John Wesley and the Spirit of God -A Reasonable Charismatic?
by Rod Ingrouille
In a book entitled ‘Paul, the Spirit and the People of God’ Professor Gordon Fee explores the relationship of the Spirit of God and the believer. His thesis which is expounded in the much larger work ‘God’s Empowering Presence’ is that the whole of the life of the believer and the church is dependent upon the Holy Spirit. So, along with Wesley he sees the Spirit at work in the life of the believer before saving faith appears. He also has a very insightful piece in which he writes:
An important point is that all of Paul’s letters were written to first-generation believers, all of whom - at least those addressed in Paul’s letters - were adult converts, whose conversions had included an experience of the Holy Spirit coming into their lives. That, at least, is the picture that emerges in the letters. But what happens to this experienced conversion, attended by the Spirit, for children born and raised in the homes of such converts? As much as anything, this probably accounts for the subsequent loss of the experiential nature of life in the Spirit and for the general marginalizing of the Spirit in the later church.
Again, this is not intended to be a judgmental picture, nor do I suggest that it is true at all times and in all places. But it is of some interest that the subsequent study of church history by the church itself has far more often been a history of the institution than of the life of the Spirit in the community of faith as it lived out the life of Christ in the world.
What was not lost in all this, of course, was the doctrine of the Spirit, with its properly biblical understanding of the Spirit in personal terms, which led to the more formal expressions, in the creeds, of the Spirit’s place in the Godhead ……..[but] the Spirit was inevitably now no longer perceived as dynamically experienced although he was still a central factor in the theology of salvation. The general loss of the dynamic and experiential life of the Spirit on entrance to Christian life (conversion) also accounts for the spiritual dis-ease and feebleness in the individual believer throughout much of the church’s later history. This is not true of everyone, of course. But it does in part account for the rise both of the monastic movement and of various Spirit movements throughout church history. [p184-5]
If Gordon Fee is right in this then Wesley and his friends, before 24th May, were pressing on past their Christian upbringing and seeking the real presence of the Spirit in experiential, biblical fashion. They had read the scriptures and seen the truth, but yearned and prayed and fasted to find the reality. So, when John Wesley is returned in triumph to his brother saying ‘I believe’ this is the fact that he has appropriated, or appreciated for himself, the reality of the Spirit’s presence with him and within him.
This would be not so much a ‘conversion’ as a breaking in of the Spirit in New Testament Pauline fashion. Gordon Fee continues: To be sure, the church has also had its history of Spirit movements of various and sundry kinds. Some of these were absorbed into the church; others were pushed outside the church and usually became heretical and divisive; and still others became reform movements within the church. The common denominator of most of these movements has been their attempt to recapture the life of the Spirit in some form. To the degree that they succeeded they have been a source of renewal and blessing. But Spirit movements tend to make institutions nervous – for good reason, one might add, both positively and negatively. The net result has been that Paul’s perspective of life in the Spirit, as a dynamically experienced reality creating an end-time people who live for God’s glory, has not generally fared well in the overall life of the church. [p185]
Wesley saw the gifts of the Spirit as available to every Christian person. He expressly writes that ‘I pretend to no extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost – none but what every Christian may receive and ought to expect and pray for’. [Letter to the Bp. of Gloucester] But these gifts had not been generally manifest in the life of the church in England for many years. In the time of the Reformation there was a general move of the Spirit and some Anabaptists claimed to be gifted with special spiritual gifts. However, in the Established Church, laden with a theological Deism, the idea of special spiritual gifts from the absent God was unbelievable, treated with disdain. The ‘conversion’ of Wesley may easily be seen as a ‘commissioning’ in which God calls and equips him to undertake the task of revising/renewing the Established Church [the call and purpose that Wesley held on to till the end of his life]. However, that ‘call and equipping’ included a powerful and sustained outpouring of the Spirit of God on Wesley and on his immediate followers, and later on many others also. He describes the change as exchanging the faith of a servant for that of a son – seeing and applying the analogy of Paul in Romans 8: 14-17. But with the change also comes, according the Paul, the authority and enabling of the Spirit. It is the realisation of this authority and enabling that produces the change in Wesley.
In a letter to Conyers Middleton (Works, 10:1-79), Wesley defined, described, and defended a whole host of spiritual gifts, including: 1. Casting out devils; 2. Speaking with new tongues; 3. Escaping dangers, in which otherwise they must have perished; 4. Healing the sick; 5. Prophecy, foretelling things to come; 6. Visions; 7. Divine dreams; And, 8. Discerning of spirits” (Works, 10:16). However, Wesley has a complicated picture of the Gifts of the Spirit. He makes a distinction between the ‘extraordinary’ and the ‘ordinary’ gifts of the Spirit. So, in the ‘Explanatory Notes on the New Testament’, Wesley remarks with reference to 1 Peter 4:10: ‘As everyone hath received a gift - Spiritual or temporal, ordinary or extraordinary (although the latter seems primarily intended) - so minister it to one another – employ it for the common good.’
Among the “extraordinary gifts” he included healing, miracles, prophecy (in the sense of foretelling), discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues, and he describes apostles, prophets and evangelists as “extraordinary officers.” The “ordinary gifts” included “convincing speech”, persuasion, knowledge, faith, “easy elocution”, and pastors and teachers as “ordinary officers”. Further to this, in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 he again writes that some of the gifts were “extraordinary” or “miraculous” and others are not. By the use of ‘extraordinary officers’ it is clear here that Wesley is placing the Gifts and the Gifted in a separate category to the ‘ordinary’ Gifts and Gifted. He clearly believed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were for his and every generation. But was he a ‘charismatic’, in the 20th Century understanding of the term?
The modern charismatic church, as evidenced by the ‘house church’ movement, Pioneer Churches, etc. have similar marks to the church movement that came out of the Wesleyan revival. Howard A Snyder, in an article available on the internet, argues that Wesley was a charismatic and offers reasons for saying so. He claims that Wesley was open to the grace of God in the life and experience of the church and its members. Prevenient grace meant that God was at work in His world and so Wesley was able to ‘offer Christ’ with the understanding that God was present – and Wesley expected God to move in the lives of those who heard. As with the modern charismatic movement, the Holy Spirit was central to his doctrine of Assurance. Certainly this was so at first.
Later in his ministry he came to an understanding that there was an authentic Christian experience that did not include a full assurance of faith – a hope that was a ‘confident expectation’. But at first he expected all Christians to have a full assurance that they were the children [sons] of God. He was also open to the gifts of the Spirit in his own ministry and in the ministry of others. According to Snyder, there is the emphasis in the modern charismatic movement for the sense of community. In defence of Snyder, many of the ‘new’ churches are called ‘ ##### Community Church’ and these new churches emphasise the need for ‘house groups’, ‘home cells’ etc. It is interesting that modern Methodism in the 21st Century is returning to an emphasis on this; after all the forerunner of all of this was Wesley’s ‘Class Meeting’. With the Class Meeting comes the use by Wesley of the gifts of ‘lay’ people. A key to understanding the growth of the Methodist movement is the use of ‘lay’ people by Wesley. He saw their talents and gifts and gave them ample opportunity to exercise their gifts as class leaders, pastoral visitors, and eventually ‘local preachers’. These functions encouraged spiritual growth and the development of spiritual gifts as people ‘stepped out in faith’ and found that God was there for them. Useful ‘charisms’ would spring forth and be put to good use in the life/body of the emerging movement, and this is also a mark of the modern ‘charismatic’ church. One other important mark of the modern charismatic movement is the explosion of new music.
The bursting forth of modern songs, choruses and hymns since the early 1970’s was embraced by the ‘charismatic’ elements of the church. It is only in the last ten years that these have been more widely accepted, sometimes with great reluctance, by many more ‘traditional’ churches. Yet even a cursory reading of the early parts of the Journal and Diary of Wesley will reveal that the singing of hymns and prayer were an essential part of his life. So in the Journal for 12/1/41 ‘In the evening our souls were so filled with the spirit of prayer and thanksgiving that I could scarce tell how to expound until I found where it is written “my song shall be always of the loving kindness of the Lord. With my mouth will I ever be showing thy truth from one generation to another”’. The hymns, often ones written by Charles Wesley, were all part of the revival and worship is that for which humanity was made, according to the Westminster Confession. ‘After spending part of the night at Fetter Lane I went to a smaller company, where also we exhorted one another with hymns and spiritual songs, and poured out our hearts to God in prayer. Toward morning one of them was overwhelmed with joy and love, and could not help showing it by strong cries and tears. At this another was much displeased, saying it was only nature, imagination, and animal spirits. 0 Thou jealous God, lay not this sin to her charge! And let us not be wise above what is written.’ [Journal 24/12/39].
Worship in its purest form is supposed to lead us into the very presence of God. True worship will engage the mind, will and emotion of the worshipper and lead them into the place where, with a clean conscience, they will know the intimate presence of God in Christ. This intimacy is what Wesley sought and found, so that he knew that he was a child [son] of the Most High God. However, I would want to say that Wesley was a ‘reasonable charismatic’ and has something to say to us today. Why reasonable? Wesley was a man of the book, the scriptures. However, he did not only use the bible – he read widely right up to the last years of his life, but the scriptures were central to his understanding of God and His dealings with humanity. The famous ‘Wesley Quadrilateral’ of Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience can point to his response to the charismatic experience that he and so many of his followers entered into. In Wesley’s theology, experience of the grace and liberty of God’s love in Christ was the Christian’s birthright. The hymns of Charles Wesley are full of words such as ‘My God I know, I feel thee mine, and will not quit my claim…’ [H&P 740]. But for Wesley and his theology all four of the above aspects are seen to be working in harmony. So, when he came into the experience of God at Aldersgate, he wanted to relate that to the scriptures and to reason. When he saw the gifts of the Spirit manifest in response to his ministry, he looked to see what light the traditions of the church and scripture could shed on the experiences of his people. Wesley writes: “I was fully convinced of what I had long suspected, 1. That the Montanists, in the second and third centuries, were real, scriptural Christians; and, 2. that the grand reason why the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn, was not only that faith and holiness were well nigh lost; but that dry, formal, orthodox men began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves, and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.” [Journal 15th August 1750]
The reasonable charismatic Wesley was also not likely to be carried along by any person’s protestations of faith or experiences. Part of the role of the Class Meetings was to check on the ‘enthusiasms’ of some of the newly converted people. Wesley himself set apart most of the winter periods of his long ministry to visit all the ‘Classes’ in London or Bristol. Further, as a reasonable charismatic, Wesley was well aware of the dangers of seeing all spiritual manifestations as being of the Spirit of God. He writes: The danger was to regard extraordinary circumstances too much, such as outcries, convulsions, visions, trances, as if these were essential to the inward work, so that it could not go on without them. Perhaps the danger is to regard them too little, to condemn them altogether, to imagine they had nothing of God in them and were an hindrance to his work. Whereas the truth is:
God suddenly and strongly convinced many that they were lost sinners, the natural consequence whereof were sudden outcries and strong bodily convulsions.
To strengthen and encourage them that believed and to make his work more apparent, he favoured several of them with divine dreams, others with trances and visions.
In some of these instances, after a time, nature mixed with grace.
Satan likewise mimicked this work of God, in order to discredit the whole work. And yet it is not wise to give up this part, any more than to give up the whole. At first it was doubtless wholly from God. It is partly so at this day. And he will enable us to discern how far in every case the work is pure, and where it mixes or degenerates. [WJW Vol. 21 p234-5]
It would have been so very helpful if those of us within the Charismatic movement had always been as wise in our dealings with others, and ourselves, as we sought to respond to the modern outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God. The above shows that Wesley was a man of his time yet used his God-given intellect to examine and reason with the faith that was his. A reasonable man, he was equipped with the gifts of the Spirit necessary for him to undertake the tasks to which God had called him. Yet he was also aware of his absolute need to rely upon God the Holy Spirit for those Gifts of the Spirit that enabled him to fulfill his God-Ordained call.
Charismatic? He would not have used the word. However, the way in which he saw and experienced the work of God in the world and his understanding of the role of the Spirit, his openness to the gifts of the Spirit in his own ministry and in the ministry of others enables me to line him up as a reasonable charismatic.
Paul, the Spirit and the People of God Gordon Fee Hodder & Stoughton 1976
Explanatory Notes on the New Testament – Epworth ed. 1977
‘The Works of John Wesley’ ed. W Reginald Ward and Richard P Heitzenrater Abingdon Press 1990
The Journal of John Wesley Epworth Press 1938 ONLINE
Article from ‘Wesley Centre Online’ John Wesley the Methodist Chapter VII - The New Birth
Wesleyan Theological Journal [Vol15, Number 2, Spring 1980] Snyder, Howard A.
The Revd Rod Ingrouille is a circuit Methodist minister in the Gordano Valley Circuit and was previously a Superintendent in Abergavenney and Chepstow.
METConnexion, Summer 2012, pp7-9