Blessed Assurance

This past Friday was the anniversary of an important day in the Methodist world, and so in honor of that, we’re going to begin today with a little bit of Methodist trivia.  You might find the answers to some of these questions in your bulletins, or you may have already heard me say them earlier in the service.  Some of them might require a little bit of outside knowledge.  Here we go:

  1. The name of the founder of the Methodist movement. (A: John Wesley)
  2. The name of John’s brother, who wrote many of the hymns in our Methodist hymnal. (A: Charles) Can you name some of his hymns?
  3. The name of John and Charles’s mother, who was their primary religious instructor growing up. (A: Susanna)
  4. John Wesley’s life spanned almost one complete century. What century was it? (A: 18th – he lived from1703-1791.)
  5. What country did the Wesleys live in? (A: England)
  6. In what church, or denomination, was John Wesley ordained? (A: Church of England – the Methodist movement he started was a renewal movement within the CoE, never meant to be a separate church.)
  7. During his time in university, Wesley led a group known by some as the Holy Club, which met frequently for prayer, Bible study, hymn singing, communion, and visiting and serving others. What university did he attend? (A: Oxford)
  8. After his Oxford days, Wesley traveled to the American colonies as a missionary. Which colony did he go to? (A: Georgia – statue of him in Savannah)
  9. The name of John Wesley’s girlfriend, who he finally refused to marry and ended up getting chased out of Georgia by her powerful uncle. (A: Sophie Hopkey) (Even religious leaders have their relationship drama.)
  10. A hard one: the name of the non-Anglican religious group that influenced Wesley in his early days back in England with their strong faith? (A: Moravians)
  11. The street name in London where Wesley had the conversion experience we are commemorating today. (A: Aldersgate)
  12. Switching from history to theology: Methodists believe that we encounter God’s grace in three ways. Name one of them. (A: Prevenient, justifying, sanctifying)
  13. And just for fun: what is the one thing, so far, the Methodist church in the US has split over? (A: slavery)

OK, so, let’s put all of this together.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was born in England in 1703, to a father who was an Anglican clergyman and a mother, Susanna, who taught him everything he knew on a very strict schedule.  He went to Oxford, along with his brother Charles, who wrote many of the hymns in our hymnal; there they got together a group of friends to meet regularly for the purpose of living and growing faithfully: they read Scripture, sang hymns, shared communion, visited people who were sick, and gave money to the poor.  This earned them several fun nicknames including the Holy Club, the Bible Moths, and Methodists (because they were so methodical in their approach to faith.)  John Wesley was ordained in the Church of England, went to Georgia as a missionary to convert the natives, had little success in doing so, compound that with some romantic drama, and came back to England generally feeling like a failure.  On his way back to England he fell in with the Moravians who helped him to look at faith in a new way, one that was less about trying to do all the right things and more about trusting and waiting for God to be at work in your life.

Here’s the thing.  Up until this point, Wesley had spent his whole life trying to do the good and faithful thing.  He got ordained, met with friends every week to make sure they were doing the things God expected of them, went off to be a missionary.  And all of those things would go on to be important in the movement he founded.  But they also weren’t enough.

On May 24, 1738, Wesley went to a Bible study in a Moravian chapel on Aldersgate Street in London.  He wrote in his journal:

In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to 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.

This has come to be referred to as Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, or sometimes just Aldersgate, and that’s what we’re celebrating the anniversary of today.

Today I want to talk a little bit about what Wesley experienced at Aldersgate that day: this experience of assurance of his salvation.

Wesley doesn’t tell us exactly what he heard from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans he heard that night.  (I thought maybe I would read it and try to figure it out, but it turns out it was like 270 pages long.)  I also don’t know what passage of Romans they were talking about that night.  I do know that he preached on and referred back to one particular passage from Romans many times as he later talked about assurance and what it looks and feels like to be saved.  So we’re going to hear that passage now.

 

[Scripture reading: Romans 8:12-17]

 

Question for you to answer quietly or out loud: How do you know you are saved?

Maybe we even could stand to back up here and define saved.  For many of us we might define it as something like “we’re going to go to heaven when we die.”  And actually, Wesley saw salvation as more of a lifelong process of being remade in the image of God, the process of sanctification.  But I think the salvation he referred to that night on Aldersgate Street was more about justification, being made right with God.

So how do you know you have been made right with God?  For Wesley, one of the answers to this question was assurance.  That’s what he felt like he was missing during his time at Oxford and in Georgia.  He was doing all these things he knew he was supposed to do as a good Christian: praying, reading the Bible, giving money, serving others.  But the thing is when you’re just trying all the time to do the things you’re supposed to do, you’ve always left something out, and it’s never really enough.  Wesley was doing all these things and he never really felt like he could be sure he was saved, like Christ had really died for him.

That was what he finally felt on Aldersgate Street that day – assurance.  That’s what he felt when he wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed.

Do you know that feeling?

I do – at least I think I do.  I’ve had some heartwarming experiences of my own.  I felt it maybe first on a retreat I went on my senior year of high school.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Walk to Emmaus program, but this was the youth version of that, called Chrysalis.  I know that there were talks throughout the weekend on different faith-related topics, but the one thing I really remember about this retreat is that they took all our watches and all the clocks away, and how all of a sudden this felt like I wasn’t responsible for everything anymore, all the important stuff in my life at the time like getting good grades and getting into college, and that I could finally relax and actually trust and depend on God.  And I remember at one point during that weekend hearing a song called When God Ran.  It was based on the Prodigal Son story, and it helped me imagine God running to me and embracing me in all of my brokenness and not-enoughness, too.

I’ve felt it, sometimes, this feeling of assurance, in the lines of certain hymns that come back to me again and again.  Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.  Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside – great is thy faithfulness.  Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?  And I’ve felt it, too, in service to and community with others – not because I am doing the things I am supposed to do, but in the experience of God drawing me into a family and the way God breaks down barriers to do that.

Do you know that feeling?  What are your heartwarming experiences?  When have you felt assurance of your own salvation?

But then, I find, there are the other times: the times when God seems far away, and it all seems like just a story in a book.  The times when the times when I fall back into believing that being saved means I have to do more and more to please God, that I am never really enough.  The times when I don’t feel very well assured that anything is going to be OK, and if being saved means knowing you are saved, then I’m not really sure I am.

In those times, it is helpful for me to remember the rest of Wesley’s story.

Aldersgate is one of those days that gets celebrated as this watershed moment in Methodist history.  And yet it wasn’t really that.  It was one moment in Wesley’s life – an important moment, but not necessarily an all-defining one.  He had been a Christian all his life before, and surely had had some moments in which it all felt particularly real to him.  And then, even shortly after that evening on Aldersgate Street, Wesley was writing in his journal that he wasn’t sure he had ever really been a Christian.  This life of faith is rarely ever a straight uphill line to heaven.

Assurance was a concept that Wesley would continue to wrestle with for the rest of his life.  He would write multiple sermons on it and argue with people about it through letters.  He believed that it was and should be a thing that accompanies our justification – that point at which we say yes to God’s invitation and our sins are forgiven.  And he believed that on some level we would know it when we had it – that, as the passage from Romans says, our spirit would join the witness of God’s Spirit telling us that we are children of God.

But it also wasn’t as easy as that.  Wesley knew that our salvation could never really hinge just on how we feel, because that’s putting too much back on us again.  He knew that there were people who had “mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God.”  He called such people “enthusiasts…in the worst sense of the word.”[1] In a later sermon he put it this way: “Madmen, French prophets, and enthusiasts of every kind have imagined they experienced this witness.”[2]  And on the other side of things, Wesley came to admit, over time, that because someone didn’t feel saved didn’t mean they weren’t.  In 1789, two years before his death, he would write this in a letter to a man named Melville Horne: “When fifty years ago my brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, told the good people of England that unless they knew their sins were forgiven, they were under the wrath and curse of God, I marvel, Melville, that they did not stone us!  The Methodists, I hope, know better now; we preach assurance as we always did, as a common privilege of real Christians; but we do not enforce it, under pain of damnation, denounced on all who enjoy it not.”[3]

Furthermore – even in those early days, Wesley never believed that being assured of our own status as children of God meant that we could just lean back and not worry about how we were actually living our lives.  The Methodist movement he would begin was all about growing in holiness over the course of our lives, the process of sanctification, as God gives us the grace to become more holy and loving and we respond to that grace by putting it to use and God gives us more.  As Wesley preached to crowds and delivered the message of salvation, they wanted to know what to do, how to respond, and Wesley drew on his Holy Club days: we respond by growing in holiness through prayer, Scripture reading, communion, visiting the sick, serving the poor, and other things Wesley called means of grace.

But the thing is even then it’s about grace, and not just about us, not just about trying a little bit harder, not just about doing enough, but about God’s grace on which it all depends.

The idea Wesley never gave up on is that assurance is something God wants us to have.  Not that anything rests on it, but that it is a gift.  That God wants us to know that we are God’s children.  That God wants us to know that we are forgiven.  That God wants us to know that we are accepted, that God runs to us and embraces us in all our brokenness and not-enoughness.  God wants us to be assured of our salvation, so that everything that comes next – our prayer, our Bible study, our giving, our service, our growth in holiness and love – is born out of that.

The gift of Aldersgate, which we celebrate today, is the gift of both-and: a faith that demands our hearts and our hands, assurance of what is and at the same time yearning for more.

May our spirits whisper or shout along with God’s Spirit: we are God’s children – loved, forgiven, embraced.

And may our lives of love and holiness begin and grow from there.

 

[1] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit I” in John Wesley’s Sermons, ed. Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, p. 146.

[2] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit II” in John Wesley’s Sermons, p. 399.

[3] Quoted in John Wesley’s Theology Today by Colin W. Williams, p. 106, via a handout from my Methodist Doctrine class

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s