PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “A Brand Plucked From the Fire-with the World His Gospel Parish”.
One of the most interesting and impacting Christian influences of the 18th Century was John Wesley. Historians feel that he, and possibly George Whitefield, are the reason that England escaped the Revolutionary tragedy and turmoil that plagued France during this same time in history. His spiritual influence brought such a revival to England that created an entirely different culture than the one that nearly destroyed France, John Wesley was born June 28, 1703, to an Anglican minister Samuel Wesley, and his wife Susannah. John was the 15th, of 19 children! His mother was the 25th child of 25! One would think that John was mostly influenced by his minister father, but we are told that all of the Wesley children were impacted most by their godly mother. Somehow, she had time to spend individual time with each one of them, (a challenge when there is only 24 hours in a day). She taught them the Word of God, to pray, and to live by very strict Christian behavior toward each other and those in the outside world. John would be ingrained with these Christian methods so much that he would carry them with him the rest of his life! Many historians refer to Susannah Wesley as the Mother of Modern-day Methodism! Even after he left home for his college education, he turned to his mother asking her to define sin for him. She responded, “whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself”. She not only taught them the Scriptures, but taught them to study it in its original language, from the Greek New Testament. An incident that occurred while John was quite young, shaped him the rest of his life. The Wesley home caught fire. All of the family escaped the flames, except John. He was trapped on the second floor. There was no way of escape. Neighbors recognizing the emergency of the situation, formed a human ladder, (standing on each other’s shoulders), to reach up and out to rescue young John. For the rest of his life he referred to himself as “a brand plucked from the fire”-quoting what God said of Joshua the High Priest in Zechariah 3:2.
John and his brother Charles went to Oxford. While there they formed, with two other students, the Holy Club, where they emphasized practical methods and rules for living the practical Christian life. Again, this was from the influence of his godly mother who tried to make the commandments of Scripture every day exercises in holiness for her children. John had an insatiable appetite to know and please God. James Oglethorpe had founded a colony in Georgia where many from debtor’s prison in England were sent. He asked John and Charles to go to this parish and minister to these prisoners, and also to evangelize the Indians. In October of 1735 they sailed on the Simmonds ship to the Province of Georgia, in the American colonies. It was on this trip that he met and was greatly influenced by the Moravian missionaries that were on the same trip. On the way to the New World, the ship encountered a life-threatening storm, and it was clear the ship was going to sink. The Moravians sang hymns and rejoiced calmly. John Wesley was terrified of death. The Moravian pastor asked John why he was so terrified. He asked him “don’t you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior?” John would write of the incident later in his journals, that he immediately responded “Of course I do!”, but admitted that his confession even sounded hollow to his own ears! He spent two years ministering to prisoners and Indians in Georgia. He and Charles were not well received! They decided to return home. John was returning a broken and disillusioned man. He wrote in his journals-“I went to Georgia to convert the heathen and the Indians. Who will convert me?” Upon returning to England he continued to meet with the Moravians. At one of their Bible studies, at Aldersgate Street London, May 24, 1738, they were studying the Book of Romans from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. When the leader read the preface to the commentary that described Luther opening his heart to the salvation of the Lord that was received by faith alone-John Wesley would later write in his journal-“I felt my heart strangely warmed, and at that point, instead of trusting my methods of Christian living for my salvation, I do believe I trusted in Jesus Christ alone as my Savior 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”. That was a turning point in his life indeed! He was not received well in the Anglican Church, rejected by the Bishops and clergy, He followed the example of George Whitefield, beginning an itinerant ministry. He turned to preaching the Gospel of Grace in the open fields. His motto became-“the world is my parish”. He became adept at open-air preaching. He began to draw crowds into the thousands at his services. He was a small man, 5 foot 6 inches 120 pounds. When he preached, he had to stand on a chair, or a rock, or a hill, or man-made platform. He preached on an average 15 sermons a week, He continued to preach to this Gospel parish for the next 50 years! Over that time, he preached over 40,000 sermons. He traveled on horseback the length and breadth of England-altogether more than 250,000 miles on horseback. He would be seen traveling on horseback, reading his Greek New Testament, and preparing messages. He said, “He destroyed his sermons every seven years, and wrote new ones”. He felt that he was a failure if he could not write better sermons as he went along! They say that the miles he traveled, could have circled the world 10 times! He did so often in the face of hostile crowds, on roads that were often only muddy ruts. A contemporary described him as “the last word…in neatness and dress” and “his eye was the brightest and most piercing that can be conceived”. Once a wild bull was turned loose on him and an audience he was addressing. He was attacked, and sometimes robbed, but none of these things deterred him. His ministry was greatly anointed by the Holy Spirit and the crowds responded in powerful conversions everywhere he went. His converts quickly numbered into the thousands!
He was a powerful preacher and author. He wrote, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh be not weary in well-doing!” Wesley was strongly Arminian in his theology. He opposed strong Calvinism. But in spite of that he did so with a sweet spirit. He coined the phrase, “we can agree to disagree, agreeably!” He wrote, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. here in all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences”. Everywhere he went he reminded other Christians “You have one business on earth-to save souls!” He gave himself to that ministry tirelessly! His prayer was “may I never be useless for the work of God!” He felt strongly about living the Christian life as well. He wrote, “By salvation I mean not barely according to the vulgar notion deliverance from hell or going to heaven only, but a deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity, a recovery of the divine nature…after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness“. He believed in giving generously to the Lord’s work. He said, “When I earn any money, after taking care of my needs, I give it all away in His work lest it find a way into my heart, as an idol!” “When a man becomes a Christian, he becomes industrious, trustworthy, and prosperous. Now if that man when he gets all he can, and does not five all he can, I have no more hope for Judas Iscariot than for that man!” He also said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”, and wrote a Medical journal that became famous, and catalogued many popular and home remedies of his day. He was known for saying, “Untold millions are still untold, until we tell them!” “though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry!” He also said, “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn!” (Charles Spurgeon followed his example!). He was a humble servant of the Lord. He and George Whitefield often disagreed on theology. Wesley did not fully embrace eternal security. George Whitefield did. People asked Wesley if he thought he would see Whitefield in heaven? He quickly responded, “No!” They thought his response was unfair, until he explained-“George will be so close to the throne of God, and I so far away that it will be quite unlikely I will even be able to see him!” Let me share two of my favorite quotes from Wesley. One is about the Bible. He wrote, “it could not be the invention of good men or angels; they neither would nor could make a book, and tell lies all the time they were writing it, saying ‘Thus says the Lord’ when it was their own invention. It could not be the invention of bad men or devils; for they could not make a book which commands all duty, forbids all sin, and condemns their souls to hell to all eternity, without Christ! Therefore, I draw this conclusion that the Bible must be of Divine Inspiration. I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God. Just hovering over the great gulf; til a few moments hence, I am no longer seen. I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing-the way to heaven. How to land safe on that happy shore. God has condescended to teach the way. For this very end he came from heaven. he hath written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me that book! Give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me! Let me be Homo Unius Libri-a man of one book!” The other quote I admire is the one he said, “Give me 100 men, who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, I care not a whit whether they be clergy or layperson, and I shall shake the very gates of hell!”. That was his life’s goal. He led the way for far more than 100 men and women! He did so for nearly fifty years of incessant itinerary witnessing and ministry!
On June 28, 1790, one year before his death he wrote, “This day I enter into my eighty-eighth year. For above eighty-six years, I found none of the infirmities of old age: my eyes did not wax dim, neither was my natural strength abated. But last August, I found almost a sudden change. My eyes were so dim that no glasses would help me. My strength likewise now quite forsook me and probably will not return in this world!” He died on March 2, 1791, at an age of 87. As he lay dying, his friends and family gathered around him. Wesley grasped their hands and said repeatedly, “Farewell, Farewell! The best of all is, God is with us” he lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words “The best of all is God is with us!” His biographer writes, “He witnessed in the hearts and lives of many thousands and saw God’s provision for his work to last for future generations!” If you visit his tomb, in London, England, you will be touched by his epitaph-“To the memory of the venerable John Wesley, late fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford-This great light arose to enlighten…and revive, enforce, and defend the pure apostolic doctrines and practices of the primitive Church, which he continued to do both with his writings and labors for more than half a century…Reader if thou art constrained to bless the instrument-give God the glory. After languishing a few days, he finished his course and life together, gloriously triumphing over death, March 2nd, 1791 in his eighty-eighth year of his life.” He was a brand plucked from the fire, who spent all the days of his life, in the world that was his Gospel parish, plucking others from the fire with all of his strength-and good method to follow! No pun intended!