John Wesley Doubted His Salvation

Recently I read a letter by John Wesley to his brother, Charles.  I came across it in a book I’ve been reading by Edward Hendrie.  In this letter, John Wesley made some rather astonishing admissions which one wouldn’t expect of him.  He complained of a total absence of love for God and a lack of saving faith.  Now I haven’t read anything by John Wesley, but as I read this letter I can’t accept Wesley’s self-assessment or self-criticism.  I would like to make some comments on Wesley’s comments, and disagree with him on his view of himself.  But for my readers’ sake I will first set out the letter and some of Mr Hendrie’s comments so that they can also make their own assessment.

John Wesley’s Letter

“In one of my last [letters] I was saying that I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does.  And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God.  I never did.  Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word.  Therefore I am only an honest heathen…..And yet, to be so employed of God!  And so hedged in that I can neither get forward nor backward!  Surely there was never such an instance before, from the beginning of the world!  If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange.  But I never had any other evidence of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray.  I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal.

And yet I dare not preach otherwise than I do, either concerning faith, or love, or justification, or perfection.  And yet I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it.  I am borne along, I know not how, that I can’t stand still.  I want all the world to come to what I do not know” (Hendrie 2018, p. 569).

The “False” Gospel of Arminianism

Mr Hendrie takes a strongly critical view of Wesley’s faith, and writes, “In that letter, which John Wesley never expected to be revealed publicly, he admitted that he preached a faith that he, himself, did not have.  John Wesley felt ‘born along’ by some unknown force to do so.  It is, therefore, clear that the unknown force bearing John Wesley along to preach the Arminian gospel was the devil.  That is an ineluctable conclusion from Wesley’s own words…..Wesley was 63 years old when he wrote that letter.  The dirty secret of Wesley is that he was a heathen, who did not believe in God.  He preached a false gospel about a false god, in whom he did not really believe.  How could Wesley so successfully preach a false gospel?……Wesley’s Arminianism was only a hair’s breadth from atheism.  There is little difference between the Arminian god, who minds his own business and leaves his creatures to their own devices, and no god at all.  His Arminian theology created a god in whom it is easy to lose belief.  The devil, that subtle beast, could not have designed it better” (Hendrie, 2018, p. 569-570).  

The Object of Faith

I don’t reach the same conclusion as Mr Hendrie about John Wesley after reading Wesley’s self-condemning letter.  I say this because a person’s salvation depends not on themselves and how they feel, but on God.  I believe Wesley was saved because of the sovereignty of God; I believe Wesley is in heaven now because of the gospel and the promises of God.  It is Jesus’ death on the cross that saves sinners and that alone; man has no part in it except that he is the recipient of it.  Man cannot even co-operate with God in the work of his own salvation, except to come to Christ as he is commanded to do; salvation is a gift bestowed on sinners.  When John Wesley heard the gospel he responded to it in and by faith; consequently he was saved.  My disagreement with Mr Hendrie is with his harsh and incorrect assessment of John Wesley’s faith.  Even though, in this letter, Wesley doubted, even denied, his own salvation and reconciliation to God, fortunately for him, God is faithful and he keeps his promise: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me, has eternal life; he does come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24 RSV-CE).

Wesley’s Conversion to Christ

The following excerpt from John Wesley’s journal is where he described the occasion of his conversion and the struggle he endured in the days following:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; 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. 

I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His own will. 

After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror. 

Thursday, 25.—The moment I awakened, “Jesus, Master,” was in my heart and in my mouth; and I found all my strength lay in keeping my eye fixed upon Him and my soul waiting on Him continually. Being again at St. Paul’s in the afternoon, I could taste the good word of God in the anthem which began, “My song shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord: with my mouth will I ever be showing forth thy truth from one generation to another.” Yet the enemy injected a fear, “If thou dost believe, why is there not a more sensible change? I answered (yet not I), “That I know not. But, this I know, I have ‘now peace with God.’ And I sin not today, and Jesus my Master has forbidden me to take thought for the morrow.” 

Wednesday, June 7.—I determined, if God should permit, to retire for a short time into Germany. I had fully proposed, before I left Georgia, so to do if it should please God to bring me back to Europe. And I now clearly saw the time was come. My weak mind could not bear to be thus sawn asunder. And I hoped the conversing with those holy men who were themselves living witnesses of the full power of faith, and yet able to bear with those that are weak, would be a means, under God, of so establishing my soul that I might go on from faith to faith, and from “strength to strength“ (https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html)

In this account of his conversion and new birth, Wesley described his thoughts and feelings arising from hearing the gospel.  Notice that he said he trusted Christ alone for salvation; he had an assurance that his sins had been taken away and he had been saved from the law of sin and of death; he immediately prayed for those who had despitefully used and persecuted him; he ceased striving under the law and rested in grace, where he found victory; he demonstrated a love for God when he said he awoke with the words, “Jesus, Master” in his heart and his mouth, and he sang a song of praise to God; he prayed; he resisted Satan by refusing to listen to his accusations and comforted himself with the promises of God; and he sought the company of known believers with whom to fellowship and be strengthened in his new found faith and salvation.

If this is not true conversion, what is?  This is where Wesley encountered the loving-kindness of God in the gospel, and where he trusted Christ with his life and his soul.  John Wesley had saving faith!  And no matter what happened to him after that, he remained reconciled to God for the rest of his life because our salvation depends not on us but on God; Jesus is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2 KJV).  God gives his elect the gift of salvation and he keeps them from falling out of it.  Jesus paid for their sins on the cross and now they’re separated from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12).

Wesley’s Doubts

However, even the best of Christians go through dark periods in their lives, and they doubt their relationship with God; they forget the time they first trusted Christ with their soul and the periods of joy since then as they walked with him; they forget the answers to prayer; forget the many tokens of his love given to them over the years.  Instead, because of various trials or temptations, a fall into sin, years of betrayal and pain from those they trusted, faulty theology, neglecting their time with God in prayer and reading of his word, or just a general jadedness with life, and so on, God seems too distant to even notice them.  They fall into depression and even despair and the intimacy they shared with Jesus is its first victim.

Wesley had lost sight of reality.  But God hadn’t.  God was still there and he hadn’t forgotten his promise that whoever trusted in Christ would be saved.  John Wesley had been born again at that meeting at Aldersgate Street and God called him to preach the gospel.  Even though, at the time of writing this letter, he believed he didn’t love God and had never believed savingly, God still saw him through the Saviour and his sins were still nailed to the Saviour’s cross.  And the mansion that Christ had gone to heaven to prepare for him still awaited his coming.  Wesley depended too much on how he felt instead of trusting God’s words in the bible.

Wesley Was Looking in the Wrong Place

Wesley’s problem was that had a wrong understanding of his standing before God because he had a faulty understanding of the gospel; his gaze was inwards, to his own feelings.  He wanted to trust his heart, of which the bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  If he was looking to his heart to confirm his standing before God, well, of course he would doubt his salvation; that’s like asking the devil.  How can a deceitful heart give a truthful assessment of his relationship to God?

Charles Spurgeon states it this way: “I am told in the word of God to believe – what am I to believe?  I am bidden to look – to what am I to look?  What is to be the object of my hope, belief, and confidence? – The reply is simple.  The object of Faith to a sinner is Christ Jesus.  How many make a mistake about this and think that they are to believe on God the Father!  Now, belief in God is an after-result of faith in Jesus.  We come to believe in the eternal love of the Father as the result of trusting the precious blood of the Son.

Many men say, ‘I would believe in Christ if I knew that I were elect’.  But this is coming to the Father, and no man can come to the Father except by Christ.  It is the Father’s work to elect; you cannot come directly to him, therefore you cannot know your election until first you have believed on Christ the Redeemer, and then through redemption you can approach to the Father, and know your election.

Some, too, make the mistake of looking to the work of God the Holy Spirit.  They look within to see if they have certain feelings, and if they find them, their faith is strong; but if their feelings have departed from them, then their faith is weak, so that they look to the work of the Spirit, which is not the object of a sinner’s faith.  Both the Father and the Spirit must be trusted, in order to complete redemption, but for the particular mercy of justification and pardon the blood of the Mediator is the only plea.  Christians have to trust the Spirit after conversion, but the sinner’s business, if he would be saved, is not with trusting the Spirit nor with looking to the Spirit, but looking to Christ Jesus, and to him alone.  I know your salvation depends on the whole Trinity, but yet the first and immediate object of a sinner’s justifying faith is neither God the Father, nor God the Holy Ghost, but God the Son, incarnate in human flesh, and offering atonement for sinners”.

Then, four paragraphs later, he continues: “Mark, thy faith has nothing to do with anything within thyself; the object of thy faith is nothing within thee, but a something without thee.  Believe on him, then, who on yonder tree, with nailed hands and feet, pours out his life for sinners.  There is the object of thy faith for justification: not in thyself, nor in anything which the Holy Spirit has done in thee, or anything he has promised to do for thee; but thou art to look for Christ and to Jesus Christ alone” (Spurgeon, 1987, p. 1-3).

I believe that John Wesley trusted too much in his feelings when, as Spurgeon here writes, he was to look to Jesus.  Because he didn’t feel love for God at the time he wrote his letter, he convinced himself he never did.  His deceitful heart, the source of his feelings, brought him down to such a depth that he didn’t think he had ever loved God.

Wesley further hammered himself into the ground when he wrote, “But I never had any other evidence of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray.  I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal”.

It was presumptuous of Wesley to complain that he had no evidence of “anything invisible or eternal”.  God has never promised such but he expects us to believe it.  The bible tells us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…..By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which do not appear” (Heb 11:1, 3).  Is not the word of God sufficient for a believer?  But if it isn’t, the creation itself witnesses to God and invisible realities.  The apostle Paul writes, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20).  Not having evidence of invisible or eternal realities in the sense that Wesley wanted it is no excuse for doubting God and his work of salvation.

If Wesley had been focused on Christ alone instead of the instability of deceitful feelings he may never have been provoked to write this letter, because he would have been more inclined to trust God’s promises as found in the bible.  But from his very conversion as described in the account given above, he repeatedly refers to how he felt.  Thus he was destined for a fall.

I can testify to the confusion that faulty theology produces.  I was saved when a work colleague told me the gospel; he was a member of the Salvation Army, an organisation built on the false doctrines of Arminianism.  Part of this false teaching is that a person can lose their salvation.  I lived in tormenting fear as I thought I was constantly in and out of salvation because of my sins, according to their teaching.  Eventually I went to an Anglican church near my home, where I had friends.  The teaching here was balanced, being Christ and bible focused, and as I began to understand the truth in the bible that salvation is God’s work from beginning to end, and that consequently I was safe for all eternity, I settled down and grew in faith and stability.

Would God Use an Unholy Instrument to Build His Church?

In his letter, Wesley expressed his passion for the gospel, despite his felt lack of love for God and his felt lack of faith.  He says, “And yet I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it.  I am borne along, I know not how, that I can’t stand still.  I want all the world to come to what I do not know”.

Unfortunately, Mr Hendrie seems to take this statement as Wesley being borne along by the devil.  But why would Satan cause a man like Wesley to preach Jesus?  He has many servants to sow seeds of heresy, cults, and false religion; people such as Joseph Smith founder of Mormonism, Charles Taze Russell founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Madame Blavatsky who got the New Age going.  These are all ministers of Satan, clearly discernible as “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13).  But the gospel that John Wesley preached presented Jesus Christ as slain for sinners in order to reconcile them to God.  If Satan used Wesley and the Christian gospel he preached to further his own agenda, he was dividing his own kingdom against itself (Matt 12:24-26); and Satan is not so stupid.  It’s true that Satan did try to disrupt and derail the powerful work of the Holy Spirit during the Great Awakening, but Wesley was not one of his ministers; Wesley was not borne along by the devil, he was called by God.

But would God have used John Wesley to the extent that he did in the revival known as the Great Awakening and which spanned Britain and the United States, in order to preach the gospel and to bring sinners to repentance, if the gospel he was preaching was a false gospel, as Mr Hendrie suggests?  Many thousands of people were saved through John Wesley’s preaching.  He may well have had some false emphases, particularly in trying to appeal emotionally to his hearers and to elicit an emotional response from them, but he didn’t need to do that; the effect of the Holy Spirit on the heart is powerful enough and people respond to it differently and often emotionally.  And there were some bizarre reactions in some of his hearers which, at first, he allowed.  These manifestations were discouraged by George Whitefield in his hearers so there was less chaos, but even so, when the Holy Spirit works, the result has to be unpredictable.

However, God was in control of it all.  John Wesley’s theology was Arminianism; George Whitefield’s theology was Calvinism. Were all of Wesley’s converts false disciples?  Are Calvinists the only Christians in the world?  Are the multitudes of people converted under the ministries of Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham lost and going to hell because of the “false” gospel of Arminianism believed by these evangelists?  These are the conclusions we must draw if Mr Hendrie is right.

An Imperfect Gospel?

But what did John Wesley preach?  Was it not that all men are sinners in need of cleansing and forgiveness, dead in trespasses and sins and separated from God?  And did he not present Jesus as the only way to come to God for reconciliation?  If he preached that people had to “make a decision” to repent and come to Jesus, isn’t that what God himself did to Israel?  “turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11).  Whether or not Wesley preached a “perfect” gospel, the essential elements were there, sufficient for sinners to behold Christ as Saviour and to come to him in repentance and faith.   But what does the bible say about this?

On one occasion during the ministry of Jesus, a man who was unknown to the disciples was casting out devils in Jesus’ name.  John told Jesus, “we forbad him, because he followeth not us”.  Mark goes on to tell us, “But Jesus said, ‘Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon to speak evil of me.  For he that is not against us is for us’” (Mark 9:39).

And Paul was able to rejoice that the gospel was preached even in the palace at Rome, and by those who were apparently his enemies: “I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ…..Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.  The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely, but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:12-18).

John Wesley was saved by faith in Christ through believing the gospel; he preached that same Christ to thousands, multitudes of whom were likewise saved.  God would not have used an unholy instrument to bring revival, although he can and does use unsaved people to bring about his purposes.  Two notable examples are Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who was God’s servant to destroy Israel and take them captive to Babylon (Jer 25:9); and the Persian conqueror, Cyrus the Great, who was God’s servant to restore Israel from their captivity in Babylon (Isa 44:28-45:4; 2 Chron 36:22-23).

A Puzzle

Why does God use men whose doctrine is not pure or sound to preach the gospel and bring men into his kingdom?  Why did he use John Wesley who was Arminian in his doctrine?  Why did he use George Whitefield who, although Calvinistic in his theology, was a priest in the Church of England – a church which was only partially Reformed and had vestiges of Romanism as part of its theology, worship, and dress?  Why did he use Arminian preachers such as Moody, Torrey, Graham, etc. when he could just as easily have used Calvinists?  I can only guess why.  He tells us to adhere to sound doctrine (2 Tim 1:13; 4:3), so it’s our duty and responsibility to do so to the best of our understanding and ability.   Perhaps God is more interested in a man’s willingness to go and preach the gospel than he is about purity of doctrine.  Perhaps he will use any man who presents himself to be used in whatever way God wants (Mk 9:38-41).  God has, of course, used many Calvinists to bring the gospel to the unsaved, e.g. Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, John G. Paton, and any number of other significant names in the history of the Church.  But he is not dependent on any man, neither is he bound by any theological system.  The bottom line is that God is sovereign, “and he doeth his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan 4:35 KJV).  And in this I rest.

John Wesley lamented that he neither loved God nor knew him, but he didn’t reckon on the faithfulness of the One in whom he had put his trust all those years before in Aldersgate Street.  He has long since died and gone to be with the Saviour he said he didn’t love but who loved him.  Now he does love God; now his heart is overwhelmed with love for his Saviour and his God.  Now he doesn’t need faith because he beholds him face to face every moment and he will for all eternity.  On the day he died, John Wesley heard those words that every Christian hopes to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21).  And when he looks around him to see what heaven is like, he’ll see thousands of saints who, on earth, sat in the fields or in homesteads or nonconformist church buildings or his own chapel in Bristol, listening to him eagerly as he presented Christ to them as crucified Saviour and who responded in faith.  His days of weary toil on earth as he constantly rode on horseback to every corner of Britain to reach sinners wherever he could find them, the days of doubt and confusion as he forgot that Christ is faithful and that he was safe in the palm of God’s hand every moment of his life (Jn 10:28-29), will all be as nothing for the joy that is set before him.

“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).

References

Hendrie, Edward, 2018, “The Greatest Lie on Earth: Proof That Our World is not a Moving Globe”, Great Mountain Publishing, Copyright 2016, 2017, 2018, by Edward Hendrie.

Spurgeon, Charles, 1987, “Faith – what it is and what it leads to”, Christian Focus Publications, Ross-shire, Scotland

Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

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