Not only was Luther's Preface to the Epistle of the Romans read at a meeting at Aldersgate Street the evening John Wesley was evangelically converted, but Luther also had a profound influence in the conversion of Charles Wesley. This connection is not as well known.
John recorded in his journal that Peter Bohler had challenged him. bohler claimed true faith had two inseparable fruits: "dominion over sin and constant peace from a sense of forgiveness." John turned to his Greek New Testament "resolving to abide by 'the law and the testimony,' and being confident that God would hereby show me 'whether this doctrine was of God.'"
Two days later he was ready to accept the definition that faith is "a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that through the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and hereconciled to the favor of God." But Bohler again challenged John. John could not comprehend Bohler's teaching of an instantaneous work. John said, "I could not understand how this faith should be given in a moment; how a man could at once be turned from darkness to light, from sin and misery to righteousness and joy in the Holy Ghost."
Again John turned to the Scriptures, and, to his surprise, "found scarce any instances there of other than instantaneous conversions." In his survey of the Scriptures he was especially influenced by the conversion accounts in the book of Acts. It is ironic that the later holiness movement reinterpreted these accounts as referring to a second work.
John now argued that instantaneous conversions ceased after apostolic times. He said, however, he "was beat out of this retreat too, by the concurring evidence of several living witnesses." They all concurred that "this faith was the gift, the free gift of God, and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it." John wrote, "I was not thoroughly convinced. And, by the grace of God, I resolved to seek it unto the end."
Two days later, on April 25, 1738, John preached this new truth. Charles was present and John wrote, "My brother was very angry, and told me I did not know what mischief I had done by talking thus. And indeed it did please God then to kindle a fire, which I trust shall never be extinguished."
Charles recorded in his journal, "We fell into a dispute whether conversion was gradual or instantaneous. My brother was very positive for the latter, and very shocking; mentioned some late instances of gross sinners believing in a moment. I was much offended at his worse than unedififying discourse. I insisted a man need not know when first he had faith."
It was three weeks later that Charles discovered Martin Luther's Commentary on Galatians. As he read from it he was "astonished I should ever think justification by faith alone is a new doctrine. From this time I endeavored to ground as many of our friends as came in this fundamental truth, salvation by faith alone."
Charles recorded that Luther had been a great blessing to him, especially his conclusion of the second chapter. The following Sunday, which was Whitsunday, became the day of Pentecost for Charles. He wrote, "I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ. I saw that by faith I stood; by the continual support of faith, which kept me from falling, though of myself I am ever sinking into sin."
The next day Charles joined in prayer for his brother's conversion and declared, "In the midst of prayer, I almost believed the Holy Ghost was coming upon him." It was not until Thursday evening, however, that John heard Luther's introduction to Romans and felt his heart strangely warmed. John had convinced Charles, God had kindled a fire in his heart, and Charles entered the kingdom four days ahead of John!
It is also of interest that Martin Luther, who had been dead for almost two hundred years, was used to influence both brothers. Charles seems to have been almost completely persuaded intellectually by Luther's insights on Galatians. Here, then, are some of Luther's words which Charles read:
For Christ is Joy and Sweetness to a broken heart. Christ is a Lover of poor sinners, and such a Lover that He gave Himself for us. Now if this is true, and it is true, then are we never justified by our own righteousness.
Read the words "me" and "for me" ["who loved me and gave himself for me," Galatians 2:20] with great emphasis. Print this "me" with capital letters in your heart, and do not ever doubt that you belong to the number of those who are meant by this "me." Christ did not only love Peter and Paul. The same love He felt for them He feels for us. If we cannot deny that we are sinners, we cannot deny that Christ died for our sins.
We despise the grace of God when we observe the Law for the purpose of being justified. The Law is good, holy, and profitable, but it does not justify. To keep the Law in order to be justified means to reject grace, to deny Christ, to despise His sacrifice, and to be lost.
If my salvation was so difficult to accomplish that it necessitated the death of Christ, then all my works, all the righteousness of the Law, are good for nothing. How can I buy for a penny what cost a million dollars? The Law is a penny's worth when you compare it with Christ. Should I be so stupid as to reject the righteousness of Christ which cost me nothing, and slave like a fool to achieve the righteousness of the Law which God disdains?
Man's own righteousness is in the last analysis a despising and rejecting of the grace of God. No combination of words can do justice to such an outrage. It is an insult to say that any man died in vain, but to say that Christ died in vain is a deadly insult. To say that Christ died in vain is to make His resurrection, His victory, His glory, His kingdom, heaven, earth, God Himself, of no purpose and benefit whatever.
It seems that such a horrible wickedness could not enter a man's heart, that he should reject the grace of God, and despise the death of Christ. Any yet this atrocity is all too common. Let us be warned. Everyone who seeks righteousness without Christ, either by works, merits, satisfactions, afflictions, or by the Law, rejects the grace of God, and despises the death of Christ.
Luther commented at Galatians 4:6,
St. Augustine observed that 'every man is certain of his faith, if he has faith.' We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us. So long as He sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us, we have nothing to fear from the anger of God.
If we could be fully persuaded that we are in the good grace of God, that our sins are forgiven, that we have the Spirit of Christ, that we are the beloved children of God, we would be ever so happy and grateful to God. But because we often feel fear and doubt we cannot come to that happy certainty.
Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say, "I am all right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes me worthy. I gladly hear, read, sing, and write of Him. I would like nothing better than that Christ's Gospel be known throughout the world and that many, many be brought to faith in Him."
Let the Law, sin, and the devil cry out against us until their outcry fills heaven and earth. The Spirit of God outcries them all. Our feeble groans, "Abba, Father," will be heard of God sooner than the combined racket of hell, sin and the Law.
Let us never doubt the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, but make up our minds that God is pleased with us, that He looks after us, and that we have the Holy Spirit who prays for us [translation by Theodore Graebner].
No wonder Charles recorded in his journal for June 6, 1738, "In the evening, I read Luther, as usual, to a large company of our friends."