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

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Abstract: After looking at Wesley’s Journal, sermons, and NT commentary in Part One to discern his views on Spirit baptism. In Part Two, we survey Spirit baptism as the standard of spirituality and move on to Wesley’s letters, before shifting to Spirit baptism and Christian perfection. The paper closes by addressing whether Wesley was consistent in his views and offers a chart outlining Wesley’s doctrine of Spirit baptism.

Link to first article: John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, Part One.

[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.]

Spirit Baptism and the Standard of Spirituality

Randy Maddox records it was around 1757 when Wesley began to emphasize more strongly the instantaneous reception of perfect love.29 During these same years a new wave of revival began to stir within the societies that by the early sixties ushered hundreds into a profession of perfect love. But with revival came also schism. The main ringleaders were Thomas Maxfield and George Bell. While Maxfield was a longtime associate of Wesley’s, Bell was a recent convert with a flair for the spectacular. As the revival grew in strength so did the excesses. Bell claimed visions of Christ and the return of the charismata of the Spirit. He soon gained a following and taught that in the gift of perfect love the pristine purity of Eden was restored. According to Bell those who attain perfection will not face physical death. Since there was no need for the sacraments, Bell formed his own meetings where he practiced the charismata (the extraordinary gifts) of the Spirit. Bell finally went too far when he prophesied that the world would end on February 28, 1763.30

With excesses mounting Wesley was compelled to act. In 1762 he published a small pamphlet, Cautions and Directions to the Greatest Professors in the Methodist Societies. The next year the tract was edited and incorporated in another publication, Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection, which was included three years later in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. The fact that Wesley reissued these cautions three times in four years, and expanded them when reissued, signifies the seriousness of the problems that were mounting in the societies.31 Furthermore, the cautions are important to our study because in them Wesley warns his people against the danger of measuring one’s spirituality by the gifts of the Spirit, even the extraordinary ones:

“Beware of that daughter of pride, enthusiasm. Sometimes likewise it is the parent of pride. O, keep at the utmost distance from it! Give no place to a heated imagination. Do not ascribe to God what is not of God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God, without sufficient evidence. They may be purely natural: they may be diabolical. Therefore remember the caution of the apostle, ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit but try the spirits whether they be of God.’”32

Here Wesley warns his people that the extraordinary gifts can come from God, human nature, or even from Satan. Severed from the sanctifying graces, such gifts can easily slip into tools of the carnal nature or the enemy. This same concern is found in the tract Farther Thoughts. In a heated revival atmosphere, many were quick to claim perfection. But as Wesley moved among the people, he saw that while some claimed to have the Spirit’s direct witness of perfect love, they lacked the Spirit’s fruit; that is, the ordinary marks of Spirit baptism.33 Wesley concludes that such professors do not have what he calls perfection. The lesson is clear: the final arbiter for perfect love is not a claim to the Spirit’s direct witness, but the indirect witness of the Spirit’s fruit outlined in Galatians 5:22-23.

So, Wesley did not believe the extraordinary gifts trump the sanctifying graces of the Spirit. Not even the Spirit’s direct witness of a felt assurance could trump the Spirit’s fruit. In the end, it is holiness alone that fits one for heaven, not the charismata of the Spirit; and holiness alone serves as the final arbiter for spiritual authenticity. Though Wesley often idealized the apostolic age,34 he was a pragmatist when it came to discipling people in the faith. As H. Ray Dunning observes, “Wesley would identify the fruit of the Spirit as the essential marks of true religion rather than the gifts of the Spirit.”35 So with this clarification on the extraordinary gifts we turn to Wesley’s letters.


Spirit Baptism in Wesley’s Letters

When Wesley speaks of Spirit fullness in his letters, he almost always does so in the context of perfect love. To Miss Furly perfection was defined as “humble love filling the heart.”36 Spirit fullness could be expressed without using the terminology of fullness at all, “By Christian perfection, I mean the so loving God and our neighbor, as to ‘rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks.”37 The scripture quoted is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. Implicit in this passage is the idea of Spirit fullness, since in the next verse Paul exhorts believers to not “put out the Spirit’s fire.” Wesley advised Miss March, “To your outward walking I have no objection. But I want you to walk inwardly in the fullness of love.”38

These examples illustrate how Wesley speaks of Spirit fullness when counseling seekers of sanctification. But the question remains whether Wesley was referring to Spirit baptism when he spoke of the fullness of holy love in his letters. That he does so in his sermons and Explanatory Notes is for certain. However, a couple letters have led many to doubt such a connection.

By the early seventies Methodists John Fletcher and Joseph Benson were beginning to explicitly link Spirit baptism to Christian perfection. In 1770 Wesley wrote to Benson concerning the matter:

“If they like to call this “receiving the Holy Ghost,” they may: only the phrase, in that sense, is not scriptural, and not quite proper; for they all ‘received the Holy Ghost’ when they were justified. God then ‘sent forth the Spirit of his Son into their hearts, crying, Abba Father.’”39

On the surface Wesley’s point is clear: all believers receive the Spirit when they are justified and born again. In this sense, all believers are Spirit baptized. So, to call the crisis of full salvation “receiving the Spirit” is misleading and scripturally unfounded. Yet, even in this response Wesley leaves some wiggle-room. For when he adds the phrase “in that sense” and the words “quite proper” Wesley implies there is a “sense” and a time when it is “proper” to refer to perfect love as a later reception of the Spirit.40

Let’s retrace our steps. We saw above in Explanatory Notes (see Part One) that Spirit baptism is given to all believers in his sanctifying graces, but only to some with his extraordinary gifts. The same point is made in Scriptural Christianity.41 As we noted above, “sanctifying graces” is in the plural, leaving room for Wesley’s concept of degrees to inform his doctrine of Spirit baptism. Moreover, in the sermon Christian Perfection Wesley explicitly links Spirit baptism to full salvation.Thus, there is a time when it is “proper” to speak of a fresh reception of the Spirit in relation to perfect love. When we factor in Wesley’s admission there are multiple re-fillings of the Spirit,42 Wesley’s response to Benson is less clear-cut in spelling out his full position concerning Spirit baptism and Christian perfection than what many Wesley scholars have inferred.43

Dunning refers to another letter Wesley wrote to John Fletcher concerning their differences on Christian perfection.44 In this letter Wesley reaffirms his conviction that all believers, even those who are mere infants in the faith, have received the Spirit. Wesley then encourages his dear friend to consider the three-fold distinction found in 1 John 2:12-14 (children, young men, adults) to define and articulate the stages of spiritual development. But before we conclude from this letter that Wesley rejects linking Spirit baptism to Christian perfection, we need to remember that Wesley is notorious for not divulging his full thoughts on a particular subject in a specific context. This is especially true of his letters. While this letter confirms that Wesley believed all believers to be Spirit baptized, it does not deny what he wrote elsewhere in his sermons, journal, and Explanatory Notes that associate Spirit baptism to entire sanctification. It only requires that we now ascertain the nature of this relationship.


Spirit Baptism & Christian Perfection

How should we make sense of Wesley’s many comments regarding Pentecost, Spirit baptism and entire sanctification? Can they be harmonized? Is Wesley consistent in his many statements? Many Wesley scholars point to his reticence to use pneumatological language when defining and articulating his views on perfect love.45 It is certainly correct that his concern was more practical and his categories more Christological. Yet, as we saw above, Wesley did link Pentecost and Spirit baptism to Christian perfection.

The place to begin is Wesley’s firm belief in a single baptism with the Holy Spirit. There is only one baptism, not two, three or more. This same truth is confirmed by Wesley’s comments on the Book of Acts. That is, Spirit baptism conveys both extraordinary gifts and saving graces (ordinary fruits); yet, there is only one baptism. Therefore, according to Wesley, all believers are Spirit baptized in the sense that God’s sanctifying grace is at work in every child of God.

By affirming only one baptism with the Holy Spirit, Wesley signifies that Spirit baptism does directly and immediately effect holiness of heart and life. Since Spirit baptism conveys sanctifying graces, such a correlation cannot be denied. Wesley made this point to a Roman Catholic:

“I believe the infinite and eternal Spirit of God, equal with the Father and the Son, to be not only perfectly holy in himself, but the immediate cause of all holiness in us; enlightening our understandings, rectifying our wills and affections, renewing our natures, uniting our persons to Christ, assuring us of the adoption of sons, leading us in our actions; purifying and sanctifying our souls and bodies, to a full and eternal enjoyment of God.”46

Thus, Spirit baptism is linked to our perfection in Christ, but not as traditionally understood within the Holiness Movement. Our Holiness forefathers believed the baptism with the Holy Spirit to be subsequent and experientially distinct from justification and new birth.47 According to this scheme, only those perfected in love are Spirit baptized. Wesley rejects this position. Why? Because it implies that only some believers have received the Spirit of Christ. This explains his reticence to use Spirit language and concepts to articulate full salvation. Traditional Holiness and Pentecostal doctrine tend to sever Pentecost from the birth of the church and narrows the reception of the eschatological Spirit to only some believers.

The key that unlocks Wesley’s many disconnected comments on Spirit baptism is his theological hermeneutic of degrees. Let’s walk through the points one more time:

  • There is one baptism with the Holy Spirit.
  • This one baptism conveys “sanctifying graces.”
  • The plural “graces” refers not only to the multiplicity of graces gifted, but also to their fullness.
  • All believers are Spirit baptized regarding salvation and the work of sanctification.
  • This one baptism is enjoyed at different levels of spiritual development: children, young men, adults (1 Jn 2:12-14).

Wesley’s position now becomes clear: Spirit baptism does affect the believer’s perfection in love, but only in the same sense that it produces the other graces of sanctification, like new birth, assurance, victory over sin, and growth in Christlikeness. Therefore, Wesley is certainly correct when he asserts it is improper to speak of full salvation as the receiving the Holy Spirit, or as baptized with the Spirit, since such statements imply that only some believers in Christ are endowed with the eschatological Spirit. Nevertheless, it is also improper to completely sever Spirit baptism from Christian perfection, for in this one baptism the Holy Spirit is the “immediate cause of all holiness.” So, when we survey all of Wesley’s comments on Spirit baptism, it is best to speak of one baptism, with many degrees, punctuated by fresh infillings.


Was Wesley Consistent?

Laurence Wood has been a longtime advocate that Wesley did identify Spirit baptism with Christian perfection. In a recent article in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, Woods summarizes his arguments that Wesley was inconsistent in his writings on holiness until the 1760’s, and that he later endorsed John Fletcher’s position that identified Spirit baptism with perfect love.48 As I covered in great detail elsewhere,49 Wood is certainly correct that Wesley’s views on Christian perfection and related doctrines went through a process of development and change up through the 1760’s. For only in the late fifties did Wesley finally separate the new birth from the sanctification process, thus bringing to maturation his gospel of two works of grace.50 But Wood fails to grasp this latter point, and because of this he fails to appreciate why Wesley so often conflated justification and perfection in his early post-Aldersgate sermons.51

Since we have already demonstrated that Wesley did link Spirit baptism to Christian perfection, the real contribution Wood adds is in showing to what degree Wesley linked the two. Fletcher had become convinced that Wesley’s writings on the subject did not fully harmonize. So, he wanted to “improve” on Wesley’s theology and make it more “consistent.” In his Checks to Antinomianism Fletcher developed a theology of dispensations that explicitly linked Pentecost to full salvation, with the baptism with the Holy Spirit as the means of attaining this blessing. In a letter Wesley endorsed Fletcher’s scheme, “Mr. Fletcher has given us a wonderful view of the different dispensations which we are under. I believe that difficult subject was never placed in so clear a light before. It seems God has raised him up for this very thing.”52

Wood goes on to show that in the early eighties Fletcher and Wesley preached on the topic at the annual conference, and Wesley published a couple articles in The Arminian Magazine that openly identified Spirit baptism as the means to full salvation.53 So there is no mistaking that Wesley did link Spirit baptism to perfection. Where Wood errs is in his failure to recognize that Wesley continued to link Spirit baptism to conversion (justification and new birth). As we saw above, Wesley was adamant that all believers “receive the Spirit.” Wood acknowledges this but downplays its significance.54 He does clarify to what degree that Wesley in later life openly identified Spirit baptism to full sanctification. As we have seen, this is in congruence with what Wesley had written in his journal, sermons, notes, and letters.



A Wesleyan theology that remains faithful to Wesley must affirm Spirit baptism as the induction of all believers into the realm of the eschatological Spirit, effecting union with Christ, participation in the new covenant, and the possible attainment of the fullness of God’s holy love in the heart. Thus, the Pentecostal baptism with the Holy Spirit does minister the fullness of Christ, imparting both his sanctifying graces and extraordinary gifts, for the purpose of the edification of the church and the evangelism of the world. And, very significantly, this one baptism will be fully realized only in the final eschaton when Christ returns, when the saints are resurrected, and believers bask in the eschatological fullness of God’s unfiltered presence. As Dunning concludes, “The phrase ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit’ may legitimately be applied to the new birth, subsequent infillings, and the transformation Wesleyans refer to as entire sanctification or Christian perfection”55—that is, one baptism, many degrees, fresh infillings.

Summary: John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit

First Category: Sanctifying Graces

Purpose of Spirit baptism: (1) new birth (2) full assurance (3) Ch. perfection

Recipients (1 John 2:12-14): (1) new birth – child of God (2) full assurance – young men (3) Ch. perfection – fathers (adults)

Conclusion: All believers baptized with the Spirit in various degrees


Second category: Extraordinary gifts

Purpose: Miracle-working power/Ministry

Recipients: Apostles & Teachers

Conclusion: Some believers baptized with the Spirit (given with “sparing hand”)

Test of authenticity: Graces validate Gifts


Links to related articles:

John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, Part One.

John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit



Collins, Kenneth. The Theology of John Wesley. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.

Dunning, H. Ray. “A Wesleyan Perspective on Spirit Baptism” in Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: Five Views. ed. Chad Owen Brand. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004.

Gresham, John L. Jr. Charles G. Finney’s Doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.

Grider, Kenneth. “Evaluation of Timothy Smith’s Interpretation of Wesley” in WTJ 15:2 (Fall) 1980.

Gunter, W. Steven. The Limits of Love Divine. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Heitzenrater, Richard. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Lindstrom, Harald. Wesley & Sanctification. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.

Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Olson, Mark K. ed. John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’: The Annotated Edition Fenwick: Alethea In Heart, 2005.

Outler, Albert ed. John Wesley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Quanstrom, Mark R. A Century of Holiness: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene 1905 to 2004. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2004.

Rack, Henry D. Reasonable Enthusiast. 2nd edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.

Smith, Timothy L. “How John Fletcher Became the Theologian of Wesleyan Perfectionism, 1770-1776.”  WTJ 15:1 (Spring)1980.

____________ ed. The Promise of the Spirit: Charles G. Finney on Christian Holiness Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1980.

Staples, Rob, L. John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit WTJ Volume 21, Numbers 1 & 2; Wesleyan Theological Society, 1986.

Telford, John. ed. The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, 8 Volumes London: Epworth Press, 1960.

Tyerman, Luke. The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, 3 Volumes. Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker Publications, 2003.

Wiley, H. Orton. Christian Theology,vol. II.Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1952.

29 Maddox, Responsible Grace, 183.

30 Tyerman, Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, vol. II.433-40; Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast, 338.

31 Mark Olson, Plain Account of Christian Perfection: Annotated Edition, 208 (25:105 note).

32 Outler, John Wesley, 300 (emphasis his).

33 Wesley, Plain Account, 203-206.

34 JW, Scriptural Christianity P.2-3; II.1-8.

35 Dunning, A Wesleyan Perspective on Spirit Baptism, 191 (emphasis his).

36 Works, Jackson, 12:198.

37 Works, Jackson, 12:227.

38 Works, Jackson, 12:280.

39 Works, Jackson, 12:416.

40 Timothy Smith, How John Fletcher Became the Theologian of Wesleyan Perfectionism, 1770-1776, 72; Telford 5:230.

41 Scriptural Christianity P.3: “Were all even then Prophets? Were all workers of miracles? Had all gifts of healing? Did all speak in tongues?” He answers, “No, in no wise. Perhaps not one in a thousand. Probably none but the Teachers in the Church, and only some of them.”

42 Cf. ENNT Notes, Acts 4:8, 31.

43 Contra Kenneth Grider, Evaluation of Timothy Smith’s Interpretation of Wesley, 64; H. Ray Dunning, A Wesleyan Perspective on Spirit Baptism, 196, 203.

44 Telford, Letters of John Wesley, 8 vols., 6:146.

45 Dunning, A Wesleyan Perspective on Spirit Baptism, 201.

46 Works, Jackson, 10:82 (emphasis mine).

47 Quanstrom, Mark A Century of Holiness-The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene 1905 to 2004, 29, 168.

48 “The Origin, Development, and Consistency of John Wesley’s Theology of Holiness” in Wesleyan Theological Journal Vol. 43, Number 2, Fall 2008, Wesleyan Theological Society, 33-55.

49 See my John Wesley’s Theology of Christian Perfection: Developments in Doctrine & Theological System, Fenwick: Truth in Heart, 2007, Revised 2009.

50 See JW’s sermon “The New Birth,” written in 1759. In this sermon JW formally separates the new birth from Christian perfection as the “gate” and “entrance” of the sanctification process (IV.3).

51 Wood addresses specifically Salvation by Faith (1738); The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption (1739); The Almost Christian (1741); The Witness of the Spirit I(1746).

52 Quoted from Wood’s article, WTJ 43:2, 50.

53 Ibid., 48-49.

54 In a couple quotations to support his argument that JW linked Spirit baptism to perfection Wood failed to mention that the full context of the quotation also supports Spirit baptism being linked to justification and the new birth (Wood, 47, notes 76 and 77). As argued in this chapter, since the one Spirit is “immediate cause” of all holiness in the believer then it logically follows that their entire sanctification must also be linked to their one baptism with the Spirit.

55 A Wesleyan Perspective on Spirit Baptism, 226.

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