Friday, November 29, 2013

A Cautionary Tale

Charles Wesley, who lived from 1701 to 1788, was a clergyman and an early leader in the Methodist movement. As such, he was a significant leader, contributing greatly to the history of the evangelical church in the west. He was the youngest of three brothers, the other two being John Wesley and Samuel Wesley. The three of them were close and worked side-by-side in outdoor preaching, training of people for the work of the church, and training in spirituality. Charles also wrote over 6,000 hymns; many of them are still well-known today. He wrote "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing."

Charles was the son of a rector and, along with his brothers, followed this course and became a clergyman in the Church of England. During his training at Oxford, around 1727, Charles formed a prayer group with his fellow students, his brother John, and George Whitefield, another notable preacher of the day. The group was notable because of two features: methodical Bible study and encouragement toward holy living. They developed a very detailed system of study, discussion of the Bible, and disciplined lifestyle. Some continue to follow this structure today. Take a look at examples here and here. It was because of these methodical processes that the followers of the Wesleys came to be known as Methodists. The Wesleyan movement or Methodists would eventually break from the Church of England to become a separate denomination. John was convinced of the necessity of this split but Charles was not as certain.

What I find striking about the life of Charles Wesley is that, after many years of serving the church and following the methods of his own movement, he would say that he did not experience conversion to the faith of Jesus Christ until May 21, 1738. His brother, John, confesses to having had a similar experience just three days after his youngest brother. Charles had come to see his methods as legalistic. He felt he had missed out on the freedom of Christ in his attempts to structure his spiritual life around the Methodist techniques. Around the time of his conversion he wrote the words to one of his greatest hymns: "Amazing Love: And Can It Be." The lyrics (of the four most popular verses) are here below; note especially verse three.
Amazing Love: And Can It Be
(verse 1)
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood
Died He for me, who caused His pain
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

(verse 2)
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace
Emptied Himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free
For O my God, it found out me!
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

(verse 3)
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?

(verse 4)
No condemnation now I dread
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine
Alive in Him, my living Head
And clothed in righteousness divine
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ my own
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou my God, shouldst die for me?
Words by Charles Wesley (1738), music by Thomas Campbell (1825)
Public Domain.
Verse three in particular shows the sense in which Wesley felt bound. He speaks of chains which fell off. He speaks of the amazing love which he sensed from God. The caution for our own lives may be obvious; yet, let me expand upon it for just a moment. Holiness, disciplined living, service for God, and methodical Bible reading are important aspects of our life in Christ. They must never take the place of a genuine relationship with the God of the universe, His Son who rescues us from sin, and the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Shortly before he died, Charles Wesley sent for a Church of England rector and asked that he be buried in the church cemetery. He said to the rector, "Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England."1 His request was granted. His legacy of methods, although important to church history, was not as important to him as the unity of the church and freedom in the love and grace of God.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Wesley#Ministry

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