24 February 2021

The warmed heart

In this second article about what makes a Methodist a Methodist, the Revd Richard Teal considers the warmed heart. You can read the first article in the series here.

John Wesley had been piously brought up by his devout parents and he followed them in the Christian way. He was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. In 1725 while in Oxford he made a solemn vow to devote himself wholly to God, in outward conduct and inward temper and he also strived to fulfil this throughout his life. Wesley’s Journal May 24th 1738 shows how he had to re-assess the whole previous 35 years of his life. His familiar words are often cited:

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.

Notice how Wesley went ‘’very unwillingly’’ to Aldersgate Street. He had come back from America in 1737 profoundly depressed. To Wesley it was the exposition of scripture which spoke to his condition: ‘’one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans’’ that the moment of release came for him and the joy of the gospel broke through. Methodist scholars differ in their assessment of what that experience of John Wesley on 24th May 1738, really was. Traditionally it is seen as his conversion. Others see it as an experience of assurance of faith, still others as fullness of the Spirit; yet others as the completion of something which began in earlier years. Whatever it was, it was very significant for John Wesley and it certainly shows that Methodists have a variety of understandings of how we become disciples and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

John Wesley played great emphasis on reason and in this experience, he had to learn what his father had tried to tell him, how very few things of consequence in this world are decided by reason alone. He came to see that no one can come to faith by reason alone. He came to realise and it was hard for him that all his willing and striving could not put him right with God. It was as the Moravians and Luther had taught him: ‘A person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 2 v 16).

We do need to note that when Wesley refers to the ‘heart strangely warmed’ he is not talking just about emotion. Deep religious feelings were no doubt involved; but when Wesley used the word ‘heart’ he used it in a biblical sense, to denote the central core of a person—mind, will and feeling. It invites a person to offer every part of themselves to God-the whole person.

At Aldersgate Street, Wesley’s heart was made new. He acknowledged that before 1738 he had only ‘’the faith of a servant’’ afterwards he had ‘’the faith of a son’’. May 24th did not give him complete peace and joy for he still had to contend with doubts and darkness yet he received great gifts in that night’s encounter with the living Christ. He knew a deepened experience of forgiveness; an assurance of faith and a new personal freedom. These gifts not only changed his inner life, but transformed his ministry. What does the warmed heart mean for you?

 

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