We’ve been working through the story of John Wesley and early Methodism. This is part four in a series of articles. You can read the first three parts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. It’s worth repeating that we don’t look to history so that we can idolize it or hope to return to better times. Rather, I see our Methodist history as a way to understand what is possible with God, and what we might even expect for ourselves.
I know that reading church history is not everyone’s thing, even if I wish it were! Perhaps, though, you might be interested in an animated video series I’ve discovered since my last newsletter article. The series is called Torchlighters, and it tells the stories of impactful Christian men and women throughout church history. One of their episodes is about John Wesley. It’s a bit blunt in its presentation (I suppose children are the assumed audience?); nevertheless, I found it a helpful and interesting window into the ministry of this remarkable man. Perhaps you can watch it and then come back here to continue reading. Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
Last time, we left our hero as he boarded a boat to return to England from the Georgia colony, fleeing charges brought against him by his former love interest’s husband and father. (This is actually the point in the story where the Torchlighters program picks up adult John’s story). God had used Wesley’s trials, as well as his encounters with the zealous faith of the Moravians, to stir a holy discontent in him. (I sometimes use the phrase “holy discontent” to describe a very common response to God’s grace that causes a person to not be content with how they have been practicing and experiencing their faith. It frequently proceeds a profound personal awakening)
On February 7, 1738, shortly after Wesley arrived back in England, he met another Moravian missionary named Peter Böhler. He wrote in his journal that it was “a day much to be remembered.” Peter Böhler would, in many ways, be responsible for the wonderful experiences of God’s grace that John and his brother Charles were about to have.
Over the next few months, both John and Charles sought to be in Böhler’s company and under his counsel frequently. Through these conversations, John became “clearly convinced of unbelief.” He was lacking “that faith whereby alone we are saved.”
It’s worth letting John’s realization shake us a little. John Wesley had utterly devoted his life to the work of God. He did his best not to do anything remotely bad, to have a clear conscience, and to use all the time he had wisely. He strove to do good to everyone he encountered. He practiced all of the Christian disciplines, such as bible reading, fasting, prayer, and receiving Holy Communion. He says in his sermon Almost Christian that he did this sincerely, genuinely intending to serve God and do God’s will in all things. Nevertheless, he said that in all this time, he was only “almost a Christian.”
At first, Charles was actually angry at John’s insistence that he did not possess saving faith. After all, how could someone who had devoted his life so fully to Christ not believe in him? He believed that John was doing harm to others by talking this way. John believed that even in Charles’s anger, God was kindling a fire that would never be extinguished. It seems that John enjoyed bringing others to his discontent!
However, as the weight of his faith crisis hit, Wesley began to question his very vocation. At one point, he actually asked Peter Böhler if he should stop preaching, seeing as he did not possess the faith that he professed. Böhler answered, “By no means…. Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”Peter Böhler
So John began to “preach faith,” although not without quite a bit of hemming and hawing at first. For weeks, Peter Böhler tried to convince John that he should minister to a man who had been sentenced to death. John needed lots of convincing, because he had been incredibly skeptical of the possibility of deathbed conversions. Still, Wesley eventually ministered to the man, who encountered the love of Christ, and went to his death confident in his relationship with God. John began to preach this message boldly, frequently several times a day, at any church that would have him. Many churches were so offended that they would not invite him again. It seems that John was indeed planning to “preach faith” until he had it.
John’s conversations with Charles had indeed kindled a fire in him. John wrote an update about Charles’s struggle in his journal: “My brother had a long and particular conversation with Peter Böhler. And it now pleased God to open his eyes; so that he also saw clearly what was the nature of that one true living faith, whereby alone, ‘through grace, we are saved.'”
Amazingly, both John and Charles came to believe the teaching of salvation by faith before experiencing it themselves. Just two weeks after that discussion with Peter Böhler, though, on Pentecost Sunday, Charles experienced God in a new, profound way. Less than a week later, John would have a similar experience. To do justice to those events and their aftermath, we’ll save those stories for next time.
Questions for Reflection
- Have you ever had a time when you wondered if you were a “real Christian”? Was it a “holy discontent” brought on by God, or something else? How can you tell the difference?
- What surprised you about the Torchlighters story of John Wesley?
- What would the potential for good be if you, like John, professed unbelief? What harm might it cause? How do you weigh those two?