“Sun. 17. Although the weather was rough and boisterous, the people flocked at nine from all quarters, Papists and Protestants, and God sent down a gracious rain, especially upon the backsliders. In the evening, the court-house was exceedingly crowded, and the fire of love ran from heart to heart. One eminent backslider, who had drank in iniquity like water, was utterly broken in pieces and resolved to cut off the right hand at once and to be altogether a Christian.”
I love this journal entry by Wesley, in no small part because of the way he plays with the imagery of water: the stormy weather during the meeting in Castlebar, the rain of grace poured out by God upon those present, and the backslider described as drinking in iniquity as easily as water.
This short passage is also theologically significant for a couple of reasons. One is the indication by Wesley that both Roman Catholics and Protestants were gathered together—an indication of the ecumenical hopes that Wesley always had for the Methodist movement (and which he usually takes care to comment upon especially during his Ireland tours). The other is the way that the backsliders present at the meeting are described. A backslider is someone who has enjoyed a living faith in God at some point but has fallen back into willful sin (cf. Jeremiah 14:7; 1 Timothy 1:18-19). The character of grace is such that it is possible to reject it even after it has been once received, as Wesley correctly understands. But he also understands another feature of grace that speaks to God’s infinite mercy: Even those who have fallen away can be welcomed back into the embrace of Jesus Christ, for he will seek them as a shepherd seeks a lost sheep that has strayed from the flock (cf. Luke 15:3-7). Thus, Wesley rejoices in the “gracious rain” that God has sent to refresh the backsliders in Castlebar, and he points specifically to one of their number whose dramatic repentance is remarkable because of the depth of his previous sin.
In Volume 23 of the Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (where this journal entry appears), editor W. Reginald Ward points out that this incident from May 17, 1778, was almost certainly the reason for Wesley’s subsequent publication of his sermon, “A Call to Backsliders.” That sermon contains a careful argument about the possibility of backsliding Christians being restored to the favor of God, and it is well worth reading.
[This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights important themes that emerge in the Journal that John Wesley published throughout his adult life. For other posts in the series, go here.]