Sermon Reflection Revival: A Crisis in Faith
Romans 4:3-5 & 5:1-2
Last week we left Wesley with the desire to be an altogether Christian. He hoped to glorify God in everything he did, to be holy in his thoughts, words and deeds. He got up early to pray. He fasted two days a week. He studied the Bible each day. He received the Eucharist weekly and sometimes daily. He was regularly visiting the prisons, the sick, the elderly. He refused to cut his hair but instead gave the money he would have paid a barber to the poor.
All of these were good things in and of themselves. And Wesley was clear that salvation was not the result of doing all of these things, but a gift from God. Yet while he knew this with his head, he did not know it in his heart. So Wesley noted that “I have been charged with being too strict…with carrying things too far in religion and laying burdens on myself, if not on others, which were neither necessary nor possible to be borne.” Wesley dismisses the charge, but there was truth to it….
As long as our spiritual life is about guilt, rules, and the obsessive compulsion that we’ve never done enough, we’ll miss the point of the gospel and lack the joy our faith is meant to have. Today we come to the moment when Wesley experienced the key to a healthy, passionate, authentic Christian faith—the match that struck the fuse to an explosive revival that could not be stopped…. [
After many rejections and failures in the colony of Georgia, Wesley was arrested but released without bail until the date of the trial. Soon church attendance plummeted. His ministry was compromised. The trial date was postponed, but the magistrate issued orders forbidding Wesley to leave. Finally, on December 22nd, having snuck out of Georgia, he boarded a ship back to England, a complete failure. Jilted, humiliated, and rejected he arrived back in England in January of 1738. His hopes and dreams for ministry in America, for missions among the Native Americans were lost.
Wesley did not know it at the time, but his rejection, his spiritual and pastoral failures, would have a vast impact on his world and ours. His fear in the face of death during the storms at sea led him to search for something more than simply knowing the truth and doing all he could to be holy. His failure in America would pave the way for him to launch a movement in England that would eventually spread across America with, at its peak, more than 40,000 churches in every town and county across the country.
New Life UMC is a part of this blessed experience. One important lesson we learn from John Wesley is that our most painful experiences become our defining moments by the grace of God, provided that we learn from them. Which is what Paul was teaching in Romans 8:28, a passage many of you know by heart: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The challenge for many of us is that we spend so much time blaming others for our failures, and maybe a great deal of time expressing disappointment in God, that we fail to be teachable, to learn from the experience….
Remember, the faith Wesley had been pursuing was built around rules and an obsessive quest for holiness. In many ways the Apostle Paul, when he was a Pharisee, had struggled with the same thing until he heard the gospel of Jesus.
Martin Luther had struggled with the same obsessive, guilt and rules-based faith when he was a Catholic monk until he heard Paul’s words in Romans. Wesley had rules. He had plenty of guilt. He had a head knowledge of the gospel, but it hadn’t sunk into his heart….
This led to Wesley’s crisis of faith. It was as he was most discouraged—we might say when he had hit bottom—realizing that all of his attempts to please God had failed, and he was a miserable failure, that he attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s listen to his own words about what happened the night of May 24th, 1738:
“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.”…
This is hugely important. Pursuing holiness is a good thing. Seeking to do everything for the glory of God is wonderful, IF these are not seen as efforts at winning God’s approval, but instead as a response to an acceptance and love for us that’s already been given. Paul found freedom from a guilt-ridden, rule-based faith. He found, as he saw that Christ died for our sins, that he gives us God’s righteousness, that he has bought us with a price, and that we are his dearly loved children, a deeply different relationship with God which changed his relationship to everyone and everything else.
One of my favorite passages captures the idea of what happened to Wesley on Aldersgate Street, which would propel him to passionately proclaim the gospel across the British Isles. I want you to listen carefully to what 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote. He begins by describing the state that guilt and rule-based faith creates:
“Year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear…the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, [and] despair destroys all joy and courage. At that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”
Here’s the key to the life God intends for us—not that we work as slaves with salvation as the appropriate wage for us, but that we live in relationship as children to a Father who has already said, “I accept you! I accept you! You are accepted!” Have you accepted God’s acceptance of you? This simple trust changed Wesley’s life, and it could change your life too. Trust God with your failures. Don’t give up! Placed in God’s hands they can become our greatest defining moments, or lead to outcomes we never expected but are profoundly grateful for.
God makes all things work together for our good. And trust God’s love. You are accepted already. You are loved. Your sins have been forgiven. When you rest in that, your life is no longer about guilt, shame and obsessively trying to get God to like you, but instead living in grateful response to “a love that will not let you go.”