Is becoming a Christian just a matter of raising one’s hand or going forward at a massed rally? These are useful devices to help seekers after God to declare themselves, and there are many Christians who made their initial response by one of these signals.
But, such gestures may turn out to be impulsive responses without a true inner spiritual renewal that begins the transformed life.
The question — when is it real and when is it not? — surfaced in my mind as I read Charles Wesley’s journal leading up to his evangelical conversion on Pentecost Sunday, May 21, 1738. In that event, he moved from being an earnest, clergyman to becoming a transformed believer in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
As mentioned last week, Moravian Peter Bohler had come into Charles Wesley’s life when he was seriously ill with excruciating pleurisy. Bohler asked him that searching question: What is your hope of salvation? At first, Charles was offended by the question. It pricked his pride. But later he confessed to Bohler that unbelief was in his heart.
Into the picture came Mr. Bray. Charles moved from Oxford to London, still a sick man, and stayed in the home of Bray, whom he calls, “a poor ignorant mechanic who knows nothing but Christ, yet by knowing him, knows and discerns all things.” He was carried to Bray’s home in a chair.
His journaling during this period shows that his desire for saving faith sometimes melts him to tears. He becomes unabashedly open about his lack of faith and he was generally miserable in being without Christ.
What he is experiencing was like the breaking up of a fully formed life to be supplanted by the beginnings of a new life.
The goal became clear for, on Sunday, May 14, 1738, he writes, “I longed to find Christ, that I might show him to all mankind; that I might praise; that I might love him.”
Then, entered Mrs. Turner, Mr. Bray’s sister. She was also a devout and humble follower to whom Christ was very real. On May 19th Charles notes that in the evening, “she came and told me, I should not rise from that bed till I believed.” In the midst of all this he was still a sick man, attended by the doctors.
Then came May 21, 1738, Pentecost Sunday.
At nine in the morning his brother, John, and some friends came by and sang a hymn to the Holy Spirit. They left in about half an hour. Charles prayed a prayer to Jesus inviting him to take up residence in him in a living way. Then he composed himself to sleep.
But, someone entered his room and commanded, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.”
He wrote, “The words struck me to the heart.”
In his journal he notes that he felt “a strange palpitation of heart. “I said, yet feared to say, ‘I believe, I believe!’”
Mrs. Turner returned again and confessed, “It was I, a weak, sinful creature (who) spoke; but the words were Christ’s: he commanded me to say them, and so constrained me that I could not forbear.”
In this awakening process there was one final struggle for Charles Wesley. He writes, “Still I felt a violent opposition and reluctance to believe; yet still the Spirit of God strove with my own, and the evil spirit till by degrees he chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced, I knew not how, nor when; and immediately fell to intercession.”
Not all such conversions to Christ are so drawn out and dramatic. And no two conversions are alike. But real ones all have the same two ingredients: a radical turning of the heart from self to Christ which may involve time and struggle, plus a Spirit-prompted faith in Jesus Christ. This very much resembles a new birth. The Apostle Paul refers to its ingredients as “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If there is any question about the authenticity of Charles Wesley’s evangelical conversion, read his hymns in the hymn book. They throb with confidence in the fullness of God’s redemption and the Lordship of Jesus Christ as Savior and coming King. This kind of general awakening is the foremost need of the modern church.