May 24 is the day in 1738 that John Wesley heard Scripture explained in a way that caused him to feel his heart “strangely warmed,” and knew himself to be a child of God. He was in a church service at Aldersgate, listening to somebody reading aloud from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. And it hit him!
If you lay out the events of his life before and after Aldersgate and compare the two trajectories, it’s easy to see that Aldersgate is the turning point. Prior to this, he had a Christian upbringing in a pastor’s home, had been educated and ordained and made a lot of noise about holiness of heart and life. But he was hounded by legalism, and had recently gone on a disastrous mission trip to Georgia in which his own self-righteousness and foolishness had nearly led to him being tarred and feathered. On the voyage back he despaired of his salvation.
After Aldersgate, his life turned around and he did all those things John Wesley is famous for. The great awakening started soon thereafter.
Was John Wesley saved before Aldersgate? Or, in Wesley’s own terms, was he a “real Christian” before Aldersgate? It’s a hard issue to sort out, and though the traditional understanding of Wesley’s life is that he was saved at Aldersgate, some recent interpreters have taken pains to argue that we shouldn’t make too much of this event. Always a close monitor of his own spiritual ups and downs, Wesley was prone to over-state some transitions in his life. Furthermore, many scholars don’t like the implication that John Wesley, a pastor, was unregenerate for years of busy ministry.
But the weight of the evidence suggests that Aldersgate should be viewed as Wesley’s conversion to real Christianity, if by Christianity we mean what John Wesley meant by it: not a set of external forms and relations, but a personal experience in which God brings it home to you that he has brought you into a restored fellowship with him through Christ.
For the rest of his life, Wesley was on guard against merely formal religion, or merely nominal Christianity. Going through the motions of church, and being called a Christian, is not the same as actually being saved.
In 1755, Wesley noted in his Journal:
One spent the evening with us who is accounted both a sensible and a religious man. What a proof of the Fall! Even with all the advantages of a liberal education, this person, I will be bold to say, knows just as much of heart religion, of scriptural Christianity, the religion of love, as a child three years old of algebra.