On Aldergate’s Legacy

On May 24, 1738 John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed while visiting a Christian meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. Wesley wrote of that experience, 

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.

Methodists and other evangelicals frequently look back on that event as a model of Christian conversion, an experience that for some defines the essence of being a real Christian. For Wesley, of course, it wasn’t one experience that determined whether one was a real Christian. The whole life of a Christian is marked by the love of God and neighbor, from the core of one’s being to every outward act.

Aldersgate did mark the beginning of a new stage in Wesley’s life and ministry. Fred Sanders put it this way: 

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.

Wesley’s life and preaching implicitly questions the faith of everyone who claims to be a Christian. It’s important to remember that everyone who heard Wesley preach was at least a nominal Christian, baptized into the national Church of England. Today, the situation is significantly different.

Regardless, much of what goes under the name of evangelism today is still targeted at the church itself. Nearly three centuries after Aldersgate, the evangelist’s message to church members often still comes down to this: “Are you sure you are a Christian?”

Are you sure you are a Christian? Maybe not. Maybe you haven’t really had the right experience. Maybe you haven’t really given your heart to God. Maybe you’ve never really accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Maybe you haven’t received the spirit. Maybe you haven’t been born again. Baptism. Church membership. Christian service. Faithful participation in the life of the church. These mean nothing. Are you sure you are REALLY a Christian?

Methodists can add, “You had a conversion experience, but have you backslidden? Are you sanctified? Are you really pursuing holiness? Do you really love God? Do you even love your neighbor?” 

Countless evangelical preachers have followed this path Sunday after Sunday, literally preaching to the choir. Progressive preachers, of course, have their own version of “Are you sure you are really a Christian?” Preachers are insecure mortals of course, and desire self-validation like all other human beings. What better validation could there be than having people find salvation or true justice in your preaching? If you can’t find converts outside the church, maybe you can find them in the pews.

At this point, let me affirm that the faithful need to be evangelized. We are often blind to our ongoing sin and absorbed by self-interests. Who doesn’t need a deeper experience of God? Who doesn’t need encouragement to greater faith, hope and love? Who isn’t susceptible to the lure of the world, the flesh and the devil? Tearing down the faith of believers, however weak and incomplete it might be, is not the solution!

“Let me tell you ten reasons why you are not really a Christian” is a truly horrible approach to evangelizing God’s people. Spreading fear, uncertainty, guilt, shame and doubt among the faithful is not of God. That’s the accuser’s schtick. Those with weak or inadequate faith need encouragement, building up and nurture. They don’t need the foundations destroyed or the flickering lamp of faith snuffed out

Never make Christians feel isolated and alone with theirs anxieties and uncertainties. Don’t manipulate people based on their fears or doubts. And for God’s sake, don’t tell the person who has attended church every week for 40 years, taught children in Sunday school, brought casseroles to the bereaved, helped with the food pantry and prayed for the sick that their faith is for crap.

Maybe you fear that Michael Corleone will show up at your baptismal font to recite the creed while his henchman are murdering his enemies. I doubt that happens often. In any case, that is a far cry from situation of nominal Christians who simply need to awaken from their slumber.

Tell them that God has richly blessed them out of his great love and now wants to do something new in their lives. Tell the story of God’s marvelous deeds, his great love and his power to save. Speak of the power God has provided in his means of grace. Build up, don’t tear down. Stand together as beloved children of God, saved by Christ, empowered by the Spirit, a family whom God is leading to the promised land.

And maybe, some of those in your pews will find their hearts strangely warmed as well.

Related: Ordinary Christianity