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Charles Wesley: Christ died for me, but not only for me

Charles Wesley was an incredible man. It is difficult to think of a person that has influenced American Christianity more than this man. There were others (his brother John, for instance) whose names will come to mind much faster. There were better theologians, better organizers, and better preachers. But it will be difficult to find Christians who can quote them.

What won’t be hard, though, is to find people that can quote Charles Wesley. They won’t know they are doing it. But when they gather together on Easter Sunday singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” or when they are singing along with Chris Tomlin or Rebecca Saint James’ versions of lyrics like: “Amazing Love, how can it be? That you my God would die for me?” they will be quoting Charles.

Charles Wesley influenced American Christians because he sang songs that captured their hearts. It is estimated that he wrote some 9,000 hymns (could you imagine writing three or four songs a week for fifty years?). He is a reminder that complex arguments don’t always capture minds and hearts, but songs do.

I am thankful for the things Charles Wesley has impressed on my heart through his songs. One of his main contributions is the emphasis on the “first-person” in worship music. We are going to sing of a God who would die for me.

A great example of this at work is the fifth stanza of his song celebrating conversion (often called “O for a thousand tongues to sing” after the first line of the seventh stanza):

I felt my Lord’s atoning blood

Close to my soul applied

Me, me he loved—the Son of God

For me, for me he died.

Charles Wesley firmly believed that part of the believer’s experience was the realization that Jesus’ work for the sake of the whole creation applies to me. Jesus died for me, for me.

Wesley made such an important contribution. Jesus died for the whole creation. But it’s also true to say he died for me. And he died for you. He loves his creation. He loves me. These ideas can’t be separated.

Often, though, great ideas can be corrupted. At his best, Wesley reminds us that the work of Jesus applies to ‘me’ as an individual. It is true to say that Jesus died for ‘me’ and took ‘my’ place.

That’s not all Jesus died for though.

Jesus died for me, but not only for me. When we mix this up, we turn worship into a me-centered quest for an existential experience. Worship becomes about God bringing me a feeling of warmness or tingles or goose bumps. Worship becomes about me getting a fresh start and recharging my battery. If the song sucks, I check out. If the worship leader sings off key, I laugh at him. The worship service becomes a tool for me to feel God’s presence. The countless people in worship services every Sunday across America trying to raise their hands a little higher and worship a little louder to songs with a loud, pulsing bass line so that they might ‘feel’ God better testify to the perversion of Wesley’s theology of worship. Because although Wesley reminds us that we should experience God individually when we worship, he will not allow it to stay there. That is why in the same song I just quoted, Wesley leads us toward mission:

Harlots, and publicans, and thieves

In holy triumph join;

Saved is the sinner that believes

From crimes as great as mine

Wesley takes us far from a simple existential experience of feeling ‘saved.’ He realizes God’s point in meeting us as individuals is never simply to give us an experience. We do have an experience. That much is true. This experience, though, is meant to draw us toward proclaiming the wonder of God so that all might know Him. If Jesus could die for me, even me, he could die for anyone.

Jesus died for me, but not only for me. This is where our worship should always lead.

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