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A Calvinist Talks About His Friend, John Wesley

God in his loving sovereignty reaches out to us in our utter helplessness.


If you had been a student at Oxford University in the early part of the eighteenth century, you probably would have been a swinger. The bars and the brothels would have been your habitat rather than the classrooms. You would have had a good time, because there was nothing more to be had than a good time. You would eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

If you had taken time from your debauchery to look up, perchance you would have seen walking across the campus a group of men. You would have turned to your friends and made a snide, somewhat humorous comment that they constituted a "holy club." Everybody would have laughed. The jokes would have flown freely, and then you would have turned back to your drink and your debauchery.

But inside, perhaps you would have said to yourself, There's got to be more to life than what I'm experiencing. And then your mind would wander back to the group of men you had just seen walking across the campus, perhaps on their way to a prison to minister the good news of Jesus Christ, and you would have said—only to yourself—I wish I had what they had.

Heading up that group would have been three men. One's name was George Whitefield. George is a good friend of mine, but he is not the subject for this morning. Another man who would have walked at the head of the crowd was named Charles Wesley, the sweet singer of the evangelical awakening. Charles is a good friend of mine, and I can close my eyes when we sing, "Oh for a Thousand Tongues," and I can see his commitment, his love, and his ability to encourage those who were down and depressed. But he is not the subject for this morning.

The other man who would be walking at the head of this group of men was John Wesley. Perhaps he would have sensed your feelings as you looked at them walking across the campus. Perhaps he would have said to himself: They think I'm pure and kind and loving and committed and honest. They think I'm holy. But if you could have gotten inside John Wesley's skin, you would have seen a picture far different from the one on the outside.

It was a good picture. He wrote in his diary, for instance: "This morning I prayed two hours. Tomorrow that will be increased to three hours." You would see his determination, as he would go to the hospital to minister to the sick, to the prisons to minister to those who were bound. But inside, you would have seen the truth: that John Wesley, with all his outward holiness, was inwardly empty and frightened and lonely, and he thought of his life as meaningless.

I've been there, and that's why John Wesley is such a good friend of mine. I have also been called holy; they call me "Reverend." I, too, have visited the hospitals and prisons hoping that if I worked hard enough, if I prayed long enough, if I was holy enough, then God, if there was a God, would notice me and condescend to allow me to know him. I understand John Wesley. I know how much it hurts. Funny things go through your mind.

There was a study done at Harvard University a number of years ago to discover why people went into "full-time Christian service." They found that most of the motivation was guilt. When you're a student and you're doing your best and it's not working, you get ordained, and then maybe God will notice.

It was with great anticipation that John Wesley knelt before the bishop on the day of his ordination into the Anglican priesthood. It was with a great hope that maybe this would make it different, that maybe this one thing would enable him to be noticed by the God of the universe. But as the bishop placed his hands on John Wesley's head, there was nothing but the emptiness and the loneliness and the regret.

I've been there, too. You minister to the sick. You bury the dead. You marry the young couples. You say religious things, and people say, "Reverend, you are so deeply spiritual." But if you're faking it, it hurts. Oh, God, it hurts inside! Then there's only one step left—to the mission field. You see, the spiritual are Christians, the super-spiritual are pastors, and the super-super-spiritual are missionaries. I understand that feeling, too. John Wesley said: I don't have it, but if I go on the mission field, maybe God will notice how hard I'm working, how much it hurts, how empty I am. Maybe then he'll condescend to reveal himself to me.

It wasn't that Wesley hadn't heard the truth. He had. I think it was Peter Bohler who had said to him, "Wesley, do you know that Christ died for your sins?" Wesley said, "I know that Christ died for the sins of the world." Bohler said, "But do you know that Christ died for your sins?" And Wesley turned and walked away, the hot tears streaming down his face, because he knew he had no answer.

Then he met a man by the name of General Oglethorpe and signed on as a missionary to the islands off the coast of Georgia. He decided he would be faithful, he would be obedient, he would serve Christ on the mission field, and so he sailed with Oglethorpe to America. My wife is from Georgia, and I'm fond of quoting to her the words of John Wesley's diary as he left on that day. He said, "I'm going to Georgia to save the heathen, but, O God, who will save me?"

When you don't have it and you're faking it and you meet somebody who's really got it, it really hurts, and that's what happened on that voyage to America. A great storm arose, and Wesley cowered in a corner of the ship, crying out to God for mercy. A group of Moravians were on that ship, and they joined hands around the mast and sang hymns of praise to God. When the storm subsided, and Wesley realized he might live, he approached the leader of the Moravians with a simple question: "How come?" He replied with a simple answer magnifying the blackness and the emptiness of John Wesley.

"Why," said the leader, "we believe in God."

Wesley landed on those islands off the coast of Georgia, and he did his best. If I had time, I'd tell you the whole story, because it's interesting. It even has trouble with a woman. Wesley was forced to flee in the middle of the night after performing his duties quite well there on those islands. He went to Savannah. He climbed on another ship and made his way back to his homeland — totally broken, a failure, and miserable—thinking that if God did elect, he was not of the elect.

I want you for just a moment to put yourself in the place of John Wesley. God knew he had tried. He had been a priest, a pastor, and a missionary. He had worked. He had prayed. He had ministered, and still God was away on vacation somewhere. No matter what he could do, God simply would not notice. Susannah, Wesley's mother, a godly woman, wanted to help, but what could she do? She didn't know what to say. Wesley resided in his room, and I can see him in my mind's eye on May 23, 1738, weeping silently before a silent God.

We're all sophisticated theologically, and we all understand that it isn't proper to open one's Bible and assume that God will speak at the place where the Bible falls open. However, God has hardly ever checked with me about anything, and if he wants to lead his people that way, he is perfectly capable of doing that. And on at least one occasion, he did it. Wesley reached for his Bible, and in the candlelight let it fall open. It fell open on Psalm 130. Picture Wesley, the failure, as he reads the words of God in the midst of that failure:

"Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities."

It was May 24, 1738, when John Wesley made his way to a meeting of Christians on Aldersgate Street. There he heard Martin Luther's Preface to the Book of Romans being read. For the first time, his mind came alive with the reality of the gospel, and he heard that it didn't have to do with what you do, but with the blood of Christ; that salvation was to be found in Jesus Christ, and faith in him alone.

Wesley wrote in his diary that night, "My heart was strangely warmed." It was only a spark, but God's Spirit blew on the spark, and the spark became a flame, and then a consuming fire sweeping the entire world with the message of the gospel through the proclaimers, who called themselves Methodists.

Someone once asked Wesley why so many people came to hear him preach. His answer was as follows: "I set myself on fire, and people come to see me burn." I would suggest that John Wesley discovered four great truths in the reading of that psalm. He maybe didn't define those truths for a homiletical presentation, but in a very deep and real way, they changed the world.

Wesley knew he was totally helpless.

First, I would suggest that as Wesley read Psalm 130, he came to the realization of his total helplessness. Listen to the words: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications."

There is a myth in American folk religion that God helps those who help themselves. That is a lie. It comes from the pit of hell. It smells like smoke. The truth is as follows: God helps those who can't help themselves and know they can't.

Every once in a while, someone will come to me and say, "Pastor, I'm gonna take you out and show you the real world." I see more of the real world in a week than most people will see in an entire lifetime. I have buried more babies, held the hands of more dying people, cleaned up after more suicides, heard more confessions, and been involved in the dregs of society so often that I can't even count them anymore. I've learned something important through it all: Every day the world rolls over on top of somebody who was just sitting on top of it.

Albert Camus has said the only question with which modern man must deal is the question of whether or not he should commit suicide. What a strange statement, but what a true one! I've been there, and I understand. My major was philosophy, and as I read Camus and warmed to his spirit, I understood the absolute, total meaninglessness of this world.

Matthew Arnold writes, "Most men gather and squander, eat, drink, love, hate, erase the law and then hurl it in the dust, and then they die, and nobody asks who or what they have been any more than he asks what waves of the midmost ocean have raised for a moment and foamed and gone."

One of Britain's top social leaders said, "I have everything to live for, and I've lost all desire to live." A college senior told me he was studying philosophy because he was so empty in his gut, and he thought he could fill it with his studies. A college graduate student said this: "I have lived through enough experiences to be old, and I am only 23-years-old, and I'm fed up with life."

Man wanders forlorn across the empty eternities, between two hospitals; he's born in one and dies in another. And somewhere down that empty road, he looks up into the blackness of the sky and asks his questions: Who am I? What am I doing here? What's this thing all about? He listens, but all he can hear is the echo of his empty questions.

Science tells me I'm a blob of protoplasm. Historians tell me about my past, and statisticians tell me about my future. Psychologists liken me to a rat running through a maze, and philosophers try to give me reasons for running. But when they've finished their little speeches, there is nothing but the cold, dead, hollow, empty silence.

Until you are at that point, you never really understand that God doesn't help those who help themselves. He helps those who can't help themselves. I love Ron Dunn's statement: "We always say, 'Jesus is all I need.' You'll never know Jesus is 'all I need' until Jesus is all you've got, and then when Jesus is all you've got, you'll know that Jesus is all you need."

And I believe that John Wesley, at this point in his life, having tried everything else, came to the point of total, abject helplessness. He couldn't do any more for himself.

Wesley saw the depth of his depravity.

Second, I would suggest that John Wesley saw also the depth of his own depravity.  Those of us who are Reformed describe that as radical and pervasive depravity. Look at how the psalmist described it, and Wesley read it: "If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared."

When I first entered the ministry, I was not a Christian, and I thought there were two kinds of people in the world. There were the good folks and the bad folks. Good folks went to church on Sunday; bad folks didn't. Good folks didn't drink or smoke or run around too much. The bad folks did all those things, plus they mowed their lawns under the church window at 11 on Sunday morning. I'm not really smart, but I'm not stupid, either. After a week, I realized I was right about the number, wrong about the kinds. There are two kinds of people in this world: the very bad folks who know it, and the very bad folks who don't know it.

Fred Smith loves to ask people this question: "If you were caught for drunken driving, and the headlines in your local newspaper that Sunday morning said, 'So-and-so arrested for drunken driving,' would you go to church that Sunday?" I've watched men blanch when Fred asked that question. When he asked it of me, I said: "Fred, I'm the preacher. I'd have a serious problem if I were caught for drunken driving."

 He said, "Would you go to church?"

And I said: "No. I'd take a sabbatical for about a month and then try to weasel back in if I could."

And he said: "Steve, that's stupid. It's sort of like a man who's hit by an automobile, and he's got blood all over the place, and his bones are broken, and they try to take him to the hospital, and he says, 'Wait. I'm a mess. Let me go home and get cleaned up. Let me get these bones set, let me heal, and then I'll go to the hospital.'"

Folks, the church is made up of bad folks. Our hypocrisy doesn't lie in the fact that Christians do bad things, but in the spurious notion that Christians will do only good things. You know what would be great in the church? If everybody had to wear a sign listing his or her particular proclivity toward sin. You say, "Steve, I wouldn't like that." You wouldn't have to worry, because everybody would be too busy trying to hide his own sin to notice yours.

I was speaking in Pittsburgh not too long ago, and a doctor who'd been on the mission field for 20 years came to me and said: "For years and years I've been listening to pastors and missionaries say they were sinners. You're the first one I ever believed." I want you to know that when I look at where God has put me—called me to be a Bible teacher, to have a "Reverend" prefacing my name—I simply can't believe it. I'm reminded of Allan Emery's statement: "When you see a turtle on a gatepost, you know he didn't get there by himself."

I think John Wesley, when he read Psalm 130, looked inside and saw he had tried, and failed, to be good. He was better than most, yet he saw the blackness of his soul.

Wesley saw the absolute sovereignty of God.

Thirdly, I would suggest that as Wesley opened his Bible and it fell to Psalm 130, he saw the absolute sovereignty of the God of the universe: "I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning; I say, more than they that watch for the morning."

That's all he could do. And if God didn't do anything, nothing would be done. John Wesley, the consummate Arminian, understood the sovereignty of God, and he got still before the throne of grace. You've heard the poem, "God has no hands but our hands, / no feet but our feet, / and no mouth but our mouth." That's a lie, folks. It also smells like smoke. God is God. He can do whatever he wants, and he can do it without your help. If you're entering full-time Christian service because you want to help God, you ought to leave right now, because you've missed the whole point.

The God of the universe has condescended to allow you to be a part of what he was going to do in the first place. That is a kingdom mentality, and you'd better develop it, or they'll eat you alive out there. I think Wesley recognized God didn't need his help.

I remember one time speaking for a conference in Philadelphia, and a friend of mine was doing the music. I was not prepared, and I said: "You know, I am really not prepared for tonight. I think I'm just going to have to trust God."

My friend, Ken, put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Isn't that awful? You gotta trust God. Steve, let me tell you something. If God fails anybody, he's going to do it with Billy Graham or the Pope, not a peon like you."

I think Wesley all of a sudden realized he needed to go helpless and bankrupt before the God of the universe.

Wesley saw that the sovereign God loves his own.

Then, finally, I would suggest that John Wesley saw something of the nature of the sovereign God in his love for his own. Listen: "Let Israel"—John Wesley—"hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities."

 The question is not, "Is there a God?" The question is, "What is he like?" For centuries, men looked into the sky and said: "Is there really a God somewhere? And if there is, does he care? Is he a monster, a malicious fiend with all the bloodshed and the suffering in the world? Is there a God, and does he love?" And then very hesitantly, not even wanting the answer for fear it would be the wrong one, "Does he love me?"

And the laughter of God spills over into a sour world: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." There, hanging spread-eagle on crossbeams on the town garbage heap, is God's statement of love to a poor, miserable, helpless sinner by the name of John Wesley—who, when he had reached the end of his rope, reached for God's rope as God shoved it into his hands and drew him to himself.

Abraham Lincoln went down to the slave block to buy back a slave girl. As she looked at the white man bidding on her, she figured he was another white man, a honky, going to buy her and then abuse her. He won the bid, and as he was walking away with what the world called his property, he said, "Young lady, you are free."

She said, "What does that mean?"

He said, "It means you are free."

"Does that mean," she said, "that I can say whatever I want to say?"

Lincoln said, "Yes, my dear, you can say whatever you want to say."

"Does that mean," she said, "That I can be whatever I want to be?"

Lincoln said, "Yes, you can be whatever you want to be."

She said, "Does that mean I can go wherever I want to go?"

He said, "Yes, you can go wherever you want to go."

And the girl, with tears streaming down her face, said, "Then I will go with you."

Hosea understood, you understand, and I understand that we were bought back. So now you know the rest of the story. John Wesley was a Calvinist.

© Stephen W. Brown
Preaching Today Tape #58
A resource of Christianity Today International

Steve Brown is president and radio teacher for "Key Life," professor of preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary, in Orlando, Florida, and author of Approaching God.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Wesley knew he was totally helpless

II. Wesley saw the depth of his depravity

III. Wesley saw the absolute sovereignty of God

IV. Wesley saw that the sovereign God loves his own