John Wesley: From the Journal
In the previous edition of Christian History we printed excerpts from John Wesley’s Journal describing key moments in his spiritual growth and discovery. A large reader response to this particular article prompts us to include here further comments from the Journal wherein Wesley summarizes his early spiritual journey, concluding with his conversion.
Wednesday, May 24, 1738
What occurred on Wednesday May 24, 1738, I think best to relate at large, after premising what may make it the better understood. Let him that cannot receive it, ask of the Father of lights, that he would give more light to him and me.
1. 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. And those instructions, so far as they respected outward duties and sins, I gladly received, and often thought of. But all that was said to me of inward obedience, or holiness, I neither understood nor remembered. So that I was indeed as ignorant of the true meaning of the law as I was of the Gospel of Christ.
2. The next six or seven years were spent at school; where outward restraints being removed, I was much more negligent than before even of outward duties, and almost continually guilty of outward sins, which I knew to be such, though they were not scandalous in the eye of the world. However I still read the Scriptures, and said my prayers morning and evening. 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.
3. Being removed to the university, for five years, I still said my prayers both in public and private, and read with my Scriptures several other books of religion, especially comments on the New Testament. Yet I had not all this while so much as a notion of inward holiness; nay, went on habitually, and, for the most part, very contentedly, in some or other known sin: Indeed with some intermissions and short struggles, especially before and after the Holy Communion, which I was obliged to receive thrice a year. I cannot well tell what I hoped to be saved by now, when I was continually sinning against that little light I had; unless by those transient fits of what many divines taught me to call Repentance.
4. A When I was about twenty-two, my father pressed me to enter into Holy Orders. At the same time the Providence of God directing me to Kempis’s Christian Pattern, I began to see that true Religion was seated in the heart, and that God’s law extended to all our thoughts as well as words and actions. I was however very angry at Kempis for being too strict, though I read him only in Dean Stanhope’s translation. Yet I had frequently much sensible comfort in reading him, such as I was an utter stranger to before. And meeting likewise with a religious friend, which I never had until now, I began to alter the whole form of my conversation, and to set in earnest upon a New Life. I set apart an hour or two a day for religious retirement. I communicated every week. I watched against all sin, whether in word or deed. I began to aim at and pray for inward holiness. So that now, doing so much, and living so good a life, I doubted not but I was a good Christian.
5. Removing soon to another College, I executed a resolution, which I was before convinced was of the utmost importance, shaking off at once all my trifling acquaintance. I began to see more and more the value of time. I applied myself closer to study. I watched more carefully against actual sins: I advised others to be religious, according to the scheme of religion by which I modeled my own life. But meeting now with Mr. Law’s Christian Perfection and Serious Call (although I was much offended at many parts of both, yet) they convinced me more than ever of the exceeding height, and breadth, and depth of the law of God. The light flowed in so mightily upon my soul that everything appeared in a new view. I cried to God for help, and resolved not to prolong the time of obeying him as I had never done before. And by my continued endeavour 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.
6. In 1730, I began visiting the prisons, assisting the poor and sick in town, and doing what other good I could by my presence, or my little fortune, to the bodies and souls of all men. To this end I abridged myself of all superfluities, and many that are called necessities of life. I soon became a by-word for so doing, and I rejoiced that my name was cast out as evil. The next Spring I began observing the Wednesday and Friday Fasts, commonly observed in the ancient church; tasting no food until three in the afternoon. And now I knew not how to go any further. I diligently strove against all sin. I omitted no sort of self-denial which I thought lawful; I carefully used, both in public and in private, all the means of grace at all opportunities. I omitted no occasion of doing good. I for that reason suffered evil. And all this I knew to be nothing, unless it was directed toward inward holiness. Accordingly this (the image of God) was what I aimed at in all, by doing his will, not my own. 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, or any assurance of acceptance with God. At this I was not then a little surprised; not imagining I had been all this time building on the sand, (not so; I was right as far as I went) not considering that other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid by God, even Christ Jesus.
7. Soon after a contemplative man convinced me. still more than I was convinced before, that outward works are nothing, being alone: and in several conversations instructed me how to pursue inward holiness, or a union of the soul with God. But even of his instructions, though I then received them as the words of God, I cannot but now observe, 1. That he spoke so incautiously against trusting in outward works, that he discouraged me from doing them at all. 2. That he recommended, as it were to supply what was wanting in them, mental prayer, and the like exercises, as the most effectual means of purifying the soul, and uniting it with God. Now these were in truth, as much my own works as visiting the sick or clothing the naked, and the union with God thus pursued, was as really my own unrighteousness, as any I had before pursued, under another name.
8. In this refined way of trusting to my own works and my own righteousness, so zealously inculcated by the Mystic writers, I dragged on heavily, finding no comfort or help therein, till the time of my leaving England. On shipboard, however, I was again active in outward works: where it pleased God, of his free mercy, to give my twenty-six of the Moravian brethren for companions, who endeavored to shew me a more excellent way. But I understood it not at first. I was too learned and too wise; so that it seemed foolishness unto me. And I continued… trusting in that righteousness whereby no flesh can be justified.
9. All the time I was at Savannah I was thus beating the air. Being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, which, by a living faith in him bringeth salvation to every one that believeth, I sought to establish my own righteousness, and so laboured in the fire all my days. I was now, properly under the Law; I knew that the Law of God was spiritual;” “I consented to it that it was good. Yea, I delighted in it, after the inner man.” Yet I was “carnal, sold under sin.” Every day I was constrained to cry out, “What I do, I allow not; for what I would I do not, but what I hate, that I do. To will is indeed present with me; but how to perform that which is good, I find not. For the good which I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. I find a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me: Even the law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and still bringing me into the captivity to the law of sin.”
10. In this state, I was indeed fighting continually, but not conquering. Before, I had willingly served sin; now it was unwillingly, but still I served it. I fell and rose, and fell again. Sometimes I was overcome, and in heaviness: Sometimes I overcame, and was in joy. For, as in the former state, I had some foretastes of the terrors of the Law, so had I in this, of the comforts of the Gospel. During this whole struggle between nature and grace, which had now continued above ten years, I had many remarkable returns to prayer, especially when I was in trouble: I had many sensible comforts, which are indeed no other than short anticipations of the life of faith. But I was still under the Law, not under Grace, the state most who are called Christians are content to live and die in. For I was only striving with, not freed from sin: Neither has the witness of the Spirit with my spirit. And indeed could not: for “I sought it not by faith, but, as it were, by the works of the Law.”
11. In my return to England, January 1738, being in imminent danger of death, and very uneasy on that account, I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief, and that the gaining a true, living faith was the one thing needful for me. But still I fixt not this faith on its right object: I meant only faith in God, not faith in or through Christ. Again, I knew not that I was wholly void of this faith; but only thought, I had not enough of it. So that when Peter Boehler, whom God prepared for me as soon as I came to London, affirmed of true faith in Christ, which is but one, that it had those two fruits inseparably attending it, “Dominion over sin, and constant peace from a sense of forgiveness,” I was quite amazed, and looked upon it as a new Gospel. If this were so, it was clear I had not faith …
12. … they added with one mouth, that this faith was the gift, the free gift of God, and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul, who earnestly and perseveringly sought it. I was now thoroughly convinced; and, by the grace of God, I resolved to seek it unto the end, 1. By absolutely renouncing all dependence, in whole or in part, upon my own works or righteousness, on which I had really grounded my hope of salvation, though I knew it not, from my youth up. 2. By adding to the constant use of all the other means of grace, continual prayer for this very thing, justifying, saving faith, a full reliance on the blood of Christ, shed for me; a trust in him, as my Christ, as my sole justification, sanctification and redemption …
13. In the evening, 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.
14. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there, what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be Faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught, that “Peace and victory over sin, are essential to Faith in the Captain of our salvation: But, that as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who had mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth them, according to the counsels of his own will.”
15. After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations: But cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and he “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.
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