How do we learn how to follow Jesus, and persuade others to do likewise? This is not as easy a question to answer as we might suppose. Let’s look at the story of the brothers Charles and John Wesley, as told by Ellen White, to see why.
White observed that “[Charles] Wesley and his associates were led to see that true religion is seated in the heart, and that God’s law extends to the thoughts as well as to the words and actions. Convinced of the necessity of holiness of heart, as well as correctness of outward deportment, they set out in earnest upon a new life. By the most diligent and prayerful efforts they endeavored to subdue the evils of the natural heart. They lived a life of self-denial, charity, and humiliation, observing with great rigor and exactness every measure which they thought could be helpful to them in obtaining what they most desired–that holiness which could secure the favor of God” (GC 254).
It seems as though Wesley was on the right track, doesn’t it? Is it not true that God’s law extends to the thoughts as well as to the words and actions? Is it not important to be diligent and prayerful in our efforts to subdue our natural evil hearts? But, White concludes, Wesley and his friends “did not obtain the object which they sought. In vain were their endeavors to free themselves from the condemnation of sin or to break its power” (GC 254).
Why did Wesley fail? Was there a problem with his goal to seek God? Surely not. And nothing he did, in and of itself, was wrong! His life of self-denial, charity, and humiliation was not incorrect. But it all availed Wesley nothing; he was left empty. Why? Let’s continue learning from Wesley’s experience.
White commented that the English brothers, “after being ordained to the ministry, were sent on a mission to America. On board the ship was a company of [German] Moravians. Violent storms were encountered on the passage, and John Wesley, brought face to face with death, felt that he had not the assurance of peace with God. The Germans, on the contrary, manifested a calmness and trust to which he was a stranger” (GC 254).
What could be the source of this Christ-filled calmness, Wesley wondered? What did these men have that he did not? White describes the answer: “On his return to England, Wesley, under the instruction of a Moravian preacher, arrived at a clearer understanding of Bible faith. He was convinced that he must renounce all dependence upon his own works for salvation and must trust wholly to “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (GC 255-256).
It is a point that cannot be emphasized enough. White noted that “through long years of wearisome and comfortless striving–years of rigorous self-denial, of reproach and humiliation–Wesley had steadfastly adhered to his one purpose of seeking God. Now he had found Him; and he found that the grace which he had toiled to win by prayers and fasts, by almsdeeds and self-abnegation, was a gift, ‘without money and without price’” (GC 256). Only after this realization was John “established in the faith of Christ” and “his whole soul burned with the desire to spread everywhere a knowledge of the glorious gospel of God’s free grace” (GC 256).
But the final point White mentions should also not be forgotten. John Wesley “continued his strict and self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the result of faith; not the root, but the fruit of holiness. The grace of God in Christ is the foundation of the Christian’s hope, and that grace will be manifested in obedience. Wesley’s life was devoted to the preaching of the great truths which he had received–justification through faith in the atoning blood of Christ, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit upon the heart, bringing forth fruit in a life conformed to the example of Christ” (GC 256).
Lessons for Evangelism
I see one central point to be derived from the Wesleys’ conversion: It is faith in Christ and Him crucified which is the message we are to bear. However, given that not all have had the background experience of the Wesleys, a few additional points can be learned from the story above for us today. There are different ways of being legalists, as the Wesleys were, before their conversion. And some are obviously not legalists, believing that an exacting life is not necessary at all. Together, this can make the Christian life seem perplexing to many.
There is nothing that turns away skeptical young people from Christianity faster than the early Wesley brothers, who insist that their exactitudes in life are the essential key to Christianity. Conversely, equally dangerous is the Christian who is slack in his life on many matters; the young person interested in Christianity will fail to see the reason why he or she should inquire further into religion, when it seems to make very little difference in the life of a purported believer.
One can rightly wonder: In what way did John Wesley change after his conversion? In his case, not much on the outside. His attitude literally made all the difference in the world. The power of a union with Christ transformed his failed life of “perfect” obedience into a saved life of repentant faith that worked. It was the paradox of justification by faith and the failure of all human logic on display. Of course, for other Christians, great changes may take place in their lives after being truly converted! Many of the things they used to do, even as professed Christians, they will no longer do as converted Christians.
Yet, for Wesley, tightly might one ask, “So, what has changed? You do nearly the same things!” Indeed, Wesley might respond, “Nothing has changed. But everything is different!” Human logic cannot explain this, thus, it appears a great mystery. The change without a change. It is self-evidently true, but logic seems incapable of explaining it.
The above is why we Christians must take great care in the personal discipleship and mentoring we provide to those new in the faith. It is all too easy to fall into a soft legalism of many different varieties. Our religion can become one of personal legalism, wherein we avoid bad movies and music, and exercise and eat right. . . but do not understand the life of faith. Or, conversely, we can become swept up in the social activism of our church, organizing soup kitchens, helping the poor, doing door-to-door ministries, and giving home Bible studies on Sabbath afternoons about the prophecies of Revelation 13. . . and still not understand the life of faith. I see both trends happen all too often in our church.
Indeed, it must always be remembered that “great is the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim 3:16). So we should not pretend it is not a mystery! But it can still be taught, and learned, as it was with the Moravians and John and Charles Wesley.