And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me?
Most scholars consider today’s hymn, found in our Methodist hymnal at #363, to be the one that Charles Wesley wrote to commemorate his conversion experience in May of 1738. This makes it an important hymn to give us a glimpse into the faith journey of the young Charles Wesley.
We’ve covered some of the influence that the Moravian Brethren had on the Wesleys during and after their first missional trip to North America, focusing mostly on what the early Methodists adopted from the Moravian traditions. It’s important not to forget, though, how much of a shock the present and practical faith of the Moravians was for the Wesley brothers, and how meeting them forced the Wesleys to rethink their own beliefs.
The Holy Club at Oxford was founded in large part because John and Charles were yearning for a deeper connection with God than what they saw in the Christian church of their day. They longed for a personal sense of the assurance of God’s love and Christ’s mercy, and this wasn’t something that was of particular priority for the Church of England, especially for those who attended church to maintain respectable appearances in society. As the Wesleys didn’t know how to go about achieving such a connection, they began the Holy Club, structuring spiritual disciplines for themselves and their followers. Their thinking was that if they could only check all of the boxes, if they lived a life as flawless as possible, that would bring them to the closer relationship with Christ that they craved.
Imagine the impact of meeting the Moravian Brethren on the ship headed for America in 1738, a group of people whose faith was such that none flinched at the thought of death– it was proof of the existence of that depth of faith for which the brothers had longed for so long. This was a significant reason why John and Charles sought counsel with the Moravians after their voyage; they had been aching to know that same kind of practical, profound faith for years, and needed to understand how the Moravians had found it, and how they might do so too.
There was, however, no lack of dissonance between the Wesleys’ Anglican doctrine and that of the Moravian church. One of the spiritual tenets of the Moravians that was new to the brothers was that of instantaneous conversion. This was the belief that transformative conversion to the Christian faith happened all at once, in a single instant, and you would be able to point to that moment as the beginning of your faith life. In this doctrine you don’t gradually grow to love Christ, instead faith is gained in a single moment of conviction.
As they searched to understand and possess the kind of profound faith they saw in the Moravians, John and Charles adopted, for a time, some of their doctrines; this doctrine of instantaneous conversion led both brothers to sorely lament their lack of faith, and to search for their own moments of conversions. We can read in their journals of the moments which each pointed to as his own transformative, instantaneous conversion.
Charles experienced his first, on Sunday, May 21, 1738, when he was 31 years old. Charles wrote in his journal,
I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ. I saw that by faith I stood.
John’s own experience was three days later, on May 24th, and is known by many Methodists as The Aldersgate Experience, or simply Aldersgate:
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.
On Tuesday, May 23rd, Charles wrote in his journal of beginning a hymn to commemorate his conversion. We can’t be certain of which hymn he wrote, but considering the timing and the text, most consider “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” to be Charles’ conversion hymn.
One reason the Wesley brothers fell away from the Moravians shortly after this was actually due to this doctrine of instantaneous conversion, because among many of the Moravians (though not all), instantaneous conversion went hand-in-hand with a doctrine of what they called stillness. If conversion happened in a moment, in an instant, then strictly speaking, prior to that moment one was not actually a Christian. You are either completely Christian, after a conversion, or completely not a Christian, before a conversion. There’s no partial, no gradual, no “degrees of faith”. So someone may act as a Christian, but until experiencing a moment of conversion, those actions are not genuine. And so, those who preached stillness urged followers to “cease from outward works” until they “received faith”, as works without faith would be disingenuous and hypocritical at best. No attending church, no sacrament, no works, no prayer, nothing. Of course, this leads one to wonder how you were supposed to have that moment of conversion toward God if you were isolated from God… ?
Radical Moravians tried to impose this doctrine on the early Methodists, even going so far as to preach damnation on any who took the sacrament without having experienced this conversion moment. John Wesley began to fear this influence might cause his followers to descend the slippery slope towards antinomianism, which is essentially an exaggeration of justification by faith alone– that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you have faith, you’re saved. When the moment of conversion matters to the exclusion of all else, as it did to these radical Moravians, antinomianism can often end up the result. This was one major reason Wesley severed ties with the Moravian Brethren, as he tried to condemn the extremists preaching stillness, but could not do so without also rejecting the moderate Moravians. He remained close friends with several of the Moravian leaders, but no longer relied on them for spiritual guidance after this point.
There are many in the world today who have experienced instantaneous conversion, and that’s an amazing gift God has given them for their spiritual lives. A doctrine that says that instantaneous is the only way, though, is not a doctrine that I think I could personally stand by; and I think there was some wisdom in John Wesley’s concerns of antinomianism in those who strictly adhered to “stillness”. But here, yet again, is where the Moravians had a significant influence on the development of John Wesley’s theology. By pushing him to face these theological questions and spell out what he believed and why, I think it made him clarify his beliefs sooner than he would have otherwise, which ultimately strengthened the Methodist movement in England.
Perhaps a more common spiritual experience today than the instantaneous conversion, and possibly more relatable to those who took the more gradual path of conversion, is what you may have heard described as a “mountaintop experience”, those times when the veil is slightly parted and just for a moment, we can feel and know God’s presence so very clearly with us. Some people might have one of these experiences through music, for some it can be caused by the atmosphere in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve, or watching the stripping of the altar on Good Friday; others might even find it in nature, perhaps at.the summit of a hike or at the breathtaking beauty of a sunrise. However it happens, those mountaintop experiences can be a smaller version of what those instantaneous conversion moments must be like.
Whether you’ve experienced an Aldersgate moment or a mountaintop experience, this hymn of Charles Wesley is the perfect embodiment of the spiritual and emotional significance of those moments, especially the testimony of the fourth stanza:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!