In this year’s Consider Wesley we are looking at some key turning points in John Wesley’s life and theology. In the first article we examined his 1725 commitment to holiness of heart and life, or perfection in love, which governed his theological vision throughout his entire life. At that time, he also believed that attaining Christian perfection was the precondition for having an assurance that he was accepted by God. In this he was mistaken, but for the decade following 1725 it gave urgency to his quest for holiness.
Wesley experimented with a number of strategies designed to help him attain holiness. Spiritual writers he had read emphasized the need for intentionality, to aim for holiness with singleness of heart. Then in 1730 he became involved in a group begun at Oxford by his younger brother Charles, called by its detractors the “Holy Club,” or the “Methodists.” There they participated in a pattern of discipline including prayer, reading Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, study, and service to others. Although neither desire nor discipline were sufficient in themselves to enable Wesley to reach perfect love, he came to view them as necessary, and they were core features of later Methodist spirituality.
This was not true of mystical detachment, another strategy Wesley tried. The idea was to detach oneself from all else to enable one to focus only on God. Wesley came to see the passivity and the turning away from others that accompanied detachment actually to endanger the Christian life.
The critical event for Wesley in his search for holiness was his encounter with the Moravian Brethren in 1736. The Moravians were a branch of the Pietist movement based in Germany. Although their concern for a changed heart was similar to Wesley’s, their way of attaining it was quite different.
Wesley was attracted to them initially through witnessing their calm assurance during a dangerous storm as he and they crossed the Atlantic to the Georgia Colony. Because they had the assurance Wesley lacked, he began conversing with them both in Georgia and when he had returned to London. There Peter Böhler told him that forgiveness and assurance could only be received by faith, a trusting in what God had done for him through the cross of Jesus Christ. That faith, he said, comes as a gift of grace. One cannot attain it through effort; it comes at God’s initiative to those who desire it and are open to receive it.
This is what Wesley received at the meeting on Aldersgate Street in 1738, the most well-known event in Wesley’s life. Of this he wrote in his Journal: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ and 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.”
To use Wesley’s own theological language, Wesley was enabled to trust in Christ (have faith) for his salvation, received an assurance of forgiveness of sins (justification), and was given a new birth (the beginning of sanctification). Although not all the theological implications of this event were evident at the time, Aldersgate had an enduring impact of Wesley’s theology and practice.
First, he gained a new awareness of the transforming power of God. He came to understand grace as not only divine favor but divine power, and to develop a more dynamic understanding of the Holy Spirit and a robust Trinitarian theology.
Second, his realization that he had assurance while not yet attaining perfection in love led him to distinguish more clearly between the new birth as the beginning of the process of sanctification, and Christian perfection as its goal.
Third, he came to understand salvation as both instantaneous and gradual. Justification and new birth were the result of an instantaneous work of grace, as was Christian perfection. Both were preceded and followed by gradual growth, also the work of grace. It was the instantaneous works that laid the foundation for the subsequent gradual works that followed.
Finally, Wesley learned that his desire for holiness had been compromised by his need for assurance. One does not attain holiness by making it a means to an end. After Aldersgate, Wesley’s motivation changed from seeking to get God’s acceptance to gratitude for having received that acceptance. It is gratitude as a response to God’s gracious love that enables us to truly grow in love for God and our neighbor.