May 24, 1738 is an iconic date in the history of the Methodist movement. It is on that date that Rev. John Wesley went “unwillingly” to a Moravian prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and was powerfully converted. According to Wesley’s journal, it took place about a quarter till nine as he was listening to someone read Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. It was during the reading of Luther’s preface that John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed.” The rest, as they say, is history. The Methodist movement was born and the world was set ablaze with the gospel.
I have been moving in Methodist circles all my life. I think it is reasonable to say that a healthy percentage of the Methodists have heard of Aldersgate and know, even if vaguely, something about Wesley’s “heart-warming” experience there. But, here’s the snag. I don’t know of too many Methodists who have actually read Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. The fact that the heart-felt experience of Wesley is far more known than the textual source of that experience is significant. We can all too easily forget that our experience of God’s work does not come untethered from the truth of God’s word. When Christian “experience” becomes disconnected from God’s Word it drifts into mere emotionalism. When God’s Word is not united to our experience it drifts into cold legalism. It was the powerful uniting of word and experience which ignited the “people called Methodists” and changed the world.
I recently sat down and re-read afresh Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The wonderful thing about the preface is that it is a document brimming with clarity. One can never fault Luther for being muddled and vague in his proclamation of the gospel! Like Wesley, Luther had been born and raised in all the religious trappings, until Jesus Christ set him free. From that moment on, Luther, like Wesley two centuries later, became consumed with the gospel and never failed to set it forth in bold and clear terms.
One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow build up of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.
When an outside firm was hired some years ago to help the United Methodist church come up with a tag line to summarize its mission they came up with the phrase, “Open hearts, Open minds, Open Doors.” But, does this tagline capture the essence of the church’s message and mission with anything approaching the clarity of Luther’s Preface to the Romans? The phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” says absolutely nothing about Jesus Christ or the glorious gospel. It only speaks of our hearts, our minds and our buildings. Is that really the best we can do? As I have said before, if there were public relations consultants in the 19th century, the phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” could have just as easily emerged as a great tagline for a 19th century brothel.
This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, “Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.” It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as “seeker sensitive.” It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking” and the church. The list could go on and on.
Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s “heart-warming experience” must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or “non-denominational” means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ.
Be on the watch. Seedbed is making plans to publish a volume containing both Luther’s Preface to Romans and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on Romans. It will be one of the early releases of the newly launched John Wesley Collection. Take a look at the first release here.