John Wesley and the Witness of the Spirit

John Wesley and the Witness of the Spirit

J. Davila-Ashcraft

The issue of the witness of the Spirit in relation to assurance of salvation can be tricky. No less so for esteemed theologians such as John Wesley. This article will examine Wesley's thinking on the issue as it progressed. It will also examine the view of Dr. Allan Brown, Chair of the Ministerial Department for God's Bible College (Cincinnati, Oh.), and my own views.

Wesley's Early Period (1703-1738)
Wesley originally held the position common to the Church of England as well as other historic churches. That is, his salvation was assured by careful observance of the disciplines of the church. If one does good works and engages in frequent reception of the sacraments, then one is in a state of sanctifying grace and therefore assured of salvation. In other words, Wesley thought that as long as he used his best endeavors to serve God he was assured of salvation. However, this understanding was challenged by August Gottlieb Spangenberg, a Moravian, during a meeting in Georgia. Philip Watson writes, Then, a few days after his landing in Georgia, some searching questions were put to him during a conversation he had with another Moravian, August Gottlieb Spangenberg, that still. further disturbed him. "[He asked me]! '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 the Saviour 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.”

Subsequently Wesley met Peter Bohler, another Moravian, after Wesley's return to England in 1738. This meeting too was to shake his presuppositions. Wesley wrote, “Peter Bohler, whom God prepared for me as soon as I came to London, affirmed of true faith in Christ (which is but one) that it had those two fruits inseparably attending it, "dominion over sin and constant peace from a sense of forgiveness," I was quite amazed, and looked upon it as a new gospel. If this was so, it was clear I had not faith. But I was not willing to be convinced of this. Therefore I disputed with all my might, and laboured to prove that faith might be where these were not; for all the scriptures relating to this I had been long since taught to construe away. Besides, I well saw no one could, in the nature of things, have such a sense of forgiveness and not feel it. But I felt it not. If, then, there was no faith without this, all my pretensions to faith dropped at once.” 

Thus began a theological crisis for Wesley. If what he had been told was true, he lacked true faith and therefore lacked salvation since he did not possess the witness of the Spirit as expressed by his Moravian associates. He must attain the emotional state he had been told of. He felt that he could no longer rely on his presuppositions, nor on his theological training. Of course, this made a desperate seeker of Wesley, which led him to a religious meeting at the now famous Aldersgate Street. Watson explains, “In Aldersgate Street, however, he heard someone read Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and Luther clinched matters for him as he had already done for Charles. "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."

Wesley's Middle Period (1739-1773)
Wesley began to preach his theological understand of his Aldersgate experience. For him, the witness of the Spirit was defined as, “The testimony of the Spirit is 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 me, and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” 

The pitfall Wesley had fallen into because of his Aldersgate experience was that of emotionalism. His own experience was emotional, and now he taught that one must have this internal (emotional) experience. This drew no small amount of criticism from Anglican theologians. So much so that his preaching came to be associated with extreme views of Christian perfection; a term Wesley himself disliked. For example, he wrote to Rev. Dodd, saying, I have no particular fondness for the term. It seldom occurs either in my preaching or writings. It is my opponents who thrust it upon me continually..” 

This confusion was due partly to Wesley's own progressive theology on the topic and insistence on an emotional experience that few would legitimately be able to claim perpetually.

Wesley was sure that entire sanctification was necessary, but his communication of that fact was confusing, imprecise and sometimes relied on bad proof texting. For example, Ivan Howard informs us, “When, after having been fully convinced of inbred sin by a far deeper and clearer conviction than that which he experienced before justification, and after having experienced a gradual mortification of it, he experiences a total death to sin and an entire renewal in the love and image of God, so as to 'rejoice evermore,' to 'pray without ceasing,' and 'in everything to give thanks.' Not that 'to feel all love and no sin' is sufficient proof. Several have experienced this for a time before their souls were fully renewed. None, therefore, ought to believe that the work is done till there is added the testimony of the Spirit, witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification.”

Wesley further states that one knows he is sanctified by the same means as that by which he knows he is justified, or "by witness of the Spirit that He hath given us."

Wesley's apparent conflicting statements left his followers confused. The one consistent problem in Wesley's progressive theology on the issue is that of the insistence on some vague inner experience- an emotion. However, these vague definitions that are impossible to verify became the normative theology in the Methodist movement. That is, until Phoebe Palmer entered the picture in the mid 19th century. Palmer held what were called “Tuesday Meetings” for 50 years. Her teachings had a powerful impact on the understanding of the witness of the Spirit. Her appeal was the clarity with which she explained what holiness and the witness of the Spirit is. Unlike Wesley who taught that we must wait for an emotional experience, she was clear that emotionalism was unreliable. She explained the issue thus:

“What is the evidence of entire sanctification? ... How might an offerer at the Jewish altar arrive at an evidence that his offering was sanctified? In the first place, God had explicitly made known just the sacrifice required, and the manner in which it should be presented. If the offerer had complied with these requirements, he, of course, knew he had done so…”

“Christ is the CHRISTIAN'S ALTAR. Lay body, soul and spirit upon his merits… Remember, that it is not left optional with yourself whether you will believe. 'This is the command of God that ye believe.' Believe steadfastly that the blood of Jesus cleanseth. Not that it can or will, but that it cleanseth now. Covenant with God that you will believe this, his revealed truth, whether your feelings warrant belief or not. The just shall live by faith.”

Palmer's position was certainly more Biblical. The witness of the Spirit is not an emotional state, but the very words of scripture. What God promises, He should be trusted to have done. This theological breakthrough however came well after Wesley's death.

Wesley's emotionalism caused him much anxiety. He wrote to his brother Charles in 1766, “I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I have never believed in the Christian sense of the word... If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other (evidence or test) of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as fairly shines from reason's glimmering ray. I have no direct witness. . . .”

However, he continued to teach that the witness of the Spirit is, “an inward impression on the soul whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God."

Wesley's Mature Period (1773-1791)
Wesley's theology of assurance began to change in his latter years. However, it was still marked by an emotionalism that rendered it vague as always. For example, in his “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”, he writes, “It is `perfect love.' (1 John 4:18.) This is the essence of it; its properties, or inseparable fruits, are, rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks. (1 Thess. 5:16, &c.)”

The main point that changed was that he no longer saw this as a perpetual state, no doubt due to his own experience of gaining this emotional state and losing it. He continues to explain that it need not be immediately perceived either.

“But in some this change was not instantaneous.' They did not perceive the instant when it was wrought.”

Wesley emphasized the necessity of "light” ( a term for informed faith) during this period and divided this into several categories: Materialist, Deist, Heathen, Jewish, John the Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. None of these were considered saving faith however, and Wesley regretted that the preachers had no solid understanding of the doctrine. He writes, “But what is the faith which is properly saving; which brings eternal salvation to all those that keep it to the end? It is such a divine conviction of God, and the things of God, as, even in its infant state, enables every one that possesses it to "fear God and work righteousness." And whosoever, in every nation, believes thus far, the Apostle declares, is "accepted of him." He actually is, at that very moment, in a state of acceptance. But he is at present only a servant of God, not properly a son. Meantime, let it be well observed, that "the wrath of God" no longer "abideth on him.'”

Wesley expresses his regret for this in saying, “Indeed, nearly fifty years ago, when the Preachers, commonly called Methodists, began to preach that grand scriptural doctrine, salvation by faith, they were not sufficiently apprized of the difference between a servant and a child of God. They did not clearly understand, that even one "who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him." In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, "Do you know that your sins are forgiven?" And upon their answering, "No," immediately replied, "Then you are a child of the devil." No; this does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety,) "Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, `and you shall see greater things than these.”

So Wesley's experience not only led to confusion on the issue of assurance, but to a mistaken sort of caste system. Wesley also continued to insist that Methodist preachers urge the faithful to desire this emotional experience with fervor, even though his Aldersgate experience clearly caused him no small degree of confusion and anxiety. In fact, my opinion is that Wesley would have been better off never to have had the experience, since it caused much turmoil for both himself and others.

Dr. Allan Brown's Position
Dr. Allen Brown's position on the subject is as follows. Romans 8:16 does indeed teach us that the Spirit witnesses to us that we are children of God, and defines the witness of the Holy Spirit to our own spirit thus:

“..the testimony of a continually clear conscience- enlightened by the Holy Spirit-that we are fully obeying God.” (I Timothy 1:19-20)

Without this clear conscience, which is an absolute necessity, we can shipwreck our faith. This means we must daily keep our conscience void of offense toward both God and man. (Acts 24:16) It is our obedience to the commands of God that proves we are a Christian (I John 2:3), not any emotional state. Dr. Brown is not against an emotional experience, but cautions that experiences prove only one thing; that you had an experience. They are not evidence of anything more. Any internal witness we may feel we have is not sufficient in and of itself to know that we are saved. Again, let me emphasize that Dr. Brown is not suggesting that one will not have inward feelings of the Holy Spirit's presence. He simply cautions that, because feelings and emotions come and go, and can often be misleading, we are not to base our faith on them. Instead Dr. Brown emphasizes the fact that written scripture is the witness of the Holy Spirit to us. (Hebrews 10:15.16) This is the primary way the Holy Spirit witnesses to us that is constant and unchangeable, and is received by faith. It is in fact the witness of God in us when we receive it in this Biblical way.

My Personal Position
I freely admit that John Wesley lost me in what I viewed as his disastrous theological journey. His insistence on some emotional state, a la the Nirvana of the Buddhist, wherein one is filled with love, joy and peace at all times, struck me as absurd, counter-intuitive, and not at all Biblical. When I read Phoebe Palmer's teaching I felt that this was a step in the right direction. In the end I have to say that my position is the same as that of Dr. Allan Brown. It is logical, reasonable and Biblical. Thus I have to say I embrace his position without reservation.

Copyright 2016

    Brown, Allen P. The Witness of the Spirit- An Audio Textbook
    Wesley, John Letter to Mr. Dodd (1756)
    Wesley, John Summary of a Plain Account of Christian Perfection
    Watson, Philip Anatomy of a Conversion
    Howard, Ivan Wesley versus Phoebe Palmer: An Extended Controversy
    Noll, Mark John Wesley and the Doctrine of Assurance
    Wesley, John Witness of the Spirit, Discourse I (1746)
    Wesley, John Witness of the Spirit, Discourse II (1767)
    Wesley, John Witness of our Own Spirit
    Wesley, John On Faith (1788)