I Set Myself on Fire

Justin Holcomb » Dead Guys | Gospel | Justification | Church | History
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When God opens someone’s heart to the truth of the gospel and restores their hope, that life is never the same.

John Wesley (1703-1791), the great eighteenth-century Anglican clergyman and founder of Methodism, vividly illustrates this point. God used the Methodist movement to proclaim the gospel around the world.

It was this day in 1738 that he had a life-changing “burning heart” experience while attending a prayer meeting at a Moravian chapel in Aldersgate Street.

Saved by Being Good’

Wesley pinpointed his conversion experience to a date in his mid-thirties, seven years after being ordained. Since the age of ten, Wesley had labored to attain right standing with God through his own efforts. He wrote about this in his journal:

And what I now hoped to be saved by was (1) Not being so bad as other people, (2) Having still a kindness for religion, and (3) Reading the Bible, going to church, and saying my prayers’ I set apart an hour or two a day for religious retirement. I communicated every week. I watched against all sin, whether in word or deed. I began to aim at, and pray for, inward holiness. So that now, ‘doing so much, and living so good a life,’ I doubted not but I was a good Christian.

Saved by Ministry’

Several years after being ordained, Wesley sailed across the Atlantic to Savannah, Georgia, where he spent over two years doing mission work. A statue in downtown Savannah commemorates his work there. But Wesley’s ministry failed. He worked tirelessly, but his fruitless efforts brought him face to face with the reality of burnout.

‘I sought to establish my own righteousness, and so labored in the fire all my days.’

He sailed back to England, not with riveting accounts about how much God had blessed his ministry, but instead with feelings of defeat, depression, and discouragement. Listen to how Wesley described his ministry: ‘All the time I was at Savannah I was thus beating the air’ I sought to establish my own righteousness, and so labored in the fire all my days.’

Saved by Faith Alone

Soon after returning to England, Wesley had a ‘burning heart” experience. It occurred on May 24, 1738. He famously recounted this life-changing event in his journal:

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.

John Wesley’s burnout ended instantly. God opened his eyes to the truth of the gospel’that we are saved solely through faith in Christ, and not through our own efforts. Wesley’s hope was restored, and he realized that Christ’s righteousness was more than enough for him. He no longer needed to ‘beat the air’ or ‘labor in the fire.’ This realization empowered Wesley to preach the gospel for over fifty years, to his death in 1791.

‘I set myself on fire’

Though he was an Arminian, he refined Arminian theology with a strong emphasis on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith. It was this doctrine that freed him from the bondage of trying to establish his own righteousness before God and motivated him to travel over 250,000 miles on horseback to preach more than 40,000 sermons.

Someone once asked Wesley why so many people came to hear him preach. His answer was,

‘I set myself on fire, and people come to see me burn.’

Because of John Wesley’s preaching ministry and his leadership in starting the Methodist movement, thousands have trusted in Christ.

— Justin Holcomb

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