He was on a boat, headed for America when a massive storm rose up and began ravaging the boat. Immediately, he became scared out of his mind, frightened for his life, and started negotiating with God. “God, I can’t die. If you just let me live through this, I promise I’ll …”
In the middle of his panic, he looked over and saw a group of Christians who, in this midst of the storm, were worshipping God. His fear, contrasted with their peace and haunted him. Especially since he was going to America as a missionary to share Jesus with the Native Americans who lived there.
The Inward Witness
John Wesley was born in 1703 as the 15th of 19 kids. John Wesley’s father was a minister, and the family was flat broke. (Which, I guess, there are consequences for that if you decide to have nineteen kids.)
Although John Wesley’s father was a minister, and John grew up going to church every Sunday, he never really had a relationship with God. He went through all the motions. Despite his dedication towards living for God and doing all the right things, he never really accepted and put his faith in Jesus as his own Savior.
A couple of incidents led John to this realization. When his dad was on his deathbed, John was sitting with him, and his dad asked, “John, do you have the inward witness of the Holy Spirit?”
You might be wondering what in the world his dad meant?
The Bible teaches us that when we put our faith in Jesus and invite God into our lives, he literally moves into us through the Holy Spirit. Once the Holy Spirit lives in us, we’re never alone, and so we have God’s power to live the life he has for us.
An Internal Peace
In Romans 8 we read about something else the Spirit does for us.
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:14-16)
That’s precisely what John Wesley’s dad was asking. When you have indeed put your faith in Jesus as the forgiver of your sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit creates an internal peace. You know, without any doubt, that you’re right with God.
Do You Know Without Any Doubt?
Do you know? Do you know that God has forgiven you? Do you have that peace, the inward witness of the Holy Spirit?
That day on the boat, John Wesley realized he DIDN’T know. His parents were Christians. He had grown up in church. He had even gone to Seminary. He knew about God, and he had done all kinds of things for God, but yet, he had never personally put his faith in Jesus and said yes to a relationship with God.
The Bible is clear that knowing about God, even believing in God, doesn’t mean we’re forgiven. It says that even the demons know about and believe in God (Check out James 2:19). Jesus was clear that doing things for God doesn’t mean we’re forgiven (see Matthew 7:21-23). We can believe and do good stuff for God, and still have something missing.
When John Wesley’s father asked him, “Do you have the inward witness of the Holy Spirit?” John realized something was missing.
He realized it again a few years later on that boat headed for America to share Jesus with the Indians. When the storm hit, he was afraid to die. But then he saw the group of Christians who were at peace amidst the storm, worshipping God together. The sight haunted Wesley.
If he had Jesus as his Savior and knew he was going to Heaven, why would he fear death? He realized he still didn’t have that “inward witness of the Holy Spirit.” He wrote in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who will convert me?”
“I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who will convert me?”
The Journey From Head To Heart
Wesley continued to struggle with this until a few years later when he heard a preacher speak from the book of Romans. The preacher shared verses like, “for all have sinned and fell short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25).
The idea is that we’re all guilty because we’ve sinned. But we can be redeemed or justified, which means God eliminates your sin. That happens “by his grace.” Grace means you get the opposite of what you deserve.
We don’t EARN forgiveness because God GIVES it to us as an undeserved gift. When Jesus shed his blood on the cross, it was a “sacrifice of atonement.” To atone means to erase. The blood of Jesus can erase our sins if we say yes to God’s offer. How?
Romans 10:10, “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” We put our faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross. That belief happens in your heart, not just your head, and it leads you to “profess with your mouth.”
From Knowledge To Confidence
Wesley said that day he heard the message from Romans in a different place, not in his head, but in his heart. That day he said yes to God and accepted Jesus into his life in a way he never had before. His orientation towards Jesus moved from his head to his heart. It went from an intellectual belief to being personal, relational, and passionate.
As a pastor, people ask me, “How do I know God has forgiven me?” For some, the issue is that they grew up with Christian parents and going to church, which made it easy to believe in God intellectually. Intellectually believing in God is different from knowing with all of your heart.
Perhaps you need to hear the message in a different place, not in your head, but in your heart. Maybe you need to understand that you are guilty of sin, but God still loves you so much. And what you desperately need is not to be guilty of your sin, which is why Jesus died for you. Maybe you need to realize that his death can erase your sins if you believe, not just in your head but in your heart. And so, you say yes, and start a genuine relationship with God.
The Real Miracle
That’s what happened to John Wesley, and it changed him.
Several years later Wesley was preaching a sermon. Wesley would usually preach outside. As a result of his preaching, Wesley regularly got beat up and had bricks thrown at him.
On one occasion, Wesley was preaching in a town called Bolton when about forty people started throwing rocks at him. As the stones came, he continued teaching. Guys started running up on stage to attack him, but they got hit with the rocks and ended up asking God for forgiveness.
Wesley wrote in his journal that the real miracle that day wasn’t that God had protected him from physical harm. The miracle was that he realized he was no longer afraid to die. John Wesley finally had the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. He finally had the peace that he knew.
The confidence from knowing forgiveness is something we all need to know. As children of God, we also need the peace created by the inward presence of the Holy Spirit. It changes everything.
Do you struggle with believing in God’s forgiveness? Take a moment to check out our free 7-Day Imagine Bible Study to deepen your faith and confidence that God has forgiven all of your sins.