From the outset of the Methodist revival, Wesley emphasized that his ministry was concerned for heartfelt faith in the life of Christian believers. Wesley himself had had a heartwarming experience at a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street in 1738. After hearing Martin Luther's “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans,” Wesley claimed to sense an assurance, reminiscent of Romans 8:2. God “had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”Journal, §14, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 18:250, 24 May 1738. Wesley scholars debate the actual significance of the Aldersgate event. However, despite debate, Wesley thereafter emphasized the experiential dimension intrinsic to Christian faith and practice.
In theology Wesley was concerned also about incorporating the experiential dimension into matters of Christian faith and practice. Wesley often liked to refer to true Christianity as “heart-religion.” In the Preface to the Sermons, Wesley equated true religion with that which is both scriptural and experimental in nature. We have already seen that in using the term experimental, Wesley referred primarily to the heartfelt element of faith. According to Wesley, faith involved more than the intellect or intellectually affirmed beliefs. Faith involved trust, reminiscent of Luther's evangelical concerns, yet it was faith that was sensed in the lie of a believer and practically lived out in works of love. Wesley's emphases upon the felt assurance of salvation and the expectation of divine empowerment for a lifestyle of love distinguished him from Luther and the other Reformers. In explication of what he meant by true, scriptural, experimental religion, he commented:
...herein is more especially my desire, first, to guard those who are just setting their faces toward heaven (and who, having little acquaintance with the things of God, and the more liable to be turned out of the way) from formality, from mere outside religion, which has almost driven heart-religion out of the world; and secondly, to warn those who know the religion of the heart, the faith which worketh by love, lest at any time they make void the law through faith, and so fall back into the snare of the devil.Preface, §6, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 1:106.
The Collection of Hymns represents an excellent example of how Wesley, borrowing a line from one of Charles' hymns, sought to “Unite the pair so long disjoined, Knowledge and vital piety.”Charles Wesley, “A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists,” (hymn 461), l.5, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 7:644. John Wesley considered the hymnbook “a little body of experimental and practical divinity,” and he recommended it for worship “as a means of raising or quickening the spirit of devotion, or confirming his faith, of enlivening his hope, and of kindling or increasing his love to God and man.”Preface, §4, 8, “A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists,” Works (Bicentennial ed.), 7:74, 75. We see how important it was to conceive of religion as a matter of the heart and of love, which is the goal of scriptural religion. Mildred Wynkoop rightly characterizes Wesley as advocating biblically based beliefs that result in a theology of love.See Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1972), 9-11.
Religious Affections. Religion was to be a matter of the heart, which included love and other religious affections. The most common meaning of “affections” as found in Wesley's writings pertains to “the general orientation of the person.”Gregory S. Clapper, John Wesley on Religious Affections: His Views on Experience and Emotion and Their Role in the Christian Life and Theology (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1989), 51. This orientation includes the emotions. So it was important to Wesley that theology understand the causes, nature, and importance of felt experience within believing individuals in order to establish a holistic vision of Christian life and theology.
Wesley believed that right beliefs alone were insufficient, both for the biblical authors and also for contemporary Christians. In the Preface to his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Wesley said that “An exact knowledge of the truth was accompanied, in the inspired writers, with an exactly regular series of arguments, a precise expression of their meaning and a genuine vigor of suitable affections.”Preface, §11, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (1755 reprint; London: Epworth Press, 1976), 9. These affections were critical to the inspiration of the Scriptures, so the Scriptures become critical to developing similar affections. In order to understand and apply Scripture in the best way possible, he argued that “we should observe the emphasis which lies on every word—the holy affections expressed thereby, and the tempers shown by every writer.”Preface, §12, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 10. He found it lamentable that such holy affections were regarded so little by Christians.
In the interpretation of Scripture, Wesley provided numerous hermeneutical steps a believer should follow to understand and apply Scripture correctly. To begin with, one should begin the study of Scripture within the context of prayer. In addition, one should frequently pause to reflect upon the state of one's present life in relationship to that which is read. These devotional steps and others served to hold in balance the critical study of Scripture and its spiritual and social relevance.See Preface, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, 3 vols. (1765 reprint; Salem, Ohio: Schmul, 1975), 1. Cf. summaries of Wesley's scriptural hermeneutics in William M. Arnett, “John Wesley—Man of One Book” (Diss., Drew University, 1954), 89-96; and Outler, introduction, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 1:58-59.
The development of right affections as well as sensitivity to the witness and guidance of the Holy Spirit do not occur without some preparation or training on the part of believers. Wesley's Arminianism affirmed the synergistic cooperation between God's call and people's response in effecting full salvation. That salvation includes the believer's justification and sanctification. With regard to justification, Wesley expected a decisive and conscious conversion on the part of believers. However, justification involved more than the imputation of righteousness. It also involved the impartation of righteousness in the new birth (1Pe 1:3). Christians had the privilege of sensing in their own spirits, through the witness of the Holy Spirit, that they had become children of God (Ro 8:16).See “The Witness of the Spirit, I” (1746, sermon 10), “The Witness of the Spirit, II” (1767, sermon 11), and “The Witness of Our Own Spirit” (1746, sermon 12), Works (Bicentennial ed.), 1:267-313. The new birth ushers in the possibility of living a Christlike life, wholly motivated by love. This possibility pertains to sanctification—“loving the Lord their God with all their heart, and their neighbour as themselves; and the being purified from pride, anger, and evil desire, by a ‘faith of the operation of God.’”“The Means of Grace,” (1746, sermon 16), [I].2, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 1:378.
Wesley believed that a relative degree of Christian perfection was attainable in this life because Scripture talks about becoming perfect (Mt 5:48), loving God with all one's heart, soul, mind and strength (Mt 22:37-40; Mk 12:28-30), perfecting holiness (2Co 7:1), crucifying the sinful nature (Gal 5:24), becoming blameless (1Th 5:23), and going on to maturity, which means perfection (Heb 6:1). Wesley did not advocate absolute or Adamic perfection. But he concluded that we need to develop a significant understanding of Christian perfection—in terms of the perfecting of love—that makes sense of scriptural teachings and our experience of the power of God to transform the lives of believers. Christian perfection was conceived of in terms of love because only “love is productive of all right affections.”“To Dr. Conyers Middleton,” VI.I.6, Letters (Telford ed.), 2:377, 24 January 1749.
Means of Grace. The development of love in the renewal of the image of God, which Wesley strove to engender in the lives of Christians, involved human as well as divine participation. Wesley believed that God's grace represented the beginning, continuation, and end of all aspects of salvation, but that grace did not preclude responsibility on the part of individuals. Once people responded to God in faith, growth was to be sought “with all diligence, in the way which [God] hath ordained.”“A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,”§19, Works (Jackson ed.), 11:403. Wesley emphasized the means of grace as the ordinary way in which to encourage worship and effect growth.
He distinguished between instituted means of grace and prudential means of grace. The instituted means of grace include those channels found in Scripture, specifically instituted by Jesus Christ, through which God conveys blessings to humans. The channels include the following:
...prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scripture (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon) and receiving the Lord's Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of him; and these we believe to be ordained of God as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.“The Means of Grace,” (1746, sermon 16), II.1, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 1:381.
The list is not exhaustive because Wesley also considered such activities as fasting and the assembling of believers in small groups for fellowship, nurture, and witness to be indispensable emphases in the early church.Williams, John Wesley's Theology Today, 135. His own emphasis upon small groups was influenced through formative contacts in his early life with the pietistic theology and worship practices of the Moravians. He incorporated small-group dynamics into the Methodist revival, and then improved upon them by establishing a highly efficient organization of societies, classes, and bands. New converts were enfolded into small groups as quickly as possible, and, in fact, most worship, evangelism, social service, and Christian nurture occurred within the dynamic of small groups.
The prudential means of grace included the rules for giving structure to the Christian life, particularly as implemented in small groups. These rules were based upon principles found in Scripture and could vary, depending upon changing circumstances of an individual or society. This is why they were considered prudent for growth in grace. They promoted prayer; the hearing, reading, and meditation upon Scripture; and so on. Wesley considered the rules to be essential for establishing spiritual discipline in the lives of believers and in providing guidelines to which individuals must submit in order to maintain good standing in the Methodist movement. As a result, the Methodist societies, classes, and bands involved a high degree of religious zeal and accountability. But another result was a high degree of success in evangelism, Christian nurture, church renewal, and social service.
Great Awakenings. The Great Awakening is usually identified with the several religious revivals that occurred in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Methodism in the United States both contributed to and benefited from these events. Although they were not exclusively Methodist awakenings, the term aptly symbolizes the spirit of Wesley's ministry and the theology of the Wesleyan tradition in England, the United States, and around the world.
In the United States under the episcopal leadership of Francis Asbury (1745-1816), itinerant preachers, known as circuit riders, spread the gospel by horseback across the growing nation. Once people became Methodists, they were enfolded into weekly class meetings for “fellowship in Christian experience.”The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, eds., F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (1958; rev. ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 909. Emphasis upon personal conversion, inner assurance of salvation, and holy living continued as primary themes, and revivalism became the dominant means for effecting the ministry.
As Methodism grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in the United States by 1840, some of the distinctive characteristics of Methodism began to wane. Emphases upon revivalism and small groups diminished as did emphasis upon such doctrines as sanctification. With regard to the latter, the Holiness movement emerged within Methodism during the middle of the nineteenth century as a part of the Higher Christian Life Movement.
The Holiness movement emphasized two crisis moments in the lives of believers: conversion and entire sanctification. Entire sanctification signifies that transformation, subsequent to conversion, when the total consecration of the believer is met by the gracious empowerment of God to live lives characterized by full intention to love God and one's neighbor. Entire sanctification was thought to come, like conversion, in an instant by grace through faith. This emphasis had been present in Wesley, but the Holiness movement emphasized the crisis dimension to the extent that it tended to neglect the progressive aspect of sanctification present before and after any such crisis moments. Melvin Dieter suggests that Holiness proponents such as Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) “centered more on the significance of the experience of the critical moment than on the nature of the ongoing relationship” with God.Melvin E. Dieter, “The Wesleyan Perspective,” Five Views on Sanctification, ed., Melvin E. Dieter, et al. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 41. As such, the Holiness movement shifted away from the balance Wesley had maintained in his interpretation of Scripture.
The movement did, however, preserve Wesley's emphasis upon right affections characteristic of the original Methodist movement. Holiness in fact came to symbolize the essence of Wesleyanism. With its emphasis upon the wholeness of the Christian experience, as characterized by holy living, the movement sought to revive the holistic vision of Christianity put forth by Wesley. For example, Palmer was one of the most effective Holiness revivalists, traveling across the United States to promote evangelism and holiness in churches and camp meetings. Non-Methodists supported holiness teachings on Christian perfection through the ministries and writings of such people as Charles Finney (1792-1875) and Asa Mahan (1799-1889), who became representative of the Oberlin perfectionist teaching.
Palmer also revived the importance of small groups, for example, as found in her Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness. These meetings were held weekly in New York City, which influenced Christians inside and outside Methodism. Today the mandatory discipline of small groups has largely disappeared from the Wesleyan tradition, though evangelical churches and para-church groups still encourage their formation. Interestingly, modern proponents of church growth appeal to the small group dynamics of Pietism and Wesleyanism as models of success on which to develop contemporary strategies for growth.
The Holiness movement produced a wealth of practical theology, including published sermons, devotional literature, magazines, tracts, and hymnody. This practical theology served to put into the hands of common and often poor people easily accessible guides to Scripture that were of evangelistic, instructional, and devotional use. The pervasiveness of such literature reinforced the American camp meeting revivals and the Sunday school movement of the late nineteenth century. Today, emphasis upon hymnody and worship within the Wesleyan tradition may still be found, as for example in the theology of such Methodists as Geoffrey Wainright, whose book Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life: A Systematic Theology (Oxford Univ. Press) presents theology within the context of doxa (giving glory).
Protests against the lack of holiness preaching within Methodist churches in the United States resulted in the secession of such denominations as the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843 and the Free Methodist Church in 1860, the first self-styled Holiness denominations. Within mainline Methodism, however, the influence of the Holiness movement formally took hold in the National Campmeeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness, which was organized in 1867. This organization later became the National Holiness Association, which promoted holiness through publications and missions as well as camp meetings, and is now known as the Christian Holiness Association. Eighteen denominations and nearly fifty colleges and theological seminaries comprise the Association.
In Britain, holiness emphases were imported from the United States through the meetings held by the husband and wife team of Robert Pearsall Smith (1827-1899) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911), whose devotional writings are still popular today. Their influence, along with that of William Boardman (1810-1886), contributed to the emergence of the Keswick Convention in 1876, which became part of the Higher Christian Life Movement in Britain. The Keswick Convention does not involve a doctrinal system; it is a “Convention for the Promotion of Practical Holiness,” through week-long conventions or meetings with emphases upon sin, God's provision, consecration, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and service.See Steven Barabas, So Great Salvation (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 21, 108. Although Keswick theology reflects mainstream Protestantism, its emphasis upon the development of holy living through spiritual disciplines reflects its holiness origins in Methodism; however, it differs from the American Holiness movement in its understanding of the nature of sanctification. Keswick teaching gained influence in the United States near the end of the nineteenth century through the ministry and organizations established by such people as Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899).
In Keswick teaching and that of the Holiness movement, the experience of sanctification often became identified with Holy Spirit baptism. This language originated with John Fletcher (1729-1785), Wesley's chosen successor, rather than Wesley himself. But Wesley did not oppose Fletcher's Pentecostal and dispensational hermeneutic to his biblical interpretation of Christian perfection.See Dieter, “The Wesleyan View,” Five Views of Sanctification, 43-46. In this respect, Fletcher emphasized the promise to every believer of the Holy Spirit's full blessing. Fletcher's writings became influential in the United States, where more editions of his writings were published than those of Wesley.
Holy Spirit-baptism language eventually became incorporated into the Pentecostal movement in the United States. Some Pentecostals argued for sanctification as a second definite work of grace prior to baptism in the Holy Spirit, which represented a third definite work of grace and was confirmed by the gift of tongues. Other Pentecostals, influenced by Baptist and Reformed backgrounds, considered conversion the only prerequisite for baptism in the Holy Spirit.See Donald Dayton, The Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987). Within the Holiness tradition, no consensus has been reached concerning the proper interpretation and role of Holy Spirit baptism. However, in the broad Wesleyan movement within contemporary Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal churches, Dieter observes that all basically find their understanding of “full salvation” in the succinct questions and responses outlined by Wesley in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection:
Q. What is Christian Perfection?
A. The loving God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. . . .
Q. Can any mistake flow from pure love?
A. I answer, (1) Many mistakes may consist with pure love. (2) Some may accidentally flow from it; I mean love itself may incline us to mistake. . . .
Q. How shall we avoid setting perfection too high or too low?
A. By keeping to the Bible, and setting it just as high as the Scripture does. It is nothing higher and nothing lower than this...love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions. . . . [Christian] perfection . . . is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God.Dieter, “The Wesleyan Perspective,” Five Views of Sanctification, 45-46, quoting Wesley, “Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” §§19, 27, Works (Jackson ed.), 11:394, 397, 444.