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A Heart Transformed Can Change the World Study Guide
By Kenneth Cain Kinghorn
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
John Wesley: Seeker after God
Half jestingly and half seriously, it has been said that the family from which John and Charles Wesley sprang was partially healthy, never wealthy, and sometimes wise. Regarding health, only ten of the nineteen children born to Susanna and Samuel Wesley survived infancy. As for wealth, the family lived in virtual poverty, and often Susanna Wesley did not know where the next family meal would come from. In the matter of wisdom, the parents sometimes made mistakes with their children (treating them as small adults). Despite a less than ideal home, Samuel and Susanna Wesley bequeathed to their children a well-above-average intellectual and spiritual heritage. Two of the Wesley children became persons of renown. John Wesley was the most important religious leader in eighteenth-century England, and Charles Wesley's poetic gifts enabled him to write some of Christianity's most enduring hymns.
Samuel Wesley, the father, was an Oxford-educated scholar, a Church of England rector, and a poet. One of the few of Samuel's papers that survived the 1709 fire that destroyed the Epworth rectory was his hymn "Behold the Savior of Mankind," which appears in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. Samuel tutored his sons in Latin and Greek, also teaching them the art of verse. His chief concern was to teach his children about God. When the sixty-nine-year-old Samuel Wesley lay dying, he said to John, "The inward witness, son, the inward witness—this is the proof, the strongest proof, of Christianity." The old man laid his hand on the head of Charles and exclaimed, "Be steady! The Christian faith will surely revive in this kingdom; you shall see it, though I shall not."
Susanna Wesley had a profound influence on her children. A British scholar described her as "very beautiful, and very clever, and very good." John Wesley was her fifteenth child, and Charles Wesley was her eighteenth. She remained serene even through multiple pregnancies and the household's continual poverty. As soon as her children could speak, she taught them the Lord's Prayer. Early in childhood, they memorized portions of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer. Susanna devoted six hours a day to home-schooling her children (she wrote her own curriculum). She diligently attended to their religious nurture (weekly, she met privately with each of her offspring). She kept a journal, wrote letters, educational and catechetical writings, and commentaries on the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments. Even in John Wesley's adult life, he continued to consult with his mother for counsel and advice.
In 1724 she wrote John, then at Oxford, about his struggle to find the full assurance of faith. Her letter said, "Happy are you ... now in good earnest resolve to make religion the business of your life. For, after all, that is the one thing that strictly speaking is necessary.... I heartily wish you would now enter upon a serious examination of yourself, that you may know whether you have a reasonable hope of salvation by Jesus Christ, that is, whether you are in a state of faith and repentance or not." Less than two years before Susanna died, she wrote Charles Wesley: "I know not what other opinion people may have of human nature, but for my part I think that without the grace of God we are utterly incapable of thinking, speaking or doing anything good." Susanna Wesley was one of the greatest mothers in the history of the English people.
At the age of ten and a half years, John Wesley was sent by his parents to Charterhouse, a respected boarding school in London. There, he received an excellent education in classical literature, especially in Latin and Greek. His six years at Charterhouse prepared him to enter Oxford's Christ Church College in January of 1720. Because of John's scholarly achievements, in 1726 the university's Lincoln College elected him a fellow. He taught Greek, moral philosophy, and Scripture. He also diligently included religious instruction in his tutoring, hoping to make his students better men. He allowed himself some social diversions, yet he put religion first. He arose between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. daily to read the Scriptures and pray. His work at Oxford's Lincoln College earned him respect as a superior tutor.
While at Lincoln College, Wesley read the works of several German Pietists who stressed the lordship of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They also emphasized the importance of overcoming the fear of death and the opinions of others. He had not yet experienced a personal spiritual transformation, called "the new birth." He said, "I saw the indispensable necessity of having the mind which was in Christ and of walking as He walked ... in all things."
Wesley's reading of Christian devotional writers encouraged him to seek entire sanctification. He wrote, "I [took communion] every week. I watched against all sin, whether in word or deed. I began to aim at, and pray for inward holiness." Yet Wesley felt depressed because he fell short of the spiritual goals he sought. Time and again, he wrote in his diary about his weaknesses, such as idleness and undisciplined reading. He set rules and regulations for himself, with the hope they would better his life and make him more pleasing to God. His concerns with trifles reveal that he was too introspective and that he trusted in his own efforts more than in Jesus Christ.
At Oxford he joined the "Holy Club" and soon became its leader. The group read the Latin and Greek classics, lived austerely, and gave sacrificially to the poor. They also visited jails and, out of their own meager incomes, provided prisoners with religious literature, food, clothing, and coal. Many were in prison due to their debts, and the Holy Club raised money to pay their creditors. The prisoners' families often lived with them in the jails, and the members of the Holy Club started a school for the inmates' children. The members of the club observed all the church year's designated fasts, which few of the other university students or professors kept. Wesley and his friends attended almost every service of Holy Communion, in the hope that their religious observances and good works would bring them the assurance of salvation.
Opposition came to the members of the Holy Club, chiefly because the lives of its members were unspoken rebukes to the casual faith and undisciplined lives of the majority of the university community. Wesley's diaries substantiate his spiritual uneasiness. He often asked himself, "How can I love God with my whole heart? How can I achieve holiness of heart and life?" He read two books by William Law, whose writings recommended self-denial and acts of mortification. Law talked about a life of renunciation—including the rejection of popular literature, masquerades, playing cards, and the theatre.
Although Wesley enjoyed the academic atmosphere of Oxford, he suffered inner turmoil because of his unhappy spiritual state. His prayers seemed to bounce off an impenetrable ceiling. He lacked a sense of God's pardon, favor, and blessing, and he had no assurance that he was a true Christian.
Wesley's career took a new direction when he met General James Oglethorpe, who offered him a position as chaplain of a newly chartered British colony in Georgia. Wesley's chief reason for accepting the post was to save his own soul. He wrote, "I hope to learn the true sense of the gospel of Christ by preaching it to the 'heathen.'" Charles Wesley grudgingly agreed to sail with John to Georgia, where Charles would serve as secretary to General Oglethorpe. Like John, Charles lacked the personal assurance of Christ's grace and favor. From Georgia, he wrote a friend, "In vain have I fled from myself to Georgia.... Go where I will, I carry my Hell about me."
Twenty-six Moravians from Germany, led by Bishop David Nitschmann, sailed on the same ship as the Wesleys. During the stormy voyage to Georgia, John Wesley learned how much he feared death. He wrote in his journal: "I could not but say to myself, 'How is it that thou hast no faith?' being still unwilling to die." The Moravian Christians, by contrast, calmly sang hymns during the storm at sea. John Wesley was deeply impressed by the serene faith of the German Christians, which contrasted with the fear that gripped the English passengers.
Wesley sought spiritual counsel from one of their leaders, August Spangenberg. This Moravian minister probed Wesley with questions. "Have you the witness within yourself?" he asked. Wesley did not understand what Spangenberg meant, and he asked for clarification. The German responded with another question: "Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?" Wesley hesitated to reply. Spangenberg persisted, "Do you know Jesus Christ?" Wesley said, "I know he is the Savior of the world."
"True," Spangenberg rejoined. "But do you know he has saved you?" Wesley falteringly replied, "I hope he has died to save me." Gently, Spangenberg asked, "Do you know yourself?" Wesley said uncomfortably, "I do." Later, however, Wesley scribbled in his journal, "I fear they were vain words." Without saying so, both Spangenberg and Wesley knew that Wesley could not honestly testify that Jesus Christ was his personal savior. Not until after John and Charles Wesley returned to England did they experience the certainty and joy of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to their salvation.
Thus, John Wesley learned from his spiritual disquiet and from his disappointing ministry in Georgia that good intentions, self-effort, and sacrificial good works cannot make one a Christian. His life experiences confirmed to him that the best of good intentions and human efforts cannot overcome the sinful nature with which we are born. Wesley had not given due attention to the doctrine of original sin.
The ninth article of Anglicanism's Thirty-nine Articles of Religion states that original sin "is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit." American Methodism's Confession of Faith states: "[We] believe [we are] fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, [are] destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.... Without divine grace, [we] cannot do good works pleasing and acceptable to God." Wesley still did not adequately comprehend that we cannot work our way into God's favor. Salvation is God's gift to be received by faith.
After praying for expressed concerns, the group may pray together the following prayer:
Eternal God, you have placed eternity in our hearts, and we can find our rest and our salvation in you alone. We have strayed like lost sheep, and we all have gone our own way. Yet, without you, there is no lasting happiness or joy. We thank you that you seek us long before we seek you. You draw us to yourself by your Holy Spirit, and in your mercy and grace you promise to forgive us and adopt us as your sons and daughters. We open ourselves to your saving love, and we thank you that you have promised to save all who turn to you in repentance and faith. We pray through Christ your eternal son and our everlasting Lord. Amen.
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. (Psalm 34:1-7 NRSV)
"Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I'm gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28- 30 CEB)
View the DVD from the start until John Wesley leaves Georgia to return to England. Note the ways that he relied on his own effort and good works to earn the assurance of God's favor.
GROUP DISCUSSION AND POINTS TO PONDER
1. Why did the highly religious and morally upright John Wesley lack the assurance of God's favor? (Ephesians 2:8-9; John 6:28-29)
2. Discuss the differences between the "hot-blooded sins of the flesh" and the "cold-blooded sins of the spirit."
3. What were the chief causes of John Wesley's religious uncertainty and his lack of a sense of God's presence in his life? (Philippians 3:9; Hebrews 11:6)
4. In what ways did John Wesley's mother influence his search for God? Talk about our spiritual responsibility for our children. (Deuteronomy 4:9; 2 Timothy 1:5)
5. Did John Wesley's leadership gifts help or hinder his search for the assurance of God's favor and blessing?
6. Evaluate John Wesley's statements as a frustrated seeker: "By suffering we come to know God" and "My salvation lies in taking the gospel to others." (Matthew 7:22-23; Titus 3:5-7)
7. Discuss in what ways John Wesley's narrow escape from the fire at the Epworth rectory influenced the direction of his life. Has some near catastrophe affected your life in a significant way?
8. In what ways do you think the poverty of the Epworth household influenced John Wesley's ministry?
9. How important is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit that we are in right relationship with God? (Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6; 1 John 3:24)
10. Discuss our human tendency to try to earn God's favor. (Romans 3:20; 10:1-3; Galatians 5:4-5)
SUGGESTED CHARLES WESLEY HYMN (THE UNITED METHODIST HYMNAL, 1989)
Hymn #88, "Maker, in Whom We Live"
God, our Father, we thank you for your faithfulness through the ages. Before the mountains were formed or you brought forth the universe and the earth, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. Your will, your word, and your way remain ever constant. Your compassions never fail; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. We thank you for the life of your servant John Wesley. May we also become obedient to your call, dedicated to your will, and fully involved in your plan to create a new and transformed humanity. To that end we entrust ourselves into your care and keeping, through Jesus Christ the Lord of life. Amen.CHAPTER 2
Inner Transformation by God's Grace
* * * INTRODUCTION
In all, John Wesley's ministry in America proved disappointing. His rigid ways and formal churchmanship were not suited to the colonists. He insisted on triune immersion for baptism; he refused to conduct the burial service for a non-Anglican. His bungled love affair with Sophia Hopkey and his ill-considered act of denying her the sacrament of Communion resulted in a civil indictment against him.
Furthermore, Wesley had not been able to preach to the Choctaw Indians as he had hoped. The few times he spoke to them failed to arouse any positive response. Defeated and disillusioned, he fled Savannah and sailed back to England. On the ship Samuel, the depressed John Wesley pondered his spiritual state and future ministry. He was too disheartened to preach to the ship's passengers and crew, as he had done earlier during his voyage to Georgia.
As the Samuel approached England, Wesley wrote in his journal: "I went to America, to convert the Indians; but Oh! who shall convert me? Who ... will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief? I have a fair summer religion.... But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled" (Works of John Wesley, vol. 18, p. 211). He reflected, "In a storm I think, 'What if the Gospel be not true?' Then thou art of all men most foolish.... For what art thou wandering over the face of the earth? A dream, 'a cunningly-devised fable'? O who will deliver me from this fear of death! What shall I do? Where shall I fly from it?" (ibid.)
Wesley's self-sacrificing labors had gained him no peace or freedom from the fear of death. He wrote, "It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country.... But what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God" (ibid., p. 214). Wesley returned to Oxford, still as a fellow of Lincoln College. His main preoccupation was to win God's acceptance and favor. His former self-confidence had dwindled, and he felt far from God.
Excerpted from Wesley by Kenneth Cain Kinghorn. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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