Statue at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia
Today is Aldersgate Day (celebrated by Methodist churches and the Church of England), which commemorates an experience that John Wesley wrote about on this date 274 years ago:
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.
Wesley scholars debate whether Aldersgate was a true conversion experience for Wesley. The consensus opinion seems to be that Aldersgate represents, not the beginning of salvation for Wesley, but an assurance of it—a peace of mind that eluded Wesley in his Christian life up to this event. Indeed, as he wrote to his mother, Susannah, in a letter from 1725, he didn’t think assurance was possible: “That we can never be so certain of the pardon of our sins as to be assured they will never rise up against us, I firmly believe.”
Wesley’s shift in thinking on the subject occurred under the influence of Moravian missionaries, whom he first encountered on his missionary journey to the Georgia colony in 1735. The Moravians taught that “proper faith will immediately bring with it an assurance of faith” and without such assurance, one is not a Christian. Eventually, Wesley would agree with them.
On his return trip to England in early 1738, he wrote in his journal that he had “no such faith in Christ as will prevent my heart from being troubled, which it could not be if I believed in God and right believed also in Christ.” In other words, without assurance, he did not possess proper faith. The faith he wanted, he said, was “a sure trust and confidence in God, that, through the merits of Christ, my sins are forgiven and I reconciled to the favour of God… I want that faith which none can have without knowing that he hath it.” For Wesley, true justifying faith now implied the assurance of it.
Finally, at Aldersgate, Wesley found that assurance. If Wesley had a theme verse, post-Aldersgate, it would be Romans 8:15b-16: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
In his later years, Wesley backed away from insisting that assurance was a necessary consequence of saving faith. He knew too many faithful Christians of tender conscience who struggled to possess it. But he did expect that most of us Christians should have it. And I wholeheartedly agree.
In fact, this emphasis on assurance is one thing that makes us distinctively Methodist. I wonder if we Methodist clergy preach it enough, discuss it enough, emphasize it enough? Do many people in our congregations struggle with private doubts about their own salvation? Are we doing enough to alleviate their fears?
We don’t alleviate their fears—please notice—by preaching cheap grace. Assurance doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about regarding our sin, that we don’t need to repent, and that God is going to save us no matter what we do or believe. I’m aware that too many open-hearted, open-minded, open-doored Methodists have gotten this message over the years.
No, preaching assurance in our present context will sometimes mean instilling, first, a proper amount of fear.
To put it bluntly, in order to be assured of salvation, we must first know that we need to be saved.
Do you agree or disagree?
1.“Wesley on Faith and Assurance,” class handout, Emory University, 2007.
2. Richard P. Heitzenrater, “Great Expectations: Aldersgate and the Evidences of Genuine Christianity,” in Mirror and Memory: Reflections on Early Methodism (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1989), 146-149.
3. John Wesley, “An Early Self-Analysis,” in John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 41.
4. Ibid., 49-50.