I never grow tired of reading about John Wesley's conversion experience. He was a remarkable man from Christian history who had a profound influence on his contemporaries, which lead to the establishment of the Methodist Church and inspired emerging movements like The Salvation Army in the 19th century.
As much as there is to learn from the success of Wesley's life and ministry, there is as much to learn from his 17 year struggle with the assurance of salvation. Wesley believed in and preached all the right things when it came to the gospel, but his head knowledge did not translate into a heart knowledge until his dramatic conversion experience at Aldersgate Street on May 24th 1738.
Prior to this experience, we read of the following encounter in Wesley's journals with August Spangenberg, a Moravian leader, while engaging in an unsuccessful mission to Georgia, a new colony in North America. While in Georgia, Spangenberg asked Wesley the following questions:
"Do you know Jesus Christ?"
I paused and said, "I know he is the Saviour of the world."
"True," he replied, "but do you know He has saved you?"
I answered, "I hope he has died to save me."
He only added, "Do you know yourself?"
I said, "I do."
But I fear they were vain words. (Wesley's Journal, 8)
Wesley clearly had a head knowledge of the salvation of Jesus Christ, but he was tormented by a lack of personal experience of what he knew to be true. So much so, that when he returned to England after a failed mission to America, he wrote, "I went to America to convert the Indians, but Oh, who shall convert me?...I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well...while no danger is near, but let death look me in the face and my spirit is troubled."
I sense that Wesley's struggle is not all that unique for many Christians today. There are many who have a "fair summer religion" that offers little comfort when confronted by the storms of life and the brokenness of this world. One could seek more knowledge of the faith they profess or alternatively knowledge from another faith tradition, but neither will suffice.
Wesley was transformed by an experience that gave him assurance and peace while listening to someone preach from Martin Luther's commentary on Roman's, taking what Wesley knew in his head and integrating it into his heart. This was his moving conversion experience at Aldersgate Street:
"About a quarter before nine, while he (Luther) was describing the change which God works in heart through faith in Christ, I felt my 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."
When head meets heart, knowledge becomes experience. It becomes a life transforming 'aha' moment when what you know to be true in theory becomes a living reality within your life! Christianity is not so much a religious expression of ideas, but a relational experience of the incarnation - that is, a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, who lived among us in the flesh and left His Spirit as a continued living presence in our lives.