Today is Aldersgate Day for those of us who follow in the tradition of Mr. Wesley. On May 24, 1738, Wesley had his heart warming experience at Aldersgate that would come to influence Wesley's view of our continual need for salvation, as opposed to the single salvation experience theology advocated by our contemporary evangelical brethren.
To commemorate Aldersgate Day I'm reposting something I wrote a few months back that came out of my attempt to better understand Wesley's Aldersgate experience, particularly the role that Martin Luther's writings played:
One of the most common jokes among Methodist preachers is about John Wesley's Aldersgate experience. After coming back from a stint as a missionary in America that can't be described as anything but a total failure, Mr. Wesley was quite depressed and wondering what God was up to.
In his journal Wesley describes going to a meeting of a religious society on Aldersgate Street in London (which no longer exists, and is now the entrance to a shopping mall), where Luther's Preface to Romans was being read. Wesley writes that as he sat there he had a sensation of his heart being "strangely warmed", and the claims that it was the first time in his life he felt completely assured of God's love and grace.
The joke, of course, is that Luther's Preface to Romans is probably the least heart warming document one can read. Some say this is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit, because no one would feel warm and fuzzy listening to Luther!
I've read Luther's Preface to Romans a handful of times, and that's the conclusion I've come to every time. But recently I decided to read it again because I'm teaching a short term Disciple class at Bethlehem on Romans, and I became curious again what it was that so affected Wesley.
I saw something new this time. I do not now, nor will I probably ever experience Martin Luther's writings as heart warming, but I'm beginning to see how John Wesley might have. The reader understands, in no uncertain terms, that Luther believes they are a wretched, dirty sinner. So whose heart would this warm? Only a person who already felt like a wretched, dirty sinner!
I think John Wesley found tremendous hope in Martin Luther's writings because they gave voice to what he was already experiencing. Wesley himself may not have been able to describe it, but Luther was. So when Luther gets around to the good news (such as it is), Wesley was already hooked. Luther accurately described the problem as Wesley experienced it, so Luther's solution would be very heartwarming, indeed.
This is just further proof that God's grace works in all kinds of different ways, and just because I may not understand it doesn't make it any less real. I've certainly felt unworthy of God's grace, but probably not to the extent that Luther or Wesley did. So the way they articulate God's grace in the midst of our Sin is probably not going to resonate with me the way it will with someone who shares Luther and Wesley's anxieties.
I still don't experience Luther's Preface to Romans as heartwarming at all, but I can appreciate how someone else like John Wesley would.