Mark K. Olson, “The New Birth in the Early Wesley”

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Studies on John Wesley’s doctrine of the new birth usually address the post-1738 Wesley.[1] The reason is simple: in 1738 Wesley became an evangelical by adopting a Pietistic version of the Reformation’s message of justification by faith alone, witnessed directly to the believer by the Spirit of Christ in an experience of assurance known among early evangelicals as the “new birth.”[2] It was this message that informed Wesley’s experience on May 24, 1738, at a religious society in Aldersgate Street, London. So, from 1738 and thereafter the message of the new birth became a staple in Wesley’s evangelical preaching and a core element in early Methodist spirituality.

But what has not received sufficient attention is that Wesley was already preaching the new birth before 1738, during his periods at Oxford (1730-35) and Georgia (1736-1738). In this study we will explore Wesley’s doctrine of the new birth during this period, identifying those sources and influences which shaped his beliefs, and attempt to map out developments in his views on the new birth leading up to 1738. One of the central lessons we will learn is that Wesley was trending towards an evangelical understanding of the new birth for several years prior to 1738. Therefore, to better understand the pivotal changes that took place in Wesley’s soteriology in 1738, we first need to see how his views on the new birth developed during his Oxford period. And the place to begin is with his Anglican heritage.

Wesley’s Anglican Context

As the son of a clergyman, the religious milieu of Wesley’s upbringing was in the high church tradition of the Church of England. Both of his parents, Samuel (1662-1735) and Susanna (1669-1742), converted from Nonconformity to the Church of England during the late seventeenth-century high-church Anglican renewal and became devout high churchmen in their convictions.[3] Wesley acknowledged his high church upbringing to the Earl of Dartmouth, “I am an High Churchman, the son of an High Churchman, bred up from my childhood in the highest notions of passive obedience and non-resistance.”[4] On another occasion Wesley explained he had been taught as a child to “love and reverence” the scriptures, the church fathers, and the Church of England, including “all her doctrines” and “Liturgy.”[5] So Wesley’s earliest thoughts and impressions on the new birth came from his upbringing in the Established Church, passed on to him from his parents.

In keeping with the historic faith of the church catholic, the Church of England taught that regenerating and justifying grace is granted in the sacrament of baptism. The baptismal liturgy for infants defined the sacrament as “the mystical washing away of sin” to “sanctify with the Holy Ghost; that he,being delivered from thy [God’s] wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church.”[6] The priest would declare after the child was baptized that the “Child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church” and has become God’s “own Child by adoption.”[7] In the liturgy the terms “regeneration,” “new birth,” “born anew,” and “born again” are used interchangeably, with the primary marks drawn from pneumatological and horticultural images (i.e. gift of the Spirit and grafting into Christ). The conditional character of baptismal grace was suggested when the priest prayed that as the baptized child is “made partakerof the death of thy Son, he may also be partakerof his resurrection” and “may be an inheritor of thine everlasting kingdom.”[8] The same language and themes are found in the liturgy for those of “riper years.”[9] So the baptismal liturgy of the Established Church clearly taught that the gifts of justification, new birth, adoption, and union with Christ are granted in the sacrament of baptism.

That the young Wesley was nurtured in a high church view of the baptismal liturgy is evident from his father’s treatise on baptism, published three years before John’s birth. In his discourse Samuel echoed the language of the liturgy that baptism represented the “laver of regeneration” but stated in more explicit terms that the “damning Guilt of original sin is washt [sic] away” and “Remission of sins”is received by “the application of the meritsof Christ’s death.”[10] He then spelled out more specifically the conditional character of baptismal grace:

“We say not that Regeneration is always completed in the Sacrament, but that it is begun in it: a Principle of Grace is infused…which shall never be wholly withdrawn, unless we quench God’s Holy Spirit by obstinate habits of Wickedness: There are Babes as well as strong Men in Christ. A Christin’s Life is progressive, as in the natural Life…the Renovation of the new Man is begun, that by going on it may be perfected…Baptism doth now save us, if we live answerable thereunto, repent, believe, and obey the Gospel.”[11]

According to Samuel, the Christian life mirrors the natural life in that life begins at birth and progresses toward adulthood. Thus, in baptism the renovation of the “new Man” begins with an infusion of regenerating and justifying grace, and then progresses toward adulthood and perfection as long as the Christian repents, believes, and obeys the gospel covenant. So, for Samuel regeneration involved both gift and process. Anthony Horneck, a contemporary of Samuel, agreed. In baptism the recipient was “set apart for God’s service” having been “sanctified by having a principle of holiness infused into their souls,” but this gift had to be followed up with further discovery of “the life, the fire, the activity, and the power…by the actual exercises of those graces which must make like that Savior that died for them.”[12] For High Church Anglicans like Horneck and the Wesleys, regeneration as a progressive work could be stressed over its initial gifting. When John’s mother Susanna wrote to him in 1734, she pointed out that “the great work of regeneration is not performed at once, but proceeds by slow and often imperceptible degrees.”[13]

By contending that the new birth includes both gift and process, Horneck and the Wesleys were mirroring the mainstream position of the Church of England on the new birth and its ordo salutis (order of salvation). According to this ordo the Christian life begins in baptism with an infusion of regenerating and justifying grace, progresses through life with the sanctification of the believer, and culminates at the believer’s final justification and entrance into the eternal kingdom (i.e. baptism — sanctification — justification — glory). This led mainstream Anglicans to not only affirm baptismal regeneration but to emphasize in a variety of ways the progressive nature of the new birth as the believer’s sanctification. Archbishop John Tillotson (1630-1694) taught that sanctification signified the “continuance and progress” of regenerating grace, sacramentally given in baptism.[14] Drawing on scripture passages like John 3:5 (“born of water and of the Spirit”) and Titus 3:5 (“washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost”), Bishop William Beveridge (1637-1708) accented the progressive work of the new birth by noting it is through the Spirit, received in baptism, that believers “mortify the deeds of the body” and “live continually in ‘newness of life’” (Rom. 6:4, 8:13).[15] Speaking in terms of the believer’s final justification, Richard Lucas (1648-1715) referred to the moment when a person is “ingrafted by baptism into Christ, and receiving the Holy Ghost” is thereby given an “earnest of their justification or acceptance with God, and their future glory.”[16]

For mainstream Anglicans, the new birth encompasses the Christian’s entire journey, from the initial granting of forgiveness at baptism to their final justification and entrance into the eternal kingdom. In terms of the believer’s justification before God, faith and good works were seen as not meritorious, but conditional; and salvation assurance grounded on a rational deduction of fulfilling the conditions of the gospel covenant.[17] It was in reference to final justification that Anglicans claimed sanctification to precede justification. Jeffrey Chamberlain explained their rationale, “Since justification is not completed until it is determined that a person has met the conditions of faith and works, it could be said that sanctification preceded justification. That is, a person has to be made holy before his justification is complete and final.”[18] Therefore, in the Anglican ordo the twin moments of initial and final justification served as bookends to the work of regeneration.

Baptismal grace, it was believed, could also be lost through flagrant sin. We already saw that Samuel Wesley cautioned against quenching the Spirit by “obstinate habits of wickedness.”[19] William Beveridge concurred that a constant breach of one’s baptismal vows could so grieve the Spirit that he would withdraw his saving presence.[20] Likewise, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) warned against estranging oneself from the covenant of grace by renouncing one’s baptism.[21] However, it was John Wesley’s mentor, William Law (1686-1761), who raised the ante by declaring in response to the baptismal pledge that candidates renounce the world that “whenever we yield ourselves up to the Pleasures, Profits, and Honours of this Life, that we turn Apostates, break our Covenant with God, and go back from the express Conditions, on which we were admitted into the Communion of Christ’s Church.”[22] With this one bold stroke Law declared that his fellow Anglicans who had what he deemed a nominal faith had lost their salvation, no matter how faithful they had remained to the sacramental life of the Church. He added that in order to be saved these members had to renew their baptismal vow of complete devotion to God. According to Law, “Christianity requires a Change of Nature, a new Life perfectly devoted to God.”[23] Christianity is “not therefore any Number of moral Virtues, no partial Obedience, no Modes of Worship, no external Acts of Adoration, no articles of Faith, but a new Principle of Life, an entire Change of Temper, that makes us true Christians.”[24] This re-dedication he called the “new birth,” becoming a “new Creature” (referring to 2 Cor. 5:17), and the “Conversion of the Heart to God.”[25] As we will see, Law’s shadow will loom large over Wesley’s doctrine of the new birth leading up to 1738 and beyond.

Wesley’s Early Letters

In the extant letters there are only three specific references to the new birth, and each one reflects his Anglicanism. The first one appears in a letter to his mother Susanna in mid-June 1725 and is the earliest reference to regeneration in the Wesley corpus. Seeking his mother’s counsel about what Wesley perceived was a contradiction in Jeremy Taylor’s teachings on whether the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper “confers on us the graces we pray for,” Wesley responded:

“Now surely these graces are not of so little force as that we can’t perceive whether we have’em or not; and if we dwell in Christ and Christ in us, which he will not do till we are regenerate, certainly we must be sensible of it.”[26]

From this remark two points follow. The first one concerns the correlation between the new birth and the indwelling presence of Christ: to be born again is to enter into spiritual union with Christ—“we dwell in Christ and Christ in us.” That Wesley would stress this point when mentioning the believer’s regeneration should not surprise us given his Anglican context. As we saw, this was a core tenet in the baptism liturgy of the Church of England and was clearly taught by Anglican divines. Probably more significant for the interests of this study, Wesley affirmed that believers are conscious of this union; that grace is perceptible to those who are born again, and only to those who have experienced regeneration. This insight is crucial to understand developments in Wesley’s soteriology because of the importance he later attached as an evangelical to perceptible assurance. What the above quote demonstrates is that the basic concept was already inherent in his soteriology long before 1738; that early Wesley already associated regeneration to the rebirth of the spiritual senses.

The next two references to the new birth appeared in 1734, first to Richard Morgan, Sen., and later that year to his father Samuel. In an apologia for Oxford Methodism, Wesley presented to Morgan a succinct definition of religion as a “constant ruling habit of the soul; a renewal of our minds in the image of God; a recovery of the divine likeness; a still-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy Redeemer.”[27] This definition was inspired from his reading of different divines in the holy living tradition, like Richard Lucas (holiness as a habit) and Thomas à Kempis (Christ as our pattern).[28] Towards the end of the letter Wesley offered a series of appeals regarding the importance of pursuing with diligence a holy life in light of the final judgment and eternity. Probably borrowing the phrase “new born soul” from Henry Scougal,[29] he then asked Morgan:

“Will you complain to the ministering spirits [i.e. angels] who receive your new-born soul that you have been ‘over-zealous’ in the love of your Master?”[30]

He affirmed the same truth in the 1735 sermon, The Trouble and Rest of Good Men:

“Let us view…the state of a Christian at his entrance into the other world…[he] sees the body of sin lying beneath her, and is new born into the world of spirits.”[31]

By referring to the transition from this life to the next as a new birth, Wesley was expressing a core tenet in the Anglican ordo: only at the end of life is the new birth completed. These statements give context to Wesley’s 1739 remark that during his time in Georgia he openly confessed, “‘I am not a Christian; I only follow after, if haply I may attain it.’”[32] For the early Wesley, the new birth is never fully completed in this life, but remains conditional as the believer progressives in their sanctification toward perfect holiness at the end of life when eternity opens up. It was in this sense that Wesley spoke of the believer’s soul becoming “new born.”

The final reference to the new birth is found in a letter to his father in December 1734.[33] Samuel’s health had been failing and he desired John to follow him in the ministry at Epworth. This letter represents John’s apologia for remaining at Oxford and offers a number of insights into Wesley’s early views on religion, evangelism, and the Christian life. We see, once again, the imprint of the holy living tradition on his definition of holiness as a “complex habit,” and in his remarks on the single intention, self-denial, and rejection of the world.[34] A central motif running through much of the letter is Wesley’s philosophy of evangelism. One of his main arguments for not accepting the position at Epworth was his firm belief that Oxford presented a more conducive environment for cultivating holiness in himself and in others, “If God be the sole agent in healing souls, and man only an instrument in his hand…[then] the more holy a man is, he [God] will make use of him the more.”[35] A corollary of this evangelism philosophy was the expectation that true Christians will face persecution. After quoting the words of Jesus that Christ’s followers will be hated because they are not of this world (John 15:19), Wesley declared, “The hated are all that are not of this world, that are born again in the knowledge and love of God.”[36] As Wesley saw it, only those that are regenerated are on the path of renewal, having renounced the world they have “wholly, absolutely, devoted themselves to God.”[37]

Although specific references to regeneration are few in the early letters, in each instance important insights into his doctrine of the new birth can be seen. Several points are worth noting. First, Wesley’s comments suggest an Anglican ordo in his understanding of regeneration. As he prayed in his 1733 Collection of Forms of Prayers, he thanked God for “washing me in thy baptism” (an allusion to regenerating and justifying grace) and later petitioned God to “circumcise my heart, and make me a new creature” by mortifying his sin and “corrupt nature.”[38] Second, by the mid-1730s the influence of the holy living tradition had become quite pronounced in Wesley’s theology, including his doctrine of the new birth. The language of Lucas, Law, Scougal, and à Kempis show up repeatedly in his descriptions of the new birth and the holy life. Third, Wesley’s understanding of regeneration was deeply informed by his belief in the perceptibility of grace, which will later inform his evangelical doctrine of assurance and the Spirit’s direct witness to the believer. Each one of these points will leave an indelible mark on his doctrine of the new birth.

Wesley’s Early Sermons

When we turn to the early sermons we see that from 1730 and thereafter the subject of the new birth increasingly appears in Wesley’s preaching. The first reference is found in the sermon “On the Sabbath,” in which he pronounced that everyone “born of a woman must be born again.”[39] His reason was that every child of Adam is helpless to save themselves due to the debilitating effects of original sin on their moral nature. This argument would remain a staple in Wesley’s preaching on the new birth.[40] Towards the end of 1730 Wesley preached his first university sermon in which he spelled out his position on humanity’s creation, loss, and renewal in the image of God (imago Dei).[41] Although the new birth is not specifically mentioned, Wesley’s explication throughout the sermon presupposes an Anglican view of the progressive nature of the new birth. The path of renewal was further delineated the following year (1731) in a sermon on conversion (“The Wisdom of Winning Souls”). In keeping with his Anglican perspective, conversion is defined as a progressive work, summarized as a “deliverance from misery, and advancement in happiness;”[42] yet his explanation of three steps in the conversion process bears the imprint of his Arminianism and of the holy living tradition. The first step involves the awakening of the sinner to their spiritual need for holiness in their salvation. The next step involves a determined commitment (“resolution”) to purify one’s heart from its “darling lusts” and to “run the race set before [them].” The final step is to “fix” the convert in their resolution, in case they relapse and their “last state should be worse than the first.”[43]

During his Oxford period Wesley preached a number of sermons from well-known Anglican divines. One of those sermons was “On Grieving the Holy Spirit” by William Tilly (b. 1675). As many mainstream Anglicans taught, Wesley cautioned his listeners against provoking the Spirit with their “willful and presumptuous sins” so that he withdraws from them.[44] Such a person is an “unfaithful professor who has known his pardoning love”—surely a reference to baptismal grace—but now “grieves his Holy Spirit” by the “baseness” of their sins. The consequence, Wesley pointed out, is a loss of assurance regarding one’s relationship with Christ and their “title to eternal life.”[45] Regeneration is now defined as a “new nature”—a term Scougal and Law also employed—which is infused by the Spirit, and grows by degrees in “the image of Him that created us.”[46] Wesley then appealed to Romans 8:15 and the Spirit’s witness, which he now defined as an “inward testimony” of holy aspirations and sensations, giving the devoted Christian a “taste of the bliss to which he is going.”[47]

The same pneumatological understanding of the new birth was carried over into Wesley’s next sermon, preached only two months later at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, on January 1, 1733. “The Circumcision of the Heart” is well-known as Wesley’s first landmark sermon, but seldom has it been examined to delineate at the time his doctrine of the new birth.For the first time Wesley pronounced we are by faith “‘born of God.’” It is by faith that the believer “sees what is his calling, even to glorify God;” and “feels what is ‘the exceeding greatness of his power’…to quicken us” that are “‘dead in sin…by his Spirit which dwelleth in us.’”[48] Several paragraphs later he appealed to Romans 6 to make his point:

“Such a faith as this cannot fail to show evidently the power of him that inspires it, by delivering his children from the yoke of sin, and…by strengthening them so that they are no longer constrained to ‘obey sin in the desires thereof’; but instead…they now ‘yield’ themselves entirely ‘unto God, as those that are alive from the dead.’”[49]

Thus to be born again by faith is to be freed from the enslaving power of sin by the Spirit who “alone can quicken those who are dead unto God, [and] breathe into them the breath of Christian life.”[50]  Wesley then backed up his teaching by appealing to Romans 8:14—“‘As many as are thus led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God’”—and verse 16, “None is truly ‘led by the Spirit’ unless that ‘Spirit bear witness with his spirit, that he is a child of God.’”[51]

The strategic importance of “The Circumcision of the Heart” is seen in that it incorporates many of the core elements of Wesley’s evangelical doctrine of the new birth. These include an emphasis on the conditionality of faith, on the Holy Spirit as its source and power, on deliverance from the power of sin as its fruit, and in his use of human breathe to explain the nature of spiritual life.[52] However, subtle but important differences remain. The early Wesley did not yet espouse an evangelical understanding of salvation by faith alone, nor did he yet grasp the Reformation’s message of present justification as the foundation for a perceptible assurance of salvation in Christ. When the sermon is read with a critical eye it becomes clear that its vision of the Christian life reflects an Anglican perspective, yet infused with the motifs of the holy living tradition.[53] This explains why Wesley added an updated definition of faith and assurance when he was published the sermon in 1748.[54]

Two more sermons from his Oxford and Georgia periods reflect the maturation of Wesley’s early doctrine of the new birth. In mid-1734 Wesley wrapped up another sermon that highlighted the progressive nature of the new birth. Taken from a phrase in Luke 10:42 (“one thing is needful”), Wesley explained that the great work of redemption is “the renewal of our fallen nature.” Adam had been created in the image of God, with a nature that was “perfect, angelical, divine.” But with his sin the human race fell and “sin hath now effaced the image of God.”[55] Therefore, the “one thing now needful” is to re-exchange the image of Satan for the image of God, bondage for freedom, sickness for health. Our one great business is to rase out of our souls the likeness of our destroyer, and to be born again, to be formed anew after the likeness of our Creator. It is our one concern to shake off this servile yoke and to regain our native freedom; to throw off every chain, every passion and desire that does not suit an angelical nature.[56]

The new birth is to recover the image of God, the angelical nature that Adam lost when he sinned. Framed in these terms, regeneration is a progressive work that involves the entire sanctification of human nature. Drawing on therapeutic images, Wesley described fallen human nature as “distempered, as well as enslaved; the whole head is faint, and the whole heart is sick.”[57] Nevertheless, Christ came that “he might heal every disease, every spiritual sickness of our nature.”[58] All the “internal dispensations of God, all the influences of the Holy Spirit” are to “restore us to health, to liberty, to holiness,” and to “recover his [God’s] love.”[59] But Wesley went further and added a strong appeal at the end of the sermon. Not satisfied to stress only a progressive, ongoing work of renewal, Wesley pressed his audience to make a decisive turn in their religious lives. “Let us fix our single view, our pure unmixed intention,” implored Wesley, “For as while our eye is single our whole body is full of light, so, should it ever cease to be single, in that moment our whole body would be full of darkness.”[60] The single intention had now become the crisis moment when regenerating, sanctifying grace flows into a person’s heart and life. The analogy of the eye as the point of access for light to flood the body shows that Wesley understood the single intention as the portal for the infusion of grace.

There is no clearer statement of this development in Wesley’s thought regarding the single intention than in his inaugural sermon for his Georgian mission. Titled “A Single Intention,”[61] the sermon is essentially a restatement of William Law’s message in his twin publications, A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection (1726) and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729). At the outset Wesley called upon his listeners to “choose whether ye will serve God or not,” followed with a strong reminder to “give God your whole heart, or none at all.”[62] In his exposition of the text (Matthew 6:22-23) Wesley made the point that the “intention is to the soul what the eye is to the body.” Just as the body is directed by the eye, “so every power of the soul is in all its motion directed by the intention.”[63] He then warned that if the intention has more than one end in view, spiritual darkness would engulf the person, leaving them in “ignorance, sin, and misery” till “thou fall headlong into utter darkness.”[64] The salvific importance of the single intention could not be put in more stark terms. It had become for Wesley the portal for grace to illuminate the Christian’s heart and mind, leading them to “improve in holiness, in the love of God and thy neighbour.”

The second half of the sermon moves to application in which Wesley argued that the single intention is essential to pleasing God and growing in holiness in the everyday activities of religious devotions, business, and personal life.[65] Appealing to one of the more popular biblical texts on the new birth, 2 Corinthians 5:17 (“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new”), Wesley implored his listeners to become new creatures in Christ:

“Give him [God] your hearts; love him with all your souls; serve him with all your strength…Behold, all things about you are become new! Be ye likewise new creatures! From this hour at least let your eye be single: whatever ye speak, or think, or do, let God be your aim, and God only!”[66]

He then followed up by listing the benefits of the consecrated life: the Spirit’s indwelling presence will shine “more and more upon your souls unto the perfect day…He shall purify your hearts by faith” and “establish your souls” with a “lively…hope.” “He shall fill you with peace, and joy, and love!” Even that love which is “the brightness of his glory, the express image of his person!” The single intention had now become the crisis moment of the new birth for adults. It was the moment of conversion, when a person became a true Christian. This represented a significant development in Wesley’s thought and represented an adjustment in his High Church ordo. Whereas before Wesley accepted the Anglican ordo of baptism – sanctification – justification – glory, he now inserted the single intention into the ordo, thereby introducing the element of adult conversion in his understanding of salvation:

baptism – single intention – sanctification – justification – glory

Although the primary inspiration for this modified ordo was Wesley’s mentor William Law, other holy-living divines, like Henry Scougal, contributed by reinforcing the point that saving grace is perceptible and transformative in the life of the true Christian. Presupposed by these divines, including Wesley, was that the vast majority of Anglicans had lost their baptismal regeneration through wilful sin, and that the single intention represented the renewal of their baptismal vows and therefore their regeneration. These changes in Wesley’s soteriology were significant because they paved the way for him to embrace an evangelical view of the new birth in early 1738.

Wesley’s Georgian Period

The Journal represents Wesley’s time in Georgia as a period of transition from Oxford to his career as a revivalist. This was equally true in regard to developments in his doctrine of the new birth. Even though he continued to preach regeneration according to his Anglican holy living convictions, during his time at Georgia Wesley found himself unexpectedly drawn to a different gospel message through his contacts with the Unitas Fratrum, better known as the Moravians. Still, the published journal references the new birth on only two occasions during this period. The first was in mid-April 1737 when Wesley discoursed on 1 John 5:4 (“Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world”), which was the epistle reading for that Sunday, and the second occurred in early-February 1738 when he expounded on becoming a “new creature” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).[67] Both of these texts suited his holy living gospel and reflected the imprint of the holy living tradition on his soteriology.[68] It should be added that during this same period Charles Wesley expressed deep interest in the subject, which can be seen in his letters,[69] sermons,[70] and journal notations.[71] So, both of the Wesley brothers were proclaiming the new birth before they embraced the evangelical gospel in 1738.

One of Wesley’s primary motivations for going to America was to use the pristine environment of the new world to serve as a laboratory to implement his vision of a restored primitive Christianity. In a groundbreaking study on Wesley’s Georgian period, Geordan Hammond went into great detail explaining how Wesley, with his high church principles, sought to restore the practices of the primitive church with liturgical exactness. Heavily influenced by the Manchester Nonjurors, like Thomas Deacon, Wesley insisted on trine immersion for baptism and adhered to the position of Saint Cyprian (d. 258) that baptism must be received within the communion of the one true church to be valid.[72] For Wesley, of course, the one true church meant communions like the Church of England, who maintained episcopal ordination in keeping with apostolic succession. Therefore, Wesley insisted on the rebaptism of Dissenters[73] and continued to adhere to his Church’s teaching on baptismal regeneration and the washing away of the guilt of original sin.[74]

But during this period Wesley was exposed to a radically different gospel message that grounded the new birth on a direct encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. Awakened by his fears of imminent death during his voyage to America in late 1735 and early 1736, Wesley later reminisced that it was God’s “free mercy to give me twenty-six of the Moravian brethren…to show me a more excellent way” of attaining an assurance of righteousness before God.[75] This “more excellent way” pierced through Wesley’s High Church armor when the Moravian leader August Spangenberg (1704-1792) probed, “Do you know Jesus Christ?…Do you know he has saved you?” In response Wesley could only muster a feeble “I do,” but later added, “I fear they were vain words.”[76] With the seed planted Wesley perused the pietistic classic True Christianity by Johann Arndt (1555-1621) that March. In this work Arndt presents the new birth as an inward work of the Spirit whereby a person changes from a “child of wrath and damnation” to a “child of grace and salvation.”[77] The nature of the change is further explained as the renewal and enlightenment of “all the powers of the soul” including the “understanding, will, and affections,” so that the person becomes “sanctified in Christ” and a “new creature.”[78] Even more influential with Wesley was the Reformed work The Memoirs of the Life of the Reverend Mr. Thomas Halyburton (1714), which Wesley devoured over a two week period in early January 1737 and shared with his brother Charles and friends upon his return to England in 1738. In this systematic analysis of evangelical conversion, Halyburton presented his pilgrimage as a series of stages. Beginning with the natural state when he was a child, Halyburton went into great detail describing his awakening under the law and the moment when he finally broke through to evangelical faith in Christ under the gospel.[79] As would Wesley later describe in his testimony at Aldersgate, Halyburton told of the assurance he received in regard to his justification before God and how he had been set free from the “power of sin,” giving him a newfound sense of peace.[80] “Thus,” Halyburton wrote, “all things were in some measure made new.”[81]

Halyburton’s testimony resonated with Wesley in his search to find a faith that would give him an “assurance of acceptance with God.”[82] Upon his return voyage to England Wesley found the time to reflect on his spiritual state in a series of confessions regarding his unbelief and pride, and concerning his need for conversion:

“I went to America to convert the Indians; but Oh! Who shall convert me? Who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief? I have a fair summer religion.”[83]

“I want that faith which none can have without knowing that he hath it (though many imagine they have it who have it not). For whosoever hath it is ‘freed from sin’…He is freed from fear…And he is freed from doubt…which [the] ‘Spirit itself beareth witness with his spirit, that he is a child of God’”.[84]

John Wesley was now open to receive a different gospel, one that grounded the new birth on faith in Christ crucified, with the Spirit witnessing to his acceptance as a child of God. This became the “new gospel”[85] that informed his experience of assurance at Aldersgate and it was this gospel that he proclaimed for the next fifty-three years as an evangelical field preacher.


In this study we have traversed through a large amount of material in order to ascertain Wesley’s doctrine of the new birth and its development from 1725 to 1738. The salient points of his doctrine can now be stated.

First and foremost, we learned that the early Wesley was thoroughly Anglican in his sentiments on the new birth. Following in the steps of his parents’ high churchmanship, the early Wesley consistently maintained during his Oxford and Georgian periods that regeneration begins in the sacrament of baptism, and in keeping with the tradition of the Church of England he administered it to infants and small children. Wesley would continue to teach baptismal regeneration and practice infant baptism throughout the remainder of his life. This is evident from his 1756 tract on baptism (which was an abridgment of his father Samuel’s discourse on the subject).[86] So even though he became an evangelical in 1738, Wesley remained a high churchman throughout his life (as did Charles). This fact is often lost by contemporary evangelicals who have not studied his life in sufficient detail.

Moreover, the early Wesley adhered to his Church’s teachings that the new birth was progressive in nature and only completed (perfected) at death, when the faithful saint transitions into the presence of Christ. Like other Anglicans of the era, when commenting on the subject Wesley usually focused more on the progressive nature of the new birth over its initial gifting in baptism. We saw above that this insight into his new birth doctrine gives context to his later remarks that during his time in Georgia he did not yet consider himself a Christian.[87] In truth, the mainstream Anglican viewpoint of the new birth put the accent on the end of life, when the work of renewal was complete and the believer fully sanctified. What many students of Wesley do not realize is that he continued to teach the progressive view up till the 1750s when he began to formally distinguish the new birth from the progressive work of sanctification.[88]

We further saw that in regard to his views on regeneration the early Wesley came increasingly under the influence of the Anglican holy living tradition in the 1730s. This led him to modify his views by putting more of an emphasis on the single intention as the crisis moment of the new birth. His primary source for this adjustment was William Law, with Richard Lucas and Henry Scougal making important contributions. What was significant about this new soteriological emphasis on the single intention was that it led Wesley to modify the standard Anglican ordo salutis, thus preparing him for the fundamental changes that would take place in 1738. These developments can be plotted for easy reference. Whereas from his childhood up to about 1730 Wesley held to the standard Anglican ordo of baptism – sanctification – justification – glory, from 1730 to 1738 he adjusted this by incorporating the single intention as the crisis moment of adult new birth: baptism – single intention – sanctification – justification – glory. As we saw above, the reason for making this adjustment was the firm belief that most, if not all, baptized Anglicans had forfeited their salvation by reneging on their baptismal vows to live a life of full devotion to God. This would later become a core premise in Wesley’s evangelical message, evident from his own conversion testimony in the Journal account on May 24, 1738.[89] In 1738 Wesley embraced the evangelical message of new birth by justifying faith in Christ, and this led to the gift of present justification replacing the single intention as the crisis moment of evangelical new birth. So that from 1738 till his death Wesley maintained the basic ordo of baptism – present justification – sanctification – final justification – glory.

Two lessons stand out at this point. First, even as an evangelical Wesley continued to maintain a modified Anglican ordo throughout his life; that is, Wesley’s soteriology continued to be informed by his deeply held Anglican beliefs. Second, as an evangelical Wesley never did reverse the order of justification and sanctification as is commonly believed. Instead, like other mainstream Anglicans Wesley continued to affirm the doctrine of final justification preceded by a progressive work of sanctification, but as an evangelical he inserted into his ordo another crisis moment of justification prior to the work of sanctification. This meant that Wesley’s evangelical ordo recognized two moments of justification, one present and one future, with the new birth associated with the first gift of righteousness (present justification).

Our study also clarified in a great degree what the new birth signified to the early Wesley. Several of his statements we have already looked at reveal what the new birth meant to him:

“We dwell in Christ and Christ in us”[90]

“New nature”[91]

“Quickens us…by his Spirit which dwelleth in us”[92]

“Breathe in them the breath of Christian life”[93]

“Formed anew after the likeness of our Creator”[94]

“New creatures”[95]

“Single eye…singleness of intention”[96]

These statements suggest that for the early Wesley the new birth represented a fundamental change within a person’s dispositional proclivity (i.e. new nature), producing a series of alterations in the inner and outer life: an awareness of personal union or connection with Christ, a new-found mindfulness and sensitivity toward God, a new spirit animating the mind and heart, a bubbling up from deep within of holy aspirations and longings after God, a reinvigorated focus in one’s devotion. Such a rich repository of terms surely reflects the depth of meaning that the early Wesley attached to the new birth, and confirms that much of Wesley’s theology of regeneration was formed long before 1738.

In the spring of 1738 Wesley became an evangelical and his doctrine of the new birth evolved once more. Regeneration now became linked to the Reformation’s message of justification by faith alone, conjoined with a Pietist emphasis on the new birth as a gift of free grace. Faith in Christ replaced the single intention as the primary condition for the new birth.[97] While he continued to teach until the 1750s a progressive view of regeneration, his core belief that the new birth is received in a salvific moment of perceptible assurance witnessed directly by the Holy Spirit became a central tenet in his message to the masses.[98] And, over time this became the legacy of Wesley’s doctrine of the new birth within Methodism and beyond.[99]

This article was previously published in the Wesleyan Theological Journal 52-1 (2017).

[1] E.g. see Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007); Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994). Henry Rack does comment on Charles Wesley’s 1737 views on regeneration in Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, 3rd edition (London: Epworth Press, 2002), 143, 394.

[2] For one of Wesley’s earliest descriptions of the new birth, see his journal (JWJ) entry for April 22, 1738 (W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds. The Works of John Wesley, vols. 18-24 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984-Present], 18:234 [Hereafter: Works]). In early 1738 other terms Wesley used as synonyms for the new birth were “regeneration,” “born again,” and “new creature” (Works, 25:534).

[3] On the late seventeenth-century High-Church revival, see Brent S. Sirota, The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 26-32.

[4] John Telford, ed. The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., 8 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931), 6:156.

[5] Farther Thoughts on Separation from the Church §1 (Works, 9:538).

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, 1662 Edition (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 268, 270 (hereafter: BCP).

[7] BCP, 273.

[8] BCP, 273 (emphasis mine).

[9] See BCP, 281-88.

[10] Samuel Wesley, The pious communicant rightly prepar’d, or, A discourse concerning the Blessed Sacrament . . . to which is added, a short discourse of baptism (London: Charles Harper, 1700), 189, 200-01.

[11] Samuel Wesley, Pious Communicant, 205, 207.

[12] Quoted from Scott Thomas Kisker, Foundation for Revival: Anthony Horneck, the Religious Societies, and the Construction of an Anglican Pietism (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, INC., 2008), 181. Kisker showed that Horneck also taught a Pietist version of a second, post-baptism infusion of grace (182).

[13] Charles Wallace, Jr. ed. Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 164.

[14] John Tillotson, Fifteen Sermons on Various Subjects, 2nd edition (London, 1704), 194, 225-26, 238.

[15] William Beveridge, The Theological Works of William BeveridgeD.D., vol. 1 [Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1842], 443, 446).

[16] Richard Lucas, Religious Perfection: Or a Third Part of the Enquiry after Happiness, 3rd edition (London: W. Innys and R. Manby, 1735; orig. 1685), 35.

[17] Lucas, Religious Perfection, 37-38, 61; S. Wesley, Pious Communicant, 207.

[18] Jeffery S. Chamberlain, “Moralism, Justification, and the Controversy over Methodism,” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 44, no. 4 (October, 1993), 671.

[19] S. Wesley, Pious Communicant, 205.

[20] Beveridge referred to Eph. 4:30 in his remark (Theological Works, vol. 1, 445).

[21] Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living and Dying: With Prayers Containing the Whole Duty of a Christian (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 490.

[22] William Law, A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection (Eugene: WIPF and Stock Publishers, 2001),24, emphasis his. Note, Law quoted the liturgy right before the above quote (see, BCP, “The Ministration of Baptism to Such as are of Riper Years,” 285)

[23] Law, Christian Perfection, 25. In this work Law made many similar statements that accented the single intention.

[24] Law, Christian Perfection, 25.

[25] Law, Christian Perfection, 25-27, 35. Other synonyms Law used were “born of God” (26-27), “born again of the Spirit” (35), true Christians” (25, 34), “truly turned to God” (35), and “new life perfectly devoted to God” (25).

[26] June 18, 1725 (Works, 25:169-70).

[27] Date: January 15, 1734 (Works, 25:369).

[28] Lucas, Religious Perfection, 1-16; Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.

[29] The Life of God in the Soul of Man (London: J. Downing, 1726), 7.

[30] Works, 25:370. The phrase “new-born soul” comes from Scougal’s classic, The Life of God in the Soul of Man (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 36.

[31] Works, 3:540. In this sermon Wesley repeatedly affirmed that sin is finally vanquished at death (“‘Who then will deliver us from the body of this death?’ Death will deliver us” [Works, 3:534]).

[32] Letter dated March 28, 1739 (Works, 25:614).

[33] Date: December 10, 1734 (Works, 25:397-409).

[34] Works, 25:398-99.

[35] Works, 25:403.

[36] Works, 25:407.

[37] Works, 25:399.

[38] Thomas Jackson, ed. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd edition, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 11:207, 222 (Hereafter: Works, Jackson).

[39] Works, 4:274. On the debilitating effects of Adam’s sin in Wesley’s early sermons, see “Death and Deliverance” §14, “One Thing Needful” I.2 (Works, 4:212, 354), and The Trouble and Rest of Good Men (Works, 3:533-34).

[40] “The New Birth” I.2-4 (Works, 2:189-90).

[41] “The Image of God” (Works, 4:292-303).

[42] “The Wisdom of Winning Souls” (Works, 4:308).

[43] “The Wisdom of Winning Souls” (Works, 4:311-14).

[44] Works,Jackson, 7:488.

[45] Works, Jackson, 7:488.

[46] Works, Jackson, 7:489, 491

[47] The importance of the Spirit’s inward testimony in Wesley’s later soteriology calls for including his full statement in this sermon, “And in order that this inward testimony may be lively and permanent, it is absolutely necessary to attend carefully to the secret operation of the Holy Spirit within us; who, by infusing his holy consolations into our souls, by enlivening our drooping spirits, and giving us a quick relish of his promises, raises bright and joyous sensations in us, and gives a man, beforehand, a taste of the bliss to which he is going. In this sense, God is said, by the Apostle to the Corinthians, to have “sealed us, and to have given the earnest of his Spirit in our hearts;” and that earnest, not only by way of confirmation of our title to happiness, but as an actual part of that reward at present, the fullness of which we expect hereafter” (Works, Jackson, 7:492).

[48] “The Circumcision of the Heart” I.7 (Works, 1:405).

[49] “The Circumcision of the Heart” I.8 (Works, 1:406).

[50] “The Circumcision of the Heart” II.4 (Works, 1:411).

[51] “The Circumcision of the Heart” II.4-5 (Works, 1:411).

[52] “The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God” I.8 (Works, 1:434).

[53] E.g. the mark of humility was inspired by William Law (Works, 1:403 n16) and assurance was grounded on holy lifestyle (à Kempis, Law, Lucas, and Taylor).

[54] See “The Circumcision of the Heart” I.7 (Works, 1:405).

[55] “The One Thing Needful” I.2 (Works, 4:354).

[56] “The One Thing Needful” I.5 (Works, 4:355, emphasis mine).

[57] “The One Thing Needful” I.4 (Works, 4:354).

[58] “The One Thing Needful” II.3 (Works, 4:356).

[59] “The One Thing Needful” II.5 (Works, 4:357).

[60] “The One Thing Needful” III.2 (Works, 4:358).

[61] Preached at Frederica, Georgia, in the forenoon of March 14, 1736.

[62] “A Single Intention” §1 (Works, 4:372).

[63] “A Single Intention” I.1 (Works, 4:373).

[64] “A Single Intention” I.4 (Works, 4:374).

[65] “A Single Intention” II.2-6 (Works, 4:374-75).

[66] “A Single Intention” II.9 (Works, 4:376-77, emphasis mine).

[67] Works, 18:179, 223. The editor’s comment that part of the sermon in early February 1738 was probably incorporated into Wesley’s 1763 sermon On Sin in Believers is mistaken (for editor comment see Works, 18:223 n12).

[68] JW continued to promote Law’s gospel of holy living during this entire period (Works, 18:160, 25:540-41).

[69] E.g. see letters dated October 19, 1735; February 5, 1736; January 2, 1738 (Kenneth G.C. Newport and Gareth Lloyd, eds. The Letters of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition, with Introduction and Notes, vol. 1 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013], 45, 51, 66).

[70] Charles preached several of John’s early sermons on the new birth, including “A Single Intention” and “The One Thing Needful” (Kenneth G.C. Newport, ed. The Sermons of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001] 306, 360.

[71] Charles expressed increased interest in the subject towards the end of 1737, e.g. see September 11 and 29, October 30, November 10 and 30 (ST Kimbrough, Jr. and Kenneth G.C. Newport, eds. The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley, M.A. vol. 1 (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2008), 88, 90, 94, 95.

[72] Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 70, 112. See Wesley’s comments on baptism and his belief in the power of sacramental grace in his journal entry on March 21, 1736 (Works, 18:150).

[73] Hammond, John Wesley in America, 70-71.

[74] Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 73. On Wesley’s later views on baptismal regeneration, see his 1756 treatise on baptism, which is an excerpt of his father’s tract on the subject (Works, Jackson, 10:188).

[75] JWJ, May 24, 1738 (Works, 18:246).

[76] JWJ, February 7, 1736 (Works, 18:146).

[77] Johann Arndt, Of True Christianity, 2 vols.(London: D. Brown, 1712), 1:24, 26.

[78] Arndt, True Christianity, 26.

[79] Joel R. Beeke, ed. Memoirs of the Rev. Thomas Halyburton (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1996), Parts 1-3.

[80] Beeke, Thomas Halyburton, 96, 109.

[81] Beeke, Thomas Halyburton, 112.

[82] JWJ, May 24, 1738, §6 (Works, 18:245).

[83] JWJ, January 24, 1738 (Works, 18:211).

[84] JWJ, February 1, 1738 (Works, 18:216).

[85] JWJ, May 24, 1738, §12 (Works, 18:248).

[86] Works, Jackson, 10:188. See note 10 above.

[87] See note 32 above.

[88] On this point see my book John Wesley’s Theology of Christian Perfection: Developments in Doctrine & Theological System (Fenwick: Truth In Heart, 2007), 429-36. JW formally distinguished the new birth from progressive sanctification in the 1759 sermon, The New Birth IV.3 (Works, 2:198). See Wesley’s comments in his treatise on original sin (Works, 12:300). Cf. Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 215-16.

[89] “I believe, till I was about ten years old I had not sinned away that ‘washing of the Holy Ghost’ which was given me in baptism” (Works, 18:242-43). Confirming evidence can be seen in Wesley’s 1738 tract The Doctrine of Salvation, Faith and Good Works I.2 (Works, 12:32).

[90] See note 26 above.

[91] See note 46 above.

[92] See note 48 above.

[93] See note 52 above.

[94] See note 56 above.

[95] See note 66 above.

[96] “A Single Intention” II.2, 3 (Works, 4:374). See notes 61, 66 above.

[97] The other condition Wesley stressed was repentance (e.g. Salvation by Faith III.4 [Works, 1:126-27]). By 1739 the single intention became associated with his new teaching on Christian perfection as a second, post-justification blessing (Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1740, §11 [Works, 13:48]).

[98] Although Wesley began by 1747 to distinguish between justifying faith and perceptible assurance (letter to Charles Wesley, July 31, 1747 [Works, 26:254-55]), his later sermons confirm that he continued to hold that the new birth is conjoined to the gift of perceptible  assurance, meaning the direct and indirect testimonies of the Spirit (e.g. “The Witness of the Spirit, II,” [Works, 1:285-98]; On the Discoveries of Faith, §14 [Works, 4:35-36]).

[99] On this point, see Mark K. Olson, “Exegeting Aldersgate: John Wesley’s Interpretation of 24 May 1738.” PhD Thesis (University of Manchester, 2015), 214-29.

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