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Historical Development of Wesley’s Doctrine of the Spirit

At this stage of Wesley’s life, his major focus was on how the Holy Spirit works in the believer in the process of salvation (ordo salutis).17 Although initially his interest in the Spirit was primarily soteriological (how one becomes a Christian), he increasingly became convinced through his dialogue with the Moravians that he needed to broaden his understanding of the work of the Spirit to include the inner witness of the Spirit (how one knows they are a Christian).18 The shift toward the Spirit’s role in Christian assurance would not fully take place until after his Aldersgate experience. During the years 1725-1738, Wesley’s doctrine of the Spirit was undeveloped, but important seeds were sown for the development of pneumatology that was to take place in the important years that followed.

The Middle Wesley 1738-1769

May 24, 1738 marked the beginning of the second stage of Wesley’s theological development. During this time he began to further develop his doctrine of the Holy Spirit, in which his emphasis on the role of the Spirit began to move from internal to external: from the process of salvation to the witness of the Spirit, and eventually to the fruit of the Spirit. 1738 to 1739 would especially prove to be a very important time in his pneumatological development and his overall theology.

While attending a prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street in London, John Wesley had an experience that forever changed his life. He writes:

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. 19

This experience has been called by some Wesley’s conversion-initiation. However, Albert Outler said that, “Wesley came to realize that Aldersgate had been one in a series of the ‘turning points’ in his passage from don to missionary to evangelist.”20 Corresponding to these ‘turning points’ is the unique theological development that Wesley underwent. Aldersgate was an important event in John’s religious and theological development and changed the course of his life and ministry. The Aldersgate experience introduced a new emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Wesley’s theology.21 Richard P. Heitzenrater, says the significance of Aldersgate is:

It is the point in his spiritual pilgrimage at which he experiences the power of the Holy Spirit and at which his theology is confronted by a dynamic pneumatology. From that point on the Holy Spirit has a central role in Wesley’s definition of the “true Christian,” his understanding of how one becomes a Christian, and his explanation of how one knows he or she is a Christian.”22

His newly found assurance would not last long. After only a short time he began to have doubts about the nature of his salvation.23 Over the next year, Wesley struggled to appropriate the full implications of the “witness of the Spirit.” In the summer of 1738, John traveled to Herrnhut, Germany to visit the homeland of the Moravians. There he hoped to solidify the work, which God had wrought in his heart. He said, “I hoped the conversing with those holy men who were themselves living witnesses of the full power of faith and yet able to bear with those that are weak, would be a means, under God, of so establishing my soul, that I might go on from faith to faith and from strength to strength.”24

He met Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf, and observed the lifestyle and religious practices of the Moravian community. At the time he seemed to be impressed with their unity and piety, however, only a few months after he returned to England Wesley complained that they were too passive and did not exercise enough care in practicing the means of grace, such as prayer, fasting, Communion, and Bible study.25 They over emphasized the internal witness of the Spirit and made assurance a requirement for salvation. This was to be the beginning of Wesley’s rift with the Moravians.

Wesley began to realize that there were degrees of faith and degrees of assurance that can be mixed with both doubt and fear.26 He began to sense that full assurance of faith was not necessary to the new birth, but a “measure of faith” was adequate for reconciliation through Christ.27 Although a believer can expect to receive the witness of the Spirit, it is not necessarily the true evidence of genuine conversion. Wesley said, “I have not yet that joy in the Holy Ghost, nor the full assurance of faith, much less am I, in the full sense of the words, “in Christ a new creature:” I nevertheless trust that I have a measure of faith, and am “accepted in the beloved.”28 Over the next several months he continued to struggle with the notion of whether or not he was a true Christian. He sought to fully authenticate his Christian experience through the witness and fruit of the Spirit.

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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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