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Historical Development of Wesley’s Doctrine of the Spirit

The ordinary fruits of the Spirit were to remain throughout all ages as the true sign of scriptural Christianity.

Wesley saw ‘being filled with the Spirit’ as the evidence of true Christianity. He asked, “Where does this Christianity now exist?.… Are we considered as a community of men, so “filled with the Holy Ghost,” as to enjoy in our hearts, and show forth in our lives, the genuine fruits of the Spirit?”40 True Christianity is found in people who are filled with the Holy Spirit, which have the evidence of the fruits of the Spirit. In the Methodist revival, the work of the Spirit was becoming evident in the lives of believers, and Wesley became increasingly convinced that the fruit of the Spirit was the sign of Scriptural Christianity. This is a significant leap to suggest that true Christianity must be evidenced with outward signs of the fruit of the Spirit. It is important to note that this sermon caused no small amount of scandal at Oxford and shows that Wesley’s emphasis on ‘spiritual Christianity’ was revolutionary in every sense of the word.41 “Scriptural Christianity” shows Wesley’s theological progression to include the fruits of the Spirit as an external evidence of true Christianity.42

“Witness of the Spirit” 1746

Although the gestalt of Wesley’s understanding of Christian assurance can be seen as early as 1725, he does not begin to fully explicate his mature thought on the ‘witness of the Spirit’ until 1746 in several key sermons. In “The Witness of the Spirit” (1746), Wesley sought first to describe the connection between the ‘witness of the Spirit’ and the witness of our spirit, secondly to distinguish it from the presumption of a natural mind. This was an attempt to answer the critics who opposed his doctrine of assurance (by charging him with enthusiasm) and to instruct his followers how to discern between the genuine witness of the Spirit and feelings to keep them from falling into enthusiasm.43 A part of the problem was enthusiasts claimed to have the inner work of the Spirit without bearing the outward fruit of the Spirit.

In the “Witness of the Spirit,” he focuses on:

The testimony of the Spirit as an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved, and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.44

The testimony of the Spirit must be an antecedent to the testimony of our spirit. He said, “We cannot know his pardoning love to us, till his Spirit witness it to our spirit.”45 The Spirit of God comes before the testimony of our spirit, gives us the divine testimony, and allows our testimony to confirm it. The two witnesses work together in order to let us know that we have become a child of God. This testimony must have discernable features. He describes the testimony of our spirit as “A consciousness that we are inwardly conformed, by the Spirit of God, to the image of his Son, and that we walk before him in justice, mercy, and truth, doing the things which are pleasing in his sight.”46

The witness of the Spirit with our spirit demands an ethical response to God. For Wesley, pneumatology is never merely spiritual without an ethical imperative, or visa versa.47 There are several distinctive ethical marks that distinguish true assurance from false assurance. 1. Repentance, or conviction of sin, as constantly going before the witness of pardon.48 2. There will be a vast and mighty change “from darkness to light,” as well as “from the power of Satan unto God.”49 3. We keep his commandments. He said, “A true lover of God hastens to do his will on earth as it is done in heaven.”50 4. By the fruits of the Spirit, which he has wrought in your spirit, you shall know the testimony of the spirit of God. There are both immediate fruits (love, joy, peace) and outward fruits (doing good to all men; doing no evil, walking in the light).51 These distinguishing marks accompany the true testimony of the Spirit with the spirit of a believer and should become discernable to others. As the witness of the Spirit confirms the new birth, the fruits of the Spirit confirm the Spirit’s testimony with our spirit that we are indeed children of God.

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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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