I’ve been reading through John Wesley’s journals and diaries for the years 1735-1738. They are fascinating.
It’s interesting to read about his travels to America during this time; his impressions of Georgia, colony life, and the weather. I cringed a little to read his descriptions of the Native American tribes he hoped to witness to.
It’s even more fascinating to read about Wesley’s theological journey.
As you may know, Wesley had a conversion experience on the evening of May 24, 1738, famously known as his Aldersgate experience. He was thirty-five years old and had been in the Anglican ministry for a decade. At Aldersgate, he came to believe in justification by faith apart from works and gained assurance. Did he truly believe the saving message? I think so. I hope so. But only God knows. It’s hard to answer, because later on Wesley got several important things about salvation wrong.
But what did Wesley believe before Aldersgate? By his own admission, he had believed in salvation by works.
What’s interesting to me is that Wesley recognized there was more than one gospel of works salvation. Over the course of his life, he had believed several different versions of it.
For example, in his early childhood, Wesley believed that total obedience was required for salvation:
“I believe, till I was about ten years old I had not sinned away that ‘washing of the Holy Ghost’ which was given me in baptism having been strictly educated and carefully taught that I could only be saved by universal obedience, by keeping all the commandments of God, in the meaning of which I was diligently instructed” (Works 18:243, emphasis his).
Wesley then went to boarding school and lowered his standards for salvation. He didn’t need to be perfect, just better than average:
“And what I now hoped to be saved by, was (1) not being so bad as other people; (2) having still a kindness for religion; and (3) reading the Bible, going to church, and saying my prayers” (Works 18:243, emphasis his).
Wesley then went to Oxford for his university studies, and during this time he wasn’t sure what he believed about the condition of salvation:
“I cannot well tell what I hoped to be saved by now, when I was continually sinning against the little light I had, unless by those transient fits of what many divines taught me to call ‘repentance’” (Works 18:243).
Later, Wesley was ordained to the ministry and began to teach Greek at Oxford. He began to believe the key thing was to at least try to be as perfect as possible, whether or not you actually succeeded:
“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” (Works 18:244-245).
In other words, here are different versions of works salvation that Wesley believed: (1) sinless perfection; (2) being better than average; (3) repenting when necessary; (4) giving your best efforts.
And what was the result of these efforts to be saved by his works? Did he have assurance? Wesley gives the predictable answer:
“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, nor any assurance of acceptance with God. At this I was then not a little surprised, not imagining I had been all this time building on the sand, nor considering that ‘other foundation no man lay than that which is laid by God, even Christ Jesus’” (Works 18:245).
Do you believe in one of those versions of salvation by works? And consequently, do you lack assurance of your salvation? Wesley recognized that believing in salvation by works was like trying to build on sand instead of on solid rock. When you believe in salvation by works, you ultimately believe in yourself, not Christ. You believe in your works, not His work. You believe in the promises you make to Him, not in the promise of eternal life He makes to believers. “He who believes has eternal life,” Jesus said (John 6:47). Will you believe?