I’ve been reading again about John Wesley – 5 feet 3 inches tall, 126 pounds, Oxford University Greek instructor, failed missionary to the New World, and father of Methodism. I’ve decided he deserves more attention than his spiritual children sometimes give him.
From his early 20s onward he was a man of what appeared to be great piety. This stood out in contrast to the widespread godlessness of his generation. He organized his days around times of prayer; along with companions he served the sick and the poor; he attempted to manage his time as a spiritual trust; and he even made the perilous journey to America, as he reports in his journal, to work out his own salvation. However, on the latter point, even the piety did not conceal his lack of evangelical faith.
His passage from England to Georgia aboard the Simmonds revealed inner uncertainties about his salvation. Even though he and three traveling companions carried out with great diligence religious duties daily aboard ship — conducting worship, teaching the children, giving Christian counsel — his journal shows that several times during a series of bad storms he felt afraid to die.
He became aware of this by the example of 26 Moravians also on board. These were devout Christians from a community called Hernhuth in Germany. On one occasion they had just begun a service of worship aboard ship when a storm broke over the vessel. The 26 German Moravians continued singing while many of the 80 or so English passengers screamed in terror.
This fortitude in the presence of mortal danger did not escape John Wesley’s attention and he inquired of their leader: Were his people not afraid to die? He was assured they were not. Were the women and children not afraid, he asked further? Again, he was told they were not.
When the ship arrived at Savannah, Georgia, Wesley approached the Moravian pastor, a Mr. Spangenberg, and engaged him in conversation. He asked him if he would tell him what he found wrong in him — like an accountability partner. Here was a further hint not so much of deep humility as of self-preoccupation.
The pastor responded, “I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?
Spangenberg noticed that Wesley, this Oxford-trained clergyman, seemed perplexed. So he asked further, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”
Wesley paused and then answered, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” To which Spangenberg replied, “True. But do you know he has saved you?” Wesley responded, “I hope he has died to save me.” Moments later Wesley tried to make his answer more convincing but of that effort he writes in his journal, “I fear they were vain words.”
In spite of his great learning, his apparent piety, and his willingness to go abroad on Christian mission, something was missing. He lacked that assurance of salvation which the Moravians had and which Spangenberg knew was a key witness to a genuine faith.
Assurance was something Wesley could not talk himself into. Nor could his closest associates have convinced him. This inner assurance could not be reasoned or argued into existence. It was a certainty to be given by the Spirit of God to his own inner being – his own spirit — in response to sincere repentance plus the full trust of himself to the saving mercies of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14).
That conversation with Pastor Spangenberg took place on February 7, 1736. Not until May 24, 1738 did John Wesley fully understand and completely surrender to the truth that salvation is by faith alone – the renunciation of one’s sins and the full transfer of one’s trust from oneself to Jesus Christ. And when he exercised that faith the Spirit gave him the inner witness of his salvation and his ministry took on a new spiritual quality, sanctioned by God’s power in unusual ways.