?

Thirdly, one can see from his own reaction that he was surprised as much as anybody at what had happened to him. His heart felt “strangely warmed.” That’s not primarily a physical sensation he is describing; it’s a spiritual realization. That is to say, here was something new to him, something that connected the parts of himself that he had tried so hard over the years to keep separate: his mind and his heart.

A 50-Year Testimony

The results are for anyone to inspect in the more than 50 years of Wesley’s ministry from that point on. He was still firm in his teaching, but now grace and love permeated it. The stubborn streak he had from birth God could now use in the service of radical love for those who felt convicted by his gospel message. In some instances, mobs who were so resistant to his loving-but-firm sermons in the open air beat him and threw rocks and punches at him. He thought nothing of it and kept going. He would not be deterred, now that he really had invited Christ into his heart.

The hospitals, schools, and orphanages he started were all built and maintained in the name of the loving of God and neighbor. His movement’s members imitated his approach to the poor, inviting them into their fellowship. Methodist social services were geared toward helping people where they were and whenever possible to introduce them to Christ. And from the other end, Wesley’s worship services were always about building up the individual in Christ—and then finding some useful work for them to do for their neighbors for the mutual benefit of the neighbors and the newly-minted Methodist too.

By the end of his long life, John Wesley knew God, loved Jesus, and believed powerfully in the Holy Spirit. At age 88, on his deathbed, he would pray repeatedly, “I the chief of sinners am, but Jesus died for me.” His last words were, “The best thing of all is God is with us.”

He could not have said that on his near-death experience on the boat back to England during the storm. His failures as a young minister taught him how much he really did need Christ. Only when he was brought to his knees in failure did the Gospel that he had heard all of his life not only make complete sense to his mind, but also his heart.

Great Britain and the fledgling United States were never the same. In the end, hundreds of thousands came to know God as Wesley had learned himself: through realizing the simple but profound truth that Jesus loved them and wanted them freed of the sin that was killing them.

Wesley proves that trusting God over ourselves is more important than knowledge alone. Knowledge is vital and very helpful, but the two kinds of knowledge that count the most are the most obvious: how badly we need a savior and how much our Savior loves us.

The realization of these two truths were enough to occupy a mind as complicated as Wesley’s for over 50 years of ministry. Why?

Because the same two truths had taken up permanent residency in his heart, and because God’s love is so fathomless that it is a worthy replacement for the mind whose chief delight is the mastery of God and His universe. Wesley had come full circle, exchanging the mastery of God as a subject for knowing the Lord intimately as his savior.

Would you like to know the Lord as your savior? Learn how.

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Stephen ReedStephen N. Reed is the Web Content Editor for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, based in Lansdowne, Virginia. He earned his B.A. and J.D. from West Virginia University and his M.Div. from Emory University’s Graduate Program in Law and Religion.  A former talk radio host, Reed also served as Deputy Secretary of State for West Virginia.  He and his wife, Leni, reside in Charles Town, West Virginia.

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