Mark K. Olson, “John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit”

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Abstract: This article outlines Wesley’s theology of the Holy Spirit. It is shown that Wesley’s pneumatology was trinitarian in structure and included soteriological, epistemological, and eschatological themes. These four emphases serve to structure this article. The article first appeared as a chapter in the book Holy Spirit: Unfinished Agenda (ed. Johnston T.K. Lim, Word & Works, 2015).

[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.]


John Wesley (1703-1791) remains one of the iconic figures of the Eighteenth-Century Evangelical Revival. Educated at Oxford and ordained priest in the Church of England, Wesley served as a missionary to America before finding his calling as an evangelist and leader in the Evangelical Revival. Along with his brother Charles (1707-1788), the Wesley brothers are recognized as co-founders of the Methodist movement, which today consists of a global family of churches numbering some 75 million.[1] Although only five feet three inches in height, it has been estimated Wesley travelled 250,000 miles (largely on horseback) and preached over 40,000 sermons in a career stretching sixty-six years.

From the time of his evangelical conversion in 1738, Wesley became a tireless exponent of the evangelical message of salvation by faith alone, which emphasizes the person and work of the Holy Spirit at each stage in the process of salvation. One of his best summary statements on the Holy Spirit is found in a published letter 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.[2]

If we look closely at this statement, we see that Wesley’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit was Trinitarian in structure, while soteriological, epistemological, and eschatological in emphasis. Below we will use these four broad categories to outline what Wesley believed and taught about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit and Trinity

Wesley’s upbringing and education instilled in him a deep appreciation for the primitive church and the ecumenical creeds that spell out our Triune faith (especially the Apostle’s and Athanasian Creeds). Strongly resistant to Arian and Sabellian alternatives, which were on the ascendency in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Wesley taught the Holy Spirit is of “one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.”[3] In the above letter Wesley summarizes the Holy Spirit’s divine attributes (“infinite…eternal…perfectly holy in himself”) and his status within the Godhead (“equal with the Father and Son”) in order to underscore his role as the divine agent of salvation, imparting to believers the saving benefits of Christ’s redemptive work.

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

When it came to theology Wesley’s interest centered on the way of salvation as the renewal of holiness in the imago Dei (image of God). So it is no surprise Wesley taught that the Spirit is the “immediate cause of all holiness” in the believer. Randy Maddox points out in regard to the process of salvation Wesley understood the Holy Spirit to be “God’s gracious empowering presence restored through Christ.”[4] On one occasion, explained Maddox, Wesley even “defined grace simply as ‘the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to believe and love and serve God.’”[5]

However, this enabling begins long before a person repents and believes in Christ. It starts with preventing grace—the “first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight conviction of having sinned against him”—and, if responded to, leads to the two main branches of Christian salvation: justification and sanctification (which includes the new birth).[6] While Wesley taught that justification (forgiveness and acceptance) is grounded on Christ’s atonement and involves a relational change, the new birth and sanctification are the work of the Spirit and involve a real change.[7] This real change is spelled out in the letter quoted above:

The Spirit…
enlightens our understanding,
rectifies our will and affections,
renews our nature,
unites us with Christ,
assures our adoption as God’s children,
guides our actions,
purifies and sanctifies our souls and bodies,
for the purpose of “full and eternal enjoyment of God.”

But how does the Spirit effect these changes? Rejecting any notion of irresistible grace, Wesley likened the operation of the Spirit to the natural process of breathing. As the “breath of God,” the Spirit inspires “every good desire” in the heart as the believer exhales back to God “unceasing love and praise and prayer.”[8] It is through this process of “spiritual respiration” that the “life of God in the soul” leavens the Christian’s life. In order to cooperate with the Spirit’s life-giving breath, Wesley taught his followers to methodically practice the means of grace as the “ordinary channels” by which the Spirit conveys preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.[9]

While a firm believer in the “extraordinary gifts” of the Spirit, such as gifts of healing and working of miracles,[10] Wesley believed the history of the apostolic era shows that these gifts are given with a “sparing hand.”[11] Instead, Wesley taught that our heavenly Father wants his children to be filled with “those holy ‘fruits of the Spirit’” which enable them to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires and grow in the likeness of Christ until perfect love is attained, even a “full salvation from all our sins.”[12]

The Holy Spirit and Knowledge of God

One of the “essentials” in Wesley’s preaching on the way of salvation is that the Holy Spirit communicates true knowledge of God and his saving work to the believer at each stage in the process. How the Spirit accomplishes this communication is by the saving message of Holy Scripture being perceived and experienced through graciously restored spiritual senses.[13] As an empiricist Wesley maintained there is no innate knowledge of God, but he parted paths with the empiricism of his day by postulating that knowledge of God is available through Spirit-endowed senses that function in a manner similar to our physical senses. Just as our physical senses take in data from the physical world so that we experience its life and richness, so faith empowers the perception and hearing of God’s truth so that the believer feels the life-giving power of Christ’s death and resurrection.

In this way the Christian experientially knows God and his pardoning love, and this knowledge assures them of their progress in the way of salvation. Wesley based his concept of faith as a spiritual sense on Hebrews 11:1 (“faith is…the evidence of things not seen” KJV) and linked the assurance it brings to the “witness of the Spirit.” This faith and witness is what Wesley claimed to have received on May 24, 1738, when his heart was “strangely warmed.” He testified, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[14] For Wesley, such salvific knowledge is a “common privilege”[15] for the children of God who long for the arrival of God’s kingdom.

The Holy Spirit and Christian Hope

As did other early evangelicals, Wesley believed the Evangelical Revival was a new Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the eschatological Spirit that would eventually usher in the millennial reign of Christ. A key hermeneutic of his postmillennialism was the idea that the way to understand how God will work in the future is to look at how he has worked in the past.[16] Since the kingdom of grace established at Christ’s first coming included a great outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, Wesley taught that prior to the establishment of the kingdom of glory at Christ’s return there will be a final outpouring of the Spirit on all nations.

This final outpouring of the Spirit is described in his last university sermon delivered at St. Mary’s, Oxford, in 1744. Based on Acts 4:31—“And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost”—Wesley described how the Christian church began on the day of Pentecost with a great outpouring of the Spirit, bringing new birth and the fullness of divine love. Living holy lives characterized by good works, these early Christians bore witness to the faith and in this way the faith passed from one individual to another until the “kingdom of God spread more and more” into various parts of the world. In the same manner, Wesley declared God will one day fulfil his promise to Christianize the nations of the world by filling them with the Holy Spirit.

How will God accomplish this since the world appears so full of spiritual darkness? Late in life Wesley responded by pointing to the great revival then happening.[17] Whereas Martin Luther once stated that revivals do not last longer than a generation, Wesley noted that this revival had lasted over fifty years and was still growing.[18]  For Wesley this meant the Evangelical Revival was unique in church history as the “beginning of a far greater work—the dawn of ‘the latter day glory’”[19]—when the “grand Pentecost” takes place and all the nations will be “filled with the Holy Ghost.” Then, in the new creation, the saving work of the Spirit will be completed when the redeemed enjoy the fully restored imago Dei, that “unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise.”[20]

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


[1] William J. Abraham and James E. Kirby, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ix.

[2] Thomas Jackson, ed. The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984, reprint), 10:82.

[3] Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer1662 Edition (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 553. Wesley kept this same wording when in 1784 he revised the Articles for the American Methodists.

[4] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 120.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sermon: “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” II.1 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vols. 1-4, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984-1988), 3:203-04 (hereafter: Works).

[7] “Sermons: “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” §2 and “The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God§2, I.1 (Works 1:431-32; 3:200).

[8] Works 1:434, 436; 3:203.

[9] Sermon: “The Means of Grace” II.1 (Works 1:381). The chief means listed are prayer, scripture reading, and the Lord’s Supper. Wesley also saw doing works of mercy as a means of grace.

[10] Daniel R. Jennings, ed. The Supernatural Occurrences of John Wesley (Sean Multimedia, 2012).

[11] Sermon: “Scriptural Christianity” §§2-3 (Works 1:160).

[12] Works 1:160; 2:160.

[13] Timothy J. Crutcher, The Crucible of Life: The Role of Experience in John Wesley’s Theological Method (Lexington: Emeth Press, 2010), 125-36.

[14] Works 18:250 (emphasis his).

[15] Sermon: “The Witness of the Spirit, I” II.2 (Works 1:277).

[16] For full explanation of this hermeneutic, see my book A John Wesley Reader on Eschatology (Hayden: Truth In Heart, 2011).

[17] Sermon: “The General Spread of the Gospel” (Works 2:485-99).

[18] Works 2:492.

[19] Works 2:493.

[20] Sermon: “The New Creation” §18 (Works 2:510).

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