Lawrence W. Wood, The Meaning of Pentecost in Early Methodism. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002. 401 pages.

The author of this study has attempted to prove that the concept of “pentecostal perfection” had its roots with the elderly John Wesley, through the influence of John Fletcher. By the term “pentecostal perfection,” Wood understands “the baptism of the Spirit” as synonymous with Christian perfection. It is quite apparent that Wood is intent on proving, if he can, that John Fletcher always identified the baptism of the Holy Ghost only with entire sanctification. He further attempts, without full substantiation, to persuade the reader that numerous early Methodist leaders followed Wesley and Fletcher in the identification of “the baptism with the Spirit” with entire sanctification.

Although Wood makes the claim that his book shows “Fletcher’s ‘reader response’ interpretation of Pentecost uniting it with sanctification was adapted largely from Wesley’s Standard Sermons,” such an assertion is again unsubstantiated.

Throughout the entire book Wood identifies the witness of the Spirit primarily with the experience of Christian perfection. For instance, he refers to a letter Fletcher wrote to a Miss Hatton, dated November 1, 1762, in which Fletcher makes a distinction between justifying faith and believers’ receiving “the seal of their pardon.” This being “assured of that justification,” is erroneously interpreted by Wood as Christian perfection.

It is surprising that Wood should consistently endeavor to convince his readers that Wesley and other early Methodists considered a believer to be without the constant and inward dwelling of the Holy Spirit until attaining Christian perfection. In fact the reader is led to believe that the constant enjoyment of the Spirit of adoption is found only among those who have attained Christian perfection. This is confuted by many of Wesley’s writings, both early and late, including his sermons on the “Witness of the Spirit,” wherein he plainly taught that the Spirit of adoption was to be enjoyed by all justified believers. To suppose with Wood that “Wesley repeatedly identified assurance primarily with Christian perfection” is a mistake.

Wood makes the assertion that “Wesley eventually came to alter his opinion about justified believers receiving the witness of the Spirit . . . as shown in his sermon, ‘On Faith’ (1788).” Any unprejudiced reader, however, who is familiar with Wesley’s writings will be persuaded otherwise when closely reviewing this sermon. While it is true that Wesley never links the witness of the Spirit with the “faith of a servant,” we find him unequivocally assuring us here that the “faith of a son” or justifying faith is accompanied with the witness of the Spirit. There was never any alteration in Wesley’s views concerning this matter. In his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he taught that there was a witness of the Spirit to a believer’s justification as well as to one’s entire sanctification. Writes Mr. Wesley, “I can know [that I am entirely sanctified] no otherwise than I know that I am justified. ‘Hereby know we that we are of God,’ in either sense [whether justified or entirely sanctified] ‘by the Spirit He hath given us.’” A Plain Account of Christian Perfection was last revised in 1777 and we are assured that no significant changes in Mr. Wesley’s sentiments concerning its contents were ever evident beyond that date.

Interestingly, this author finds the conversion of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost to be a problem. To those who had been “pricked in their hearts” as a result of Peter’s sermon, the Apostle clearly promised the receiving of “the gift of the Holy Ghost” upon their meeting the conditions of repentance and baptism “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:37-38). “This,” says Wood, “was an extraordinary occurrence and not the usual pattern because believers normally are justified believers first and later receive the baptism with the Holy Spirit.” Such a statement reflects a general denial of that mighty effusion of the Spirit so necessary to the bringing of a penitent from the state of spiritual death to a resurrection of spiritual life in the new birth.

Later in his book, Wood refers to Fletcher’s closing passages in his Essay on Truth and confidently asserts that “Fletcher believes this [conversion of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost] was an extraordinary event when the Jewish believers simultaneously received forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ and received that fullness of sanctification through faith in the Spirit.” Anyone who wishes to review that part of Fletcher’s writings, however, will not find him making the claim that the three thousand received fullness of sanctification on the day of Pentecost. What the Scripture describes concerning all new converts at and immediately following the day of Pentecost is the expected norm and standard of all who are regenerated in every age of this Holy Ghost dispensation.

It cannot be proved that Fletcher or Wesley “believed that, on the day of Pentecost, all new converts were simultaneously justified and fully sanctified” as Wood claims. This minimal view of the Spirit’s initial work of sanctification in the heart is repeatedly apparent. Both Wesley and Fletcher consistently maintained that the work of holiness is begun in regeneration. Wood fails to acknowledge that both regeneration and entire sanctification are made possible only upon the descent of the Holy Spirit during and after the day of Pentecost. Initial salvation in the work of regeneration was sometimes equated by Wesley as a “restoration [if but a partial restoration] of the image of God in the soul.”

Wesley and Fletcher taught the baptism of the Holy Spirit to be the instrumental means of one’s total process of salvation. Neither man confined the baptism of the Holy Spirit to the work of entire sanctification nor Christian perfection. Their holistic view of the baptism of the Spirit is largely overlooked by Wood. For instance, in response to Jesus’ promise to His disciples, “ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost,” Wesley writes: “And so are all true believers to the end of the world.” In response to Romans 8:9, “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his,” Wesley comments: “He is not a member of Christ; not a Christian; not in a state of salvation” [Explanatory Notes].

There is no doubt that Fletcher, in his “Last Check to Antinomianism,” refers to entire sanctification as a work of God in a believer’s heart by the baptism of the Holy Ghost. However, Wood overlooks the fact that Fletcher also makes reference to justification and regeneration being wrought by the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This can be substantiated by various passages in volumes 3 and 4 of his Works. In his “A Sermon on the New Birth,” he gives encouragement to those seeking justification: “Yes, you shall be baptized by the Holy Ghost for the remission of sins, and justified freely by faith” [Works, 4:115]. In his letters on the “Spiritual Manifestation of the Son of God,” he assures his readers that to “be baptized with the Holy Ghost and spiritual fire, is the common blessing which can alone make a man a Christian” [Works, 4:287].

Wood highlights what he refers to as “a rich variety of Pentecostal terms,” such as “the love of God poured out in the heart by the Holy Spirit,” “the abiding witness of the Spirit,” “the kingdom within,” “the comforts of the Holy Ghost,” “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” These descriptive terms, along with others such as, “happy in God,” “the Spirit of adoption,” and “the abiding witness,” he would identify with the experience of Christian perfection. However, it is well known that Wesley and Fletcher both used such scriptural terms to describe the experience of justified believers, as well as the entirely sanctified.

On the day of Pentecost the Holy Ghost was, according to Wesley, given in his sanctifying graces. Only then were those “who ‘waited for the promise of the Father’ . . . made more than conquerors over sin.” Being made “conquerors over sin,” Wood takes to be a common phrase for Christian perfection. This again is a confounding of Wesley’s teachings. It is true that Wesley often mentions being “saved from sin” (that is, inbred sin) as being synonymous with Christian perfection, but he also taught that the newly justified and regenerated soul is initially sanctified and made “so far perfect as not to commit sin.”
Both Wesley and Fletcher embraced the historic and scriptural view of one baptism, understanding water baptism to be symbolic of Spirit baptism. Wood discards this view and speaks rather of two unconnected baptisms. He conceives water baptism to be analogous to one’s “Easter” or point of justification, while baptism of the Spirit is viewed as a time of one’s “Pentecost” and attainment of Christian perfection. Thus in accordance with certain ecclesiastical traditions, Wood sees the outward ritual of water baptism as representing the work of justification, while the laying on of hands in the ceremony of confirmation to be a marking of the believer’s attainment of Christian perfection in Spirit baptism.

Making “birth of water” the essence of “justification by faith” in the initial experience of salvation, while making “birth of the Spirit” represent full sanctification are favorite suppositions of the author. He endeavors to describe both Wesley and Fletcher as equating the “being born of God with Christian perfection.” This does not, however, represent the teachings of Mr. Wesley. To both Wesley and Fletcher, baptism in the Spirit was considered to be the divine power necessary for bringing about spiritual birth and a mighty transformation in regeneration. It is then that the soul is resurrected to spiritual life and the love of God is shed abroad in the heart. By the aid of the Spirit, the new believer is to go on to perfection. Both Wesley and Fletcher were mindful of Paul’s words to the Corinthian believers who were not yet entirely sanctified, but who were assured of being inwardly possessed of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19). “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13).

Wood is partially correct when he says that “Fletcher believed the interior meaning of being baptized with the Holy Spirit may happen suddenly when one is initially converted, as with the multitudes on the day of the original Pentecost.” Indeed, Fletcher did believe that an initial baptism of the Holy Spirit was given to one who was truly regenerated and born of the Spirit. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Fletcher looked upon this initial baptism of the Spirit as synonymous with Christian perfection.

Near the close of the book, the author makes the following true statement: “Fletcher believed the baptism with the Spirit was an ongoing dynamic event always being updated in one’s daily life. It was never static, absolute attainment, representing a final achievement. For Fletcher, today’s reception of the Spirit’s fullness became tomorrow’s promise of greater infillings of the Spirit.”

In conclusion I find that the author’s claim of a significant change in Wesley’s views later in life concerning Pentecost’s relation to New Testament holiness to be greatly exaggerated. In his Journal, dated September 1, 1778, the elderly Wesley confessed that he had not made any essential addition to his knowledge in Divinity. Then with a final statement of strong conviction he assures his readers that “Forty years ago I knew and preached every Christian doctrine which I preach now.”

Dr. Wood has worked very hard to force both Wesley and Fletcher to say what he wants them to say. He skews the meaning of their statements so as to fit his favorite theological preconceptions. The overall effect of this study by Laurence Wood is that of leaving the reader with a view which consistently minimizes the new birth and relegates both justification and entire sanctification to a standard far below that found in the writings of both Wesley and Fletcher.

Respectfully summited, Mr. Joseph D. McPherson

 

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