On 24th May 1738, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had an experience at a meeting at Aldersgate Street in London while someone was reading the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. Wesley wrote of it in his journal saying:
About 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 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.
However, what is less well known is that the following January this same Wesley would write, ‘I am not a Christian now … I feel this moment I do not love God … Again joy in the Holy Ghost I have not … I am not a Christian.’ Twenty-five years later he expressed this same lack of assurance when he wrote to his brother Charles, the great hymn-writer, saying, ‘I have no direct witness, I do not say I am a child of God.’
Like many Christians Wesley’s sense of assurance was not continuous. There were times he doubted the reality of his faith. Perhaps his problem is that he depended too much on feelings. The reality of our Christian life is not dependant on how we feel. This is not to say that feelings have no role in our sense of assurance. After all, the Apostle Paul writes of the witness of the Spirit.
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15-16).
Jerry Bridges recounts the following story to demonstrate how this witness works:
‘Once I was on my way to speak at a conference on the pursuit of holiness. The trip itself was one of those stressful experiences when I did not exhibit the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, and peace to airline personnel. I felt like an utter failure (which was true). How could I speak to others about personal holiness when I had been so unholy myself?
Arriving at my hotel room late at night, I opened my Bible to try to find some encouragement. Soon I came to a short phrase in Colossians 2:13: “He forgave us all our sins.” My heart was flooded with joy. The Spirit bore witness to my spirit that my sins of that very day were forgiven, washed away by the blood of Christ. I was emboldened with courage to speak at that conference, not because I was good enough, but because the Holy Spirit bore witness with my spirit that my sins were forgiven.’
Notice that is was the Spirit’s application of the gospel that resulted in the inner witness. It wasn’t that the weather improved or he got some rest, so that he felt better about life and faith. The Spirit assured him through applying the truth of the gospel into his life.
I believe that the Spirit witnesses to every true Christian. He takes God’s promises and applies them to us. But sometimes things get in the way of our knowing this assurance. Sometimes we let our insecurities get the better of us, blocking out this comfort. This may be particularly true of those with depression or clinical anxiety; these insecurities may make it harder for us to know God’s acceptance. Pray that God would enable us to realise the witness of the Holy Spirit, who testifies with our spirit that we are dearly loved children of God.