This is the fifth in a series of columns intended to inspire renewal in local UM churches, through a study of John Wesley’s own spiritual journey in the years leading up to and following his experience at Aldersgate.
Our primary concern in United Methodism is how to convert “survival mode” or “maintenance mode” congregations into “revitalized” congregations growing deeper in spiritual vibrancy, growing outwardly in missional service, growing together in bonded fellowship, and growing in numbers. We have experienced a net loss of 650,000 members in the first 11 years of this century and our average age is 19 years higher than that of the general population. If we don’t change, we will be like Rip van Winkle and wake up one day to a world radically different from what it was before we slept through the revolution.
In February 1738, a discouraged, almost broken Wesley arrived in London with the duty of telling the trustees of the Georgia colony why he had broken his contract and returned home early. He preached in a number of Anglican churches in London, and was often was informed by the vestry that he would not be invited to preach there again.
Something else was going on, though. He was meeting regularly with the Moravians whom he had encountered on ship en route to Georgia. The Moravians were now his mentors.
Within a week of his arrival back in England, Wesley met a former Lutheran minister named Peter Bohler. Bohler was now a Moravian, en route to America with a layover in London. He became pivotal in Wesley’s life. When Wesley later challenged each of us to engage in “holy conversation,” he doubtless remembered what a providential blessing Bohler was to him.
The Moravians did not accept what Wesley called “degrees of faith” in which one could have a “weak faith” or a “strong faith.” Bohler insisted that faith came instantaneously, accompanied by complete assurance and three “freedoms”: freedom from sin, fear and doubt. This hit home for Wesley because he had intermittently experienced doubt over the years and in his difficult crossing of the Atlantic had added the emotion of fear.
In April, Wesley was introduced to the Moravian insistence that “God can give that faith whereof cometh salvation in a moment.” Bohler saw Wesley drying his tears and then heard him ask how he could attain such faith. The Moravians had something Wesley desperately wanted—the assurance or “witness” of the Spirit of God that Jesus Christ was his personal savior, in more than belief. He wanted that sense of inner peace, happiness and joy.
Bohler was a wise mentor. He now introduced Wesley, the Oxford don, to three unlettered Moravians who told him this faith was a “free gift” that God “would surely bestow . . . upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it.” Wesley recorded in his diary, “I was now thoroughly convinced, and by the grace of God I resolved to seek it unto the end.”
Theologian Ted Runyon tells us, “It was in this frame of mind, and armed with Moravian theology,” that on May 24, 1738, Wesley walked from St. Paul’s Cathedral after evensong to a Moravian gathering on Aldersgate Street, where a layman was reading from Martin Luther’s preface to Romans.
Dr. Runyon notes: “In all [Wesley’s] efforts to be holy from his youth up, he had operated out of compulsion and not out of the sense of freedom which Christ brings when . . . he removes from us the necessity of meeting God’s expectations in our own strength and by our own efforts.”
Luther’s preface pressed on: “The Spirit makes the heart glad and free. . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times.” Dr. Runyon: “Luther’s words mediated God’s own Word, giving clear evidence that God’s love was reaching out to him. This registered on Wesley’s spiritual sensorium.”
Then comes Wesley’s historic diary entry: “About a quarter before nine, while [the reader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
This is the quintessential example of self-evidence!
Now comes the content of the “strangely warmed” feeling. Wesley writes, “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.”
Aldersgate taught Wesley that “Christian experience” is initiated by God (prevenient grace). Randy Maddox is helpful in reminding us, though, that this experience is a “co-operant” experience. That is, God gives and we can receive, waffle or reject being loved, forgiven and restored. Wesley later called it “taking the cure” from sin—a “dis-ease” which has alienated us from the harmony we should have with God, being created in God’s image.
It is in this sense that two cleaning women in a museum, standing before a painting of Wesley at Aldersgate, murmured, “Do it again, Lord. Do it again.” Let’s internalize the gospel song, “Revive us again, fill our hearts with thy love, may each soul be rekindled with fire from above.”
We have one more column about Aldersgate. It will focus on how the experience changed Wesley, and how Wesley changed in his theology as he broke with the Moravians by 1740. Stay tuned!
Dr. Haynes, a retired UM clergyman, is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.