After one of Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns in Britain, it was announced that a significant number of young Anglican ministers had embraced his gospel message and had found a life-renewing experience in Christ. This gave them a new energy and greater effectiveness in their pastoral ministries. It was later reported that the spiritual updraft was more than temporary flight of inspiration; it raised their ongoing ministries to a new level.
To me, this was strange because these men had already been thoroughly trained in Christian theology and in pastoral skills. They understood preaching.
What, then, had happened? Had their daily labors worn them down? Or, had the central element for effectiveness been missed during their training, that is, a saving faith, a personal experience with the Living Christ?
The question intrigues me because I make a similar discovery in the story of John Wesley. We knows that at 35 years of age he had his “heart warming” experience at a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. Someone was reading from the Preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on The Romans.
Wesley writes, “About a quarter before nine, while (the reader) 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.”
He had been ordained a deacon eight years earlier and a priest (presbyter) two years later. He had led a small group of devout young men on the campus of Oxford University. This group met regularly to pray and to carry out good works in the region of the university. They were ardent. He had even served as his father’s curate at Wroot and had spent nearly two years as a missionary in Georgia. Why would a man of this training, piety and zeal need to have his heart strangely warmed?
In his journals, he writes a brief review of the major events that led to that historic night on Aldersgate Street.
His opening paragraph tells the story in brief. During his childhood in the Epworth parsonage, a home where piety touched every aspect of family life and devout parents taught their children faithfully, he had “been strictly educated and carefully taught that I could only be saved ‘by universal obedience, by keeping all the commandments of God;’ in the meaning of which I was diligently instructed. And those instructions, so far as they respected outward duties and sins, I gladly received, and often thought of. But all that was said to me of inward obedience, or holiness, I neither understood nor remembered. So that I was indeed as ignorant of the true meaning of the law as I was of the Gospel of Christ.”
In the midst of the great piety of his childhood he had nevertheless been taught that it was by keeping all the laws of God that he would earn his salvation. That is, his salvation would be achieved by good works. Once that notion is planted in the mind, it is hard to dislodge. But, his spiritual search led finally to Aldersgate Street where he described the assurance of salvation through faith in Christ as a warming of the heart.
It is interesting to note that the great moment of saving faith did not slacken Wesley’s concern nor that of his associates for good works. It only placed them on a new foundation: he began to do works of mercy and kindness not to achieve salvation but as a saved person to express the mercy of God to as many as possible. All good works were in the name of Christ who saves those who believe.
While meditating on these pages in Wesley’s journal and thinking of the tireless ministries that grew out of this holy moment, I found myself wondering if this is not the very thing needed in today’s church – by both laity and clergy. Our labors for the Lord become slack, misdirected, or even overly-striving and unctuous when they do not grow out of a Christ-renewed heart. Vitality of ministry comes from Christ living in us and nurtured daily!