John Wesley wrote two fascinating letters to William Law days before and days after his Aldersgate experience. They reveal some of the spiritual transformation that he went through in the that momentous month of May in 1738.
William Law was a spiritual mentor of Wesley’s. He wrote books of practical theology that Wesley read and recommended to others, although Law’s turn to more mystical themes alienated him from Wesley, which we can see in the two letters.
On May 14, Wesley wrote Law an accusatory letter full of pain. Wesley had been following Law’s advice in his preaching — and own life — for two years. He preached the law of God in great depth and detail. When people found they could not follow the law, he exhorted them and stirred himself up to pray for the grace of God and use the means of grace. But, still, the law was too high for him.
Under this heavy yoke, I might have groaned until death, had not a holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all they heart, and nothing shall be impossible for thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find.
Wesley turns from sharing his great discovery to a pointed question to Law: Why had Law never told him this piece of advice while the young Wesley was groaning in misery?
If Law thought Wesley already had faith or was being prepared for it, Wesley wrote that he was mistaken.
If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all. I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not the heart. But what is this to the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus? the faith that cleanseth from sin; that gives us to have free access to the Father; to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God;” to have “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” which dwelleth in us; and “the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God?”
In this letter and the follow up answering some of Law’s defense of his conduct, I hear the eruption of a spiritual experience that would shape the entire Methodist movement for the next 50 years.
Wesley the serious priest intent on holiness and mindful of hell was groaning under the pains of his own attempts to achieve his salvation by his own work and effort. He strove with sincerity and earnestness that few Christians ever attempt much less attain. And it was all vanity. He groaned still.
It was the doctrine of salvation by grace that unlocked the torture chamber of his soul. It opened his heart and gave him exceeding joy. It burst the bonds of the law with grace.
The Methodist move in those early decades was built, I am hypothesizing, to nurture that same spiritual experience in others. It was an apparatus for helping others find what John and his brother Charles had experienced.
Over time, we have lost that focus. The apparatus broke down or got used for different purposes. More and more of us carried the name of Methodist but without an knowledge of the experience or inkling that it might be the animating purpose of the movement that became a denomination.
And so, now here we sit.
Gustavo Gutierrez in his book We Drink from Our Own Wells argues that every spirituality within the Church remains a resource for Christians today. Of course, he is Roman Catholic. Identity issues are not quite so fraught for him as they are for ever-fracturing Protestants.
But I wonder how we United Methodists cohere and persevere as a church that no longer is defined by its founding spiritual experience and impetus. So many of our pastors and laity have no identification with the groans that tormented Wesley or the joy that met him in the word of grace.
Can we recenter on that spiritual experience? Should we? If we don’t, how do we remain custodians of it in ways that enrich who we are?