Scripture Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and Luke 11:5-13
Introduction / The Four Alls
The following is a short except from a text which is perhaps one of the most famous texts ever written by John Wesley. Many of you will very likely recognise it immediately. It is taken from Wesley’s personal Journal. The entry date is 24th May, 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 experience that John Wesley had is often called his “Aldersgate experience”. I don’t believe that it was what some today might call a “conversion experience”. First of all, Wesley was already an ordained priest in the Church of England. For those who might be thinking that being ordained doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a person is a Christian, it’s my view that it’s fairly clear from Wesley’s own writings and diary that he was almost certainly a Christian.
Because of this experience being assured of his own salvation, Wesley came to believe that it is possible for a person to know that he or she is saved. This is the third of “The Four Alls”.
We have been looking at “The Four Alls” – a shorthand way of expressing what Methodists believe as Christians. “The Four Alls” help us to understand what Methodism has contributed to Christian thinking over the last three centuries. To remind you, “The Four Alls” are: All need to be saved, All can be saved, All can know they are saved, All can be saved to the uttermost.
Today, we are concentrating on the third point: “All can know they are saved”. This is also called the doctrine of assurance.
The History of Assurance
I think it’s very helpful to know a little bit about the history behind the idea of assurance of salvation.
In John Wesley’s time, there was one point of view that insisted that no-one could actually be certain that they were saved. Furthermore, those who held this view went on to say that anyone who thought that they were saved probably wasn’t. They thought that believing yourself to be saved was actually the sin of pride.
But there was also another group of people who believed that a person could know that they were saved. This was the group that Wesley was with on the night he had his Aldersgate Experience.
So, imagine for just one moment that you are John Wesley and that you have just had this powerful experience of being assured of your salvation. And then you go back to your preaching and your evangelism and other clergymen start saying: “Ah! This is actually evidence of your sin of pride! You are not saved!” A lot of John Wesley’s writing on the topic of “assurance” is actually a reaction to this negative point of view.
So, I confess to you that what I’m going to tell you this evening is not so much John Wesley’s views on the assurance of salvation, but rather my own reading of the bible. But my thoughts do have one big thing in common with John Wesley’s – and that is the concern that one does not take an extreme view on one side of the question or the other.
It is not correct to say that no-one can know they are saved nor is it correct to say that believing oneself to be saved and loved by God is always the sin of pride. But it is also not the case that a person must *feel* themselves to be saved, or that they must always feel God’s presence in their lives in order to *be* saved. Our salvation does not and never will rest upon our feelings. Our salvation is the consequence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are many Christians in this world who do not have a great felt experience of God’s presence, but they can and do rest on God’s promise that all who repent and believe in Christ will be saved.
Assurance is a Spiritual Gift
My own view is that having the assurance of one’s own salvation is a spiritual gift. I think that it’s a spiritual gift similar to other sorts of spiritual gifts
In fact, in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, St. Paul talks about the “gift of faith” as being one of the spiritual gifts, Paul says that one person may have the gift of faith, another the gift of healing, another the gift of prophecy, and so forth.
My own interpretation of John Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience is that God gave him the spiritual gift of assurance that night – what Paul termed the “gift of faith”. I think that to have the spiritual gift of assurance is to have the sort of faith where one is empowered and impassioned by God’s overwhelming love, grace and mercy. I think it’s about being so empowered by God’s love that you can’t help but want to go out and tell the world about it – perhaps in preaching, in teaching in evangelism or in works of kindness and mercy. This is certainly consistent with John Wesley’s life. Although he had been a priest and a preacher before this experience, it was only after the experience that his preaching and ministry really took off.
But there is also something else that is interesting about John Wesley’s spiritual life. If you read about his life after this experience, Wesley did not live the rest of his Christian life in a triumphalist way. In fact, there were many times in his life – even after his Aldersgate Experience – when he did not sense the presence of God in his life and when he agonised about his own perceived absence of God. Even having received the “spiritual gift” of assurance, Wesley sometimes had a hard time feeling the presence of God in his life.
John Wesley experienced what many great Christian saints have experienced down through the ages: the perception of God’s absence. However, at no time did Wesley ever retract his views about God having shown his love to humanity by sending Jesus to live, die and rise so that human beings might be saved. If Wesley and many other famous Christians experienced the darkness of God’s absence, then it is OK for us common garden-variety Christians to have that experience as well.
Just as it is incorrect to say that a person must never feel the assurance of God’s salvation, so also is it incorrect to say that a person *must* feel the assurance of salvation in order to be saved or in order to be a “real Christian”. I fear that sometimes this attitude can creep into our way of thinking without us realising it.
It is wonderful to hear when individuals have extraordinary experiences of conversion – and, as I’ve been studying for the ministry, I’ve heard a few quite extraordinary stories about God’s working in peoples’ lives. But there are many people who grow up in the church and who, somewhere along the way, make a decision for Christ without a lot of fanfare. These people cannot “name the date and the time” and they may not have had any sort of extraordinary felt experience, but they have nonetheless accepted the salvation that God has generously offered to them.
Just as there are many people in the church who are not given the gift of speaking in tongues or the gift of preaching, so there are many people who are not given the gift of assurance. But all of these people are Christians nonetheless.
Salvation through Christ
Our salvation does not rest on how we feel about God. Our salvation rests on what Christ has done for us in dying and rising. Again, Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians: “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Very simply put, all that is required from us is to say that “Jesus is Lord”. How do we do that? By repenting and accepting the forgiveness that Jesus brought into the world and that he offers us.
“Repentance” simply means “to turn around”. So a very simple picture of repentance is to turn around and walk in God’s direction and declare Jesus as Lord. To physically change the direction of one’s journey does not require any sort of feeling. In the same way, repentance does not require any sort of great feeling. Repentance is simply an act of will; it is something that we do. It is a trust in the *fact* of Jesus’ gift of salvation. This is the core of what it means to be a Christian.
But for those who have been given the gift of assurance, it is your responsibility to use it for the common good of the Church. This is true for all spiritual gifts – whatever those gifts may be. Paul tells us in the 1 Corinthians 12:7 that “The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way to each person for the good of all”. True spiritual gifts are used to build up the Body of Christ rather than for personal gain.
Together all of us are the Body of Christ. As Paul says, some are feet and some are ears and some are eyes. But all are equally part of the body. And all parts of the body are needed in order to make the body function correctly.
So come to the Lord’s Table this evening as the Body of Christ and be fed together as one body. Trust that although God has given us each different gifts that each Christian is part of the body. Hold on to God’s promise that our salvation comes from Jesus and that all who turn to him will be saved.
Christ in his grace invites all people to come and dine at his table. All are invited to his feast of life. You do not have to feel hungry, you do not have to feel thirsty, you do not have to feel anything. All you have to do is come and you will be fed – this is the promise of God.