Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Aldersgate Day

*Today is the day that all good Wesleyans/Methodists celebrate!  Today is Aldersgate Day!  Now, it may be that a few of the readers of this blog may be unfamiliar with Aldersgate.  And, of course, it is a strange name, thus, it is not easy to discern what it is about.  So, what is Aldersgate Day?

In a nutshell, it is the anniversary of John Wesley's "Evangelical Conversion." As the United Methodist Book of Worship puts it, "On Wednesday, May 24, 1738, John Wesley experienced his 'heart strangely warmed.' This Aldersgate experience was crucial for his own life and became a touchstone for the Wesleyan movement."

Aldersgate Memorial in London
So, why is it called "Aldersgate"?  Well, the name refers to Aldersgate Street, the location of the Society meeting where Wesley experienced his strangely warmed heart.

Prior to this Aldersgate experience, Wesley had sought assurance of his sins forgiven, but he was unable to obtain it through his many pious works.

During his trip to Georgia, where he would serve as a missionary, the ship on which he was sailing encountered a terrible storm . . . right in the middle of their time of worship. But the thing that caught Wesley’s attention was that, while the English on board were screaming for fear of their lives, the Germans simply continued singing.

Wesley asked one of them, “Weren’t you afraid? Weren’t your women and children afraid?” The man simply said, “Thank the Lord, we were not afraid; we are not afraid to die.”

Later, Wesley met with one of the German pastors for advice. The pastor asked him, “Do you have the witness within? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” Wesley was caught off guard (not something that happened very often). And so the pastor asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Wesley said, “I know he is the Savior of the world.” The pastor replied, “That’s true, but do you know he has saved you?” Wesley said, “I hope he has died to save me.” “But do you know?” And then comes those powerful lines from John Wesley, “I said, ‘I do.’ But I fear they were vain words.”

This marker is located at the probable
site of Wesley's Aldersgate experience
 However, what was to happen to Wesley on May 24, 1738 would forever change his answer, and forever change the world.

John Wesley, himself, describes what took place that evening in his journal as follows: "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."

Another marker in memorial of John & Charles'
"Evangelic Conversions"
Wesleyan/Methodists remember and observe Aldersgate Day, because it not only shaped the life and ministry of John Wesley, but also the entire Methodist movement from that time until today. It not only marks the spiritual experience of Mr. Wesley, but it calls us to worship the God who still "strangely warms the hearts" of all who place their trust in Christ alone as Lord and Savior. This experience illustrates so well the Biblical doctrine of Assurance.

We can, by grace through faith, know our sins forgiven. We can, by grace through faith, have an assurance that Christ has "taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."  As the apostle Paul says, "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.  When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . ." (Romans 8:15-16, NRSV).  -  Praise be to God!!

Let us pray: Almighty God, in a time of great need you raised up your servants John and Charles Wesley, and by your spirit inspired them to kindle a flame of sacred love which leaped and ran, an inextinguishable blaze. Grant that all those whose hearts have been warmed at these altar fires, being continually refreshed by your grace, may be so devoted to the increase of scriptural holiness throughout the land that in this our time of great need, your will may fully and effectively be done on earth as it is in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

(Prayer by Fred D. Gealy, as printed in the UMBW.)

(The pictures in this post were taken during my trip to England for the 2001 World Methodist Conference.)

*Much of this post is drawn from and adapted from my 2009 post.


Thomas said...

Interesting...But this sort of experience (this “warm feeling in the heart”) can be misleading.

Mormons occasionally come to my door and ask me to read the Book of Mormon. They say that if I read it then the Spirit will move me to believe, and I will know in my heart that it is the Word of God. They claim to have a “warm feeling in the heart” and they use it to justify belief in their doctrine.

I’m not saying that Wesley was insincere any more or less than Mormons are insincere. I’m sure Wesley felt very confident that God was responsible for this “warm” feeling. I’m sure he believed that he was moved by the Spirit. But so do Mormons...and so do many other Christians who find new ways to interpret the Christian faith. It just seems that a whole lot is riding on one man’s “warm feeling” – if he was wrong, then the whole thing collapses.

Those Germans on the ship may have been wrong too. People place hope in many doctrines that turn out to be false. Admiring their confidence is one thing (I admire the strength of conviction I see in Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking boldly on my door)...but the surety of their doctrine is not proven by the strength of their conviction. A “warm feeling” can mislead people into believing heretical ideas.

Now I’m not slamming all of Wesleyanism based on this one event. It was a personal spiritual moment for Wesley and I cannot say for sure what goes on in one man’s heart. But so much of the Wesleyan movement is traced to this one man, and so a lot is resting on this personal experience of his. As you wrote: “...it not only shaped the life and ministry of John Wesley, but also the entire Methodist movement from that time until today. It not only marks the spiritual experience of Mr. Wesley, but it calls us to worship the God who still ‘strangely warms the hearts’ of all who place their trust in Christ alone as Lord and Savior. This experience illustrates so well the Biblical doctrine of Assurance.” – Well, what if the doctrine of Assurance is false? If Assurance rests on a “warm feeling” that you get in your heart, then you can only be as sure as the Mormons are of their “Holy Book.” That kind of assurance to me is no assurance at all.

It would seem more biblical to take the position of the Englishmen on Wesley’s ship. They seemed to heed Paul’s words: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)

Todd Stepp said...

Wesley, himself, was not unaware of the dangers of a simple emotionalism. He had built into his understanding of assurance a number of checks and balances, as it were. For example, if one claimed to "feel saved," but our lives continue to show no difference, and we are continuing to live in sin, then we are being deceived. Do our lives demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?

If one goes back to read the larger story of Wesley's journey of faith, one would dicover that he clearly sought to argue this out. That is, he insisted to Peter Bohler (a Moravian pastor who was attempting to convince Wesley of this doctrine) they they should studying the question of the gift of faith, along with the doctrine of assurance based strictly upon Scripture and the experience of Christians.

When going to the Scriptures, he discovered that they argued against him and in favor of the doctrine. (The Romans passage that I quoted is one example.) - Still, Wesley was not convinced. He concluded that, without actual Christians experiencing such, those passages of Scripture must be interpreted in some way other than a literal interpretation.

However, when Peter produced for him multiple examples with personal testimonies that seemed to clearly match the Scriptures, Wesley began to earnestly seek God, placing his trust in Christ alone for salvation. Wesley sought such through prayer and various other "means of grace" (e.g., fasting, Scripture, divine worship, the sacrament, etc.)

In looking back,Wesley identified his life prior to this time as having the faith of a servant, but not the faith of a son. (I think, perhaps the context of the Romans quote illustrates what he is talking about in terms of a spirit of fear vs. a spirit of adoption.)

Wesley, and his spiritual decendants (when true to Wesley) have been careful to look to Scripture as interpreted via reason, tradition and the experience of the Church.

Our faith is not simply based on a feeling or an experience. Nevertheless, we do testify with Wesley, the Moravians, a number of the Church Fathers (e.g., Origen, Anselm, etc.), and St. Paul (among others), that we are saved by God's grace alone throuh faith in Christ alone (something that the RCC has agreed with in "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification")and that God's Spirit does, indeed, bear witness with our spirit that we have been made children of God.

We understand such to be firmly based upon and consistent with Scripture, reason, tradition and the experience of the Church.

Thomas said...

Given this broader context, I think I understand and can accept more of what you are saying. I especially can relate to what you wrote in the following: “Wesley identified his life prior to this time as having the faith of a servant, but not the faith of a son.” I agree that we should feel a deep and personal trust in God’s mercy and saving grace, as He is our Father and we are His children. We should certainly be assured of that relationship.

But as far as our personal salvation, it is not a sure thing this side of heaven. We cannot always be certain about our current state of grace. It seems more accurate to say that we “hope” in our personal salvation, but that that “hope” rests on the “assurance” of God’s salvific power. God can save me (I have no doubt about that), but I must continually keep myself open to His grace in order to be saved (and this must be done in “fear and trembling” as Paul tells us). I trust God whole-heartedly...It’s me I don’t trust.

I think there is plenty of Scriptural evidence as well as the writings of Church Fathers to support this position. God saving power is unquestionable, but we are weak recipients. The Joint Declaration on Justification that you referenced earlier has this passage under the heading “Assurance of Salvation”: “No one may doubt God's mercy and Christ's merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation.”
I am assured that God *intends* to save me, but in “fear and trembling” I continue to work out my own salvation, lest I “make shipwreck of my faith.”

I guess for me Wesley just seemed a little to eager to be "assured." He wanted the confidence that those German's had... But if it were me in Wesley's shoes I would have thought those Germans could have taken a dose of humility. I think that’s the general sense that most Catholic’s get from this doctrine of Assurance. It seems to go a bit too far. But maybe that's partially just a Catholic hang-up - you know, sack cloth and ashes and always doing penance.

Andrew said...

The direct witness of the Spirit was one key distinguishing mark of early Methodism.

In 1774 Wesley edited his own Journal to say that prior to Aldersgate he had the faith of a servant, but not of a son. However, Wesley consistently maintained that explicit assurance of God's pardon is the common privilege of real Christians. This is the birthright of all true believers and Wesley preached, "Let none rest in any supposed fruit of the Spirit without the witness. . . . This is the privilege of all the children of God and without this we can never be assured that we are his children."

How else can we know that we are accepted by God? Richard Watson explained that pardon is subsequent to both repentance and faith so that neither can provide evidence of pardon. "This being true, the only way we can ever know whether our repentance and faith are accepted is to know the pardon actually following upon them and, since they cannot attest to the pardon themselves, there must be an attestation of a distinct, and higher authority, and the only attestation conceivable remaining is the direct witness of the Holy Spirit."

Andrew said...

Adam Clarke taught that those who were adopted could know it by no other means than by the Spirit of God. "Remove this from Christianity, and it is a dead letter" While dying in 1735, Samuel Wesley admonished his son, "The inward witness, son, the inward witness, that is the proof; the strongest proof of Christianity."

Andrew said...

Thomas Coke declared, "Immediately when justification takes place... God sends forth the Spirit of His Son into the pardoned heart as the Spirit of adoption; and the evidence which this Spirit brings to our hearts that we are accepted through the Beloved is the only direct witness which we know, or for which we contend"

Coke argued that if a man can be in the favor of God and not know it, the following errors will arise. The absence of the direct witness of the Spirit
 leads to legalism
 in time stifles any conviction
 invalidates the testimony of conscience since God's Spirit bears witness with our spirit
 leads to a false peace while he walks in darkness
 leads to preposterous ideas of faith without evidence
 conceals the motives from which our actions flow
 raises the question of why a person could not also be a penitent without knowing it
 makes reformation and regeneration the same
 leaves perfect love with no witness
 brands the inward witness as fanaticism

If we assume the direct witness of the Spirit is not essential to salvation, it establishes a false foundation for reasoning
 because it teaches me to conclude that I am in the favor of God although I do not know that I am
 because faith may be possessed without discerned, making the knowledge of a fact precede the perception of it. Thus it directs me to believe the testimony of an evidence before I am satisfied of the existence of the evidence
 because it makes a testimony of faith necessary to our discernment of it
 because it blends repentance with regeneration. Thus I am saved because I have repented

Eric + said...

Hey Todd, what is your take on the debate about whether or not Aldersgate was Wesley's experience of Entire Sanctification?

That is the way I was taught, but I could never buy it. Nor could I buy that it was his Salvation (ie prior to that he was not a Christian). But those are the two typical positions I have heard debated.

I am pleased to find that perhaps someone else see this as a third option, that at Aldersgate, Wesley was given assurance of his salvation. It was not his salvation; it was not his entire sanctification; it is God's assuring Welsey of what God had already done...


Todd Stepp said...


What I was "taught," and what I have read in a number of places is that Aldersgate could be called Wesley's "evangelical conversion."

That term has ambiguity, but it does indicate, negatively, that it was not his E.S. experience. While, at some point along the way, some in the holiness movement, desiring a clear testimony from Wesley identified it as such, I'm unaware of anyone who seriously views it that way. - Apparently you do know those who view it as such, and (beyond a folk theology) that surprises me.

To speak of it as an "evangelical" conversion, also gives room for Wesley's later claim that, up until that point he had the faith of a servant. Therefore, it makes no claim (really, one way or another) about whether Wesley would have been "saved" (i.e., would have "gone to heaven") prior to Aldersgate. Yet the implication is likely that he would have.

I'm not sure, however, if it is enough of a distinction to say that it was an assurance of what God had "already done." Up until that point, Wesley had not had what Evangelicals (there's the term) would understand to be a "salvation experience."

It is fair to say, as Wesley indicates, an experience wherein Wesley 1.) felt that he did trust Christ alone, and 2.) an assurance was given him that his sins were taken away and that Christ had saved him.

Prior to this (with his faith as a servant) Wesley was not convinced of the Reformation understanding of justification by grace alone through faith alone.

He indicates in his journal, just prior to the Aldersgate story, that, up until the point of his seeking this experience, he had really grounded his hope of salvation by depending, in whole or in part, upon his own works or righteousness.

One other point, though. It is most appropriate to speak of this assurance as an assurance of faith, rather than an assurance of salvation. This is because Wesley is not talking about an assurance that he finally will be saved, but rather that he is now saved by grace through faith. It does not preclude the possibility of one walking away from their salvation at some point. In other words, he does not adopt Calvin's perseverance of the saints (once saved, always saved) position.

Andrew said...

Todd do you see the church in America living in this state of the "faith of a servant" rather than living in "The faith of the son?"

In his sermon entitled, On the Discoveries of Faith, Wesley defines in scriptural terms the faith of a servant in contrast to the faith of a son. Wesley states that "Whoever has attained this, the faith of a servant, 'feareth God and escheweth evil;' or, as it is expressed by St. Peter, 'feareth God and worketh righteousness.'" The servant obeys God out of a sense of fear. This Wesley says, "is not in any wise to be despised; seeing 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." He who has attained to the faith of a servant is to be exhorted "to press on by all possible means, till he passes 'from faith to faith;’ from the faith of a servant to the faith of a son; from the spirit of bondage unto fear, to the spirit of childlike love."

Thomas said...

I'm responding specifically to what you posted in the following: "...the only way we can ever know whether our repentance and faith are accepted is to know the pardon actually following upon them and, since they cannot attest to the pardon themselves, there must be an attestation of a distinct, and higher authority, and the only attestation conceivable remaining is the direct witness of the Holy Spirit."

I agree...And as a Roman Catholic I have available to me for this very purpose the Sacrament of Penance, in which Christ (in the person of the priest) provides the "attestation of a distinct, and higher authority" that my sins are forgiven.

Personal experiences such as Wesley's "warm feeling in the heart" may indeed be genuine movements of the Spirit. But then again, because the human heart is fickle and unreliable it would be difficult for me to accept such a "warm feeling of the heart" as proof of some "doctrine of assurance". Nothing can trump the Sacramental reality of Reconciliation/Confession when it comes to the assurance of pardon.

As an analogy: Nothing can trump Communion in the Church when it comes to Christ's presence in a common meal. We may have a private meal with friends and feel Jesus' presence within our little group...but this does not rise to the level of Sacrament, nor does it constitute a doctrinal Truth on which I can hang my faith. Likewise I may feel a warm feeling in my heart with regard to forgiveness, but this does not rise to the level of doctrinal assurance of sins forgiven. This is not to negate the possibility of God working in this way. He may very well be present in a friendly meal or in a warm feeling, but to project this onto the Church as though this is the primary means by which our faith is sealed is far fetched to me.

Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas said...

It seems like the doctrine of “Assurance” is sort of a theological compensation for the absence of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The problem with "Assurance" (from my perspective) is that each individual must bear the burden of judging for him or her self whether the “warm feeling” is genuine or simply emotionalism. So the "assurance" rests not only on the Holy Spirit, but rather on the individual's capacity to make such a judgement about the Holy Spirit's movement. The person must have the ability to distinguish the Spirit's movement from our own wishful thinking or emotion.

Meanwhile, the Sacramental reality of Catholic Penance gives a concrete assurance of forgiveness in spoken words and actions external to the individual. Forgiveness is confirmed by an ordained representative of Christ, not guessed at from inside my own heart. If I am the one sinning, and my heart is the object in need of cleansing, then how can I trust my soiled and sin-stained heart to "get it right" when discerning its own state of grace?

Andrew said...

I don’t want to create a false antithesis or dichotomy between the Witness of the Spirit and The Lord’s Supper (Communion)…as a Wesleyan I would emphasize the fact that true conversion would be attested by the Holy Spirit AND by a transformed life…the direct assurance of the Spirit was confirmed indirectly by the testimony of a good conscious and a good life…we hold to a dual witness, the direct testimony of the Holy spirit and the indirect witness of a good conscience.

As a pastor I cannot give you assurance…your mother cannot give you assurance...Deut. 29:29 the secret things belong to the Lord...I don’t know your heart and as you have stated our hearts can be deceived…that is the reason for the direct witness of the Spirit…Does our loving Father want us to know or to live apart from the assurance that we are a child of His?

Wesley described the Lord’s Supper as a confirming AND converting ordinance. Susanna Wesley was 70 years old before she received personal assurance and it came while she was receiving communion. She told her son John that she had not heard of God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit; nor had she imagined that this was a common privilege of all true believers.

The point is those who are awakened and seeking God are under preliminary grace and should not be barred from the Lord’s table. The invitation to take the holy sacrament is directed to those who are repentant, in love with their neighbor, intending to lead a new life, and intending to walk in obedience with God’s commands.
The bottom line for me is there seems to be little seeking after God today since so many people have been instructed to pray “the sinners prayer.”

Thomas said...

What I mean by comparing Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) and Confession (the “assurance” of the forgiveness of sins) is to draw a parallel between the two...

Jesus offers His flesh and blood as food so that we might have everlasting life. Therefore He gave to us the reality of Communion in bread and wine. He established what we now call a Sacrament. I know where to find His flesh and blood; I don’t have to guess at it – it is given to me with assurance (through an established Liturgical rite, by an ordained representative of Christ) and I can place my faith in it.

Now, Jesus also wants us to be assured that our sins are forgiven; therefore...(and this is where we disagree)...as a Catholic I would say, He gave to us the Sacramental reality of Reconciliation. And so(just like the Eucharist) the forgiveness of sin is carried out in a Liturgical rite by an ordained minister, which ensures the reality of that forgiveness. My forgiveness is confirmed in a physical way outside of myself. I don’t have to guess at it – it is given to me with assurance and I can place my faith in it.

Without this outward sign (as we have in the Sacrament of Confession), you are left with just a “warm feeling” in your heart and a “transformed life.” But these are always questionable phenomena. They are subject to individual prejudices and possibly flawed interpretation. They come from *within me* and are thus hard for me to judge by myself. It comes down to ME trying to confirm MY OWN state of grace by interpreting the feelings of my heart and analyzing my own personal behavior. For me, that would be like a Catholic priest hearing his own confession and offering himself absolution. Isn’t that what your doctrine of "Assurance" boils down to: the penitent administering his own Sacrament of Reconciliation?

I’m not saying that God can’t forgive us in this personal way...but I am saying that it can never be a sure thing – It does not really give us “Assurance” the way a Sacrament does, because it is never external to us or removed from our own prejudices.

(To your Deut. 29:29, I would reply with James 5:15 "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.")

Todd Stepp said...


I don't want to go too far down the roade (and I don't really have the time to, either), and I do understand your concern about subjectivism (which is a possibility, and why we talk about the direct and indirect witness, e.g., the fruit, etc.). However, it seems that you have practicaly reduced the doctrine of assurance and the witness of the Spirit to simply a subjective feeling.

Though feelings are invovled, I would argue that we are not dealing simply with subjective feelings. Rather we are dealing with God's action. It is the Holy Spirit who actually does, in reality, bear witness with our spirits. That constitutes more than merely our subjective feelings.

Further, the witness of the Spirit is not a general impression out of the blue (to quote my college theology prof.) that has no grounding in anything objective. Rather, it is directly related to the implicit promise of God observed in Jesus Christ that God loves me and sent His Son to be an atoning sacrifice for my sins.

Finally, the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit is firmly grounded in the promises of Scripture (e.g., the Rom. passage already mentioned, Acts 15:8, Heb. 10:15, 1 John 3:24, etc.), and finds affirmation in the Church Fathers.


Todd Stepp said...


Concerning the Church in America: Since the Church exists in various expressions (e.g., Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline, Evangelical, Pentecostal/Charismatic & Wesleyan), with variations within those expressions, it is difficult for me to say that it primarily lives in a state of the faith of a servant or the faith of a son.

I think there is a mixture.


Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas said...

Fair enough. I yield :)

But just to be clear, I have had experiences like the “warm feeling” in the heart on several occasions. I have been literally moved to tears by God’s grace. I am not questioning the reality of such workings of the Spirit. God certainly touches us directly in this way. I guess I have a difficult time translating that feeling (which I agree 100% can be from God) into an “Assurance” of salvation. I think that a “warm feeling,” however strong it may be, is too vague and subjective to draw such a bold conclusion. Not everyone gets such a feeling in the same way or under the same circumstances. Such movements of the Spirit are always so personal and intertwined with our own emotions and life experiences that I could never hold it up as a definable doctrine ensuring someone’s state of grace. God has touched my heart in so many ways, that it is difficult for me to say “this feeling means this” or “this feeling means that.” And it is literally impossible to say that any feeling offers “Assurance” of salvation.

Also, every Christian I’ve known (even the faithful ones) continue to sin and to neglect some of their Christian duties from time to time. I include myself in that group. It is difficult to call such behavior an objective “proof” of salvation. In other words, the "fruits" of which you speak are of a mixed variety. We all sin and we often fall short in responding to God’s warm feelings. We remain imperfect vessels of God’s grace. I cannot call that "Assurance."

It seems to me that this is why Paul says to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” because it is not something that you can be assured of until the very end, when you face your final judgment. (And there are other ways to interpret Romans to take into account what Paul says about "working out" salvation.)

As for the Church “existing in various expressions” – I won’t comment on that one. :)
But I agree that living as a "son" and living as a "servant" are both valid Christian experiences.

Todd Stepp said...

Thanks for "yielding"! :0)

Your comments are always welcome, Thomas!

Eric + said...


This is precisely my tension with "evangelicalism." I get and appreciate it the distinction between servant/son. But I have a hard time getting hung up on "evangelical conversions." I am more concerned with is a person a Christian. Is a person following Christ? So in Wesley's case I don't think anyone could make a case that Wesley was not a Christian prior to Aldersgate. And we've agreed that it was not an ES experience, then Aldersgate must have been something more akin to God providing a witness to, or assurance of the salvation Wesley had.

At this point, part of me gravitates toward the discomfort Thomas has expressed making a doctrine out of a feeling. The Eucharist ends with a prayer thanking God for feeding us, and "for assuring us that we are living members of your body." Is that not assurance enough? Do I need an emotional feeling to validate the Eucharist?

I think this thread has identified in my the tension I have with my evangelical tradition. The difference between evangelical faith and catholic faith is ultimately soteriological. Both accept salvation by grace alone. The catholic traditions say that the sacraments are the means of grace. The evangelical traditions say the sacraments are not enough. We insist on a personal experience of faith -- however that is understood.

I live in that tension, and most times am not sure what to do with it.

Thanks for this thread.

Todd Stepp said...


I get the tension, but I think I look at it a bit differently.

You said that, "The evangelical traditions say the sacraments are not enough. We insist on a personal experience of faith -- however that is understood."

Some (most) quarters of evangelicalism do insist on a personal experience of faith. - I would prefer to look at it as an insistance that God graces us with a gift of the witness of the Spirit. This is a gracious promise of God to us.

In Wesley's case, complicated as it may be, he insisted that he had grounded his hope of salvation on (or at least partly on) his own works and therefore his own (earned) righteousness. This is (in essence) what he says in his journal following his conversation with Peter Bohler.

After than conversation, he sought (an assurance of?) salvation throug faith in Christ alone. This, searching led to May 24, including the Scripture promises leading up to Aldersgate.

So, the complicated part, I suppose has to do with what God was gracing Wesley with, at Aldersgate. That was the original question.

Was it E.S.? I don't think the evidence indicates that. Was it justification/regeneration?

A couple of things present themselves. One, Wesley was, of course baptized. He understood that all infants are "born again" in baptism. (That already puts him in a different "category" from many, these days.) So, Wesley was born again. He did, however, believe that at some point he had "sinned away the grace given to him in baptism."

Much of his life he was seeking to follow God, but did insist that, until his time with Peter Bohler, he was relying upon his own righteousness in seeking to be pleasing to God. - Wesley's Aldersgate experience took place after Wesley began seeking God's acceptance (salvation) by God's grace alone through faith alone. Further, he sought this "salvation" through prayer and the other "means of grace."

This isn't, then, so much a question as to who will "make it to heaven," but rather an insistance that there is more than just "relying on the sacraments." There is our "relying on God" alone. This is not over against the sacraments, but it may go to Wesley's insistnce that salvation is not found in the sacraments (by which he means that salvation is found in God, who does, nevertheless, work through the sacraments).


Eric + said...


Thomas said...

Of course this leads us back to the question of Sacramental Confession: Wesley felt that he had "sinned away the grace given to him at baptism." The Aldersgate Experience then confirmed for him that God's grace truly forgives those sins and he is still saved. That is roughly the same idea that Catholics have about Confession. Our sins after baptism are cleansed by the power of God's grace in this Sacrament. The difference being that your "Assurance" comes from a warm feeling in your heart, whereas Catholics receive assurance from the priest when he says, "Your sins are forgiven."

I'm not saying that you must agree with the Catholic understanding of Confession. I'm not trying to change your minds on that point. But wouldn't you agree that your doctrine of "Assurance" fills the same basic role as Sacramental Confession? And can you see that, from a catholic position, a Sacrament is more reliable than a "warm feeling" as an assurance of Grace poured out?

OK...now I yield!
...at least for now :)

Andrew said...

Does this not bleed over into another related subject “justification”? I will wait until Dr. Stepp addresses the distinction of the Wesleyan nature of justification…the discussion of imputed and imparted righteousness…Luther spoke of an alien righteousness that was not based on works or receiving the sacraments…it my understanding that one aspect of the historical debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants centers on the question…Does justification declare someone to be righteous or acceptable to God or is it a process whereby someone is made to be righteous?

Todd Stepp said...


You said, "The difference being that your "Assurance" comes from a warm feeling in your heart, whereas Catholics receive assurance from the priest when he says, "Your sins are forgiven.""

If I wanted to be "snarky" (yes, I think that is a made-up word, but it seems to fit!), then I could say, your "Assurance" comes from a priest when he says, Your sins are forgiven," whereas Methodists receive assurance (directly and objectively) from the Spirit of God, God promising to grant such direct assurance by the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.

I do not wish to be so "snarky," however, it is worth pointing out, again, that while the "feeling" may have an element of subjective interpretation, the actual bearing witness of the Holy Spirit is an act of God, promised by God in holy writ; the same God who promised that the cup of thanksgiving is a participation in the blood of Christ. It seems to me that if one promise is true, both ought to be viewed as true.

Let me illustrate by a somewhat lengthy quote from Wesley's response to a certain R.C. tract published against the Methodists:

". . . I deny that the Romish bishops came down by 'uninterrupted' succession from the apostles. I never could see it proved, and I am persuaded I never shall. But unless this is proved, your own pastors, on 'your' principles, are no pastors at all.

"But farther. It is a doctrine of 'your' church that the intention of the administrator is essential to the validity of the sacraments which are administered by him. Now, are you assured of the intentionn of every priest from whom you have received the Host? If not, you do not know but what you received as the Sacrament of the Altar was no sacrament at all. Are you assured of the intention of the priest who baptized you? If not, perhaps you are not baptized at all. To come close to the point in hand: if 'you' pass for a priest, are you sure of the intention of the bishop that ordained you? If not, you may happen to be no priest, and so all 'your' ministry is nothing worth. Nay, by the same rule, he may happen to be no bishop. And who can tell how often this has been the case? But if there has been only one instance in a thousand years , what becomes of your 'uninterrupted' succession?"

This is, obvioiusly, about apostolic succession (the Roman tract denied such validity to Anglican & Methodist orders), but, back to our discussion, what becomes of your assurance of forgiveness? On the other hand, the Scriptures clearly indicate that the Spirit will bear witness with our spirits that we are born of God.

As to, whether the Wesleyan doctrine of assurance fills the same role as the RC sacrament of Confession, I am not sure it really does, exactly. There may be some overlap. However, the RC Confession seems to be an oft repetable thing. Whereas the doctrine of assurance, as a doctrine is primarily attached to two rather specific experiences.

The first is one's justification/regeneration. The second is entire sanctification. It is to these "work[s] and state[s] of grace the Holy Spirit bears witness" (Nazarene Articles of Faith).

(Back to the issue of identifying Wesley's Aldersgate, it was in connection with his seeking salvation by grace alone through faith alone, in contrast to relying, in part or in whole, upon his own works.)

So, is there overlap? Probably. RCs relying upon the words of a priest whom they trust is validly ordained and granted such authority. Wesleyans relying upon what they understand to be the Holy Spirit's assurance, based on Scriptural promises. Still, I don't think it is an exact comparison.

Andrew, feel free to jump ahead to the topic of imparted/imputed righteousness. I would be interested in your relating these two topics. - I have to move on to some other work, for now!



Thomas said...

If I might be so bold as to insert my own “snarky” comment ;)

If Catholic ordination/Apostolic Succession can be called into question because of the intentions of some priest or bishop within the line of succession; and if Sacramental Confession can be questioned because of the unreliability of some individual Christians or priests...then this same problem jeopardizes your “Assurance” doctrine. How can we know for certain that an individual’s intentions are pure when judging their own “warm feeling” of the heart? How can we translate a “warm feeling” into a matter-of-fact *assurance* of salvation when we are relying on our own *human judgment* for such matters? Can we be trusted to judge our own hearts?

To illustrate my point: When my kids do something wrong (like steal a cookie), they often say that they are “sorry” when what they really mean is that they are “sorry they got caught.” They are not really in a state of mind to judge their own actions or to testify to the state of their heart, because *they* are the *guilty party.* They are tainted by their own desires (for cookies) and are unable to separate those desires from the action that they have committed. They wanted the cookie; they still want the cookie; and deep in their heart they would do it all over again. I would submit to you that this sort of attitude (this attachment to sin) does not go away with adulthood. And it clouds our judgment. For this reason it can be difficult to judge *ourselves* aright and to distinguish between true sorrow and repentance, and a false sense of self-righteousness. Our intentions are not always pure.

So from my perspective, a “warm feeling” (which I must judge on my own) lacks the potency and surety of the words, “Your sins are forgiven,” spoken in a Sacramental Confession (by someone outside of me, as a representative of Christ – someone who is not an accomplice to my own sins and thus not tainted in his ability to mediate God’s grace).

(As far as “Scriptural promises” I would add: James 5:15 "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." And John 20:23 “Whoever's sins you forgive, they are forgiven them. Whoever's sins you retain, they have been retained.” – So this type of mediation on behalf of the sinner is certainly Biblically based.)

Confession is on oft repeated Sacrament precisely because even the most devout Christian is a sinner who is still attached to sin. (We still want the cookies and we still steal them – even after accepting Christ we fall away and reject God’s grace over and over again.) Our whole life is a process of orienting and re-orienting ourselves toward God and away from sin, and this process does not end until we die. Now certainly we sinners can rest assured that Jesus came to save us and that His death accomplished just that, but we are weak and imperfect vessels of that Grace. We lose the grace given to us in the Sacrament of Baptism (as Wesley attested) and we continue to sin and fall away from grace no matter how many warm feelings we may have in our hearts. Frequent and sincere Confession seems to address this problem through the course of an ordinary Christian life more directly and thoroughly than any warm feeling experienced at an arbitrary time in someone’s life...

Thomas said...

I would end here by referencing my earlier comment: Mormons are absolutely convinced of their doctrines because of the “warm feeling” they get in their hearts. And they tell me that the same “warm feeling” can convince me of their doctrines. Now the Mormons I know are morally decent people (often more so than the Christians I know). Do their good deeds and Christian living “confirm” their warm feeling? Can I hold up their “warm feeling” coupled with their “good works and clean conscience” as evidence that God has truly *assured* them? No. I think it suggests that warm feelings can be misinterpreted even by the most sincere and devout persons.

(End snarky comment)

So what I mean by comparing “Confession” and “Assurance” is not to provoke a debate or a snarky comment (though I do love both) what I mean to say is that both concepts address the idea that after Baptism we are promised some assurance from God that our post-baptismal sins will be forgiven. Certainly there are stark differences as these are rooted in two different theologies, but they do both address this concern that Christians have (and Welsey himself expressed) about our post-baptismal sins being offensive to God but that God’s grace is stronger.

I make this comment ..in the interest of ecumenism! :)

Todd Stepp said...


No,no! I'm the only one allowed to be "snarky" on this blog! :0)

One quick point, the idea of "intentionality" is a self-professed understanding within RC understandings of apostolic succession. Thus, Wesley used that in his argument. (In other words, it wasn't his idea; it was Rome's.)

I would say that your comment illustrates my point. You called the Wesleyan doctrine of assurance into question. I illustrated that the RC understanding of assurance based on the priest's statement can also be called into question. To which you replyied (basically), "If the RC position can be called into question, so can the Wesleyan position." - Yes, and you still hold your position, and I still hold mine.

As for your Scripture references, I have no qualms with such references and the call to confess our sins to one another. I would say that other passages make it clear that we can also confess our sins to God through Christ. I would also say that neither of these passages necessarily imply (and certainly do not state) that our confession needs to be to a priest. In fact, the James passage could be said to support such confessions in the context of the "priesthood of believers." Having said that, I do not wish to argue against the practice of confession to a priest, I have seen the importance of a pastor giving a word of "assurance" at times, as well.

Further, I had no argument against confessions being "oft repeated." I was simply trying to make a distinction between how the Wesleyan doctrine of assurance/witness of the Spirit functions and how the RC understanding of confession functions, over against your equating the two.

I do agree (as did Wesley)that emmotions, in and of themselves, cannot be ultimately relied on. However, I would continue to make the two points I have made earlier: 1.) the checks and balances which inlude not only the changed life, but also the clear promie of the witness of the Spirit in Scripture; and 2.) that it is not just our feelings, here, (and the "feeling" may be a "warmed heart," or "sense of peace," or "overwhelming joy," etc.), but rather, it is the objective activity of God whose Spirit does witness to our spirit, as promised in Scripture.

I would say that this understanding, however, is not simply (or primarily) in connection with post-baptismal sins. As I stated earlier, it is primarily tied to justification/regeneration and entire sanctification; to these works and states of grace. - For Wesley, he was dealing with a post-baptismal situation, but for many evangelicals and pre-Christians, they were not baptized as infants. - This gets into a whole other discussion (which I am not looking to take up at this time!) about the relationship of baptism and justification/regeneration.

Finally, I would say that this undertanding of assurance and the witness of the Spirit did not arise in a debate over against RC doctrines or practice. Rather, this arose, for Wesley, in the midst of a spiritual search. And, it was presented as a promised and gracious gift to, or priveledge of all believers.

Beyond that, I think we can conclude by safely saying . . . I'm still Wesleyan, and you are still Roman Catholic!

Blessing, Thomas!


Thomas said...

I see your point on “intentionality.” And this is one reason why a Catholic Sacrament can be declared invalid. Marriages can be annulled; a Mass can be declared invalid; ordinations can be declared invalid. All of these things do happen. Just as Wesley described, Catholics do in fact find themselves (on occasion) in a situation where a supposed Sacrament was in retrospect, false.

I guess my main point would be that the Catholic method of judging such things insists that those who were directly involved in the event (i.e. the spouses in a marriage, or the priest who says the Mass, etc.) are not the competent authorities to give the final, definitive assurance of validity when it is called into question. An outside party (the Church) must examine and evaluate the validity of a Sacrament and so judge it rightly without mixed intentions. In a similar way, in Confession a priest (who represents the Church) gives absolution to the penitent; the penitent does not absolve himself.

I understand that your doctrine of Assurance is something different. It does not necessarily speak directly to post-baptismal sin the way Confession does. But my comparison is meant to show that your doctrine of “Assurance” has no outside check and balance. The checks and balances you list are the same checks and balances available to Mormons and yet they reach a radically different conclusion. The person seeks assurance from within by self-examining his own actions and feelings and then assessing whether the “warm feeling” is genuine. It is difficult to call this a “catholic” reality in the true sense of the word, or to guarantee it in the same way the Church can guarantee the Sacraments. It is an experience that is apart from the “church.”

This is what I mean when I say that Sacraments gives greater assurance. Not that a Sacrament is never invalid…they certainly can be…but Sacraments exist within the framework of the “catholic” (universal) Church. Wesley’s experience actually lead him to break with His Anglican roots. He felt assured that he could press ahead, even when faced with objections from his Anglican brethren. This makes me wonder why the Spirit would move him in a direction that caused further rupture as historic events unfolded. It is simply too hard to nail down this “warm feeling” in a doctrinal sense or to include it in a “catholic” understanding of the faith. Warm feelings have caused Mormons to be Mormons and caused Wesley to press ahead with what eventually became a split with Anglicanism. Warm feelings have caused many schism and breaks within the Church.

But in the end, I agree whole heartedly with your conclusion - I am still Roman Catholic and you are still Wesleyan!

Sorry to take up so much time. And thank you for your responses.