John Wesley at Oxford

The early months of 1738 were a decisive period in the spiritual (and theological) development of John Wesley. Coming off of an unsuccessful mission to the colony of Georgia, Wesley turned inward in a mighty struggle against the flesh — fighting doubt and temptation — and trying to understand the theological reasons for this struggle. I’ve provided below some of the more critical (and interesting) recordings of Wesley from his journal during this period. It demonstrates a widely-read and discerning man, with a sincerity for truth and integrity before God that is paralleled by few in the Church’s history. Of particular interest is his attitude toward the Protestant understanding of justification alone by Christ’s atonement, which Wesley dismisses as too forensic, but, nonetheless, eventually forms the basis of his coming to peace, after numerous attempts at a righteousness of his own, through the law.

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Excerpts from John Wesley’s Journal, January 24, 1738

I went to America to convert the Indians but, oh, who shall convert me? Who, what, is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief?

I think, verily, if the Gospel be true, I am safe, for I not only have given and do give all my goods to feed the poor; I not only give my body to be burned, drowned, or whatever God shall appoint for me, but I follow after charity (though not as I ought, yet as I can) if haply I may attain it. I now believe the Gospel is true. I show my faith by my works by staking my all upon it. …But in a storm I think, “What if the Gospel be not true?….”

For many years I have been tossed by various winds of doctrine. I asked long ago, “What must I do to be saved”?

But before God’s time was come, I fell among some Lutheran and Calvinist authors, whose confused and indigested accounts magnified faith to such an amazing size that it quite hid all the rest of the commandments. I did not then see that this was the natural effect of their overgrown fear of popery, being so terrified with the cry of merit and good works that they plunged at once in the other extreme. In this labyrinth I was utterly lost, not being able to find out what the error was, nor yet to reconcile this uncouth hypothesis either with scripture or common sense. The English writers, such as Bishop Beveridge, Bishop Taylor, and Mr. Nelson, a little relived me from these well-meaning, wrong-headed Germans.

Excerpts from John Wesley’s Journal, May 24, 1738

[After reading the spiritual writings of Thomas à Kempis and William Law:] The light flowed in so mightily upon my soul that everything appeared in a new view. I cried to God for help and resolved not to prolong the time of obeying him, as I had never done before. And by my continued endeavor to keep his whole law, inward and outward, to the utmost of my power, I was persuaded that I should be accepted of him and that I was even then in a state of salvation. In 1730 I began visiting the prisons, assisting the poor and sick in town, and doing what other good I could by my presence or my little fortune to the bodies and souls of all men. …Yet when, after continuing some years in this course, I apprehended myself to be near death, I could not find that all this gave me any comfort or any assurance of acceptance with God.

[After turning to a mystic who emphasized inner transformation through prayer and contemplation:] Now these were, in truth, as much my own works as visiting the sick or clothing the naked: and the “union with God” thus pursued was as really my own righteousness as any I had before pursued under another name.

[After quoting Paul in Romans 7:] In this state I was indeed fighting continually, but not conquering. …I fell and rose again. …During this whole struggle between nature and grace which had now continued above ten years, I had many remarkable returns to prayer, especially when I was in trouble. I had many sensible comforts, which are indeed no other than short anticipations of the life of faith. But I was still under the law, not under grace (the state most who are called Christians are content to live and die in), for I was only striving with, not freed from, sin. Neither had I the witness of the Spirit with my spirit, and indeed could not, for I sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.

In my return to England, January 1738 [journal entry above], being in imminent danger of death and very uneasy on that account, I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief and that the gaining a true, living faith was the one thing needful for me. But still I fixed not this faith on its right object: I meant only faith in God, not faith in or through Christ. Again, I knew not that I was wholly void of this faith but only thought I had not enough of it. So that when Peter Bohler, whom God prepared for me as soon as I came to London, affirmed of true faith in Christ (which is but one) that it had those two fruits inseparably attending it, “dominion over sin, and constant peace from a sense of forgiveness,” I was quite amazed and looked upon it as a new Gospel. If this was so, it was clear I had not faith. But I was not willing to be convinced of this.

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.