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.