John Wesley’s Text by Frank W. Boreham

John Wesley: June 17, 1703 – March 2, 1791

JOHN WESLEY made history wholesale. “You cannot cut him out of our national life,” Mr. Augustine Birrell declares. If you could, the gap would be as painful as though you had overthrown the Nelson column in Trafalgar Square or gashed Mount Everest out of the Himalaya Ranges. Lecky, who is a past master in the art of analyzing great movements and in tracing the psychological influences from which they sprang, says that the conversion of John Wesley formed one of the grand epochs of English history. His conversion, mark you! Lecky goes on to say that the religious revolution begun in England by the preaching of the Wesleys is of greater historic importance than all the splendid victories by land and sea won under Pitt. The momentous event to which the historian points, be it noted, is not Wesley’s birth, but his re-birth. It is his conversion that counts. In order that I may scrutinize once more the record of that tremendous event in our national annals, I turn afresh to Wesley’s journal. It was on May 24, 1738. Wesley was engaged in those days in a persistent and passionate quest. He had crossed the Atlantic as a missionary only to discover the waywardness and wickedness of his own evil heart. “What have I learned?” he asks himself when he finds himself once more on English soil. “What have I learned? Why, I have learned what I least of all suspected, that I, who went to America to convert the Indians, was never myself converted to God!” One day, early in 1738, he is chatting with three of his friends when all at once they begin to speak of their faith, the faith that leads to pardon, the faith that links a man with God, the faith that brings joy and peace through believing. Wesley feels that he would give the last drop of his blood to secure for himself such an unspeakable treasure. Could such a faith be his? He asks his companions. “They replied with one mouth that this faith was the gift, the free gift of God, and that He would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it.” Wesley made up his mind that, this being so, it should be his. “I resolved to seek it unto the end,” he says. “I continued to seek it,” he writes again, “until May 24, 1738.” And, on May 24, 1738, he found it! That Wednesday morning, before he went out, he opened his Bible haphazard, and a text leapt out at him. “Thou art not very far from the kingdom of God!” It strangely reassured him.

“The kingdom of God!”
“Far from the kingdom of God!”
“Not very far from the kingdom of God!”

How far? He was so near that, that very evening, he entered it! “In the evening,” he says, in the entry that has become one of the monuments of English literature, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. 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.”

Here is a sailor! He finds himself far, far from port, with no chart, no compass, no hope of ever reaching his desired haven! Later on, he shades his eyes with his hand and actually sees the bluff headlands that mark the entrance to the harbor: he is not very far from the city of his desire! And, later still, the bar crossed and the channel found, he finds himself lying at anchor in the bay.

So it was with John Wesley. When he returned from Georgia, he was far, very far from the kingdom of God. When he opened his Bible that Wednesday morning, he was not very far from the kingdom of God. And that same evening, at Aldersgate Street, he passed through the gates in the light and liberty of the kingdom.

So far from the kingdom!
Not far from the kingdom!
The kingdom! The kingdom! The kingdom of God!

It is a beautiful thing to have been brought near to the kingdom of God. Many influences combined to bring John Wesley near. To begin with, he had a mother; one of the most amazing mothers that even England – that land of noble mothers – has produced. Susanna Wesley was a marvel of nature and a miracle of grace. To begin with, she was the twenty-fifth child of her father; and, to go on with, she had nineteen children of her own! And she found time for each of them. In one of her letters, she tells how deeply impressed she was on reading the story of the evangelistic efforts of the Danish missionaries in India. “It came into my mind,” she says, “that I might do more than I do. I resolved to begin with my own children. I take such proportion of time as I can best spare to discourse every night with each child by itself.” Later on, people began to marvel at her remarkable influence over her children. “There is no mystery about the matter,” she writes again, “I just took Molly alone with me into my own room every Monday night, Hetty every Tuesday night, Nancy every Wednesday night, Jacky every Thursday night and so on, all through the week; that was all!” Yes, that was all; but see how it turned out! “I cannot remember,” said John Wesley, “I cannot remember ever having kept back a doubt from my mother; she was the one heart to whom I went in absolute confidence, from my babyhood until the day of her death.” Such an influence could only tend to bring him near to the kingdom of God.

Then, there was the fire! John never forgot that terrible night. He was only six. He woke up to find the old rectory ablaze from the ground to the roof. By some extraordinary oversight, he had been forgotten when everybody else was dragged from the burning building. In the nick of time, just before the roof fell in with a crash, a neighbor by climbing on another man’s shoulders, contrived to rescue the terrified child at the window. To the last day of his life Wesley preserved a crude picture of the scene. And underneath it was written, “Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?” It affected him as a somewhat similar escape affected Clive. “Surely God intends to do some great thing by me that He has so miraculously preserved me!” exclaimed the man who afterwards added India to the British Empire. When a young fellow of eighteen, Richard Baxter was thrown by a restive horse under the wheel of a heavy wagon. Quite unaccountably, the horse instantly stopped. “My life was miraculously saved,” he wrote, “and I then and there resolved that it should be spent in the service of others.” Dr. Guthrie regarded as one of the potent spiritual influences of his life his marvelous deliverance from being dashed to pieces over a precipice at Arbroath. In his Grace Abounding Bunyan tells how he was affected by the circumstance that the man who took his place at the siege of Leicester was shot through the head whilst on sentry-duty and killed instantly. Such experiences tend to bring men within sight of the kingdom of God. Wesley never forgot the fire.

It is a great thing to recognize that, though near to the kingdom, one is still outside.

Sir James Simpson, the discoverer of chloroform, used to say that the greatest discovery that he ever made was the discovery that he was a sinner and that Jesus Christ was just the Savior he needed. John Wesley could have said the same. But, whereas Sir James Simpson was able to point to the exact date on which the sense of his need broke upon him, John Wesley is not so explicit. He tells us that it was in Georgia that he discovered that he, the would-be converter of Indians, was himself unconverted. And yet, before he left England, he wrote to a friend that his chief motive in going abroad was the salvation of his own soul. As soon as he arrived on the other side of the Atlantic, he made the acquaintance of August Spangenberg, a Moravian pastor. A conversation took place which Wesley records in his journal as having deeply impressed him.

“My brother,” said the devout and simple-minded man whose counsel he had sought, “I must ask you one or two questions: Do you know Jesus Christ?”

“I know,” replied Wesley, after an awkward pause, “I know that he is the Savior of the world.”

“True,” answered the Moravian, “but do you know that He has saved you?”

“I hope He has died to save me,” Wesley responded.

The Moravian was evidently dissatisfied with these vague replies, but he asked one more question.

“Do you know yourself!”

“I said that I did,” Wesley tells us in his journal, “but I fear they were vain words!”

He saw others happy, fearless in the presence of death, rejoicing in a faith that seemed to transfigure their lives. What was it that was theirs and yet not his?” Are they read in philosophy?” he asks. “So was I. In ancient or modern tongues? So was I also. Are they versed in the science of divinity? I, too, have studied it many years. Can they talk fluently upon spiritual things? I could do the same. Are they plenteous in alms? Behold, I give all my goods to feed the poor! I have labored more abundantly than they all. Are they willing to suffer for their brethren? I have thrown up my friends, reputation, ease, country; I have put my life in my hand, wandering into strange lands; I have given my body to be devoured by the deep, parched up with heat, consumed by toil and weariness. But does all this make me acceptable to God! Does all this make me a Christian? By no means! I have sinned and come short of the glory of God. I am alienated from the life of God. I am a child of wrath. I have no hope.” It is a great thing, I say, for a man who has been brought within sight of the kingdom to recognize, frankly that he is, nevertheless, still outside it.

It is a fine thing for a man who feels that he is outside the kingdom to enter into it.

In his Cheapside to Arcady, Mr. Arthur Scammell describes the pathetic figure of an old man he often saw in a London slum. “He had crept forth from some poor house hard by, and, propped up by a crutch, was sitting on the edge of a low wall in the unclean, sunless alley, whilst, only a few yards further on, was the pleasant open park, with sunshine, trees and flowers, the river and fresh air, and, withal, a more comfortable seat: but the poor old man never even looked that way. I have often seen him since, always in the same place, and felt that I should like to ask him why he sits there in darkness, breathing foul air, when the blessed sunshine is waiting for him only ten yards off.”

So near to the sunshine!
So near to the kingdom!

Unlike Mr. Scammell’s old man, John Wesley made the great transition from shadow to sunshine, from squalor to song.

“Dost thou believe,” asked Staupitz, the wise old monk, “dost thou believe in the forgiveness of sins?”

“I believe,” replied Luther, reciting a clause from his familiar credo, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins!”

“Ah,” exclaimed the elder monk, “but you must not only believe in the forgiveness of David’s sins and Peter’s sins, for this even the devils believe. It is God’s command that we believe our own sins are forgiven us!”

“From that moment,” says D’Aubigne, “light sprung up in the heart of the young monk at Erfurt.”

“I believed,” says Luther, “that my sins, even mine, were forgiven me!”

“I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation,” says Wesley, in his historic record, “and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine!”

The analogy is suggested by the circumstance that it was Luther’s commentary that was being read aloud at Aldersgate Street that night.

“My sins, even mine!” says Luther.
“My sins, even mine!” says Wesley.

Forty-five years afterwards Mr. Wesley was taken very ill at Bristol and expected to die. Calling Mr. Bradford to his bedside, he observed: “I have been reflecting on my past life. I have been wandering up and down, these many years, endeavoring, in my poor way, to do a little good to my fellow creatures; and now it is probable that there is but a step between me and death; and what have I to trust to for salvation? I can see nothing which I have done or suffered that will bear looking at. I have no other plea than this:

‘I, the chief of sinners am,
But Jesus died for me.’”

Eight years later – fifty-three years after the great change at Aldersgate Street – he was actually dying. As his friends surrounded his bedside, he told them that he had no more to say. “I said at Bristol,” he murmured, “that

‘I, the chief of sinners am,
But Jesus died for me.’”

“Is that,” one asked, “the present language of your heart, and do you feel now as you did then?” “I do,” replied the dying veteran.

This, then, was the burden of Wesley’s tremendous ministry for more than fifty-three years. It was the confidence of his life and the comfort of his death. It was his first thought every morning and his last every night. It was the song of his soul, the breath of his nostrils, and the light of his eyes. This was the gospel that transfigured his own experience; and this was the gospel by which he changed the face of England. “John Wesley,” says Mr. Birrell, “paid more turnpikes than any man who ever bestrode a beast. Eight thousand miles was his annual record for many a long year, during each of which he seldom preached less frequently than a thousand times. No man ever lived nearer the center than John Wesley, neither Clive, nor Pitt, nor Johnson. No single figure influenced so many minds; no single voice touched so many hearts. No other man did such a life’s work for England.” The eighteenth century,” says President Wilson, “cried out for deliverance and light; and God prepared John Wesley to show the world the might and the blessing of His salvation.”

The pity of it is that John Wesley was thirty-five when he entered the kingdom. The zest and vigor of his early manhood had passed. He was late in finding mercy. Thirty-five! Before they reached that age, men like Murray McCheyne, Henry Martyn, and David Brainerd had finished their lifework and fallen into honored graves. Why was Wesley’s great day so long in coming? He always felt that the fault was not altogether his own. He groped in the dark for many years and nobody helped him – not even his ministers. William Law was one of those ministers, and Wesley afterwards wrote him on the subject. “How will you answer to our common Lord,” he asks, “that you, sir, never led me into the light? Why did I scarcely ever hear you name the name of Christ? Why did you never urge me to faith in his blood? Is not Christ the First and the Last? If you say that you thought I had faith already, verily, you know nothing of me. I beseech you, sir, by the mercies of God, to consider whether the true reason of your never pressing this salvation upon me was not this – that you never had it yourself!”

Here is a letter for a man like Wesley to write to a man like Law! Many a minister has since read that letter on his knees and has prayed that he may never deserve to receive so terrible a reprimand.

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