In the spring of 1738, John Wesley had a life-transforming experience. An Anglican priest, he earnestly sought a holy life. As a missionary to Georgia in the United States, he tried to convert the Indians, but returned to England with some level of defeat and frustration. He met a group of Moravian Christians, whose pietism attracted him and made him want more of the conversion experience.
A few months before the eventful day of 24 May 1738, he had deep discussions with a friend on the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. He began preaching sermons on the subject. This was to prepare him for his Aldersgate experience in May. Three days before May 24, his brother Charles, who shared his earnestness, had a profound experience of conversion and assurance. When John heard about it, he became depressed and more restless in his search for a deeper experience of God’s grace.
He found it on 24 May. In his own words: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Thus was born the amazing public ministry of John Wesley. What exactly was this “heart-warming” experience that he experienced? Much has been written to interpret this Aldersgate experience. For some, this was Wesley’s conversion experience, for Wesley himself wrote, soon after this event, that before 24 May he was not a Christian. However, later in his writings, he would modify his views and see stages in his experience as a Christian, even before his Aldersgate experience.
Using Wesley’s later writings, some have argued that he may have been converted in 1725 at the age of 22, when in his own account, after his reading of the spiritual writer Thomas a Kempis, he was “set in earnest upon a new life”. His later reading of another spiritual writer, William Law, led him to testify that “the light flowed in so mightily upon my soul that everything appeared in a new way”. All this happened before Aldersgate.
What then happened at Aldersgate?
One way to understand what happened to Wesley at Aldersgate is in terms of the assurance that is given to us when the Holy Spirit testifies to our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom 8:16). This assurance is not mere sentiment which we psyche ourselves to feel. It is based on God’s Word brought to us powerfully by God’s Spirit. Wesley’s mind had been prepared by his thinking through the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. It was in the context of hearing Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans that it all came together for Wesley when his heart was “strangely warmed”. The seed planted in his mind brought fruit in his heart.
Wesley not only understood the doctrine of justification by faith but also experienced it personally. He had the assurance of the free grace of God bringing him forgiveness, freeing him from the penalty of sin. Wesley’s Aldersgate experience also had to do with his discovery of freedom from the power of sin.
His long quest for holiness led him to a satisfying solution. He was set free in a decisive way not only from the law of death, but also from the law of sin, through assurance of forgiveness and a new discovery of the power of grace.
This did not mean that sin was eradicated in his life, for he would later write: “I saw not then that the first promise to the children of God is, ‘sin shall no more reign over you’; but thought I was to feel it in me no more from the time it was forgiven. Therefore, although I had the mastery over it, yet I often feared it was not forgiven, because it still stirred in me, and at some times thrust sore at me that I might fall: because, though it did not reign, it did remain in me; and I was continually tempted, though not overcome.”
Complete freedom from the presence of sin awaits us on the other side of eternity. Perhaps the best way to understand Aldersgate is to remember Wesley’s own interpretation, that he had the faith of a servant before Aldersgate, but the faith of a son after it. By that he meant that he trusted his works more than God’s grace before Aldersgate. Or to put in another way, his primary motivation was fear. Aldersgate helped him to be touched by love. As Scripture puts it, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).
Our life of discipleship really gets going when what we understand with our minds is experienced in our hearts. And what we experience in our hearts, as Wesley did at Aldersgate, is God’s love. It will stop us on our busy and convoluted tracks, show us the foolishness of our own vain attempts at impressing God, and urge us to rest in God’s love made freely available in Christ.
Experiencing this divine love will then be the springboard of a life lived in gratitude and love, and not in fear. It is the fear in our hearts that is manifested in so many ways—fear of others, of failure, of rejection, of being abused, and so on. Much of our lives may be spent trying to manage these fears. In reality these fears have the upper hand; they rule people and shape their lifestyles and agendas.
It is the love of God that sets us free from our human condition. It brings us rest (not to be confused with passive inactivity), assurance and holiness. Aldersgate is an invitation to be embraced by our loving Father God and to receive our true identity.
If we respond in faith, our hearts will be strangely warmed.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons