Quote: “I felt I did trust in 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.”
By the time of his death, John Wesley (1703 – 1791) was recognized for his contribution both to England’s religious atmosphere and to the social and economic milieu. For Wesley, social involvement was intrinsically tied to evangelistic outreach; thus prison reform, employment assistance, poverty relief, and antislavery were natural aspects of early Methodism.
In his early twenties, he decided to enter the ministry, but was shocked that those preparing for holy orders lived a frivolous and degraded lifestyle. Out of Oxford’s worldly atmosphere, John, his brother Charles, and their friend George Whitefield established the “Holy Club,” an accountability group committed to spiritual disciplines and good works.
Wesley later journeyed to Georgia to minister to the colonists and Indians, but neither were interested in the words of an Anglican priest. He thought the Indians were “implacable” and “unmerciful,” and the settlers thought he was self-righteous, aloof, and authoritarian.
In the midst of these problems, he found himself consumed by “an unholy desire” for Sophy Hopkey. Sophy agreed to marry another man, leaving Wesley was dumbstruck. Because couple eloped without the customary publishing of banns, he denied her communion. When she and her husband sued him, Wesley defended himself but decided to leave town.
Back home in London, he was thirty-five, single, and not in a good mood. He would have rather stayed home from the church meeting that spring evening in 1738. “I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Romans,” he later confessed. “While he was describing the change God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in 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.”
Wesley’s seeking after holiness was offset by struggles in his personal life. In 1749, he again contemplated marriage—this time to Grace Murray. John Bennett, however, was also interested in Grace, and Charles Wesley—fearing his brother would be distracted from the ministry—met privately with the couple and convinced them to marry. John was devastated. His relationship with Charles might have been permanently severed had it not been for the intervention of George Whitefield, weeping in great distress and pleading they not let this matter ruin the ministry.
Just a year after this ordeal, Wesley hastily married Molly Vazeille before giving proper notice. But the marriage did not last. They lived together “only occasionally,” and when Molly moved away after twenty years, Wesley was indifferent.
In light of the strife he encountered on a personal level, Wesley’s doctrinal focus on “entire sanctification” may seem unusual. He strongly objected to Whitefield’s claim that a truly converted person was eternally secure. Such a position, Wesley believed, was license to sin. Insisting that justification was not a blanket forgiveness of sins, Wesley believed that believers could reach a state of sinless perfection.
The doctrine of perfection created conflict throughout his ministry. In fact, this controversy virtually tore the whole movement apart. Either it was neglected or it was carried too far, but rarely was it preached to his satisfaction. Perfection simply did not work on a practical level. Even after he had published The Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766), he frequently confronted preachers who refused to preach the doctrine.
Regarding himself, Wesley never publicly claimed entire sanctification, and in private correspondence he was vague at best. In 1763, he wrote to Charles, “I often cry out ‘Give me back my former life!’ Let me be again an Oxford Methodist! I am often in doubt whether it would not be best for me to resume all my Oxford rules, great and small. I did then walk closely with God and redeemed the time.”
In 1788, on day after his eight-fifth birthday, he held to his preaching schedule of three sermons at three different locations: “At eight I preached at Misterton, as usual; about one to a numerous congregation at Newby, near Haxey; and about four at my old stand in Epworth market place.” This is how he had carried out his ministry for almost a half century.