278 years ago today, 24 May 1738, John Wesley received an experience that changed his life and ultimately lead to the development of the Methodist movement in Britain, Ireland, and America. His “Aldersgate” experience is often called his “conversion.”
It was a conversion, but not in the sense we commonly understand. Aldersgate was not Wesley’s “conversion” to faith in Christ. He was a Christian all his life. Certainly, the months leading up to 24 May 1738 were a low period in his life. His recent experiences in Georgia, subsequent return to London, having to explain his actions to the authorities who sent him there, and his sense of failure caused Wesley to questioning his faith and standing as a Christian. Nevertheless, he never stopped being a Christian.
Thanks to his friend, the Moravian preacher Peter Bohler, Wesley received the support, counsel, and prayers he needed most at that low point in his life. Bohler helped Wesley receive his “conversion” experience at the Moravian Society meeting on 24 May 1738.
Wesley’s experience that night was a conversion in that it helped him get the order of salvation right. In the preceding years he believed that he had to be sanctified before God would accept him as a child of God. He believed that a person must be made holy before Christ would restore them to right relationship with God the Father. In other words, prior to his Aldersgate experience Wesley believed that sanctification preceded justification.
The experience on 24 May 1738 helped Wesley “convert” his understanding of the order of salvation. It made him realize that he had it all backwards. When he heard the person reading from Luther’s preface to the commentary on Romans Wesley realized that Christ alone makes him acceptable to God. Christ alone redeems and restores his relationship with God the Father. Salvation is a pure gift of God’s amazing grace. Nothing he could ever do or say could earn God’s love and acceptance. Perhaps, for the first time, at Aldersgate Street Wesley understood the meaning of what the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-10,
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
On 24 May 1738 John Wesley converted his understanding of the way of salvation. His experience of assurance of salvation helped him understand that he had it backwards. We are saved by grace through faith! Salvation is God’s free gift of love. Christ crucified and risen has done all the work on our behalf. He alone makes us acceptable to God and restores relationship with the Father. He alone gives us the gift of faith that equips us to then live as a child of God.
Consequently, Wesley began preaching this good news in churches throughout London. Shortly afterwards, on 11 June 1738, he preached on his renewed insight into the way of salvation at St. Mary’s Church, the University Church, in Oxford. His text was Ephesians 2:8. His title was “Salvation by Faith.” You will recognize it as Sermon #1 of Wesley’s “Standard Sermons.”
24 May 1738 was, indeed, Wesley’s conversion experience. But it was not his conversion from no faith to faith in Christ. It was a conversion of his conception of the way of salvation. At Aldersgate Street Wesley got the order of salvation right, justification precedes sanctification. It is God’s pure gift in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Grace upon grace!
Here is Wesley journal entry for 24 May 1738:
In the afternoon I was asked to go to St Paul’s. The anthem was, ‘Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? But there is mercy with thee; therefore thou slalt be feared. …. O Israel, trust in the Lord: For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his sins.’
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.
Charles Wesley, who had a similar experience of assurance three days earlier than his brother, composed one of his most powerful hymns shortly after his brother’s Aldersgate experience:
Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
And sing my great deliverer’s praise?
O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God!
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blest with this antepast of heaven!
And shall I slight my Father’s love,
Or basely fear his gifts to own?
Unmindful of his favors prove,
Shall I, the hallowed cross to shun,
Refuse his righteousness to impart,
By hiding it within my heart?
Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots and publicans and thieves;
He spread his arms to embrace you all,
Sinners alone his grace receive.
No need of him the righteous have;
He came the lost to seek and save.
Come, O my guilty brethren, come,
Groaning beneath your load of sin;
His bleeding heart shall make you room,
His open side shall take you in.
He calls you now, invites you home:
Come, O my guilty brethren, come.
For you the purple current flowed
In pardon from his wounded side,
Languished for you the eternal God,
For you the Prince of Glory died.
Believe, and all your guilt’s forgiven,
Only believe-and yours is heaven.