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Historical Development of Wesley’s Doctrine of the Spirit

“The Signs of the Times” 1787

In “The Signs of the Times” (1787), Wesley continued to describe his understanding of the growing universal work of the Holy Spirit through Methodism. He compared and contrasted the differences between the former religion and the latter-day glory, which was marked by the “extraordinary work of God.” He called for Christians to discern the signs of the times. However, he noted that wise men of the world, men of eminence, men of learning and renown, cannot discern the signs of the times!68 What are the signs of the times? It will be marked by the universal spread of the gospel, which will be accompanied by:

“Inward and outward holiness,-or “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,” which “hath spread in various parts of Europe, particularly England, Scotland, Ireland, in the Islands, in the North and South, from Georgia to New England, and Newfoundland, that sinners have been truly converted to God, thoroughly changed both in heart and in life; not by tens, or by hundreds alone, but by thousands, yea, by miraids!”69

The rapid success and spread of the gospel were convincing signs of the times. Not only was the gospel preached, but it also resulted in genuine converts who were not only Christian in name (as in former times) but were “changed both in heart and life.” The result was inward and outward holiness. The fruit of the Spirit authenticated the genuine conversion experience of the newly converted and contributed to the further spread of the gospel. In other words, true Christianity is contagious. Wesley attributed this to the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people. He said, “How swift, as well as how deep and how extensive, a work has been wrought in the present age! And certainly, not by might, neither by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord.”70 Thus there is a connection between the way the Spirit works in personal salvation and the further spread of Christianity. Wesley’s pneumatology was ever expansive and finally included a worldwide perspective of the Spirit’s work.

Conclusion and Summary

In conclusion, this article is not meant to be an exhaustive study of John Wesley’s doctrine of the Spirit, rather it is an attempt to demonstrate that there is a distinct development in his pneumatology that can be seen throughout his sermons. The historical development of Wesley’s doctrine of the Spirit can be divided into three stages: early, middle, and latter. The early Wesley emphasized the personal work of the Spirit in salvation (how one becomes a Christian). The middle Wesley emphasized the role of the Spirit in Christian assurance and gradually focused on the fruit of the Spirit (how one knows they are a Christian). Then the latter Wesley began to focus on the universal and extraordinary work of the Spirit in relation to the Methodist revival (how to spread Christianity).

Wesley’s mature pneumatology was a synthesis of various influences and significant events that took place throughout his lifetime. There is a direct correlation between his life, the rise of the Methodist movement, and the development of his doctrine of the Spirit. Pneumatological seeds were sown during his Oxford years that sprang forth much later in his life. During this time he explored about the personal work of the Spirit in salvation and sanctification. Through the Moravian correspondence, Wesley began to develop a doctrine of Christian assurance or witness of the Spirit and began to work- out his understanding of the fruit of the Spirit as a regular part of the Christian life. From Whitfield he gained an outward perspective on the work of the Spirit within the Methodist revival. From reading Edwards account of the New England revival, he gained a broader understanding of the universal and extraordinary work of the Spirit of God. And finally, Fletcher helped Wesley see the growing Methodist movement as the formation of a new end- time Pentecostal Church.

These events and influences are directly connected to the development of his doctrine of the Spirit. To separate them would be to misunderstand the uniqueness of Wesley’s theological development. In addition, the stages of his pneumatological development are not separate from one another; rather they represent maturation and continuity in Wesley’s understanding of the Spirit. Like concentric circles, each stage is connected and builds upon the other. This progression began with an emphasis on the role of the Spirit in personal salvation, then included the witness and fruit of the Spirit, and finally expanded even further to include the universal work of the Spirit.

Finally Wesley’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit was not just a category in his theology, but is intricately connected to his overall theology. The Holy Spirit plays an important role in personal salvation, church formation, and the general spread of the gospel. The progression of Wesley’s pneumatological development was dynamic, ever expanding, and inclusive. His doctrine of the Holy Spirit has a distinct contribution to make in the contemporary ecumenical movement.71 The significance of rediscovering Wesley’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit would perhaps bridge gaps between Wesleyan and Pentecostal movements and create a forum for theological and ecclesiastical dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics.72 There is no telling what will happen when the church rediscovers Wesley’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit.


1 Outler, Albert. “A Focus on the Holy Spirit: Spirit and Spirituality in John Wesley.” Quartely Review. (1988).

2 In the preface of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, Albert Outler said that “the problem of development in Wesley is thus far woefully underdeveloped.” Sermons, 1, 1-33. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1984). Preface X. Thus a chronological analysis of his sermons would be of benefit for those of interest. There are three definable stages in Wesley’s thinking: early 1725-1738, middle 1738-1770, and latter 1770-1791.

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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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