ASSURANCE or PRESUMPTION?
By Dr.Vic Reasoner
Date Posted Jan. 17, 2009
The first attempts to reconstruct the teachings of John Wesley occurred within a dozen years of his death. The first Wesleyan doctrine to come under attack was the direct witness of the Spirit. Between 1803-1805 Joseph Cook denied that John Wesley was an "almost Christian" prior to Aldersgate. He also rejected Wesley's distinction between a servant and a son. Furthermore, he rejected Wesley's interpretation of Romans 8:16 and declared that all who repent are justified, denying any difference between justifying faith and the witness of the Spirit. The only witness of the Spirit, according to Cook, was what the Bible declared in general and not what the Spirit may declare to an individual. He denied that a believer receives a direct assurance of his acceptance.
In 1806 the Methodist Conference expelled Joseph Cook on charges of heresy. Three years later Melville Horne broke with Methodism. Horne had succeeded John Fletcher as curate of Madeley in 1786. Prior to his break, Horne had declined to preach in Methodist pulpits for seventeen years and felt that they considered him to be an enemy. However, Horne asserted that he agreed with the Methodists on every point, including Christian perfection, but not on what constituted saving faith. He said he had grown up hearing the Wesleys preach, but had never accepted their definition of faith. Finally in 1809 he renounced Wesley's view of saving faith, as stated in "The Almost Christian," that saving faith is a sure trust and confidence in God. Horne also claimed Wesley abandoned this definition before his death. Horne felt the Methodist leaders had persuaded John Whitehead to eliminate any evidence of Wesley's change of mind on this subject in his biography of Wesley published 1793-1796.
Horne denied any direct witness of the Spirit and called the doctrine "unscriptural, unnecessary, and dangerous." Horne asserted that all who repent and believe are forgiven — even if they lack assurance. All that Horne required was a felt need of Christ and a willingness to receive Christ on his own terms.
But how can I know that God has accepted me? The Word of God promises assurance, but the Word cannot tell me that God has accepted me. According to the Word, that is the ministry of the Spirit. Horne admitted that he did not intend any reference to assurance in his definition. Yet if the penitent receives Christ, he can rationally and Scripturally infer his assurance. But saving faith always contains strong assurance. In Acts 17:31 and 2 Timothy 3:14 the Greek word for faith (pistis) is translated "assurance."
John Fletcher observed, "But undoubtedly assurance is inseparably connected with the faith of the Christian dispensation. . . . Nobody therefore can truly believe, according to this dispensation, without being immediately conscious both of the forgiveness of sins, and of peace and joy in the Holy Ghost." W. B. Pope declared that although there is a difference between faith and assurance, the same Spirit who brings faith to life gives the internal assurance that it is fulfilled in such swift succession that it is impossible to distinguish between faith and assurance. Nathaniel Burwash explained that "faith has in it divine assurance, and all assurance springs from God-given faith. Justifying faith is a personal divine assurance of the provision of salvation in Christ for me. The witness is personal divine assurance of the possession of that salvation by me."
Horne conversed with Wesley about three years before his death, somewhere around 1789 and reported that Wesley had told him, "When fifty years ago, my Brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, told the good people of England, that unless they knew their sins forgiven, they were under the wrath and curse of God, I marvel, Melville, they did not stone us. The Methodists, I hope, know better now; we preach assurance as we always did, as a common privilege of the Child of God; but we do not enforce it, under the pain of damnation, denounced on all who enjoy it not."
Kenneth Collins, commenting on this often-quoted letter to Melville Horne, pointed out that Wesley maintained assurance is the common privilege of the sons and daughters of God. It is rare when assurance does not soon follow the birth, even if it is initially mixed with doubt and fear [The Scripture Way of Salvation, p. 236; The Theology of John Wesley, p. 136]. Yet Horne referred to this conversation as proof that Wesley had changed his position, even publishing part of it on the title page of his book.
In 1809, the same year that Horne published his attack, Edward Hare wrote a 38-page rebuttal in which he replied to Horne, "Do not imagine that we are to be bullied out of our opinions." In 1810 Thomas Coke published a series of letters, running 382 pages, explaining justification by faith and the direct witness of the Spirit, vindicating these doctrines from misrepresentation and the erroneous conclusions of Melville Horne. Nor did Joseph Benson, editor of the Methodist Magazine, waste any time in publishing a rebuttal of Horne's book. A two-part review appeared in the January and February 1810 issues of the Methodist Magazine.
This being the case, it is ironic that Laurence Wood used Horne to define the doctrine of Wesley and Fletcher. Horne claimed that Wesley had come to assume a distinction between justifying faith and the assurance of faith. Assurance is for mature believers. Pentecost made possible the full assurance of faith to those who previously had been justified by faith. Yet Wesley was clear that the witness of the Spirit is given to those who are justified and those who are sanctified. In both cases the assurance may not always be clear at first, neither is it always the same, sometimes it is stronger and sometimes fainter. But in general the testimony to entire sanctification is both as clear and as steady as the testimony to justification.
While Wood relies on this distinction to define Christian perfection [The Meaning of Pentecost in Early Methodism, pp. 180-186], the issue under discussion is not Christian perfection, but the direct witness of the Spirit. Wood regularly confuses these two subjects, since the witness of the Spirit accompanies the baptism with the Spirit in the new birth and Wood equates both the baptism and witness of the Spirit with Christian perfection.
However, if Horne can be trusted to represent Wesley, Horne declared that Wesley "never considered the Christian dispensation as fully opened till the Day of Pentecost, when the Disciples received the Promise of the Father and were baptized with the Holy Ghost and the fire of divine Love. This Baptism brings the fullest assurance of faith. And this is what he means, emphatically by saving Christian faith; not intending to deny faith in Christ, as both saving and Christian."
Wesley did not change his doctrine of Christian assurance at the end of his life as Horne asserted. The Methodist Magazine review stated, "We have the [boldness], however, to believe that Mr. Wesley never changed his opinion of the doctrine of Faith." In 1740 Wesley wrote, "I never yet knew one soul thus saved without what you call ‘the faith of assurance'; I mean, a sure confidence that, by the merits of Christ, he was reconciled to the favor of God."
As early as 1745, the minutes of the Methodist conference indicated there might be some exempt cases in which justifying faith may not always be accompanied by the witness of the Spirit. Wesley elaborated on these exemptions in a letter to Dr. Rutherforth on 28 March 1768 as either "disorder of body or ignorance of the gospel promises." In 1774 Wesley edited his own Journal to say that prior to Aldersgate he had the faith of a servant, but not of a son. However, Wesley consistently maintained that explicit assurance of God's pardon is the common privilege of real Christians. This is the birthright of all true believers and Wesley preached, "Let none rest in any supposed fruit of the Spirit without the witness. . . . This is the privilege of all the children of God and without this we can never be assured that we are his children."
How else can we know that we are accepted by God? Richard Watson explained that pardon is subsequent to both repentance and faith so that neither can provide evidence of pardon. "This being true, the only way we can ever know whether our repentance and faith are accepted is to know the pardon actually following upon them and, since they cannot attest to the pardon themselves, there must be an attestation of a distinct, and higher authority, and the only attestation conceivable remaining is the direct witness of the Holy Spirit." Adam Clarke taught that those who were adopted could know it by no other means than by the Spirit of God. "Remove this from Christianity, and it is a dead letter" While dying in 1735, Samuel Wesley admonished his son, "The inward witness, son, the inward witness, that is the proof; the strongest proof of Christianity."
By the time of Phoebe Palmer, some thirty years after Cook and Horne, it was asserted that no confirmatory feeling was necessary. Yet early Methodism preached that true religion was heartfelt. Assurance must be felt to be truly known. While Palmer urged a leap of faith, Wesley required evidence. Yet Palmer taught that only "bare faith" was necessary. As Cook and Horne had attempted, Palmer also replaced the witness of the Spirit with the witness of the Word. According to historian David Bebbington, "A new era had dawned in holiness teaching."
The result is that today, according to George Barna's State of the Church 2002, more than 60% of American adults believe they are going to heaven because they repeated a salvation prayer. But less than 10% show the fruit of salvation. A. W. Tozer warned,
As the Methodist Magazine review stated, "‘The receiving Christ' is one thing, but certainly it is not every thing essential to faith." The direct witness of the Spirit was the distinguishing mark of early Methodism. Today that assurance has been largely replaced by presumption.
This article is edited from the forthcoming "Assurance or Presumption? Early Attempts to Reconstruct Methodist Doctrine: 1803-1809," Wesleyan Theological Journal 44:2 (Fall 2009).