Today, 24 May, is what Methodists call ‘Aldersgate Day’. It marks the day in 1738 when John Wesley experienced the assurance of his salvation. As he wrote at some length in his journal:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a [Moravian] society in Aldersgate Street [in the City of London], 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.
I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, ‘This cannot be faith, for where is thy joy’. Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation, but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His own will.
After my return home I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He ‘sent me help from his holy place’. And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yes, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now I am always conqueror.
John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed”. A parallel is often drawn with what happened to the couple on the Emmaus who, as they reflected on their experience, said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24.32).
A parallel is also sometimes drawn to Pascal’s dramatic – ‘fiery’ – encounter with God on Monday 23 November 1654, which he subsequently wrote down and then sewed it into the lining of his count: “From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight. Fire! ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’, not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ, God of Jesus Christ. ‘My God and your God’. ‘Thy God shall be my God’. The world forgotten and everything except God. He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.”
Although I am not sure about the context of Pascal’s encounter with God, I find it significant that for both the couple on the Emmaus Road and for John Wesley in the meeting in Aldersgate Street, Scripture played a key role in their experience of God in their lives. James Edwards in his 2015 commentary on The Gospel according to Luke writes: “No more essential calling is set before preachers, teachers – indeed the church itself – than that of v32: to open Scripture so that hearts are set aflame”. Interestingly, John Chapman, a passionate evangelist and long-time head of the department of evangelism in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, wrote ‘a guide to giving evangelistic talks’ entitled Setting Hearts on Fire (1999).
I think too of Martyn Lloyd-Jones who in his book Preaching and Preachers (1971) defined preaching as “logic on fire” and went on to say: “Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. I say again that a man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one.” Not surprisingly two other guides to preaching take ups this imagery of fire: viz. Setting Words on Fire (2008) by the Canadian Paul Scott Wilson and Incandescence: Light shed through the Word (2006) by the American Ben Witherington III. Preaching needs to engage both mind and heart – preaching, if it is to make an impact, needs to be more than a cerebral experience.
However, on reflection, this reference to preaching is perhaps secondary. For in Luke’s description of that first Easter Sunday evening, it was the hearts of those who listened which were set on fire – nothing is said about Jesus’ style of exposition. Likewise, John Wesley in his account of what happened in that Aldersgate Street room, the emphasis is not on the one reading Luther’s commentary on Romans, but rather on the way in which his heart was strangely warmed. Christian believing in its widest form – and not just preaching – of necessity involves both the heart and the mind.