John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was an ordained Anglican priest. He considered Methodism to be a renewal movement within the Church of England and resisted attempts to make it a denomination in itself.
It is interesting to see how Wesley’s theology changed over time.
Later in life, Wesley would claim he had been an “almost Christian” during his early career. Why? Because he believed in salvation-by-works, not in justification by faith apart from works.
You see that in his early teaching.
As a young priest, Wesley went to the new colony of Georgia to be a missionary to the Indians. What message did he share when he evangelized them?
In his Journals, Wesley records a conversation with two Chickasaw Indian chiefs. The questions (Q) come from Wesley; the answers (A), from the Chickasaw:
Q. Where do the souls of white men go after death?
A. We can’t tell. We have not been.
Q. Our belief is that the souls of bad men only walk up and down, but the souls of good men go up.
A. I believe so too (Works of John Wesley, 18:167).
How does the soul go up, according to Wesley?
You “go up” if you’re good. You go down if you’re bad.
That’s salvation by works.
Later, Wesley records an evangelistic conversation he had with “a young Negro.” This is what he told her:
“But why do you think he made us, what did he make you and me for?” “I can’t tell.” “He made you to live with himself, above the sky. And so you will, in a little time—if you are good. If you are good, when your body dies your soul will go up, and want nothing, and have whatever you can desire” (Works of John Wesley, 18:180).
What is the condition for going to heaven, according to the young Wesley? Being good.
Wesley failed as a missionary and soon returned to England. There he joined with a Moravian small group, and during a reading of Martin Luther’s Preface to the book of Romans, Wesley came to believe in justification by faith apart from works, and gained assurance of his salvation. This became known as his “Aldersgate experience,” named after the road where the small group met.
From that time on, Wesley had a shocking testimony. He told people that he had not been a Christian up to that point. And neither, he thought, were most people in the Church of England.
That claim caused much controversy. People were shocked and offended. How could Wesley not have been a Christian? Wasn’t he baptized and ordained?
And how could he call into question their Christianity? They went to Church. They heard the Word of God. They took the sacraments. They believed in God and Jesus. Why weren’t they saved?
Nevertheless, Wesley insisted, they were “almost Christians.” Why “almost”? Because despite everything else they believed and did, they had not yet believed the saving message. They had not yet believed in Jesus for salvation.
During his initial crossing to Georgia, a Moravian had asked Wesley, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”
“I know He is the Saviour of the world,” Wesley answered.
“True,” the Moravian replied, “but do you know He has saved you?” (Works of John Wesley, 18:146).
Do you know that? Or are you an “almost Christian”?