Mark K. Olson, “John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit: An Exegetical Study – Part One”

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Abstract: In this two-part study John Wesley’s understanding of the baptism with the Holy Spirit is examined in detail. The phrase has been linked to a second, post-justification blessing in Holiness and Pentecostal theology. The central aim of the article is to ascertain Wesley’s perspective by probing into his Journals, Sermons, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, letters, and other writings.

Other related articles:

John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit: An Exegetical Study – Part Two
John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

[To view the footnotes on this page, scroll down to the bottom of the page. Clicking on the hyperlinked footnotes will take you off site to the notes in the original article location.]


Over the last several decades a renaissance in Wesley studies has led to significant shifts in how Christian perfection is understood in relation to the baptism with the Holy Spirit.1 While John Fletcher is usually credited as the first Methodist to formally link Spirit baptism to entire sanctification, Timothy Smith showed that most of the credit must go to Charles G. Finney and his Oberlin colleagues for introducing Spirit baptism into the message of the American Holiness Movement. In the latter part of the 1830’s Finney began proclaiming a second crisis of heart holiness that soon spilled over into Methodism and the burgeoning Holiness Movement.2 By the end of the 19th century the language of Spirit baptism for entire sanctification was nearly universal in the American Holiness Movement.3

The purpose of this paper is to explore a more basic question: what did John Wesley believe about the baptism with the Holy Spirit and what connections did he make of Spirit baptism to other aspects of his theology, especially his doctrine of Christian perfection. The plan is to probe Wesley’s journal, sermons, Explanatory Notes, and letters to ascertain his views on the baptism with the Holy Spirit. There are challenges to this study. For it is quite popular to link the terminology of Spirit baptism to the language of fullness (filling), blessing, and empowerment, since in Holy Scripture we see this pattern.4 Yet, this terminology does not always mean or convey the same idea in every passage of scripture, nor in a Wesley’s theology. So, we must be careful how broad we cast the net when we read Wesley.  We dare not assume that his views on Spirit baptism are intended, explicitly or implicitly, every time he uses the language of blessing, fullness, or power. But since these concepts are often correlated and interchangeable, we will need to look at how Wesley used these terms to communicate his views on Spirit baptism. With this said, we begin with Wesley’s Journal.

Spirit Baptism in the Journals

We find several comments that appear to connect Spirit fullness to the sacrament of water baptism in the Journals. On January 25, 1739 Wesley records the baptism of five people, one of whom was born again in a “full sense” of the word. That is, she had experienced a “thorough, inward change, by the love of God filling her heart.” Several decades later Wesley shares another example of Spirit fullness, “I baptized two young women; one of whom found a deep sense of the presence of God in his ordinance; the other received a full assurance of his pardoning love, and was filled with joy unspeakable.”5 So in the sacrament of water baptism Wesley understood that many were blessed with divine infilling.

Wesley conveys the same idea when he speaks of divine power in the sacrament, “In the evening I baptized a young woman, deeply convinced of sin. We all found the power of God was present to heal, and she herself felt what she had not words to express.”6 On another occasion he simply states that “God, as usual, bore witness to his ordinance.”7 So whether the language is fullness, power, witness, or blessing,8 Wesley appears to imply a possible link between Spirit baptism and the sacrament of water baptism.

But this linkage is strengthened when we turn to his Treatise on Water Baptism.9 For Wesley affirms in this tract that in the sacrament of baptism a person enters into covenant relationship with God (II.2), and becomes a member of Christ and his church (II.3). When we consider Wesley’s convictions that (1) Pentecost was the birthday of the church, and (2) all believers receive the Spirit of Christ,10 the connection between Spirit baptism and water baptism becomes even stronger. It would appear from several of Wesley’s journal comments that a possible link exists between Spirit baptism and the sacrament of water baptism.  If this linkage can be confirmed, then all believers are Spirit baptized according to Wesley.

There is more to consider. In the early sixties a powerful perfection revival swept through the Methodist societies ushering hundreds into a profession of heart purity.11 When the revival was nearing its peak, Wesley recalls in his journal the words of his brother Charles:

“Many years ago my brother frequently said, “Your day of Pentecost is not fully come; but I doubt not it will: and you will then hear of persons sanctified, as frequently as you do now of persons justified.” Any unprejudiced reader may observe, that it was now fully come.”12

This passage is significant in that Pentecost is explicitly linked to Christian perfection. When we remember it was at Pentecost that the first disciples were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5, 2:4), receiving the “gift of God” (Acts 2:39), Charles’ remark draws a connection between Spirit baptism and full salvation. Once again, this linkage is strengthened when Wesley refers to the reception of perfect love as the “gift of God,” thus implying a likely connection between Spirit baptism and Christian perfection.

Though preliminary, we can summarize our findings so far: Spirit baptism, in terms of Spirit fullness and power, often accompanies the sacrament of water baptism. This implies an association between Spirit baptism and regeneration in Wesley’s theology; especially since all believers, as members of Christ and his church, receive the Spirit and are thus baptized with the Spirit. Nonetheless, Spirit baptism also bears a connection to Christian perfection, though the exact nature of this correlation remains unclear at this point.

Spirit Baptism in the Sermons

The topic of Pentecost and Spirit baptism are noted several times in the sermon corpus. We begin by looking at Wesley’s comments regarding Pentecost. Like most Christians in the eighteenth century, Wesley believed Pentecost to be the birthday of the church.13 And like other evangelicals, Wesley romanticized about the apostolic era, referring to it as the golden era of the faith.14 But in other passages more is suggested. Wesley’s well-known theological proclivity toward the ideas of process and degrees influenced his thought here too. For though he recognized Pentecost as a past event, he also spoke of Pentecost as arriving by degrees, only to be fully realized in the future millennium, when everyone will be filled with the Holy Spirit (Wesley held a post-millennial viewpoint).15 Since Pentecost bears an unmistakable relation to Spirit baptism, we begin to see a degree of fluidness in Wesley’s views.

Turning to the sermon, Of the Church, we see Wesley’s Spirit baptism doctrine interfacing with his ecclesiology.Drawing upon Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Wesley defines the church as the “catholic or universal Church.”16 He then walks, phrase by phrase, through the seven “ones” of Ephesians 4:4-6, which constitute the church catholic (seven ones are: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God). Coming to the phrase, “there is one baptism,” Wesley introduces into the discussion Spirit baptism:

Some, indeed, have been inclined to interpret this in a figurative sense; as if it referred to that baptism of the Holy Ghost which the Apostles received at the day of Pentecost, and which, in a lower degree, is given to all believers.17

This quote illustrates Wesley’s fluid understanding of Spirit baptism. All believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit, but in comparison to the apostles, in a “lower degree.” Yet nothing is said as to what constitutes the different levels of Spirit baptism. It is left to us to ascertain from his other sermons the exact nature of degrees in Spirit baptism.

In the 1741 sermon, Christian Perfection, Wesley makes a sharp distinction between the privileges of the old and new covenants. Pointing to the words of Jesus in John 7:37-39; Wesley demarcates the new covenant from the old by the gift of the Spirit. But this gift, Wesley argues, refers not to the miracle-working power of the Spirit, because the disciples already possessed this power before the day of Pentecost. Instead, what Jesus promised is the Spirit’s sanctifying graces, “When the day of Pentecost was fully come…they who ‘waited for the promise of the Father,’ were made more than conquerors over sin by the Holy Ghost given unto them.”18 This explicit linking of Pentecost to Christian perfection can possibly pave the way to identify degrees within his Spirit baptism doctrine. For in the same sermon Wesley uses the categories of children, young men, and fathers to differentiate “several stages” of spiritual development.19 Since Wesley believed that only fathers are “perfect Christians,” this could possibly imply he believed children and young men to be Spirit baptized, but only in a lower degree.20

The distinction between the Spirit’s miracle-working power and his sanctifying graces is also addressed in the opening section of Scriptural Christianity. Using Acts 4:31 as the text—“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit”—Wesley makes a clear distinction between the extraordinary gifts, like healings, miracles, and speaking in tongues, and the ordinary fruits. The former are given sparingly, says Wesley, even in the apostolic age, but the latter is the privilege for all believers. Wesley then draws a romantic picture of the apostolic church as uniformly perfected in love and faith.21 But this latter description points us in the same direction as we found in Christian Perfection. For in the preamble Wesley points out that the “more excellent purpose” of Spirit baptism is to give believers the “mind which was in Christ” and those “holy fruits of the Spirit which whosoever hath not, is none of his.”22 The first blessing is a standard mark of Christian perfection in Wesley’s thought,23 while the last benefit expresses his concern for real Christianity (versus a mere nominal faith). When we add that Wesley’s description of the apostolic believer in section one conforms to his understanding of Christian perfection, we should conclude that a correlation between Spirit baptism and Christian perfection does exist in Wesley’s thought, and that degrees of Spirit baptism pertain to the stages of spiritual development.

But a further insight into Wesley’s Spirit baptism doctrine can be gleaned from another sermon. In Scriptural Christianity both the extraordinary gifts and the ordinary fruits belong to the one Spirit baptism. There are not two or three baptisms of the Spirit, each to be distinguished from the other. There is only one baptism with differing degrees and categories. The fact that Wesley links Acts 4:31 to Acts 2:1-4 in this sermon24 means that to be “filled with the Holy Ghost” is synonymous to being baptized with the Spirit. His further delineation between extraordinary and ordinary blessings within the same context confirms that this one baptism is received in differing degrees by God’s people. This insight will offer rich dividends later when we come to assess how Wesley correlates Spirit baptism to Christian perfection.

Spirit Baptism in Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament

In 1755 Wesley published his commentary on the New Testament. We begin with his remarks on the Gospels. Three passages warrant our attention. At Matthew 3:11 Wesley comments on John the Baptist’s message of the Coming One’s baptism with Spirit and with fire, “He shall fill you with the Holy Ghost, inflaming your hearts with that fire of love which many waters cannot quench.” Here, to be baptized with the Spirit is synonymous with being filled with the Spirit. Yet Wesley is quick to inform us of the nature of this filling: holy love inflaming the heart. Following this Wesley affirms that this promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Thus, we see another possible linkage of Pentecost and Spirit baptism with Christian perfection in Wesley’s thought.

Turning to the Gospel of John we look at two passages. In chapter seven Jesus promises a continuous flow of living water, which John informs us refers to the eschatological Spirit (7:37-39). Wesley interprets this outpouring as a filling of the Spirit’s fruits. Later, when Jesus in a parabolic act breathes on his disciples, and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Wesley interprets this to mean the Pentecostal Spirit was given out of Christ’s fullness (20:22): The Spirit proceeds from Christ and ministers his fullness.25 We saw above that Spirit baptism is a concomitant to the believer’s union with Christ, often manifested in the sacramental waters of baptism. Here Wesley affirms the same truth: Christ gives the Spirit. There is no Spirit baptism apart from membership in Christ. But there is more to consider. Wesley proceeds to see in Jesus’ breathing on the disciples an inherent promise that the Spirit will exercise a special, even “peculiar” influence on the disciples to fit them for their unique calling. For there is more to Spirit baptism than union with Christ and his sanctifying graces; there are the Spirit’s extraordinary gifts. With these insights we turn to the book of Acts.

The fluidity we have seen in Wesley’s Spirit-baptism views up to this point becomes more evident in his many comments on key passages in Acts. Luke begins with Jesus’ promise to baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit. Wesley’s comment reveals the theological hermeneutic that will guide his comments on Acts:

Verse 5. Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost—And so are all true believers, to the end of the world. But the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost also are here promised.

As we have seen, Wesley believes there is one baptism with various degrees. All believers are baptized with the Spirit’s sanctifying graces (ordinary fruits), but only a select few with the extraordinary gifts. These twin categories guide Wesley’s interpretation on all key Spirit-baptism passages in the book of Acts. Just three verses later Jesus promises to give Spirit-endowed power to his disciples (1:8). Wesley remarks that this power is for preaching (gift) and suffering (grace). Later, when Peter told the crowd to repent, be baptized, and they would receive the Spirit (2:38-39), Wesley clarifies that this promise does not refer to the gift of tongues (extraordinary gift) but to the “constant fruits of faith, even righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (sanctifying graces). In Acts 6:3 Wesley notes the seven deacons are given a “large measure both of the gifts and grace of God.” At Acts 8:15 Wesley asks if the Samaritans reception of the Spirit refers to the Spirit’s “miraculous gifts, or his sanctifying graces?” His answer is straightforward, “Probably in both.” Finally, at Acts 19:2 Wesley explains Paul’s question to the disciples of John (“Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?”) to refer to both the Spirit’s sanctifying graces and extraordinary gifts.

When we look at the extended story of Cornelius’ conversion (chs 10-11), we find that Spirit baptism is treated as synonymous with receiving the Spirit, and that both are correlated to water baptism.26 Why then did Cornelius speak in tongues? To give “clear and satisfactory evidence” that God accepts Gentiles as well as Jews.27 In other words, Wesley believes the extraordinary gifts are not essential to saving faith. So, it is the sanctifying graces that have lasting value for all believers.28 But there is more to consider.

In Acts 4:8 Luke records that Peter was filled with the Spirit. Wesley views this as a spontaneous refilling. This same interpretation governs his comment on Acts 4:31. So Wesley understands that believers can be filled over and over with the Spirit.

We can now summarize Wesley’s views on Spirit baptism in the book of Acts:

  • There is one baptism with the Holy Spirit.
  • This baptism consists of (1) sanctifying graces, and (2) extraordinary gifts.
  • All believers are Spirit baptized with sanctifying graces.
  • Some believers are Spirit baptized with extraordinary gifts.
  • There are many re-fillings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

Wesley’s comments elsewhere in the Explanatory Notes only confirm what we have already learned. Paul’s injunction to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) refers to the sanctifying graces. Paul’s affirmation that all believers are baptized in the one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13) is applied by Wesley to the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. So, we see once more how closely Wesley identifies the work of the Spirit to the sacraments of the church. Then at Titus 3:5 Wesley interprets the “laver of regeneration” as referring to water baptism and the “renewal of the Holy Spirit” to his sanctifying graces.

Thus, Wesley’s views on Spirit baptism in the Explanatory Notes are consistent with those in his sermons and journal. The baptism with the Holy Spirit is given to all believers, normally in the laver of baptism. The purpose of Spirit baptism is to impart from Christ’s fullness the sanctifying graces of his Spirit. But in Wesley’s perfection theology this must imply that Spirit baptism is related to Christian perfection. For God’s will is for all his people to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and this means to be filled with holy love. Yet there is another dimension of Spirit baptism given to a select few: the impartation of extraordinary gifts for the purpose of Kingdom ministry and expansion.

An important question remains: did Wesley understand these extraordinary gifts to signify a higher attainment of inward holiness? To answer this question, we must digress and look at how Wesley dealt with related issues during the great perfection revival of the early 1760’s. This will begin part two of our study, soon to be published.

To read part two, click below:

John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit: An Exegetical Study – Part Two


1 For an example how these shifts took place within the author’s own denomination, see Mark Quanstrom, A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene, 150ff. As the author, I am aware that different prepositions in the phrase “baptism with the Holy Spirit” can be used, such as “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” In this article I am using with for the sake of consistency. I believe the other prepositions are just as appropriate.

2 Timothy Smith, The Promise of the Spirit, 25.

3 Gresham, John Jr. Charles G. Finney’s Doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, 65.

4 Compare Lk 24:49, Acts 1: 4-5, 8; 2:4.

5 JW Journal 11/8/74; cf. JWJ 2/10/67 and 12/25/85 for similar examples.

6 JW Journal 10/1/58.

7 JW Journal 10/16/56; my emphasis.

8 Cf. JW Journal 6/9/60.

9 Thomas Jackson, ed. The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols. (Zondervan) 10:188 (Hereafter, Works, Jackson). The Jackson edition is available at tract was originally written by his father.

10 JW ENNT, Romans 8:9-10.

11 Richard Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 209.

12 JW Journal 10/28/62. The reader should take note of Charles’ qualification of Pentecost “fully come.” This possibly implies a concept of degrees in the Wesley brothers understanding of Pentecost.

13 JW The Mystery of Iniquity §23; On Zeal II.6.

14 JW Of Former Times §§12-13.

15 JW The General Spread of the Gospel §20.

16 JW Of the Church §7.

17 JW Of the Church §12.

18 JW Christian Perfection II.11.

19 JW Christian Perfection II.1. These three categories are from 1 John 2:12-14.

20 In the same sermon all three levels are deemed perfect according to their degree of attainment.

21 JW Scriptural Christianity I.1-9.

22 JW Scriptural Christianity P.3, 4.

23 Olson, Plain Account: Annotated Edition 28, 34, 81, 84, 211, 255, 257, 258.

24 Cf. Preamble 1.

25 ENNT JW’s comments at Jn 15:26.

26 ENNT Acts 10:47 note.

27 ENNT Acts 10:44 note.

28 JW, Scriptural Christianity P.4-5.

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]