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Historical Development of Wesley’s Doctrine of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is God’s empowering presence that works mysteriously in the hearts of men and women to bring them to full salvation in Christ. “He alone can quicken those who are dead unto God, can breathe into them the breath of God, and so prevent, accompany, and follow them with his grace as to bring their good desires to good effect.”10 The Spirit is the “inspirer and perfecter both of our faith and works.”11 Again these references show that Wesley was trying to articulate the role of the Holy Spirit in process of salvation, but as we shall see, his later sermons demonstrate a much more sophisticated understanding of the Spirit of God.

In 1735, John and his brother Charles set sail for Savanna, Georgia. They had been commissioned by the Society for the propagation of the Gospel, which was the missionary wing of the Church of England. John’s primary intention for traveling to America was to minister to the Indians, but he served as parish minister to the colonists in Savannah. He became acquainted with a group called the Moravians on his way to Georgia, during his stay, and on his return to England. The Moravians were German pietists who were associated with teachings of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

The Moravians taught a simple faith and assurance of salvation through the “inner witness of the Spirit.”12 John interacted with them on the way to Georgia, during his stay, and on the trip back to England. He was impressed with their confidence, piety, and assurance of faith. He was challenged by the example of faith in Christ that the Moravians had demonstrated and realized that he lacked the Spirit’s assurance of salvation. On February 7, 1736, while in Georgia, a Moravian leader by the name of August Gottlieb Spangenburg began to question Wesley’s faith. Wesley recounts the dialogue:

He said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is Savoir of the world.” “True,” replied he; “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.”13

After returning to England, John and his brother Charles met a Moravian by the name of Peter Böhler. He convinced John further that conversion happened in an instant and that real a Christian would have an assurance of their salvation. He testified to this experience and brought Wesley several other witnesses who also testified to the same experience of instantaneous faith. As a result Wesley determined,

I was now thoroughly convinced and, by the grace of God, I resolved to seek it unto the end, first, by absolutely renouncing all dependence, in whole or in part, upon my own works of righteousness-on which I had really grounded my hope of salvation, though I knew it not, from my youth up.14

The Moravians impact upon Wesley’s pneumatology cannot be overestimated. Herbert McGonigle states that, “No group of Christians had helped John Wesley more sincerely or more profoundly than the Moravians.”15 In his journal entries from April 2-May 24, 1738 we can see that the Moravians were instrumental in leading him to search for an inward Christianity of the heart that was accompanied by the inner witness of the Spirit. From the Moravians he learned faith, assurance, and Christian experience, which are rooted in the experiential work of the Holy Spirit. Their lasting influence can be seen in Wesley’s concept of the “witness of the Spirit” which can be found throughout his writings especially in his sermon corpus.16

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Category: Church History

About the Author: The Rev. Dr. Winfield H. Bevins serves as the Director of Asbury Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. He is also the Canon for Church Planting for the Anglican Diocese of the Carolinas and an adjunct professor at Trinity School for Ministry. He is the author of Plant: A Sower’s Guide to Church Planting (Seedbed, 2016), Rediscovering John Wesley (Pathway Press, 2005), Our Common Prayer: A Field Guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Simeon Press, 2013), Creed: Connect to the Basic Essentials of Historic Christian Faith (NavPress, 2011), and Grow at Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Family Discipleship (Seedbed, 2016). Amazon Author Page Facebook Twitter: @winfieldbevins

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