Not a few professing Christians sometimes have doubts about their salvation. If you or someone you know fits in that category, perhaps you’ll be helped by considering the following narrative of how Susanna Wesley and her famous sons, John and Charles, came to gain an assurance of their personal salvation.
Susanna grew up in an era when it was quite common for even devoted Christians in various denominations not to have an absolute assurance of their personal salvation. That was true of both Nonconformists (among whom she was raised) and of Anglicans (with whom she fellowshipped and served as an adult). Both Anglicans and Dissenters taught salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. But there was also such a pronounced emphasis on living a life of good works that not a few professing believers mistakenly supposed their salvation was based at least in part on their own good deeds. That mistaken belief couldn’t help but leave many of them wondering if they were good enough to make it to heaven.
John and Charles Wesley were ordained ministers in the Church of England. In 1735 they accompanied Colonel James Oglethorpe, founding Governor of Georgia Colony, to America. John served as a chaplain and a missionary to the Indians while Charles was Oglethorpe’s personal secretary. While in America the Wesleys had considerable contact with a group of German Moravian Christians who emphasized (1) salvation through faith in Christ alone and (2) having an assurance of one’s salvation through the inner witness of God’s Spirit.
After returning to England in 1738, both John and Charles had conversion experiences in which they firmly laid hold of the doctrine of justification by faith for themselves, and thereby gained a settled assurance that they were truly saved. They immediately set about zealously proclaiming those doctrines. Along with fellow Anglican George Whitefield, another fervent evangelist who emphasized justification through faith in Christ alone, they became the primary human instruments used of God to bring about the Evangelical revival that swept across England at that time. Through their earnest preaching, hundreds or even thousands of people came under deep conviction and were converted.
A significant spiritual event took place in Susanna’s life in January, 1740, at a communion service led by her son-in-law Westley Hall. She afterward wrote of the incident: “While my son Hall was pronouncing these words in delivering the cup to me, ‘The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee,’ these words struck through my heart, and I knew that God for Christ’s sake had forgiven me all my sins.”
When Charles heard of this he wrote his mother a rather blunt letter in which he apparently declared that she had all along been trusting in her own good works to save her and had not been truly converted until that moment of realization during the recent communion service. But in answering his letter she referred back to a time during her teenage years when God had brought her through a period of serious doubting and had kept her Christian faith intact:
“I do not, I will not despair. For ever since my sad defection, when I was almost without hope, when I had forgotten God, yet I then found He had not forgotten me. Even then He did by His Spirit apply the merits of the great atonement to my soul, by telling me that Christ died for me. Shall the God of truth, the Almighty Savior, tell me that I am interested in [have a share in] His blood and righteousness, and shall I not believe Him? God forbid! I do, I will believe. And though I am the greatest of sinners, that does not discourage me. For all my transgressions are the sins of a finite person, but the merits of our Lord’s sufferings and righteousness are infinite!”
Susanna’s father, Samuel Annesley, was a prominent Nonconformist minister in London during her childhood and younger adult years. When she related to her son John the assurance that had recently come to her heart at the communion service, he queried her about Annesley:
“I asked whether her father had not the same faith, and whether she had not heard him preach it to others. She answered, he had it himself, and declared a little before his death that for more than forty years he had no darkness, no fear, no doubt at all of his being accepted in the Beloved [Christ]. But that, nevertheless, she did not remember to have heard him preach, no not once, explicitly upon it [such assurance of salvation]. Whence she supposed he also looked upon it as the peculiar blessing of a few, not as promised to all the people of God.”
Susanna’s own assurance was in evidence at the time of her death on July 23, 1742. According to John, who was at her bedside when she passed into eternity, at that time she expressed ‘no doubt or fear’. Her sole desire was ‘to depart and to be with Christ’ (Philippians 1:23). Such is the settled assurance of the Christian who has come to trust in Christ alone (rather than partly in one’s own good works) for salvation.
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You will find much more about Susanna Wesley’s interesting life and beneficial spiritual perspectives on a variety of issues in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Two commendable full-length biographies on her life are: Susanna Wesley by Arnold Dallimore (Baker, 1993) and Susanna Wesley by Kathy McReynolds (Bethany, 1998).
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie