‘Awake, Thou That Sleepest’

Charles Wesley

On an April Sunday in 1742, Charles Wesley preached a sermon to the students of Christ Church, Oxford. His brother John Wesley included the sermon in the standard sermons that all Methodist preachers were to use. “Awake, Thou That Sleepest” is the strongest call to conviction found in the standard sermons.

Charles Wesley broke the sermon into three parts: a description of what it means to be a sleeper; an exhortation to awake; and an explanation of the promises made to those who do awake.

By sleepers, Wesley means those who are not aware of their fallen state. Such sleepers have no notion that the thing they need most is the thing they do not imagine even is possible. They do not know of the new birth, an inward change of the heart, or the sanctification that recaptures the image of God in us.

Full of all diseases as he is, he fancies himself in perfect health. Fast bound in misery and iron, he dreams that he is at liberty. He says, “Peace! Peace!” while the devil, as “a strong man armed,” is in full possession of his soul. He sleeps on still, and makes his rest, though hell is moved from beneath to meet him; though the pit, from whence there is no return, hath opened its mouth to swallow him up. A fire is kindled around him, yet he knoweth it not; yea, it burns him, yet he lays it not to his heart.

The worst case, Wesley writes, is the sleeper who to all outward appearance is a “good person.”  Such a person is like the whitewashed tomb that is painted and pretty on the outside but inside is full of bones and rotting flesh.

To such sleepers, Wesley calls out “Awake!” He calls on them to see their true state. To know themselves as fallen and in need of rescue, to see themselves in prison and need of release. In his exhortation, Wesley makes use of a story from Acts in a way I found particularly artful.

Thou unholy soul see thy picture in condemned Peter, lying in the dark dungeon, between the soldiers, bound with two chains, the keepers before the door keeping the prison. The night is far spent, the morning is at hand, when thou art to be brought forth to execution. And in these dreadful circumstances, thou are fast asleep; thou are asleep in the devil’s arms, on the brink of the pit, in the jaws of everlasting destruction!

O may the Angel of the Lord come upon thee, and the light shine into thy prison! And mayest thou feel the stroke of an Almighty Hand, raising thee, with, “Arise up quickly, gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals, cast thy garments about thee, and follow me.”

Wesley – preaching as he is to a church full of members of the Church of England – exhorts them to not be satisfied with their baptism alone, but to seek the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. True religion, he writes, is to have the life of God living within you. It is to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus. It is the peace of God passing all understanding. It is holiness and happiness. If we have not these, then we fall short of true Christianity.

For those who awake to their condition and call out upon God, Wesley writes, this experience of the Holy Spirit is the promise of faith.

We are called to be “an habitation of God through his Spirit;” and through his Spirit dwelling in us, to be saints here, and partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. So exceeding great are the promises which are given unto us, actually given unto those who believe!

Against these promises, Wesley recounts the “flood” of wickedness he sees in the world. He exhorts the congregation to receive the word that God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven us. Receive this, he says, and we are justified before God and the work of sanctification through the Holy Spirit has begun.

Wesley ends with a warning that God will not turn a blind eye to the evils of the world.

My brethren, it is high time for us to awake out of sleep; before the “great trumpet of the Lord be blown,” and our land become a field of blood. O may we speedily see the things that make for our peace, before they are hid from our eyes!

And the preacher ends his sermon.

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4 thoughts on “‘Awake, Thou That Sleepest’

  1. John,

    Thank you for the conversations and prayer that you provoke within your blog.

    Question:

    Whether we are talking about Wesley’s (Church of England) OR the CTA (United Methodist Church) OR in some sense, scripture (New Testament Churches) AND Jesus’ own proclamation of the ‘Kingdom of God’…Do you find it interesting that the harshest words and rhetoric are reserved for those within “the body” or claim to be a part of it and have laid down their calling rather than rested “in it”?

    Jesus and Apostles don’t usually speak to the “un-initiated” with such strength.

    How does that play into our conversations within the United Methodist Church today?

    many thanks.

    God’s peace,
    Josh

    1. Josh, thank you for the reading and the questions. I suspect you have some thoughts and would love to read them. Here are a few hasty and unorganized thoughts of my own.

      It does strike me as true that the language of accountability only makes sense for those who are in a covenant with us. You hold me to account for the vows and promises I have made. I do the same to you. Those not part of the body or the covenant community need to be addressed in different terms, because they are not bound to us by mutual obligation.

      Any example from Wesley is problematic as an analogy to our setting because literally everyone he spoke to in England was at least nominally part of the church. Many of them may not have felt any real connection, of course.

      Acts would make an interesting study. Look at Peter at the house of Cornelius and Paul at Athens in contrast to Stephen before the council.

  2. John,

    Cornelius & Peter…Paul at Athens, I think these are fair examples of what I was trying to communicate. I would add that I’m not buying the “Paul had no converts in Athens” argument for this conversation. I don’t understand this conversation to be about sure fire “techniques” for winning converts, but rather, real people working out their salvation with fear and trembling. It was/is a dynamic relationship of growth and practice with the Holy Spirit.

    I’d like to push-back a little on the Wesley analogy though.

    you wrote:
    “Any example from Wesley is problematic as an analogy to our setting because literally everyone he spoke to in England was at least nominally part of the church. Many of them may not have felt any real connection, of course.”

    I find striking, at least perceived similarities in the “bible belt” and beyond of course. There are many who are baptised into the umbrella “idea” of a nominally religious Christian nation with no real connection to faith and practice. I find Christian Smith’s articulation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism on target with a lot of what I encounter in fellowship circles.

    Is it not “we” ,the nominally religious, and the ones in covenant together, who need to “awake” to the call to be “altogether Christians”? As opposed to the unconverted masses. I Peter 4:17

    Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God to Israel right?

    How does all this relate to CTA and denominational decline or vitality?

    what are your thoughts?
    Peace,
    Josh

    1. Josh, great points. When I wrote about Wesley not being a good analogy, I was responding to your observation about language that is directed to “insiders” (for lack of a better term) seems to be more harsh than language direct at “outsiders.” My only point was that Wesley – except for his failure in Georgia – rarely dealt with those outside the church.

      That said, I agree that our situation is similar to his in that a great many of us need to be awakened. Absolutely.

      My concern with the CTA in all this conversation is that it is about congregations rather than people. I know congregations are made up of people, but you can have a big, active church full of nominal Christians. From the CTA’s point of view a thousand nominal Christians who show up, give money, and go on mission trips are better than 500 deeply committed Christians. I don’t think that is true.

      I’m not smart enough to figure out why we are in decline. It seems that everyone has their pet theory. I think all we can do in the face of either decline or growth is attempt to be the best Christians and the best gatherings of Christians that we can figure out how to be. That includes reaching out and seeking to bring the gospel to people who have not really listened to it before. I’m not arguing for being insular. I’m just not wise enough to know exactly why we are where we are or what magic formula will fix things.

      Be Methodists. That’s my answer. I wish I had a better one.

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