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Historical Development of Wesley’s Doctrine of the Spirit

Although there are several other key sermons in the middle stage that discuss the Holy Spirit, the previous sermons demonstrate the progression in Wesley’s pneumatology. As the Methodist revival began to take shape, he discerned the work of the Spirit among the people. As a result, his emphasis on the Holy Spirit shifted from the inward personal work of the Spirit to include outward evidences of the Spirit’s work. His understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit began with the new birth, accompanied by the witness of the Spirit with our spirit, and eventually included the ordinary fruits of the Spirit (both immediate and outward) as the external evidence of the Spirit’s witness, all of which have a unique ethical imperative. A person, who is born of the Spirit and has received the inner testimony of the Spirit, must now demonstrate the distinguishable marks of this experience.

The Later Wesley 1770-1791

Outler said that the “later Wesley” was “a time of still further theological maturation”…. and “has suffered the most neglect in Wesleyan studies generally.”52 He further said that, “the sermons from these last two decades are, therefore, of great importance for any rounded view of his vision of the Christian life.”53 Therefore it is important for a study about Wesley’s theological development to look at the latter stage of his life and theology. As we have seen, his earlier emphasis on the role of the Spirit shifted from personal salvation to the witness of the Spirit, and then included the fruits of the Spirit. In the latter Wesley, his emphasis expanded even further to include the universal work of the Spirit in the Methodist revival.

There are several influences to take into consideration at this point. First, as we saw earlier, Wesley came under the influences of Edward’s views of revival.54 Edwards had a millennial view in which he believed the revival in New England was a part of a great end-time revival. Edwards said:

Indeed, I have often said, as I say now, that I looked upon the late wonderful revival of religion as forerunners of those glorious times so often prophesied of in Scriptures, and that this was the first dawning of that light, and beginning of that work which, in the progress and issue of it, would at last bring on the church’s latter-day glory…and Christ’s kingdom shall be everywhere established and settled in peace, which will be the lengthening of the millennium.55

Notice the similarities in the following excerpt from Wesley’s “The Signs of the Times.”

The times which we have reason to believe are at hand (if they are not already begun) are what many pious men have termed the time of the “latter-day glory;” meaning the time wherein God would gloriously display his power and love in the fulfillment of his gracious promise, that “knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth, as the waters of the sea.”56

Although Wesley’s vision of the revival was not as specifically millennial, the theory of an end-time revival is clearly evident. His understanding of an end-time revival had its roots in Edwards’s earlier influence on his concept on revival of religion.

John Fletcher

Larry Wood notes that shortly after his memorial sermon, “On the Death of George Whitefield,” preached on November 18, 1770, Wesley entered into a unique alliance with John Fletcher, which shifted the direction of Methodist history.57 Fletcher worked closely with Wesley and soon became one of the most influential leaders in early Methodism. Fletcher is perhaps best noted for his Checks to Antinomianism (1771), which defended the theological views of John Wesley and the early Methodism. Wesley was so impressed by Fletcher’s piety and theological prowess, that Fletcher became his “authorized interpreter and designated successor.”58

As a result of Fletcher’s influence, Wesley’s latter sermons “highlighted the Methodist phenomenon as inaugurating a “Pentecostal Church’ in the world.”59 The distinct contribution that Fletcher made upon Wesley’s theology was the concept of a “Pentecostal Church,” which helped Wesley articulate and defend the extraordinary work of God that was happening through the Methodist movement. Wood notes that Wesley’s latter sermons focused on a Pentecostal theme because he believed that the Methodist revival in his day was the first sign of a new Pentecost. He believed that a new Pentecostal Church was being re-established on the earth that would be the fulfillment of the first Pentecost.60 The external evidence of the outward work of the Spirit resembled the first Pentecost and demonstrated that God was indeed with the Methodists as they spread universally throughout the world. Wesley’s concept of a “Pentecostal Church” demonstrates a growing interest in the universal work of the Spirit and marks a further shift in Wesley’s pneumatology.

Wesley’s inclusive views on the universal work of the Holy Spirit made him open to “extraordinary” measures. Because God was inaugurating a “New Pentecost” there were certain exceptions that he was willing to make to the established ecclesiastical norms of the Anglican Church. As early as 1750, Wesley defended the practice of laymen preaching the gospel by referring to the “practice of the apostolic age.” In reference to Acts 8:4, he said, “Here you see not one but a multitude of ‘lay preachers,’ men that were only sent by God.” 61 In 1771, he went even further to include the practice of allowing certain women to preach because they were under an “extraordinary dispensation” of God. In a letter to Mary Bosanquet he said:

I think that the strength of the cause rests there- on your having an extraordinary call. So I am persuaded has every one of our lay preachers; otherwise I could not countenance his preaching at all. It is plain to me that the whole work of God termed Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation of His providence. Therefore I do not wonder if several things occur therein which do not fall under the ordinary rules of discipline.62

“On Laying the Foundation” 1777

There are several particular sermons that articulate the latter Wesley’s concept of the universal work of the Spirit in relation to the Methodist revival. In the following two sermons, “On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel” (1777) and “The Late Work of God in North America” (1778), Wesley describes the progression in which Methodism spread throughout North America and the British Isles. In reference to the British Isles, he notes:

For such a work, if we consider the extensiveness of it, the swiftness with which it has spread, the depth of the religion so swiftly diffused, and its purity from all corrupt mixtures, we must acknowledge cannot easily be paralleled, in all these concurrent circumstances, by any thing that is found in the English annals, since Christianity was first planted in this Island.63

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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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