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The Great Assize

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It remains only to apply the preceding considerations to all who are here before God. And are we not directly led so to do, by the present solemnity, which so naturally points us to that day, when the Lord will judge the world in righteousness? This, therefore, by reminding us of that more awful season, may furnish many lessons of instruction. A few of these I may be permitted just to touch on. May God write them on all our hearts!

1. And, First, how beautiful are the feet of those who are sent by the wise and gracious providence of God, to execute justice on earth, to defend the injured, and punish the wrongdoer! Are they not the ministers of God to us for good; the grand supporters of the public tranquillity; the patrons of innocence and virtue; the great security of all our temporal blessings? And does not every one of these represent, not only an earthly prince, but the Judge of the earth? Him whose "name is written upon his thigh, King of kings, and Lord of lords?" O that all these sons of the right hand of the Most High may be as holy as he is holy! Wise with the wisdom that sitteth by his throne, like him who is the eternal Wisdom of the Father! No respecters of persons, as he is none; but rendering to every man according to his works; like him inflexibly, inexorably just, though pitiful and of tender mercy! So shall they be terrible indeed to them that do evil, as not bearing the sword in vain. So shall the laws of our land have their full use and due honor, and the throne of our King be still established in righteousness.

2. Ye truly honorable men, whom God and the King have commissioned, in a lower degree, to administer justice; may not ye be compared to those ministering spirits who will attend the Judge coming in the clouds? May you, like them, burn with love to God and man! May you love righteousness and hate iniquity! May ye all minister, in your several spheres (such honor hath God given you also to them that shall be heirs of salvation, and to the glory of your great sovereign! May ye remain the establishers of peace, the blessing and ornaments of your country, the protectors of a guilty land, the guardian angels of all that are round about you!

3. You, whose office it is to execute what is given you in charge by him before whom you stand; how nearly are you concerned to resemble those that stand before the face of the Son of Man, those servants of his that do his pleasure, and hearken to the voice of his words! Does it not highly import you, to be as uncorrupt as them? To approve yourselves the servants of God? To do justly, and love mercy? To do to all as ye would they should do to you? So shall that great Judge, under whose eye you continually stand, say to you also, "Well done, good and faithful servants: enter ye into the joy of your Lord!"

4. Suffer me to add a few words to all of you who are at this day present before the Lord. Should not you bear it in your minds all the day long, that a more awful day is coming? A large assembly this! But what is it to that which every eye will then behold, the general assembly of all the children of men that ever lived on the face of the whole earth? A few will stand at the judgement-seat this day, to be judged touching what shall be laid to their charge; and they are now reserved in prison, perhaps in chains, till they are brought forth to be tried and sentenced. But we shall all, I that speak and you that hear, "stand at the judgement-seat of Christ." And we are now reserved on this earth, which is not our home, in this prison of flesh and blood, perhaps many of us in chains of darkness too, till we are ordered to be brought forth. Here a man is questioned concerning one or two facts, which he is supposed to have committed: there we are to give an account of all our works, from the cradle to the grave; of all our words; of all our desires and tempers, all the thoughts and intents of our hearts; of all the use we have made of our various talents, whether of mind, body, or fortune, till God said, "Give an account of thy stewardship, for thou mayest be no longer steward." In this court, it is possible, some who are guilty may escape for want of evidence; but there is no want of evidence in that court. All men, with whom you had the most secret intercourse, who were privy to all your designs and actions, are ready before your face. So are all the spirits of darkness, who inspired evil designs and assisted in the execution of them. So are all the angels of God; those eyes of the Lord, that run to and fro over all the earth, who watched over your soul, and labored for your good, so far as you would permit. So is your own conscience, a thousand witnesses in one, now no more capable of being either blinded or silenced, but constrained to know and to speak the naked truth, touching all your thoughts, and words, and actions. And is conscience as a thousand witnesses? -- yea, but God is as a thousand consciences! O, who can stand before the face of the great God, even our Savior Jesus Christ!

See! See! He cometh! He maketh the clouds his chariots! He rideth upon the wings of the wind! A devouring fire goeth before him, and after him a flame burneth! See! He sitteth upon his throne, clothed with light as with a garment, arrayed with majesty and honor! Behold, his eyes are as a flame of fire, his voice as the sound of many waters!

How will ye escape? Will ye call to the mountains to fall, on you, the rocks to cover you? Alas, the mountains themselves, the rocks, the earth, the heavens, are just ready to flee away! Can ye prevent the sentence? Wherewith? With all the substance of thy house, with thousands of gold and, silver? Blind wretch! Thou camest naked from thy mother's womb, and more naked into eternity. Hear the Lord, the Judge! "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." Joyful sound! How widely different from that voice which echoes, through the expanse of heaven, "Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!" And who is he that can prevent or retard the full execution of either sentence? Vain hope! Lo, hell is moved from beneath to receive those who are ripe for destruction. And the everlasting doors lift up their heads, that the heirs of glory may come in! 13

5. "What manner of persons then ought we to be, in all holy conversation and godliness!" We know it cannot be long before the Lord will descend with the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God; when every one of us shall appear before him, and give account of his own works. "Wherefore, beloved, seeing ye look for these things," seeing ye know he will come and will not tarry, "be diligent, that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot and blameless." Why should ye not? Why should one of you be found on the left hand at his appearing? He willeth not that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance; by repentance, to faith in a bleeding Lord; by faith, to spotless love, to the full image of God renewed in the heart, and producing all holiness of conversation. Can you doubt of this, when you remember, the Judge of all is likewise the Savior of all? Hath he not bought you with his own blood, that ye might not perish, but have everlasting life? O make proof of his mercy, rather than his justice; of his love, rather than the thunder of his power! He is not far from every one of us; and he is now come, not to condemn, but to save the world he standeth in the midst! Sinner, doth he not now, even now, knock at the door of thy heart? O that thou mayest know, at least in this thy day, the things that belong unto thy peace! O that ye may now give yourselves to him who gave himself for you, in humble faith, in holy, active, patient love! So shall ye rejoice with exceeding joy in his day, when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

Sugden's Introduction

This sermon was added in the 1771 edition partly because of the unique occasion of its delivery, partly because there was no sermon in the original forty-four on this subject. Wesley says of it in his Journal for September 1, 1778, "I cannot write a better [sermon] on the Great Assize than I did twenty years ago." It was customary for the judges of Assize to attend a service in the parish church of the town in which they were sitting, in all the splendor of their scarlet and ermine, with their trumpeters, javelin-men, and other officers of the Court in attendance; and it was one of the duties of the High Sheriff of the County to make arrangements for the preaching of the sermon. Mr. William Cole, who was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire at this time, was a friend of Wesley, and was his host in November 1759. He lived at Sundon, a village a little to the east of the main road from Luton to Bedford, about five miles north of Luton. He built the first Methodist preaching-house in Luton. Probably he made the arrangements for the Assize sermon when Wesley was at Bedford in November 1757; and on Monday, February 27, Wesley records, "Having a sermon to write against the Assizes at Bedford, I retired for a few days to Lewisham" -- doubtless to the house of Mr. Ebenezer Blackwell. He left London on Monday, March 6, at seven in the morning, and reached Mr. Cole's house at Sundon by three in the afternoon. On the Thursday he rode to Bedford, expecting to have to preach that day; but for some reason, probably because the cases at the previous Assize town had taken more time than was anticipated, the service was postponed to the following day. The service was held in the forenoon at St. Paul's Church, one of the chief architectural ornaments of the town. It stands on the north side of the River Ouse, and has a fine tower and octagonal spire. The old stone pulpit from which Wesley preached is still preserved in the south aisle, and a photograph of it and the church may be seen in the Standard edition of the Journal vol 4. p. 403. The Journal records, "The congregation at St. Paul's was very large and very attentive. The judge, immediately after sermon, sent me an invitation to dine with him; but having no time I was obliged to send my excuse, and set out between one and two." He had to reach Epworth for the Sunday, and got to Stilton, about thirty miles, by seven. Next morning he started between four and five, and through frost and flood covered the ninety miles to Epworth by ten that night. He says, "I was little more tired than when I rose in the morning!" -- tough, wiry little man that he was!

The judge on this occasion was Sir Edward Clive, who had been made a Judge of the Common Pleas and knighted in 1753. He was just a year younger than John Wesley, and died in 1771. A caricature of him may be found in Hogarth's plate "The Bench," published in this very year, 1758. He is sitting between the Lord Chief Justice Willes and Mr. Justice Bathurst, who has fallen asleep. He is represented with a small head almost lost in his full-bottomed wig, a long, thin nose, and a nut-cracker chin. The sermon was published separately by Trye in the same year at the request of the High Sheriff and others, and went through some ten editions in Wesley's lifetime. The Rev. Richard Green calls it "a model sermon," and says, "It is well-formed, plain, practical, earnest; the statements are all supported by apt scripture, and the truth faithfully applied to the conscience." The title "The Great Assize" was a familiar name for the Last Judgement; it is found as early as 1340 in Hampole's Prick of Conscience, 5514, and several other instances are given in the Oxford Dictionary, s.v. "Assize." The preliminary note, "Preached at the Assizes," etc., in the modern editions is from the title-page of the second edition, also published in London by Trye; it appears in an abbreviated form in the 1771 edition, without the last clause "Published at the request," etc.

Two points in the sermon call for criticism in view of recent investigations into the eschatological teaching of the New Testament. First, Wesley identifies without discussion the Day of Jehovah of the Old Testament prophets and the Jewish Apocalyptic writers with the Day of our Lord's second coming, the general resurrection, and the last Judgement, of the New Testament documents; and he uses indiscriminately passages from all these sources to give detail and picturesqueness to his picture. Moreover he adopts the most literal interpretation of them all, the only point at which he balks being the length of the Day of Judgement, which he thinks "may not improbably comprise several thousand years;" and the opening of the books, which he says is "a figurative expression." It can hardly be doubted that our Lord's teaching was largely influenced by the Old Testament and Apocalyptic conception, especially in His predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish polity; but He added to it the idea of an individual as well as a national judgement, and extended its scope to the whole world.

In the second place Wesley adopts the view that the Last Judgement will take place at some definite time in the future history of the world, when the lives of all men will be reviewed and sentence pronounced upon them. This is certainly the obvious meaning of the teaching of the books of the New Testament which were written before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; but when that tremendous catastrophe had taken place, and it became clear that the General Judgement and the End of the Age had not come, we find in the writings of St. John a new strain of teaching, implying that the Judgement is really continuous and is now going on. Thus "He that believeth on Him is not judged; he that believeth not hath been judged already.... And this is the judgement, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil" (John 3:18). Again, "Verily, verily I say unto you, he that heareth my word and believeth Him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgement.... The hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live" (John 5:24). Again, "For judgement came I into this world" (John 9:39). Again, "Now is the judgement of this world" (John 12:31). At the same time St. John also speaks of a future general resurrection, of "the last day" and "the day of judgement." It seems clear (1) that our Lord spoke in terms of the current national belief of His time, which was derived from the Old Testament prophets and the Apocalypses of the Persian and Greek periods, the time "between the Books;" (2) that He used the pictorial rather than the abstract method of conveying the truth to His hearers. We may thus safely say that the essential elements of His teaching are (1) that there will be a universal judgement of all men; (2) that He Himself will be the Judge; (3) that the standard of judgement will be His own life and teaching, as far as those who have had the opportunity of knowing it are concerned; (4) that for the heathen the standard will be their own conscience; (5) that the issues of the judgement are decided in this life, and (6) that the decision will be final. But as to the extent to which His representations of the Last Judgement are to be taken as expressing literal physical fact, we shall be wisest if we confess our ignorance and our inability to reach any dogmatic conclusion. As to the text, the better attested reading is, "We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God;" indeed, this text is used by some of the Fathers to prove the divinity of Christ, because it is plain from many passages that He will be the Judge; and the Judge is here called God.

Sugden's Footnotes

1. "Our gracious Sovereign" is George II. Wesley was always intensely loyal. In 1744 he wrote an Address from his Societies to the King in which he says, "we are ready to obey your Majesty to the uttermost, in all things which we conceive to be agreeable [to the Word of God]. And we earnestly exhort all with whom we converse, as they fear God to honor the King." The Address was not sent, mainly because it might have been taken to imply that the Methodists were "a body distinct from the National Church." In 1745, the year of the Young Pretenders's invasion of England, he wrote to the Mayor of Newcastle, "All I can do for his Majesty, whom I honor and love -- I think not less than I did my own father -- is this: I cry unto God, day by day, to put all his enemies to confusion," etc. When George II died in October 1760 he records in his Journal (October 25), "King George was gathered to his fathers. When will England have a better Prince?" One thinks of Carlyle (Sartor 1.9). "Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown, whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE. Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth." Wesley never despised form and ceremonial; he robed himself even for his Bible studies with his Societies in London and Bristol and for his open-air services.

2. This paragraph, finely and impressively composed as it is, is a defiance of all sound exegesis. Some of the passages quoted refer to the invasion of Judah by the Assyrians, some to the coming of the Holy Ghost, some to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, some to the downfall of Rome herself. All these were is a sense "days of Jehovah;" but there is no warrant for transferring all these signs to the final day of judgement, nor for their literal interpretation.

This just remark on the difference between the present and the resurrection bodies is worked out in detail in Sermon 138, originally written by Benjamin Calamy and revised and abridged by Wesley in 1732. "Substance" and "properties" are here used in their philosophical sense" the body will be the same in essence (not composed of the same material particles), but its properties, i.e. its characteristics and qualities will be entirely changed. Above all, it will be a "pneumatical" and not a "physical" body, i.e. it will be well adapted for the use and manifestation of the spirit, as the present body is adapted for the use and manifestation of the psyche or animal soul.

"Hades" is a very properly substituted for the A.V. "hell," which is here, and indeed in all passages where is the translation of Sheol, or Hades, most misleading to the English reader. It is the world of departed spirits, not the place of punishment of the Devil and his angels.

3. "All nations" -- more exactly "all the Gentiles." This account of the judgement refers only to the judgement of the heathen nations, who have not heard of Christ; and the standard of judgement is according not their relation to Him, but their fulfillment of the common human duties of kindliness and charity there set out. It is a supplement to the three preceding parables of the Steward, the Virgins, and the Talents; the first describing the judgement of the Christian minister, the second and third the two sides of the judgment of those who have heard the gospel; first from the point of view of faith, second from the point of view of works.

"The beloved disciple." Wesley of course accepts the Johannine authorship of the Apocalypse.

4. "Outbeaming," more exact than the A.V. "brightness." The Son is to the Father as the rays of light are to the sun.

"Thought it not robbery:" better, "thought it not an object to be grasped at" to be equal with God. He laid aside for the time His equality with the Father, which was therefore restored to Him when God gave Him the name that is above every name.

5. Pole quotes from Joseph Mede, "Quod jam dixi diem judicii, non intelligi velim de die brevi, sive paucarum horarum; sed de spatio mile annorum quibus dies illa durabit,; i.e. The day of judgement is not to understood as a short day of a few hours, but as the space of a thousand years, during which that day will last."

6. The "eminent writer" is Edward Young, the author of Night Thoughts. The quotation is from his poem, "The Last Day" (1721), 2.19. The original runs:

To smooth and lengthen out
th' unbounded space.
Twice a planetary height.

Young, 2:282 says: Now the descending triumph stops its flight From earth full twice a planetary height. Presumably he means twice as far from the earth as the farthest planet. All this seems rather solemn trifling.

7. "Four hundred millions;" it is now estimated as, more or less, fifteen hundred millions. But a few millions more or less are not worth considering in such an altogether indeterminate calculation as this. The quotation is again from Young, 2.193. Wesley protests vigorously against any one altering his own or his brother's verse; but he never hesitates to do the same thing to other people's; the original passage in Young runs --

Great Xerxes' world in arms, proud Cannae's field.
Where Carthage taught victorious Rome to yield,
Immortal Blenheim, fam'd Ramillia's host.
They all are here, and here they are lost.
Their millions sell to be discerned in vain,
Lost as a billow in th' unbounded main.

8. The quotation is from Virgil's Aeneid, 6.567. The subject of the verbs is Rhadamanthus, the mythical judge of the dead. No translation is furnished in the 1771 ed. Modern editions give Dryden's version. The meaning is "Rhadamanthus of Gnosus here holds his iron sway, and scourges them and hears their guile, and compels each man to confess the expiations put off till death (alas! too late!) which were due for the crimes he committed on earth, rejoicing in the vain hope that they might be concealed."

9. "To justify the way of God to man:" from Milton's Paradise Lost, 1.26. In the original the last line is "men."

10. "The third heaven" Paul (2 Cor. 12:2) tells how he was caught up into the third heaven, or paradise, and heard unutterable words which it is not in the power of man to speak. It is doubtful where he thought of three heavens only -- viz. the heaven of the atmosphere and clouds, the heaven of the sun and stars, and the heaven of the blessed dead -- or accepted the Jewish belief in seven heavens, of which Paradise was the third in order from below.

Wesley admits of no hope for the finally impenitent, and interprets literally these passages which speak of their doom. In the first, however, Hell is Sheol, and all that the Psalmist says is that all the nations (no the people) that forget God will depart in to the world of the dead. In the Sermon 73, on Hell, he is quite explicit as to his belief in the endless torment of the wicked in material fire. Neither of these sermons are, however, part of the standard Methodist doctrine.

11. The finale destruction of the earth by means of fires is quite within the bounds of possibility. The impact of some wandering star would generate heat enough for the purpose; or it may be that gravitation will at last overcome the centrifugal force and the arch will fall into the sun. But such speculations are as fruitless as they are uncertain; and the idea in the next paragraph of the origin of the sea of glass is merely grotesque.

12. Cicero is the author of the phrase "minute philosophers." He speaks in de Senect. 23 of "Quidam minuti philosophi," meaning trifling, insignificant. In English use it rather means meticulous, over-precise, speculators. All this discussion as to quantity of fire is absurd: fire is not a thing, but a state of violent chemical combination; a match is quite enough to kindle a conflagration if there be fuel enough. Wesley was keenly interested in electrical phenomena, and was the first man in England to make use of it as a curative agent. His pamphlet called The Desideratum; or, Electricity made Plain, and Useful, published in 1760, details many of Franklin's experiments, such as drawing sparks out of the human body or from the fur of a cat. This is what he is thinking of when he says that our bodies are full of fire.

"Freethinker" was a name claimed by the Deists and other rejecters of the Christian revelation at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Here Wesley uses it of Ovid, the Roman poet, with a kind of suggestion that the modern freethinkers were akin to him in their religious views. The quotation is from the Metamorphoses, 1.256, where Jupiter, preparing to hurl his thunderbolts, hesitates to do so lest he should set the ether aflame, "for he remembers that it is amongst the decrees of the Fates that a time will come when the sea, the earth, and the palace of heaven shall catch fire and blaze, and the mass of the world, so laboriously constructed, shall be imperilled."

13. "Your in conscience;" so the author of the old Kentish Poema Morale says: Elch man sceal him then biclupien and ecach sceal him demen; His aye weorc and his ithanc to witnesse he sceal temen, which is, being interpreted. Every man shall accuse himself there, and every man shall judge himself; His own work and his conscience he shall bring to witness.

"See! See! He cometh!" One of Wesley's finest and most impassioned perorations.

[Edited by Jennette Descalzo, student at Northwest Nazarene College (Nampa, ID), with corrections by George Lyons for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.] The text for John Wesley's sermons originally came from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.