The Meaning Of The Aldersgate Experience
By Hal Knight
It was on May 24, 1738 that John Wesley went with reluctance to a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London that profoundly changed his life. Listening to a reading from Martin Luther describing the new birth, Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed.” As he described it, “I felt I did trust 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.”
What happened on Aldersgate Street has been a matter of debate among Methodists in the 20th century. Some have seen this as the time Wesley “accepted Christ” or “made a decision for Christ.” But that was clearly not the case. Wesley had made a decision for Christ in 1725, and sought to follow Christ faithfully. Aldersgate was when Wesley came to know that Christ had accepted him, that he was indeed a child of God.
Some have seen Aldersgate as the end point of Wesley’s spiritual struggles, as a reaching of a goal. But this also falls short of the truth. Aldersgate was indeed in many ways a resolution to Wesley’s spiritual struggles. But it was also a new beginning.
From 1725 Wesley had been convinced that being a Christian was more than belonging to a church or believing a creed. The heart of Christianity was to love God and one’s neighbor. This was not simply as an external obedience, but a matter of the heart: loving God and neighbor would be our sole motivation, the center of our desire, and govern both our heart and life. Wesley experienced Aldersgate as the foundation enabling him to grow in this love, the doorway into new life in Christ.
Knowing this, some have argued that Aldersgate was not all that important. Wesley and his Methodists were committed to following disciplines of regular prayer, scripture study, the Lord’s Super, and serving others, and met together weekly in groups in order to help each other in doing these things. They point out that Wesley was doing this long before Aldersgate, and continued to require his Methodists to do it afterward.
But this misses the point of Aldersgate. What Wesley experienced there was a new capacity to trust in Christ, forgiveness of sins, assurance that he was a child of God, and a new birth in which he began to grow in the knowledge and love of God and in love of neighbor. What changed for him was motivation. Before Aldersgate he had the “faith of a servant,” seeking to dutifully obey God out of fear of judgment. After Aldersgate he had the “faith of a child of God,” joyfully obeying God out of gratitude for God’s love in Jesus Christ. He was now loving others not because he had to, but because he wanted to. The spiritual disciplines then enabled him to stay in relationship with God and grow in love.
Aldersgate is a reminder that receiving this new life is as much a promise to us as it was for Wesley. May we all receive it and grow in it until our hearts are filled with love.