Monday, August 14, 2006

John Wesley's Doctrine of Salvation: Part Three



Previously, we examined Wesley’s ordo salutis addressing prevenient grace, convicting grace/repentance, faith, and the new birth (justification, adoption, regeneration). We also focused upon the historical development of Wesley’s doctrine of justification and atonement. Now our attention will turn to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian assurance or what he often called the “witness of the Spirit.” We will begin with Wesley teaching on the doctrine and then examine the social-historical context in which he develops his doctrine.


John Wesley believed that those who had been pardoned and accepted by God through faith would not be left without an assurance of their right standing before God. Assurance is a witness to the Christian’s relationship with God as Father. To begin, Wesley’s doctrine of the assurance of salvation was grounded in his understanding of Romans 8:16, “For the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” As such he taught that there are two participants: God’s Spirit and our spirit. God’s Spirit is the subjective witness, the “inward impression upon the soul” testifying to the human heart that a person is a child of God, that a person has been brought into a right relationship with God and is in a right relationship with God. This inward impression may bring feelings or joy or a sense of forgiveness and confidence in relationship with God or it may not. It is a gift of God that God gives as He chooses. Our spirit is the objective witness. In an examination of our heart and lives under the direction of the teaching of scripture we can see if there is evidence of the new birth in our lives. Ultimately, for Wesley the assurance of salvation is an inner experience with objective quality.

Next, Wesley believed that assurance of salvation was the privilege of every believer, but every believer may not have this assurance. The assurance of salvation is not necessary to salvation. As such Wesley believed that the witness of the Spirit is “remotely necessary” after justification, but not immediately necessary to the new birth as faith is. Again, as stated earlier, this assurance is a gift of God that God gives as he chooses. Wesley states in this regard, “But that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth them, according to the counsels of his own will.”

Finally, Wesley believed that the witness of the Spirit or assurance of salvation is a testimony of present salvation and not final salvation. Christians can know they are presently saved, but because final salvation is contingent upon continued faith and cooperation with divine grace, there can not be any confidence about final salvation. Wesley believed that people can experience progress in the way of salvation by cooperating with divine grace; likewise, people can regress in the way of salvation through refusing to cooperate with divine grace. Therefore, while people can know that they are presently Christians, if they do not continue to cooperate with divine grace, they may find themselves in a place where they no longer have faith and are no longer Christians. Generally this does not happen in a moment, but in an on-going, day by day refusal to cooperate with the grace God makes available. So people can know that presently they are in a right relationship with God, but may not be five years from now.


As we examine John Wesley’s doctrine of assurance, we need to keep in mind the context in which Wesley develops his understanding. First, in regard to the larger context of the Roman Catholic tradition arising from the Council of Trent there is no doctrine of the assurance of salvation and no teaching on the witness of the Spirit in the work of salvation. Salvation was primarily by merit and the only way a Catholic could have any confidence in being saved was by active participation in penance. The Roman Catholic tradition at the time of Wesley could not begin to relate to an idea of people “knowing” they are saved. Second, in regard to the Anglican context of Wesley’s day, as has already been intimated, the focus was on reason and works in the doctrine of salvation. Justification was earned. As such, the doctrine of subjective assurance was seen as a form of “enthusiasm,” a form of “subversive and radical” experientialism. There was an underlying fear of emotion. Any form of subjective experience of assurance was denounced, as seen in Bishop George Bull’s appraisal of assurance as a “horrid thing” and his testimony that at best he could testify that “I am probably saved.” Finally, more specifically, in the Epworth parsonage in which Wesley grew up, any doctrine of assurance was not taught. The way Wesley would come to articulate his doctrine of assurance would not have been known by Wesley’s parents during his years in their care.

The most formative influence in Wesley’s life in the discovery and development of the doctrine of assurance was his contact and interaction with the Moravians. During his missionary journey to the American colonies, in the midst of a severe storm with the threat of the ship’s destruction, Wesley observed a group of Moravians who exhibited perfect peace and confidence. They had an assurance of salvation. This assurance of salvation by the Moravians was further clarified for Wesley through his conversations with Peter Bohler when he had returned to England. Through Bohler, Wesley became convinced of this assurance, while he himself has not experienced it yet. However this assurance would come to him in his Aldersgate experience. Wesley testifies, ““In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. 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 me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there, what I now first felt in my heart.” In Wesley’s first sermon after Aldersgate, “Salvation by Faith,” Wesley argues that assurance is not rational, rather it is a disposition or expression of the heart that has been saved from guilt and fear. Biblically, Wesley saw the doctrine of assurance in (a) Hebrews 6:11 which speaks of the “full assurance of hope” of eternal salvation, (b) Hebrews 10:22 which states, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance…” and Romans 8:16, “For the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

Initially, Wesley believed as did the Moravians that assurance of salvation was necessary for salvation. However, as Wesley matured he began to observe that human personality comes to play in the work of assurance. As such, assurance may come more easily to some than others. At times and places in a believer’s life there may be a stronger assurance of salvation than at other times and there may be times in which a believer has little or no assurance at all. While his doctrine of assurance was critiqued and ridiculed by many of his Anglican peers, Wesley continually defended it as a biblical teaching that was the privilege of every believer.


At 5:17 AM, Blogger Jeff Brady said...

Hey! First comment!! Yeah!

Dr. Bounds, I've read through your material just now, and it was a great refresher. This has been a long summer so I'm thrilled to get a little "charge" in my batteries so to speak. Thank you.

See you in a couple weeks.

Go with GOD,
Jeff Brady

P.S. We never did get together for lunch. When do you want to do that?

At 6:00 AM, Blogger Chris Bounds said...


Good to hear from you.

When you get back to campus, come by my office and sign up for a lunch. I will look forward to it.

Pax Christi,



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