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John Wesley and The Witness Of The Spirit


This paper first appeared in Theological Digest & Outlook (Burlington) in July of 1995


Abingdon Press’s 35-volume annotated edition of Wesley’s Works (14 of which have been completed) begins with four volumes of sermons. Yet as soon as newly interested readers open Volume I of Sermons On Several Occasions they know that the form of these “sermons” has to differ from the form of Wesley’s marketplace utterances. The crowds of thousands who heard Wesley preach included many who were minimally literate, more than a few who were not even that, and scarcely anyone who possessed Wesley’s sophistication in theology, philosophy and literature. The published sermons, on the other hand, are replete with references that presuppose no little erudition. In addition the published sermons are devoid of the illustrations and the rhetorical devices that preachers employ to retain the attention of those unaccustomed to the relatively abstract medium of an oral address lacking the advantage of repeated examination. Plainly the form of the printed sermon is better suited to discussion in the classroom or perusal in the study.

In fact for the most part the sermons are the unillustrated distillate of Wesley’s daily pronouncements; unillustrated, that is, compared to the sort of preaching necessary to attract and hold throngs. The sermons, then, were essentially tracts written for people who needed a compendium of the doctrines which underlay the Revival. In addition the sermons attempted to defuse the hostile attacks of those who misunderstood Wesley and his movement, falsely accusing them of theological dilution, social destabilization, psychological exploitation, and even sedition.

While the sermons were not preached verbatim as they appear in Wesley’s Works, they were yet “preached” inasmuch as Wesley’s ceaseless itinerating found him constantly expanding, illustrating, repeating and subtly reshaping them. (According to his Journal, for instance, he preached on Ephesians 2:8 — “For by grace you have been saved through faith” — no fewer than 60 times.)

There is another sense in which some sermons were “preached”: the theological substance of the sermon was found in Wesley’s public proclamation while the sermon itself was never preached on any one occasion. In other words the sermon was made public only in written form, even though its content leavened Wesley’s oral pronouncements on assorted topics. The two sermons, “The Witness of the Spirit (I and II)” belong to this latter category. Today we should simply designate them essays.

As is evident from even a casual reading of the Works, Wesley had to contend on several fronts throughout his ministry. One front was the Scylla/Charybdis of “formality” and “enthusiasm”. Formalism was an intellectual frigidity that confined itself to doctrinal refinement (or speculation) without impact on life. Enthusiasm (which Wesley defined as the elevation of experience above scripture) was a superheated emotionalism that disdained doctrine only to gush and gurgle in a mindless sentimentality devoid of morality and a religious romanticism devoid of righteousness. Head and heart were always to complement one another.

Wesley refers to these two pitfalls in his Preface as he states once again the purpose of his work:

And herein it is more especially my desire, first to guard those who are just setting their faces toward heaven…from formality, from mere outside religion, which has almost driven heart-religion [Wesley’s Journal entry of 2nd August, 1771, speaks of heart-religion as “righteousness and joy in the Holy Ghost … the gate of it, justification … the life of God in the soul of man.”] out of the world; and secondly, to warn those who know the religion of the heart¬† … lest at any time they make void the law through faith, and so fall back into the snare of the devil.

When Christians of Methodist conviction spoke of the witness of the Spirit they were instantly accused of an enthusiasm amounting to fanaticism. Wesley, however, steadfastly refused to be stampeded. He knew that the indefensible vagaries found in those who valued heat above light did not discredit the gospel-quickened faith of those who cherished St.Paul’s legacy: God’s children are permitted and privileged to know themselves such. Wesley steadfastly maintained that the witness of God’s Spirit, assuring believers of their standing in Christ, had everything to do with their salvation, their comfort, their holiness (and therefore their temporal and eternal happiness, since he consistently linked holiness and happiness — “None but the holy are finally happy”); everything as well to do with an undeviating discipleship that eschews both formalism and fanaticism; everything to do, for preachers especially, with urgency and zeal in the fulfilment of their vocation.

Wesley always regarded the Sermons On Several Occasions as his major theological statement. At the same time the major statement never precluded many minor. He supplemented the Sermons with other treatises as situations arose, in the unfolding of the 18th century Evangelical Revival, that required additional comment. (One thinks immediately of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [1777] bracketed by two sermons, “Christian Perfection [1741] and “On Perfection” [1784]. Rather oddly, then, the Sermons On Several Occasions were considerably less “occasional” than the supplementary materials, the sermons functioning as the theological primer of Wesleyan Methodism. At the same time they were a theological grid that provided the interpretative framework needed to prevent Methodist Christians — and preachers especially — from suffering doctrinal disorientation. (In this regard the Sermons functioned much as Calvin’s Institutes had in the 16th century Reformation in Geneva, even as Calvin continued to write occasional pieces in response to crises.)




“… it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spiritthat we are children of God.”

(Romans 8:16)

The inclusion of the “The Witness of the Spirit” (I&II) in SOSO indicates the place Wesley gave to assurance in his understanding of the Christian life. For several years his critics had insisted that the Revival merely fanned the “enthusiasm” that the 18th Century Enlightenment despised. While the same critics regarded assurance as merely one more aspect of the despicable, Wesley himself insisted that the spiritually needy who looked to the gospel yet were devoid of assurance had therein had their everyday anxiety exacerbated by a peculiarly religious anxiety. At the same time he admitted that those who prattled cavalierly of assurance even as they undervalued the specificity of gospel-truth plainly were enthusiasts and merited being exposed as such. He wanted to help his people along the fine line between the two distortions. He knew that failure to identify and walk the fine line would leave his people meandering and flip-flopping.

In the first paragraph of Part I Wesley identifies the pitfall of subjectivism. “How many have mistaken the voice of their own imagination” for the witness of God’s Spirit, only to assume they were children of God when in fact they continued to behave in conformity to their actual father, the evil one! This lack of self-perception (born of presumption) is “truly and properly” enthusiasm. As lack of self-perception is protracted it sets like concrete. In addition to their initial mistake the enthusiasts confuse their vehemence and impetuosity and intractability with obedience to the command of God to “contend for the faith.” (Jude 3)

In view of the widespread abuse of such a “witness” Wesley concedes that nervous observers might wish to dismiss the contemporary application of the doctrine, relegating the “testimony” to those extraordinary gifts that were said to cease with the close of the apostolic age. His reading of scripture, however, does not permit this facile evasion — even though he will have to spend the rest of his life disowning the distortions surrounding this one theological conviction. Wesley could never deny that the “testimony of the Spirit” looms large in scripture, “a truth revealed therein not once only, not obscurely, not incidentally, but frequently, and that in express terms … as denoting one of the peculiar privileges of the children of God.”

In discussing the relation of the Spirit’s testimony to our spirit’s, Wesley carefully avoids collapsing one into the other. The text (not to mention the corroborating experience of believers) speaks of both the testimony of God’s Spirit and the testimony of ours concerning our adoption.

With respect to the testimony of our spirit Wesley maintains that scripture is unambiguous. It states repeatedly, for instance, that the children of God keep the commandments of God (1 John 2:5) even as they love fellow-children of God (1 John 3:14). Upon examining themselves believers conclude that they do keep the commandments of God and love fellow-Christians, and therefore rightly conclude that they are indeed God’s children. Wesley admits that “this is no other than rational evidence: the ‘witness of our spirit’, our reason or understanding.”

If self-doubt besets believers and they ask themselves how they know whether they truly love fellow-Christians or keep God’s commandments, Wesley attempts to succour them by resorting to an intuitionist epistemology, as valid in the realm of Christian existence as it is in the realm of sense-experience.

How does it appear that to you that you are alive? And that you are now in ease and not in pain? Are you not immediately conscious of it? By the same immediate consciousness you will know if your soul is alive to God; if you are saved from the pain of proud wrath …. By the same means you cannot but perceive if you love, rejoice, and delight in God. ¬† …. Your conscience informs you from day to day if you do not take the name of God within your lips unless with seriousness and devotion, with reason and godly fear…”

The foregoing is the testimony of our spirit. “It is a consciousness of having received, in and by the Spirit of adoption, the tempers mentioned in the Word of God as belonging to his adopted children.”

Plainly, the testimony of our spirit is an inference-following-reflection. Self-examination concerning our conformity to the command of God leaves our conscience unaroused; we conclude that the Spirit of God has effected such transmutation within us as to give rise to those marks that constrain us to thank God for his self-evidencing work of grace.

Admittedly, Wesley is placing no little emphasis on the assumption that self-examination yields self-perception. He did not deny the submerged currents of sin in humankind, as his unqualified endorsement of the 16th century Reformers’ doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity attests. At the same time, he always insisted on holding out hope for those discouraged by the submerged currents (which, sorry to say, are never merely submerged). He knew that hope, in order to be biblical hope and not natural wishful thinking, had to be grounded in the actuality of deliverance. Throughout his ministry Wesley reminded his people that God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it. (According to Wesley, deliverance from the power of sin was confirmation that one had been pardoned from the guilt of sin.) The blaspheming substance-abuser, now possessed of God-fearing sobriety and social usefulness, could legitimately conclude that by the grace of God he was a child of God.

Having discussed briefly the testimony of our spirit so as to distinguish it from the testimony of God’s Spirit, Wesley proceeds to consider the latter.

Wesley knows he is probing mystery in this matter. Mystery, according to the author of this paper, is not something bizarre or Hallowe’enish or occultish. Mystery is an everyday phenomenon (e.g., being in love) that is therefore ordinary or commonplace even as it is profound. It is inexpressibly profound; no vocabulary can do justice to it. Mystery may be described but never explained, let alone explained away. Mystery may be pointed to, commended, urged upon others, above all experienced. Yet before it language can finally only stammer. Definition and explanation are impossible; description is inadequate, description being the inarticulate attempt at having others undergo the same experience even as everyone recognizes the poverty of the words which have to be employed.

Wesley knows there are unfathomably mysterious depths to our encounter with God that leave our speech halting. The fact of the Spirit’s testimony does not leave Wesley tongue-tied at all; yet when he attempts to describe the how of it he first cautions us, “It is hard to find words in the language of men to explain ‘the deep things of God’. Indeed there are none that will adequately express what the children of God experience.” Nonetheless, since the alternative to semi-functional articulation is non-communication born of silence, Wesley steps forward. His initial assertion is unambiguous.

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; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.

The substance of the Spirit’s testimony is readily understood: believers have been reconciled to God through the love of that God who sacrificed himself in his Son, with the result that their condemnation is rescinded. The “how” of the Spirit’s testimony, says Wesley, requires much greater explication even as adequate explanation is finally impossible.

In his initial statement Wesley’s use of “inward impression on the soul” and “directly” indicates clearly where the Spirit’s testimony differs from our spirit’s. Whereas the latter is inference-following-reflection, the former is entirely non-inferential — at the same time as it is necessarily related to the gospel. The testimony of the Spirit is an idiogenic “mediated immediacy”. The immediacy of the Spirit is not the immediacy that Kierkegaard rightly denounced. (“Immediacy is paganism”, since immediacy disdains the particularity and historicity of the Incarnate one, whereas the immediacy of the Spirit is always “mediated” through the gospel.) At the same time, the testimony of the Spirit is not a conclusion drawn from premises. It is that “stamp” of the Spirit who presses and impresses himself upon us in such wise that he authenticates himself, and does so indisputably. In other words, the self-authentication of the Spirit is necessary (there being nothing outside of God that is able to authenticate him) and sufficient (there being nothing outside of God that is needed to authenticate him).

Next Wesley is careful to remind us that while he discussed the testimony of our spirit before that of God’s Spirit, in fact the latter precedes the former. “We must be holy of heart and holy in life before we can be conscious that we are so…. But we must love God before we can be holy at all; this being the root of all holiness. Now we cannot love till we know he loves us…. And we cannot know his pardoning love till his Spirit witnesses to our spirit.”

Several matters invite comment here. Wesley’s “know” is plainly more than “have correct information about”. He refers here not to the “head-knowledge” of an intellectual (doctrinal) apprehension of the meaning of “God is love”, but rather to “heart-knowledge”, the “inward impression on the soul”, the innermost conviction and assurance that the theological assertion concerning God’s love adequately describes the reality of the cosmocrator’s benevolent seizure of me.

The subtlety of Wesley’s dialectic in this discussion is profound. While the testimony of God’s Spirit plainly has to do with the “heartfelt-ness” of immediacy, Wesley judiciously directs believers away from themselves, away from a preoccupation with introspection. Evidently he fears fostering an introspection amounting to obsession; an obsession wherein believers think they can discern the testimony of God’s Spirit by ransacking themselves. First we must love God; we are directed away from ourselves to God, only then to find that God so honours our looking to him as to vouchsafe to us the assurance that he has pardoned us. In other words, reality always precedes apprehension of reality. At the same time, it is the nature of this reality (God) to forge within humankind an apprehension of the reality. The logical priority of the Spirit (i.e., the logical priority of God) does not entail divine remoteness. In fact the proximity (proximity of such a degree as to generate an “impression on the soul”) of God simultaneously facilitates the categories for apprehending the selfsame proximity. It is not the case that an impression is made on the soul even as beneficiaries of it are left puzzled as to its nature, origin and meaning. (Much as primitive people might be aware of the phenomena of a thunderstorm yet remain ignorant as to its origin and significance.) Wesley has carefully distinguished the transcendence of God from the testimony of God’s Spirit, and these in turn from a projection or fantasy that would leave him defenceless against the charge of enthusiasm.

The logical order of his discussion is inviolable: we must be reconciled to God through becoming the recipients of God’s pardon before we can be conscious of this.

So very concerned is Wesley to minimize misunderstanding on this matter that he looks at the topic now from this angle, now from another, much as a gemmologist observes scintillations reflecting off a precious stone as the stone is viewed from several different angles. Succinctly he comments, “It is he [i.e., the Holy Spirit] that not only worketh in us every manner of thing that is good, but also shines upon his own work, and clearly shows what he has wrought.” God enlightens us as to what God is doing in us. Were God to effect his salvific work in us and not enlighten us concerning this work within us, Wesley reminds us, we should then be left without awareness of “the things which are freely given to us of God” (1 Corinthians 2:12), and to this extent the testimony of our spirit would be enfeebled, in fact rendered impossible. Because God illumines us with respect to his work within us through the testimony of his Spirit, we are never left (i) wondering incessantly whether we are “in the boat” with Jesus or have missed it, (ii) attempting to impart an ersatz “assurance” by means of “enthusiasm”. The testimony of God’s Spirit, in concert with the testimony of our spirit, obviates both anguished insecurity and groundless bravado.

Once again Wesley turns the gem over in his hand. Anticipating a query from someone who is afflicted with doubt concerning her adoption, Wesley reverts to his intuitionist epistemology. When, in the normal course of our lives, we delight in something creaturely that pleases us, the immediacy of our delight is as much assurance as we need (or can have) as to the actuality of our delight. (In the same way, he adds, someone in pain needs no argument to persuade her she is in pain. To love God, delight in God, rejoice in God is to know incontrovertibly that one loves, delights, and rejoices. And to know that God is the author and object of all this is to know that one is a child of God.

Then, in his sermon, “The Witness of the Spirit”, Wesley advances for our consideration what seems only a redundant instance of his oft-illustrated assertion, “A Christian…has as full an assurance [of his being a child of God] as he has that the scriptures are of God” — when in fact he has reached back into Calvin’s doctrine of scripture and borrowed its logic concerning the work of the Spirit. In a pregnant passage much cherished throughout the Reformed tradition Calvin writes, “…scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.” (Institutes, 1.7.2) Just as scripture needs no external authentication of its truth, so believers need no external authentication of their standing in Christ. Calvin’s point is this: to the extent that the Spirit is used of God to bind us to Jesus Christ (i.e., to the extent that the Spirit authenticates Jesus Christ and our inclusion in him), the Spirit by that fact also authenticates the means by which our Lord and we became fused. Wesley’s point is that as the gospel-truth concerning the Spirit’s witness is promulgated, the Spirit confirms the adoption of believers so as to leave them no doubt concerning the truth that is now “impressed” upon their heart. Since God alone authenticates himself to believers (the 16th century Reformers were fond of saying, “God is the only fit witness to himself”), the demand for the criteria of such authentication Wesley pronounces an “idle demand”.

Wesley concludes his overview of the Spirit’s testimony by reminding readers that the mystery surrounding this unique work of the Spirit precludes definition and explication.

The manner how the divine testimony is manifested to the heart I do not take upon myself to explain…. But the fact we know: namely, that the Spirit of God does give a believer such a testimony of his adoption that while it is present to the soul he can no more doubt the reality of his sonship than he can doubt the shining of the sun while he stands in the full blaze of his (sic) glory.

In Part II of “The Witness of the Spirit” Wesley amplifies this point, arguing that the moment Paul heard the voice of God on the Damascus road he knew it to be such, even though the apostle himself could never have proposed criteria by which to deem any one “voice” to be the voice of God. Wesley simply states, “But how he knew this who is able to explain?”. In the same way, when God speaks forgiveness to believers of any era they know themselves pardoned beyond refutation or extrinsic confirmation.

Yet lest any “enthusiast” claim hallucination or any other species of subjectivism to be the word of God Wesley carefully distinguishes once more between the joint testimony (of Spirit and spirit) and presumption or delusion. The unrepentant sinner, upon hearing of this “privilege of true Christians,…is prone to work himself up into a persuasion that he is already possessed” of it. Nonetheless, scripture consistently points out that conviction of sin always precedes assurance of pardon. Drawing on his experience as spiritual director, Wesley notes that humility is one concomitant of the testimony of the Spirit, while the presumptuous invariably exalt themselves. In the same vein the presumptuous are cavalier concerning the commandments of God, especially the command enjoining self-denial or cross-bearing, the presumptuous loftily announcing that they have “…found an easier path to heaven.” Moreover, those who have deluded themselves in the matter of the Spirit’s testimony undervalue scripture’s insistence on the joint testimony; their “discipleship” fails to display the fruits of the Spirit. In any case the vehemence of the self-deluded’s expostulations does not obviate the veridicality of the Spirit’s work in others, just “as a madman’s imagining himself a king does not prove that there are no real kings.”

Calvin had said that when even the children of God look into their own heart what they find there is enough to horrify them; they find pathetically little evidence of their renewal at God’s hand. Is Calvin correct? Is Wesley naive where the Genevan may have been realistic? In Part II, written in the light of 20 years’ pondering Part I and 20 years’ evaluating the spiritual condition of the Methodist people, Wesley concurs with Calvin’s assessment. There are episodes in the Christian’s life when the residues of sin becloud the testimony of our spirit. At such times only divine testimony can attest that we are a child of God in the face of our inner whisperings to the contrary. For this reason Wesley now states as a spiritual director of greater maturity, “…we contend that the direct witness may shine clear, even while the indirect one is under a cloud.” (It is noteworthy that while Calvin doesn’t use the vocabulary of “the testimony of our spirit” he does recognize the effect of believers’ residual sin upon their assurance of their standing in Christ. In his commentaries on Hebrews 10:22 and 2 Corinthians 1:21 Calvin speaks of the subordinate assurance of faith that the love engendered in believers lends them. However, Calvin strictly understands such assurance — born of the fact that the “good tree” is now producing “good fruit” — to be subordinate. It can never be the ground of assurance. Love is defective even in believers, he reminds us in his commentary on 1 John 4:13, and the good deeds of even believers ever remain sin-tainted.) Commensurate with his greater maturity Wesley shifts his emphasis so as to link the testimony of the Spirit explicitly to justification: assurance chiefly confirms believers in their forgiveness at God’s hand and their acceptance with God despite the arrears of their sin. Indeed, since we cannot believe ourselves justified, on account of our lingering proclivity to sin, apart from the witness of the Spirit, to deny the testimony is “in effect to deny justification by faith.” This, of course, Wesley will never do, thoroughgoing son of the Reformation that he is. As if to remind his readers of his confessional standing he borrows the vocabulary of this 17th century Puritan forebears: the Spirit attests the “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness.

Even so, episodes of the sort mentioned above do not last forever. The clouds that becloud the indirect witness part, and Wesley returns to his characteristic insistence that the testimony which assures believers is finally a joint testimony as the fruits of the Spirit appear, however slenderly, in Christ’s people.


For as long as breath remained in him Wesley rejoiced that “this great evangelical truth has been recovered, which had been for many years wellnigh lost and forgotten.”

Who had recovered it? And who has been mandated to safeguard it? Wesley’s conviction here was ironfast.

It more clearly concerns the Methodists, so called, clearly to understand, explain, and defend this doctrine, because it is one grand part of the testimony which God has given them to bear to all mankind.

The mandate has never been revoked.


Victor A. Shepherd