I am working diligently on my current book project: Miracles and the Supernatural Throughout Church History. The research and writing has been tremendously enjoyable and edifying. I recently spent a few weeks working on material relative to John Wesley, and I am amazed at the richness of his ministry and the lessons we can still benefit from today.
When he died in 1791 at the age of 88, Wesley had traveled 250,000 miles ministering the Word of God (much of that on horseback). He had preached 42,000 sermons, and authored 250 books and pamphlets. Throughout his life and ministry, Wesley experienced and witnessed many expressions of the supernatural power of God. He recorded several healings and deliverances, including healings that he (and his horse) experienced. In his journal, he often speaks of people falling or being knocked to the ground while they were hearing the gospel preached. In one case, he writes:
At about three in the morning, as we were continuing in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us. Many cried out in complete joy. Others were knocked to the ground. As soon as we recovered a little from that awe and amazement at God’s presence, we broke out in praise.
However, Wesley did not focus on people falling, nor did he “hype” congregations or try to force certain “outward signs” to happen. Rather, Wesley always focused on preaching the gospel with the goal of seeing peoples’ lives transformed. If something external happened, Wesley was fine with that, but it was never his objective.
Be Open to God, But Avoid Extremes
What we call extremes or excesses today, Wesley called extravagance. Wesley always welcomed the working of the Spirit of God, but he was also keenly aware of fleshly activity that could distract from the gospel. Wesley gladly acknowledged the operation of God’s power in the lives of people, but he was also a major proponent of the truth Paul communicates in 1 Corinthians 14:20 — “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
Wesley spoke of believers in one place who had experienced great blessings from God, but then expressed concern, “…even while they are full of love, Satan strives to push many of them to extravagance.” He then gave examples of meetings where chaos and confusion reigned. Wesley referred to people screaming, to the “Jumpers in Wales,” and even to a group of people who would repeatedly fall and get back up in meetings (it sounds like they were falling for the sake of falling). Wesley states that these types of extravagances “bring the real work [of God] into contempt.” He proceeds to admonish, “Yet whenever we reprove them, it should be in the most mild and gentle manner possible.”
Wesley also spoke of preaching in a place where “outward signs” were not as pronounced as they had been at previous times, and Wesley was fine with that; he recognized that it was a different season for the people in that location. On a previous visit by Wesley, people had been tremendously convicted of sin (with dramatic, accompanying signs). At this later time, Wesley states, “God was eminently present with us, though rather to comfort than convince” and “Many were refreshed with the multitude of peace.”
Wesley did not believe that the same manifestations had to happen all the time, and he realized that there was always the possibility of fleshly counterfeits happening. He states that in some cases, “Satan mimicked this work of God in order to discredit the whole work,” but that God “will enable us to discern how far, in every case, the work is pure and where it mixes or degenerates.”
When Doors Shut, Innovate!
Wesley faced more opposition and challenges than most ministers today could even imagine. Relatively early in his ministry, Wesley began to face many closed doors. Many churches refused to allow Wesley in their pulpits, even the church where his father had pastored in Epworth. Instead of yielding to discouragement, Wesley simply innovated. When churches would not have him in, Wesley preached in fields and beside roads. This adaptation did not come easy to Wesley, and it took the urging of his friend and fellow-evangelist, George Whitefield, for him to begin doing it.
Once he began preaching outdoors, the wisdom of that approach was quickly seen in the fruit it produced. Wesley preached to such large crowds outdoors—thousands of people at a time in many cases—more than any of the church buildings could contain. He also reached many people who had not been attending churches. In Epworth, he even preached while standing on top of his father’s tombstone in the church yard. On July 12, 1742, he wrote of his ministry in Epworth. He reports:
I preached on the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of faith. While I was speaking, several dropped down as dead and among the rest such a cry was heard of sinners groaning for the righteousness of faith as almost drowned my voice. But many of these soon lifted up their heads with joy and broke out into thanksgiving, being assured they now had the desire of their soul—the forgiveness of their sins.
Don’t Be Discouraged if You Don’t See Immediate Fruit
While Wesley was blessed to minister during a time of great harvest, he knew this had not always been the case. Wesley himself had even experienced times earlier when he saw little fruit, but he recognized the value of persistence in planting the seed of God’s Word. He writes:
Oh, let none think his labor of love is lost because the fruit does not immediately appear! Nearly forty years did my father labor here [Epworth], but he saw little fruit of all his labor. I took some pains among this people too, and my strength also seemed spent in vain; but now the fruit appeared. There were scarcely any in the town on whom either my father or I had taken any pains formerly but the seed, sown so long since, now sprang up, bringing forth repentance and remission of sins.
Organization is Also Vital
Many people don’t realize that George Whitefield, Wesley’s contemporary, was considered to be a better preacher than Wesley. Whitefield was not simply a better orator, but often drew larger crowds and seemingly had more impact on his listeners. However, Wesley was a much better organizer than Whitefield. Wesley was diligent in starting “societies” and “classes” to promote discipleship and spiritual accountability among his converts. Regarding all of this, Whitefield said, “My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class [discipleship groups], and thus preserved the fruits of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.”
A Prophetic Warning
Wesley was a keen student of church history. He was fully aware of how different movements had started in revival but eventually degenerated into lifeless formalism and meaningless ritualism. His understanding of these matters prompted him to write:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
Wesley’s prophetic concern was not just valid for his own followers, but is a vital admonition to every movement that is birthed in the power of God’s Spirit. Even Jesus mentions the potential of the mighty, first-century church of Ephesus losing its lampstand (Ephesians 2:5). A church, once aflame with the power of God’s Spirit, can lose its influence and spiritual vitality. It has happened all too often throughout church history.
The Key to Perpetuating a Strong Presence of God’s Spirit
Wesley’s knowledge of human nature and of revival itself prompted him to state, “Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to last long.” He reasons that when God works deeply in the heart of people, they become more industrious and prudent, which inevitably leads to prosperity. He also observes that when people become more prosperous, they tend to become less reliant on God and digress into self-reliance and carnality.
While Wesley was not without hope, he saw only one way for people to prevent this kind of decline and and experience perpetual spiritual vitality. Even though he saw wrong attitudes toward money as a significant stumbling block, he did not advocate poverty as the means to lasting spiritual vibrancy. Instead, he writes:
We must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich! What way, then, (I ask again,) can we take, that our money may not sink us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who “gain all they can,” and “save all they can,” will likewise “give all they can;” then, the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.
So to Wesley, abundant, overflowing generosity was the only way that a person who had received the outward effects of inward grace could genuinely stay on-track with God.
Remarkable Stamina and Longevity
Wesley was active in traveling and preaching until very late in his life. He made the following notations in his journal:
Age 69 — “My voice and strength are the same as at nine-and-twenty. This also hath God wrought.”
Age 73 — “I am far abler to preach than I was at three-and-twenty.”
Age 78 — “I am just the same as when I entered my twenty-eighth year. This hath God wrought, chiefly by my constant exercise, my rising early, and preaching morning and evening.
Age 82 — “I find myself just as strong to labor and as fit for any exercise of body or mind as I was forty years ago. I do not impute this to second causes, but to the Sovereign Lord of all.”
Age 85 — Wesley acknowledges that his voice is not as strong as it had been in the past, and expresses concern, that not everyone in a crowd of 25,000 had been able to hear his sermon clearly (remember, he was preaching without any kind of sound system). He also acknowledges some challenges with his eyesight and writes, “I cannot easily preach more than twice a day.” But even at the age of 85, Wesley states, “I have now more invitations to preach in churches than I can accept.”
Of course, age eventually took its toll on Wesley, but what an amazing testimony of God’s grace and empowerment in his life.