The Four Alls of Methodism - 3/4
All can know they are saved
The most famous story of John Wesley’s life is that of Aldersgate Street. The young Anglican priest went ‘most unwillingly’ to hear someone read out a two hundred year old, academic introduction to one of Paul’s most theological and complicated letters. That event had an effect which, it has to be said, does not happen in all academic lectures; Wesley was convinced that he trusted in Christ and that he had received assurance of his salvation. It was that assurance which gave him a new start in his ministry, he left behind his preoccupation with his own spiritual life and began to reach out and minister to others.
It can, in fact, be argued that the only difference that Aldersgate Street made in Wesley’s life was that for the first time he felt his own personal assurance. He had already dedicated his life to the service of God, he had already conceived the desire to tell others about Christ and he had already been convinced that assurance of Christ’s love and compassion was possible. But the experience of May 1738 took things, as we might say, from his head to his heart. Now he knew for himself that Christ’s love was personal and his sins really had been forgiven. No wonder that the statement ‘All Can Know They are Saved,’ is one of Methodism’s ‘Four All’s’.
So what did Wesley actually mean by assurance and what can we learn from him today?
In an age where ‘spirituality’ seems very easily to come to mean ‘whatever makes me feel good’ and religious experience for some seems to mean, in John Bell’s wonderful phrase, ‘a permanent high as if they were intravenously connected to a cannabis plant,’(1) we should perhaps start by noting that Wesley tried to distinguish between assurance and the ‘transports of joy’ which might, or might not, accompany it.(2) He defined assurance as an ‘inward impression on the soul,’(3) the believer is aware of being grasped by God’s Spirit in an inexplicable manner which gives the inner conviction that God has accepted him or her. And, inextricably intertwined with this knowledge is repentance for one’s sin and newness of life. Assurance, for Wesley, was a gift of the Holy Spirit – and as such can not be separated from those other gifts of the Spirit; such as humility, gentleness and a desire to live more like Christ. Because assurance is rooted in the work of the Spirit, there is a far closer relationship between it and holiness than many people seem to realise.
As I’ve pondered assurance and it’s relationship with the call to live a more holy life I’ve come to the conclusion that to express it today, I might use the following illustration, taken from an unknown preacher. This person argued that when God tells a Christian to live in a certain way, it’s not so that the Christian might earn God’s love or convince God that he or she is a valuable person. It is because Christians are already children of a King. And if you are a loved and valued royal child, why would you want to diminish your own life by getting involved in the dirt and foolishness of sin? You are worth more than that. Modern psychology seem tells us how important it is that we love ourselves; often the worst of human behaviour springs from self-hatred and insecurity. The Christian, however, might want to point out that, at least as important as loving yourself, is to know that God loves you, deeply and irrevocably, even in the moments when you wonder if anyone could.
But, as many of us know from our own experience, faith goes up and down and a person can be sure one week and unsure the next. If we are not careful assurance can be a very threatening doctrine. I have met many a good faithful Christian who was very critical of their own faith. ‘I don’t have enough faith to believe that!’ seems to be a common cry. The last thing such people need is to be made to feel guilty because they do not have assurance. We need to make a careful and important distinction between having ‘enough faith’ and having all that God has to give. All faith is a gift of the Spirit, and if you have enough faith to try to respond, to pray and to seek to serve Christ, then you have ‘enough’ faith. Enough to be a child of God. Enough to hear the promises of Scripture and to know that they are for you. But there is more that God can give you. For he can give you more than enough faith.
The difference can be illustrated as follows. When, towards the end of his life, Wesley looked back on his time in America, he came to a different conclusion to that he held in 1738. In his Journal for January 29th of that year he famously wrote, ‘I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.’ At a later date he added a footnote which says, ‘I am not sure of this.’ As we might put it today, he might not have been certain of his own faith, but he did have enough faith to travel to a strange country and attempt a very difficult task. A more modern (and frequently used) illustration would be: as a nervous flyer, I am never totally convinced that the plane will stay in the sky until the point at which it is meant to come down. I would not say that I have total assurance and I really don’t enjoy the flight too much. But I do have enough faith to get on the plane. So, while I might envy the person who does seem utterly assured (even during turbulence!) and that person might have a far better trip than me, I do still get to the destination.
‘All Can Know That They are Saved,’ is one of the central truths that Methodism has and continues to proclaim. But it is not an isolated doctrine, it is part of the wider truth of our understanding of the way in which the Spirit works in a human life. The Spirit works to draw us to Christ, to assure us of Christ’s love and to make us more like Christ. The Spirit works differently in different people’s lives, so one person’s experience may well be unlike another’s. The Spirit is at work in the life of the person who is utterly sure and the person who struggles with their faith. And the Spirit always has more to give us, more to show us and a step further to lead us on the great adventure of the Christian journey.
The Revd Dr Judith Rossall ThM is the minister of Guildford Methodist Church, Free Church Chaplain to UniS and a Lecturer for the Certificate of Theological Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Headline Summer 2003 pp. 8-9
(1) John Bell ‘States of Bliss and Yearning’ Wild Goose Publications 1998 p 10
(2) See Wesley’s Journal for May 1738, immediately after ‘heart strangely warmed’ quote.
(3) Works Vol 5 p115