“Awake, Thou That Sleepest”
John Thomas (Tom) Scott
“Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead,
and Christ shall give thee light.”
Ephesians 5:14 (KJV)
Charles Wesley, along with his brother John and his good friend George Whitefield (and many others), helped lead a season of transatlantic Christian revival in the eighteenth century that historians call the Great Awakening. The Wesleys and Whitefield worried that the Anglican Church, of which they were all ordained ministers, had fallen into a kind of spiritual slumber. They fretted they might be sleepwalking their way through the Christian life. To that end, they pursued a kind of heart holiness that eventuated in embracing a form of evangelicalism, or pietism, or what at the time detractors called “Enthusiasm.”
In this sermon, preached at Oxford in 1742, Charles Wesley warned against the dangers of spiritual sleep. He identified spiritual sleep as the “natural state of man . . . that supineness, indolence, and stupidity, that insensibility of his real condition.” Someone spiritually asleep was “a sinner satisfied in his sin” the way a sleeper was satisfied in his snoozing. Sleeping individuals, unless they were supposed to be awake, did not offend anyone else, but Wesley marked the spiritually asleep person as “an abomination in the sight of God.” Indeed, while being physically asleep seemed like a state where one could do no harm, being spiritually asleep prevented one from practicing true religion: “participation of the divine nature; the life of God in the soul of man; Christ formed in the heart.” Thankfully, just as the sun raises us from physical sleep, the Son lifts us from spiritual sleep by shining his “true Light” into our lives. The “Spirit of Christ,” Wesley told his listeners, was “that great gift of God,” the “voice that wakes the dead” and through that “hammer of the Word” caused us to rise from our spiritual slumber. Proverbs 24:33–34 warns of the dangers of too much napping: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Charles Wesley warned about the dangers of spiritual sleep—it will make us spiritually poor, rob us of a robust relationship with God, and leave us in want for that which we need most—the light of Christ that not only wakes us from our spiritual sleep but also guides us on our path of discipleship to him.
Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, of awareness of our sins and shortcomings. Few of us ever regret too much physical sleep, but Wesley warned of a kind of spiritual sleep that does great harm. Jesus, on the night he was betrayed gave a similar warning to Peter and his disciples. After having asked them to watch with him while he prayed, he returned and, finding them asleep queried, “What could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41, KJV).
May we this Lenten season be alert and awake, even as we wait to celebrate that greatest of all awakenings: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on Easter morning.
Father, help us to wake, watch, and pray each day that we might avoid temptation and not spiritually sleepwalk our way through the day and the life you have given us. Use us as well to rouse those around us to the blessings of the spiritual life you have provided for your children through the resurrection of your Son and the work of the Holy Spirit.
John Thomas (Tom) Scott (PhD, College of William and Mary) is a professor of history and chair of the History Department at Mercer University in Macon, GA. His book, The Wesleys and the Anglican Mission to Georgia, 1735-1738: ‘So Glorious an Undertaking’ was recently published by Lehigh University Press.