By Grace through Faith
“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 to 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.”
That is how John Wesley described, in his journal, what we have come to describe as his conversion experience. It is the foundational event of Methodism – even though there is a kind of Methodism before that point – everything that Methodism becomes and is today is traceable to that singular moment. Yet “conversion” seems like a rather odd way of speaking about what happened here. Because in John Wesley we are talking about someone who – even up to that point – had been resolutely and pretty much exclusively devoted to the Christian religion. He had been raised in a devoutly Christian home – his father a clergyman and his mother almost obsessively devoted to developing the religion of her many children. In 1738 John had himself already been an ordained priest in the Church of England for more than a decade. He had been a Christian missionary in America. He had been what we would now call a Christian leader ever since his time in the Holy Club while he was at University. So on the face of it seems strange to speak of a conversion
Wesley however was not a happy man. As even he tells it he went to the “society” – a religious discussion group – he went out on the evening of 24th .of May 1738 “very unwillingly” And he listened to what Luther – another man who experienced a “conversion” in the middle of an already religious life – listened to what Luther had to say about what Paul – you guessed it another man who experience a conversion in an already committed life – Wesley listened to what Luther had to say about what Paul had to say about God’s grace. For example:
“We are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand“
Grace: is the free action by God on our behalf. That is, the idea that God loves us and acts for us – without us having to earn or deserve what God does for us. Our relationship with God – the reconciled, peaceful relationship we have with God is founded solely on our trust of God which grows entirely out of God having already acted for us in love! It is this idea which brings about a decisive turning point in Wesley’s life – and brings Methodism into being.
Wesley had been struggling all his life. He had been deeply – systematically – methodically religious. He had up to this point been trying to become worthy of God’s love toward him. Shortly before May 1738 he had concluded that he had failed. There was nothing that he could do that could make him feel right with God. The assumption that Wesley had been making, and one which many people still seem to make, is that you have to be a certain sort of person in order to be a Christian. In religious terms you might say that holiness is a prerequisite. That you have to be good enough to be part of the Church. What Wesley realised – or had shown to him – was revealed for him on that night in Aldersgate is that assumption is mistaken, because of Grace. Methodism – and indeed all true, classical Christianity works in the opposite direction. It sees that you are a Christian in order to become a certain sort of person. The holiness which Wesley had been pursuing in order to feel like he could call himself a Christian was in fact the outcome of simply placing one’s trust in what God has done in Jesus Christ.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.“
God’s action speaks volumes for God’s love towards us. The death of Jesus is the indication of God’s love towards us. Jesus died so that we wouldn’t have to. Quite how this works is debated – but the point is that it does work. Jesus death indicates that God wants a relationship with us. And more to the point – this was action he took on behalf of people who were opposed to him. Paul expresses astonishment at this:
“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.“
Jesus death was not an expression of love from God towards people who already loved God – or who had already earned or somehow deserved God’s love.
“Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.”
No doubt Wesley had heard that many times before. But in that moment in Aldersgate Street he finds the same astonishment as St. Paul
That the grace of God includes us all!
It is possible to pay too much attention to what happened that night in May 1738. Sometimes we – Methodists – have become so focused on seeking the heart warming experience – that when we have found it we thought that was enough. There is a strand of Christianity that thinks “accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour” is all there is to it. That it is an end in itself. But Wesley himself seldom referred back to his conversion. He was, for one thing, too busy doing everything else that he did in his remarkable life. Methodism – at its best – always goes beyond conversionism. We see that Grace – God’s unmerited action leads to Faith But Faith – trust in that Grace – leads to a transformation of life and personality. As Paul observes if God loved us while we were still opposed to God – how much more will God do for us when we are reconciled with God?
“For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
The life which Wesley had be trying to achieve in order to worthy of God’s love – turns out to be the life that grows out of accepting that God loves us anyway. You don’t need to be a certain sort of person to be a Christian. Rather by being a Christian God is able to make you into a certain sort of person. That reversal of thinking is what happened to John Wesley in Aldersgate Street. Which is what makes his experience in some sense a real conversion. But it is also the starting point of Methodism
It has been said that “there is revival in our origins.” For Methodists that is true in a double sense. The origin of our church is a revival – a revival that took place after John Wesley’s conversion. But perhaps also in a second sense, the message which Wesley took to heart remains a message that the world still needs to hear:
“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.“
God’s love is grace. God acts for us – without our earning or deserving. Trusting in that message still has the power to transform our lives – and be the source of revival.