Remember that time John Wesley raised the dead?

May 25th, 2017

Several years ago I had the privilege of meeting Randy Clark. Randy was the principal preacher during the Toronto Blessing, a massive revival that began in 1994 and launched him into international prominence. He now leads a powerful Christian renewal movement called Global Awakening. I have seen incredible things happen through Randy’s ministry. One of the key points that he usually makes when he speaks about God’s work in the world is that we should expect more of God than we do. We should have, he says, a culture of expectation in our churches. We should expect God to be generous with the gifts of the Spirit. What are these gifts? Paul talks about them in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 (NIV):

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Most Christians are entirely comfortable talking about gifts of wisdom and faith. But healing? Miraculous powers? Prophecy? These may be harder to believe — but why? Simply put, the less a particular gift seems to require of God, the easier it is for us to believe. We have been taught not to expect very much of God, and our prayers match those expectations. We may or may not actively disbelieve in these gifts, but passive disbelief in them is quite common.

Let’s take an example out of the history of the Methodist movement. Virtually everyone who has belonged to some Methodist or Wesleyan body for any period of time has heard about John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience.” In his journal entry dated May 24, 1738 Wesley writes,

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.¹

Here we might say Wesley received the gift of faith. He would call it “assurance,” but that is simply another word for faith in Christ for the redemption of his sins. 

Now let’s look at a lesser-known story in which Wesley mentions a Mr. Meyrick who came down sick at the same time Wesley himself did. While Wesley recovered, Mr. Meyrick did not. His health continued to decline, and eventually he died. The story, however, does not end there. Wesley writes,

When I came home they told me the physician said he did not expect Mr. Meyrick would live till the morning. I went to him, but his pulse was gone. He had been speechless and senseless for some time. A few of us immediately joined in prayer. (I relate the naked fact.) Before we had done his sense and his speech returned. Now he that will account for this by natural causes has my free leave. But I choose to say, This is the power of God.²

When I first came across this passage, I was astounded. Here is a claim by John Wesley that he and other people prayed for a man who was dead, and the man was thereby restored to life! In fact, there are many other supernatural events that Wesley recounts throughout his ministry that we rarely hear about.³ Why is it that we celebrate Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience” so widely, but these other events in Wesley’s life rarely see the light of day? Perhaps it is because the story in which Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” is simply more believable to us than the claim that a dead man was restored to life through prayer. To put it a bit differently, the gift of faith is more palatable to our modern sensibilities than the working of miracles.

There are precedents in Scripture for Wesley’s prayer over the deceased Mr. Meyrick. Through prayer, Elijah raises the son of the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24). Jesus raises the daughter of a ruler (Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26). When Eutychus falls out of a window to his death during a long-winded sermon by Paul, the apostle embraces him and pronounces that there is life in him, and Eutychus is restored to life (Acts 20:7-12). If we allow Scripture to shape our understanding of the world, we will be more likely to see truth in Wesley’s story than to dismiss it out of hand. Wesley certainly had his moments of doubt, but he also lived in expectation of what God was going to do. His image of God as one who acts powerfully in the everyday lives of men and women was formed by the Bible. He believed that God would change the hearts of people who did not have faith. He believed God would enliven the faith of those who lived in doubt. He believed that God could and did heal the sick, and even raise the dead. Wesley expected God to show up because that is how God is described in the Bible.

What if, rather than assenting to the pessimism that so characterizes secular culture, we allowed the Bible to shape our expectations? Scripture teaches us that God wants to give us the gifts of the Spirit because these gifts serve the common good. In other words, God wants to build up the church and therefore offers us these powerful gifts of the Spirit. The journey into the life of God is not primarily an individual undertaking. It is something that we do as members of Christ’s body in communion with other believers. These gifts are given for our common good, so that, as a community of Christians, we can grow in the faith, know God more fully, and love God and other people more completely. The gifts of the Spirit described in Scripture draw us as the people of God into the life of God. If we are not open to them — or to the idea that God is willing and able to provide them — we impoverish ourselves spiritually. We deprive ourselves of important resources for knowing God and entering into the divine life.

¹ John Wesley, May 24, 1738, Journals and Diaries I (1735-1738), ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976- ), 249-50, emphasis his.

² Wesley, December 20,1742, Journal and Diaries II (1738-1743), in Works, 19:306.

³ See Frank H. Billman’s book, The Supernatural Thread in Methodism: Signs and Wonders Among Methodists Then and Now (Lake Mary, FL.: Creation House Press, 2013).

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