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John Wesley

Spirit-filled Methodist

John Wesley

by Dennis Pollock

One of the giants of Christianity, John Wesley stood just under five feet six inches tall. His methodical ways, both before and after his conversion to Christ (and his insistence that his followers practice a similar discipline in their own lives) led his movement to become known as the Methodists. Rising at four in the morning nearly all of his adult life, he believed time was precious, and not a minute of it to be wasted by frivolous recreation or too much sleep (which, he declared, "parboils the flesh").

John was born in 1703 in Epworth, England to a mother and father both deeply committed to the Lord and serious about their faith. His father was a pastor whose intellect exceeded his practicality, and whose lack of financial discipline brought his family deeper and deeper into debt with the passing years. His church never seemed to warm to him, and despite his sincere devotion to his calling, his ministry was never a great success. John's mother, like her husband, had a brilliant mind, but she seemed to possess administrative gifts and common sense that her husband lacked. Since the family finances and affairs of the church were beyond her reach, she settled on making sure each of their eleven children had their willful tendencies properly subdued from an early age and were thoroughly taught the ways and word of God.

John took to this religious atmosphere very naturally, and his serious and analytical mind was continually absorbed in the things of God. When he and his brothers reached the proper age, his father used badly needed family funds to make sure his boys received the best education available, which, in England, meant Oxford. John, studious by nature, loved the university atmosphere, and stayed on as a teacher and personal tutor after graduation. While at Oxford he began meeting with other like-minded young men who were serious about spiritual things. Being the natural leader he was, John quickly organized and took control of the group, which came to be known as the "holy club." (Their group was mockingly referred to as the "Bible bigots" by many of the students who were perplexed and amazed at these religious fanatics.) Wesley and his friends took communion every week, constantly studied the Bible, visited prisoners, and audited their spiritual lives continually, guarding themselves especially against the sin of wasting time. John even took to assigning a numerical score of his spiritual state at various times throughout the day.

At this point none of these men knew the first thing about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. They followed John's lead in pursuing holiness with a noble desperation, but had no clue as to the nature of the new birth. Having been ordained a priest in the Anglican church, John finally decided to travel to America and try his hand at ministry in the large British colony. He had been asked to serve as minister to a parish in Savannah, Georgia. He hoped this might provide him the opportunity to convert some of the American Indians, and also thought the quieter, more primitive conditions in America would provide an excellent opportunity for him to engage in his quest for holiness. As he sailed he made sure not a minute of his time on the ship was wasted. His daily regimen included two hours each day in private prayer, two hours leading public prayers, two hours of Bible study, as well as meeting with his two companions to discuss their spiritual state at length, and spending three hours each day learning German from the German Moravian Christians on the ship.  

Failure 

Wesley's hopes for a glorious ministry in America were to be disappointed. His ministry there was a complete disaster. His harsh, legalistic ways did not sit well with the independent Americans. Wesley had become an expert in the letter of the law but had no experiential knowledge of the blessed Spirit who had given that law. Discipline and morality he knew well; grace, mercy, and the new birth were as yet foreign to him. His naturally forceful personality, untempered by the Spirit's love and gentleness, impressed some but made him many enemies. One man told him: "I like nothing you do… and all the people are of my mind, for we won't hear ourselves abused… All the quarrels that have been here since you came have been (because) of you. Indeed, there is neither man nor woman in the town who abides a word you say…"

While in Georgia, John became romantically involved with a young lady named Sophy Hopkey. She visited him often to learn the Bible from him, and before long romance blossomed. But John was torn, having believed that the noblest Christian state was to be single, wholly devoted to the Lord. Despite his theology of singleness, Wesley was an instinctive romantic who found women fascinating. As the relationship grew he made hints of marriage and then backed off. He was partly ashamed of this "unholy desire" to marry and have a normal life, and yet he could not bring himself to put an end to the relationship. Finally Sophy, probably weary of his indecision, settled the matter by marrying another man who had no qualms, spiritual or otherwise, about tying the knot.

After Sophy's church attendance slipped, Wesley responded by officially denying her communion, which infuriated her, her new husband, and most of the parishioners. Emotions were at the boiling point, and this led to Wesley being arrested for defamation of character. Several members of the church added various other charges, seeing an opportunity to pay back the stern minister for his criticisms and rebukes. Wesley was found guilty, and then appealed the charges. Realizing he was in over his head, the young preacher sneaked out of town under the cover of darkness, made his way through swamps and forest to Charlestown, boarded a ship and headed back to England. He would never see America again. 

In the providence of God our failures often become instrumental in paving the way for our successes, and so it was in the life of John Wesley. His ego had been crushed and his quest for holiness through his own efforts had run into a dead end. He wrote, "I went to America to convert the Indians, but who will convert me?" Wesley was finally ready for the grace of Jesus Christ. The German Moravian believers he met on the ship had made a powerful impression on him. During some of the violent storms at sea Wesley had been terrified, but these godly folks had sung hymns and praised God while the storms raged. Amazed and ashamed, Wesley later asked one, "Were you not afraid?" He answered, "I thank God, no." "But were not your women and children afraid?" The answer was given, "Our women and children are not afraid to die." They clearly had something Wesley did not, which was driven home all the more when they asked him if he had "the witness of the Spirit" that he was a child of God. Though rarely at a loss for words, in this case he had no answer. 

"Strangely Warmed" 

Back in England John Wesley began to move closer to the Moravian theology of a new birth as an instantaneous experience brought about by faith in Jesus, which was attested by a definite witness of the Holy Spirit to one's soul. The only problem was he had no such witness. He continued his attempts to minister to others, and even seems to have led others to Christ, encouraging them to trust in Jesus for salvation while not feeling he had that faith himself. Finally, around four months after returning from America, John experienced "the witness of the Spirit" of which the Moravians had spoken. At a Moravian Bible study a man was reading Martin Luther'sPreface to Romans. John writes: 

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. 

On New Year's Eve John and around 60 other believers were praying, when at about 3:00 a.m. they experienced the power of the Holy Spirit as never before. John writes: 

The power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His Majesty, we broke out with one voice, "We praise Thee, O God; we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord."  

Preaching Christ to the masses

John WesleyJohn first got a taste of mass evangelism thanks to his good friend and fellow Holy Club member, George Whitefield, who had preceded Wesley in experiencing the new birth. Whitefield had begun preaching in the fields to coal miners and was drawing immense crowds at Bristol. He invited Wesley to come and take over the work there as he traveled on to other areas. Proper Anglican minister that he was, Wesley said he would have thought it "almost a sin" for someone to get saved anywhere other than in church, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to say no.

As he preached to the thousands of poor and uneducated miners and their families, Wesley was soon addicted. The power of the Spirit was readily evident and the fruits of transformed lives abounded. And while Wesley wasn't quite the orator that Whitefield was, he was a master at organization. He quickly saw the need of establishing meetings for the new converts and providing them with follow up. The new believers met together, sang hymns, studied the Scriptures, and held each other accountable to live moral and upright lives. Wesley had no intention of starting a new church or denomination. To the end of his days he was loyal to the Church of England, but he was smart enough to know these new converts would starve to death spiritually if they merely attended the formal Anglican churches, sitting under the ministries of men who for most part were not born again.

John Wesley went on to become perhaps the most influential church leader of his generation. His preaching was powerful and moving. Though he was highly intelligent his forceful arguments for the necessity of the new birth were simple enough for the most uneducated and ignorant to understand. Tens of thousands came to Christ through his ministry, and far more through the lay preachers he raised up to minister to the ever growing "Methodist" societies, which began to multiply throughout England like wildfire. Though he never returned to America, some of his preachers did, and the Methodist movement shook America and grew to become the largest Christian denomination in the U. S. within a generation.

Ministry of Power

 Though Wesley was not Pentecostal in the classical sense of speaking with tongues, he was clearly a Spirit-filled man, whose life and ministry were filled with demonstrations of the Spirit and power. Sinners frequently fell to the ground as he preached, sometimes trembling violently. Often by the time they regained their composure they were more than willing to give their lives to Christ. In his journal he recorded the following occurrence in one of his meetings: "Some sunk down, and there remained no strength in them; others exceedingly trembled and quaked; some were torn with a kind of convulsive motion in every part of their bodies, and that so violently that four or five persons could not hold one of them…"

As with all of God's servants (save His Son) John Wesley had his flaws. He could be incredibly blunt and insensitive, writing to his sister upon the death of her children, that this was God's goodness to her, as she could now serve the Lord without the loss of the time she had spent in caring for them. He sometimes made important decisions based on the strange practice of drawing one out of several slips of paper, which had various choices printed on them. His famously miserable marriage was no doubt due largely to the unstable woman he had rashly married. But his philosophy of marriage didn't help, as he determined not to travel one mile less or preach one less sermon than he would in a single state. Sending his wife letters with lists of her faults probably didn't help much either. And Wesley's continual spiritual introspection stayed with him all his life, resulting in times where he wondered if he were truly born again when his feelings didn't reach the level he thought they should. 

Despite his flaws, Wesley was a mighty instrument in the hands of God. He preached the new birth through a faith experience with Jesus Christ, and England erupted with the fires of revival. The short little man with the huge devotion to Christ touched his generation as few have and left a legacy that only eternity will fully reveal.




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