Wesley at Aldersgate

[And an Examination of the Methodist Concept of the "Savior's Blood"]

by Philip McPherson Rudisill

cir 2000

As I understand it, the setting in Aldersgate is this: we have a young, highly intelligent and highly motivated fellow, of whom much is expected by all who know him and of him, and yet who is a failure both externally, with regard to the accomplishments of his sincere desire to serve God,* and internally, with regard to the peace that should belong to one in Christ. This man, John Wesley, is becoming despondent and (I wager) is plagued by the possibility of the validity of the (to him) terrifying Calvinist hypothesis of limited love.** The man has gone to the ends of the earth (the American colony of Georgia) in service to his God and has experienced nothing but scandal and failure. Something is amiss!

* Surely a source of wonder and perhaps (?) even shame on his part.

** "If with all my talent and advantage and zeal I am a failure, then perhaps God does not even want me, and I have been fooling myself all this time," we can imagine the young Wesley thinking

At the Aldersgate meeting he hears Luther's words concerning the meaning and effect of faith. He learns that God is neither impressed with, nor pleased by, the reluctant heart; but that by means of our faith God Himself supplies a new heart, thereby quickening the flesh and making us acceptable* (and not only to God, for that matter, but to all persons; for no one is pleased by a reluctant heart!)

* Since 1. the inevitable outcome of faith is sanctification in fact (unless interrupted by a new reluctance), and since 2. God is not limited by time, the faith itself is equivalent in the spiritual/moral realm for the fact of sanctification, which (as a visible fact) is itself a function of time and place and circumstance and perception and understanding.**

** By the way, this identification of intention and result, and of faith and fact, is a clarification which I discern through the moral concept enunciated by Immanuel Kant.

Wesley awakens and "the dungeon flames with light".* The salvation that Wesley had not yet found has been with him and has been his all along! Emmanuel is profoundly real! For Wesley had been acceptable to God all along, for he had been saved from the very moment that he had begun to want, and to try, to be like Christ, for that earnest desire itself was the work of God in his life.** The remainder (perfection) is merely the provision of a flesh which is adequate to that desire, and the attainment of that willing and eager flesh is a matter of the action of God in the time and circumstance of our existence. All that was lacking in Wesley's thinking and life was the realization of this fact.

* From the hymn "And can it be" by John's brother, Charles Wesley, surely one of the greatest and at the same time most difficult of church songs in English. See here for words and the singing.

** What? a spark of the divine? Is this not prevenient (= preceeding) grace?

So all along, in all his failure, Wesley was working under the mistaken impression that he was proving his importance in, and worthiness to, the kingdom, when all that was needed was the same desire for Christ (which he had always had) and the peace of mind (which he only now attained at Aldersgate) that comes from knowing that God will also provide the fact or achievement of perfection; i.e., the perfection as visible fact in the flesh, would be revealed through progressive (and not necessarily instantaneous) attainment (and retarded perhaps merely by the inertias of the flesh) {and then only in a small degree in some people [like the thief on the cross in this life], but occasionally in larger degree in others [e.g., Zacchaeus, depending upon circumstances and opportunities]*}.

* The rectification of the heart, we may easily suppose, was identical in these two people (the condemed thief on the cross and the shameless, public thief, Zacchaeus) whose promise of salvation (for both) is uttered by our Lord in the scripture, whereas the opportunity for manifestation of this new heart is limited by circumstances. Thus both are acceptable to God due to the new (divinely conveyed) heart. And thus there is not the least suggestion of any works, except as these flow as fruit from that new heart in the circumstances perceived at hand.

So it all suddenly began to make perfect sense. We hear stories of the Christ and find a desire to be like him stirring up within us.* Unless thoroughly rejected by us, that desire results in a conversion** and, like leaven, begins to possess our life and we find our way slowly into the light of day and find that we are not only loving our neighbor as ourselves, but that we are finding growing ease in doing that.

* This is perhaps the "gaining of an interest in the Savior's blood" (from the hymn cited above) and a manifestation of prevenient grace which arises upon the hearing of, or seeing, the work of the Lord.

** The actual salvation comes when we consciously commit our lives to a principle of love of neighbor and make up our minds to trust in Christ for our souls and for all discrepancies that arise between our desire and the fruit of that desire.*** ****

*** By the way, I am taken by Suzanna Wesley's admonition to: "work as though everything depended upon you, and pray as though everything depended upon God," for this, I think, epitomizes the state of what I call "rational peace" which belongs to the sincere Wesleyan and which is to be distinguished from any peace which arises through a trance or hallucination, self imposed or otherwise, e.g., that of Hindus or druggists.

**** It is most apparant that the exemplification of the love of neighbor can finally surprise even the Christian, at which point then he or she finds a love of God welling up spontaneously in the heart, and it is this praise and love, properly called adoration, that alone is acceptable to God. And He produces it Himself, but usually only in a gradual way that can approximate the natural.

Thus, groping for meaning and sense in all this, I wonder if we cannot say that we develop an "interest in the Savior's blood" when we find the stories of Jesus' life (or some of his followers, e.g., the apostles, St. Francis, etc.)* deserving of emulation and strangely enticing; and that we experience an "application of the blood" when we find that we have been "captured" by his grace when we decide to commit to him in our entirety, and to trust in him only for the course of our life. For "in my hand no price I bring, but simply to Thy cross I cling".**

* I am keenly conscious of the role that my father played in my own desire to become like, and to commit to, Christ, for he was like Christ (and I saw him from within the family), and was the most noble man that I have ever personally encountered.

** From Rock Of Ages.

Therefore then it is the "hot desire" to love as did Christ, and which is vividly epitomized in our dear brothers, Francis of Assisi and John Wesley, it is this (I wonderingly submit) which should properly be called the application of the blood. For from it, itself a gift in response to a search,* God unfailingly provides the quickening of the flesh (a personal and immediate reminder of the resurrection of the body of Our Lord), the sighting of which is limited only by the opportunity for it to be manifested in the flesh, e.g., more with Zacchaeus and less with the thief on the cross.**

* and not an earning, the Wesleyan being thoroughly Protestant.

** And regarding which (gift of God), in fundamental, Wesleyan theology, we have at most the power to resist.

Now to go beyond the circumstances and recognition of the Aldersgate evening, and trying to tie this into the Wesleyan claim of universal love on the part of God, I wonder if we are not now catapulted, as Wesleyans, as the "awakened" ones, to go into all the world and to preach the gospel of salvation and allow the grace of God to work in the minds and hearts of the hearers such that an "interest in the Savior's blood" develops and so that eventually there is an "application of this blood" in the personal and individual realization that God does in fact love us and accepts us and is now working in refashioning our hearts into a facsimile of the heart of His son, our Lord, such that we then finally actually become fit for heaven (at least with regard to our conscious actions and thoughts).* **

* Consistent with this thinking I like to imagine that Jesus, when he spies Barabbas, not only accepts him as the one selected by God in whose place Jesus is to suffer and die, i.e., is not only obedient, but also in fact loves him in that he is able to see what sort of person Barabbas would have been if his mother had been more like Mary (and, praise God! can still become, at least in progressive approximation, through the work of the Holy Spirit that is soon to be let loose in the world). Greek Christians maintain that Barabbas later became a saint in the early church.

** It almost seems that when we "come to" we realize, not that God suddenly is working in our lives, but rather has already been working in our lives, only we were not paying attention!***

*** Indeed now even the quickening of the interest in the Savior's blood is the prevenient work of God in our lives, so early is his presence in our lives!

 

Appendix

A problem that remains for me is an old one, the reconciliation of justice and love. I am presently torn by two images, one is that developed by some author (Maupassant?) where a visitor to hell finds mournful, gaunt people sitting around a banquet table filled with incredible delights. He finds that the people, though so hungry, have no elbows and therefore cannot eat. The scene changes to heaven, but which is identical in every respect except that the people are full and happy. The difference, the visitor is shown, is the fact that in heaven the people feed each other, which they refuse to do in hell.

This vision is astonishing to me, and suggests that we may indeed all be in the same realm after death, and that we shall be able to enjoy our stay and enjoy our host only to the extent that we have earlier, in the earthly realm, been freed from selfish "sin and nature's night."

The other image is suggested to me by Francis and also by the cow maid story of the Hindus. The cow maids are romping about with the blue, Hindu god, Krishna, and are so deliriously happy that they do not even recognize Krishna, but are just enjoying his company. I tie this in with Francis' notion of the diversity in the capacity of diverse beings to know and to love and to enjoy God. The infants in heaven, for example, may be like the cow maids and are so taken by the person of Jesus that they are in bliss, even though they cannot appreciate what Jesus accomplished in his life on earth. Other beings may be so tied up in their own thing, that they miss him entirely (like Francis' father in the marvelous Zefferreli film: "Brother Sun and Sister Moon" [which I cannot recommend enough] who is so taken by the spoils of war that he is entranced and, from the perspective of Francis, is "fast bound in sin and nature's night"). So each being is happy according to his own capacity, and only some of us, the blessed of our Father, are able to recognize the Son of God, the Savior, as such and to bow spontaneously in adoration and to break ranks with the other beings* in order to throw ourselves down at his feet. For we will have been ushered into his presence while on earth, while in the realm of memories.**

* An image that keeps arising to my mind is suggested by our Islamic friends who place their faces on the floor in abject submission to the (presumed) command of God. We Wesleyans are different only in this regard: what the Islamics do by sheer will power, we shall do spontaneously when we hear Jesus is coming; but with this further exception: while they obediently remain face down, we shall turn up our faces to take a peek, and having done so, will be unable to restrain ourselves, but shall rush shouting toward him to touch him and to give our bodies up as stones for him to walk upon, somewhat as is depicted in the marvelous Ascension window at Grace United Methodist Church (Atlanta, GA, USA), i.e., "Lost in wonder, love and praise".

** It is interesting to me, and a carry-over, perhaps, from my interest in Kant, that there is a difference in hearing a story of a wonderful person (which is perhaps merely dreamed up!), and of knowing the fact or truth of that wonderful person. This, I suppose, is really the difference between imagination and memory. And what a joy it is to know that when we enter that heavenly realm [having already entered eternal life on earth with our brothers, Francis of Assisi and John Wesley, and along with countless other brothers and sisters] we shall behold him, the Christ, and shall recognize him and shall be counted as his friend. "Oh that will be a glory for me!" All will have the opportunity to enjoy him, but we shall recognize him and what he has done for the sake of all and shall be able to adore him!***

*** Given this conception, it is easy to see how it is that the Wesleyan's heart overflows with love, even for the enemy, for to know Christ is finally all there is, in comparison with which (and in the graphic words of our brother, Paul) all else is dung. It is easy to see how we must consider all others, like Francis' father, not as evil, but as captive and slaves and in a dungeon!

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