Home   About Us   Holiness Library   Bible Prophecy   Listen to Sermons  History of the Holiness Movement   Early English Bibles   Bible Studies   Links









George Allen Turner  


Wesleyan Theological Journal

Wesley Center Online





In this essay on Wesleyan theology it is well to remember that most Protestants believe in justification by faith. Many of these are now known as “evangelicals,” those who believe that we must be “born again.”

Among these evangelicals, those in the Wesleyan or Methodist tradition believe that at a “second crisis,” subsequent to regeneration, one may experience spiritual renewal and a filling with the Holy Spirit. Among these “holiness people” three main branches are discernible. On the right or conservative wing are the “Calvinistic Methodists” or Keswickians of the Victorious Life Movement. These believe in a “second crisis experience” in which the believer, in response to confession of need, consecration, and faith receives a “baptism in the Holy Spirit” which makes one more effective in God’s service. The stress is on continued victory over indwelling sin as one abides in Christ. On the left, or more radical wing, are the Pentecostals who stress a second-crisis experience, a baptism in the Holy Spirit resulting in spiritual gifts, especially the gift of tongues. In the center is the main stream of Wesleyan emphasis, which, unlike the Victorious Life Movement, believes in deliverance from all sin, and which, unlike the Pentecostal Movement, believes that the gift of tongues is not an evidence of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” or of entire sanctification.

In this central mainstream, several biblical expressions are used to describe this experience of a “second work of grace, subsequent to regeneration.” These expressions include: the “rest of faith” (Hebrews 4:3), “entire sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 5:23), “perfect love” (1 John 4:17–18), “the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5), “heart purity” (Acts 15:9), the “second blessing” (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:15), and the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:4). The present essay seeks the meaning of the latter term as used in Scripture and in Wesleyan nomenclature, convinced that unless a doctrine is based on Scripture and attested by experience, it cannot be authentic.


. . . just as when the ground in a given locality is rich in underlying ore, there will often be outcroppings which may appear on the surface, so also holiness, which underlies the whole of scripture, stands in specific clarity in numerous passages. . . . One passage may reveal a facet which another passage does not make clear, and . . . the consensus of all the passages will give a good representation of the whole underlying stratum of holiness.[1]


Responsible scholarship seeks objectivity by an inductive method which comes to the data of scripture and history, not to extract from it a predetermined conclusion, but rather to derive a conclusion from all of the relevant evidence; in short, not to bring doctrine to the Bible for support but rather to derive doctrine from scripture.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is one of the most difficult of biblical doctrines. It was mentioned only, but not defined, in the Apostles’ Creed and received only slight attention in the four great ecumenical church councils. (When it did receive attention it contributed to the great schism between the Roman and Greek confessions in A. D. 1054.) In this study interest focuses on the connection, or lack of it, between the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” (baptisei en pneumati hagio) and cleansing from sin. Related questions are: (1) Is the phrase “baptize in the Holy Spirit” descriptive of initiation into the Christian life, or is it a gift of the Spirit for cleansing and empowering for those who are already believers? (2) Is this expression, as commonly used in the Holiness Movement, a derivative from Wesleyan theology or is it a subsequent accretion that is without precedent either in Scripture or the usage of the Wesleys?

The issue has received attention in recent years due to the following considerations: (1)The absence of a link between the work of the Holy Spirit and cleansing from sin in most standard works of theology, including those by many Wesleyan theologians. (2) Studies by Wesleyan scholars who have sought in vain for a clear teaching by Wesley that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is to be linked with entire sanctification. (3) The lack of an exhortation in the New Testament epistles that believers are to seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit. (4) Definitive exegetical studies which seek to demonstrate that the New Testament always associates the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the initiation into the Christian life.[2] (5) Researchers who conclude that baptism in the Holy Spirit, as simultaneous with entire sanctification, was a concept introduced into historical theology early in the nineteenth century and is neither scriptural nor Wesleyan.[3]

Whether the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is to be viewed as certifying the believer’s initiation into the Christian life or a subsequent bestowal upon the believer for purity and power there are certain areas in which advocates of both can agree. (1) All Christians are born of the Spirit (John 3:8; Galatians 3:2; 1 Corinthians 12:13). (2) All Christians need subsequently to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). (3). All agree that sanctification begins at conversion simultaneously with justification (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2 ; Titus 3:5). (4) Scripture supports the view that the baptism with the Holy Spirit and the filling with the Holy Spirit are distinct (Acts 11:16). (5) The view that links the expression “baptism in the Holy Spirit” with initiation does not necessarily imperil the view that entire sanctification and perfect love, subsequent to regeneration, are available and hence mandatory.


I. The Biblical Evidence


It will be helpful to review briefly the case for the position that the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit is limited to that of incorporating the believing sinner into the body of Christ, thus making him a Christian, as distinct from being filled with the Holy Spirit.

According to this view the baptism in the Holy Spirit was given historically only once, but in four installments: to Jews in Jerusalem , to Samaritans in Samaria , to Gentiles in Caesarea and to John’s disciples at Ephesus. Since then all when justified are also baptized with the Spirit; it often occurs in connection with water baptism, it is not something to be sought after conversion. In the light of such passages as 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:2 and Romans 8:9, the only criterion of whether or not one is a Christian is whether he has been born of the Spirit; in the light of such passages as Ephesians 5:18 it is clear that to be “filled with the Spirit” is quite distinct and should be sought after conversion. No Christian should seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit, since in the light of 1 Corinthians 12:13 he was baptized with the Holy Spirit when he became a Christian. As expressed concisely by Merrill Unger, “The regenerating work of the Holy Spirit never occurs apart from His simultaneous baptizing, indwelling, and sealing, . . . wrought instantly, simultaneously and eternally in the believer the moment he believes. . . .”[4]

In support of this point, many of its advocates insist, as a hermeneutical principle, that the Gospels and the Acts are historical records and must not be considered normative for Christian experience and doctrine today; instead the epistles are the only sound way to establish doctrinal positions.[5]

After re-examining the evidence, my conclusion is: (1) That biblical history is a basis for doctrine, and (2) that the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is not always linked with conversion-initiation, but rather, in Luke-Acts, the baptism in the Holy Spirit is seen as subsequent to regeneration; hence this usage is both scriptural and Wesleyan.


A. Divine Revelation is in Both Words and Deeds


It can be demonstrated that in both Old and New Testaments doctrine is established not only upon words attributed to God but also upon acts attributed to God. In short, divine revelation is mediated through both words and deeds of God.

An early creed is a recital of God’s actions in behalf of His people. When secure in the Promised Land the Israelite was supposed to say, “A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt . . . . Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice . . . and . . . brought us out of Egypt . . . and gave us this land” (Deuteronomy 26:5–9).

From the Exodus the Israelites learned of God’s power in delivering them from the Egyptians. From the gift of manna in the desert they learned of God’s providence. At Sinai they learned of His holiness, His intolerance of idols. During the conquest they learned of His power and His faithfulness in keeping covenant promises. The captivity taught them of God’s justice, and the restoration taught them His mercy. These “mighty acts of God” formed an important part of biblical theology as expressed often in the Psalms and in prophecy (cf. Pgs. 78; 95; 105; Amos 5:22-27).

This methodology is continued into the New Testament. We are taught lessons based on such events as Israel’s rejection of God’s messengers (Acts 7:2–53), Israel’s unbelief as precedent for contemporary skepticism (Acts 13:16–41), the faith of Abraham and David as indicative that justification by faith was experienced under the old covenant (Romans 4:2–12), Israel’s unbelief as proof of the danger of apostasy (Hebrews 3:6–4:11) and Elijah’s prayer as a precedent for men of “like passions” today (James 5:16–18).

When John the Baptist wondered about the identity of the Messiah Jesus did not send him a lecture or an exposition of Scriptural doctrine, but instead asked the messengers to report the miracles they had witnessed an let John draw his own conclusions about Jesus (Matthew 11:2–6). In the light of this hermeneutical procedure, how can John Stott say, “A doctrine of the Holy Spirit must not be constructed from descriptive passages in the Acts”?[6] Stott argues deductively: “Begin,” he says, “with the general, not with the special.” But where does he get the “general”?

Jesus often taught by deeds as well as words. We have no record of a catechism relative to Jesus’ messianic claims before Peter was asked for his “great confession.” Instead Jesus simply asked His disciples to follow Him. As they did so day after day they witnessed their leader’s mastery of disease, demons, the storm, and even death, in addition to teaching as “one having authority” in the exposition of scriptures. Surely these events, in their cumulative effect, enabled Peter to voice the conviction of the twelve that Jesus was indeed “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew16:16) Their doctrine was based largely on a combination of historical events of which they were first-hand witnesses. The gospel is a report of what “Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). No less are the events recorded in the Luke-Acts volume useful in the formulation of doctrine. It was God’s acts in giving His Spirit to believing Gentiles that convinced the apostles and elders that Gentiles are now to be included in the new covenant (Acts 15:7–12)


B. Initiation-Conversion and the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”


Repeatedly we are told that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is invariable associated with initiation into the Christian life. The proof-text for this 1 Corinthians 12:13 , and we are told that


. . . any view of the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels or in the Acts must be reconciled with the central New Testament doctrinal passage on this subject in 1 Corinthians 12:13 . To assert that . . . the term “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8 ; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16 ) does not pertain to the same thing as 1 Corinthians 12:13 . . . is an arbitrary assumption which . . . casts any sound exegetical method to the winds. . . .[7]


In short, Lukan language must give way to Pauline. Again, a patient study of the context in each case is called for.

The question now confronting us is the claim by Dunn and others that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is always linked with conversion-initiation.[8]

The evidence presented in Luke-Acts justifies the conclusion of R. E. O. White that, “it does disappoint those who look for logical and liturgical consistency.”[9] But it must be remembered that one seldom finds in Scripture a systematic theology. Instead one finds the “raw material” for a biblical theology which the student must endeavor to systematize. Luke’s primary purpose was to narrate the role of the Spirit in the life and growth of the early church rather than to build a pattern of doctrine (Acts 1:8).

But is it true that the “baptism in the Spirit” is always or even predominantly linked with initiation? John’s baptism with water unto repentance is clearly to be linked with initiation (Luke 3:3; Acts 1:5), as with the Samaritans (Acts 8:12), the Ethiopian (Acts 8:38), Lydia and the jailer in Philippi (Acts 16:15, 33). With this Paul agrees (Romans 6:3–4). We may add that accompanying this was the activity of the Spirit in regenerating these repentant and baptized believers; they are all born of water and of the Spirit (John 3:8; Galatians 3:2; Romans 8:9) and thus “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). But were they also “baptized” with the Holy Spirit? If the two are synonymous or simultaneous, why the repeated contrast between John’s baptism with water unto repentance and Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit?

The only verse which clearly links initiation with the baptism with the Holy Spirit is 1 Corinthians 12:13 , ”For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews, or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Is this an exception or is it the verse to which all the others must conform? What do the contexts indicate? In the six texts mentioned in the Gospels and Acts, the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is contrasted with the water baptism of John “unto repentance “ But, in 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul is thinking primarily of unity and the expression is paralleled by the statement, “and were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Drinking is not a baptismal figure of speech; “baptized” and “made to drink” are figures stressing unity. Does “baptism” always mean the same thing? When warning against the danger of apostasy, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1–2). The same idea, a corporate “baptism,” appears in 1 Peter—“in the days of Noah . . . eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:20). The Red Sea and the Deluge both are cited as symbols of water “baptism” upon the group, a collective “baptism.” Jesus speaks of His own “baptism” in the context of judgment (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50; cf. Matthew 20:22–23). Obviously the immediate context must define the meaning of “baptism” in each instance. Can one say with certainty that 1 Corinthians 12:13 is not an exception (like 1 Corinthians 10:1–2; 1 Peter 3:20; Luke 12:50 ) and that it is to be instead the text by which all the others are to be measured? Is it not rather another instance in which “baptism” is a term indicating, not initiation, but a corporate experience as in the Exodus and the Deluge usages? Certainly “baptism” is not always a term linked with initiation There is a “baptism with fire,” a symbol of purging and judgment (Matthew 3:11–12; Luke 3:16–17—as in Malachi 3:1–3; cf. Isaiah 4:4 ). It does violence to the evidence to insist that the term “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is consistently associated with initiation into the Christian experience; such a thesis is not sustained when ALL of the evidence is reviewed.[10] Proponents of the Reformed position, who claim that the Lukan evidence consistently supports this position, do so only by ignoring part of the evidence. (For example, Peter in retrospect, stated that for them, as well as for Cornelius, Pentecost meant primarily the cleansing of their hearts by faith (Acts 15:8–9.) Is it sound exegetical method to use a Pauline idiom to define a Lukan idiom?

If Lukan term “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is not always associated with repentance, remission of sin and conversion-initiation what does it denote?

For the 120 who experienced the “promise of the Father” (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4 ) which Luke equates with the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” can it be said that they were not “disciples” prior to their experience at Pentecost? A collation of texts indicates that for Luke-Acts “disciples” (mathetas) always means Christians.[11] The Twelve had been authorized to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew10:8). At least seventy of them had their “names . . . written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Of the eleven Jesus declared, “You are clean (katharoi)” (John 13:10; 15:3). Later Jesus described them as those “given” to Him by the Father, and as “not of the world,” as having “kept the word,” and as believing in Jesus and in His mission (John 17:6–19), hardly language descriptive of those who still needed to be initiated into the family of God! “From this,” wrote R. A. Torrey, “it is evident that regeneration is one thing, and that the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is something different, something additional.”[12]

The context of the phrase, the “promise of the Father,” makes no mention of initiation; instead the Father’s gift was needed, not to make them Christians but to make their witness more effective, to enable them to bear “more fruit” and “much fruit.” The baptism with the Holy Spirit was needed to give them “power (dunamis) from on high” (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). This is what resulted; their witness was with “boldness” (parresias) and effective, in contrast to their hiding for “fear of the Jews” prior to Pentecost (John 20:19; cf. Acts 4:29, 31).

Those who had been baptized in the Holy Spirit were later “filled” with the Holy Spirit as critical situations required (Acts 4:31; 7:55; 13:9); John the Baptist, Jesus, and Barnabas were said to be filled with the Holy Spirit continually. When Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit, it was not to be initiated but to be empowered (Luke 3:21–22; 4:14) for service. Why did not Jesus then baptize His disciples with the Holy Spirit and power? The only clue is found in John’s Gospel, “The Spirit had not been given [in His fullness] because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39; cf. 16:7). After Jesus was “glorified” the Spirit was given in fullness and power, as Peter told the astonished multitude (Acts 2:33). Even Dunn (very reluctantly) admits that for the Fourth Gospel the sending of the Paraclete upon the disciples was fulfilled, not at John 20:22, but at Pentecost.[13]

In Luke’s language the closest link between Spirit-Baptism and initiation is Acts 2:38 . But it should not be the proof-text by which all the others must be judged. It cannot be successfully argued that there is no time-lapse between baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit.[14]

The case of Philip’s converts in Samaria is instructive. In response to the preaching of Philip, they are said to have “received the word of God” (Acts 8:14), the same expression used to describe those converted on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41). If those who responded to Peter’s preaching in Jerusalem were Christians, those who responded to Philip’s preaching in Samaria must have been Christians also.

Peter and John later prayed that these converts in Samaria “might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15). Although Simon Magnus also “believed” and was baptized, does it follow that the others also were still in the bond of iniquity”?

Those who place Paul’s conversion at the house of Ananias should recall Paul’s own testimony as preserved by Luke. Paul put the emphasis on his vision of Jesus en route to Damascus (Acts 26:12-23; cf. Galatians 1:11–17; 1 Corinthians 9:1), rather than on the ministry of Ananias.

The case of Apollos is linked with John’s disciples at Ephesus. Apollos was “instructed in the way of the Lord” and he “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25). However, “he knew only the baptism of John.” In view of the six passages which link the baptism of John with Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit, the implication is that Apollos was a disciple of Jesus, hence had been baptized in water, but lacked Jesus’ “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” Noting this lack, Priscilla and Aquila “expounded to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). The implication is that they explained Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit to supplement the baptism of John which he had known. The result was similar to what the disciples experienced after Pentecost; he “powerfully (eutonos) confuted the Jews in public” (Acts 18:28; cf. Acts 1:8; 4:8, 31).

Likewise the believers at Ephesus may have been Christians, since for Luke, as already noted, “disciple” always denotes “Christian.” They were Christians as truly as was Ananias when he baptized Paul. Both are described in the same way (Acts 9:10; 19:2). But like Apollos, they “knew only the baptism of John.” As with Peter and John at Samaria, so here likewise when Paul laid hands on these disciples, “the Holy Spirit came on them,” an expression elsewhere in Acts described as the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5, 8; 2:4).

Any review of the Luke-Acts records needs to focus on Peter’s perspective on the significance of Pentecost. When the events at the house of Cornelius, and those on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, are compared, the central meaning is that both Jews and Gentiles become Christians when they repent and accept Jesus as Messiah and Saviour: in Peter’s words, “God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us” (Acts 11:17); “giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed (hathapisas) their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8–9). The same gift both erased distinctions and also cleansed their hearts by faith. The term “cleansed” could refer to initiation (John 13:10; 15:3; Hebrews 9:14; James 4:8 ) but it seems more appropriate to associate it as a subsequent removal of indwelling sin (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 5:26; Matthew 5:8; Titus 2:14; 1 John 1:7–8), a completed work of sanctification.[15] Consequently when “heart purity” is mentioned, it is really with reference to something to which believers are summoned.

When all the evidence is given, it seems fair to conclude that for Luke-Acts water baptism is linked with repentance, regeneration, initiation and rebirth in the Holy Spirit. The “promise of the Father” and the Son, to “believers” (Acts 1:5; 8:12; 19:2), is linked with the baptism in the Holy Spirit, not primarily, as Dunn insists, for conversion-initiation, but rather for purity (Acts 15:9) and power (Luke 24:48–49; Acts 1:4 –8; 4:31) in order that they might be effective as witnesses of Jesus and the resurrection. In none of the instances described by Luke can it be said that the baptism in the Holy Spirit “came to those with no prior acquaintance with the gospel (not even Cornelius—Acts 10:37). Even in Acts 2:38–41 there is no evidence that the “gift” was bestowed immediately at conversion (as Parrot has noted).

To the argument that there is no command in Paul’s letters to seek the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” (cf. Ephesians 5:18 ) one may respond, “neither did Paul say, ‘you must be born again.’” Admittedly the evidence in Luke-Acts is ambiguous in places but the main thrust seems clear: converted persons still need the baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit for maximum effectiveness. This is available as the Father has promised; John and Luke-Acts are in agreement here. To His disciples Jesus said, The paraclete is now “with you,” later He shall “be in you” (John 14:17); Acts records the fulfillment of this Promise.


II. The Wesleyan Tradition


A. John Wesley’s Usage


The evidence that John Wesley linked the baptism with the Holy Spirit with entire sanctification and perfect love is as elusive as Wesley’s testimony to his personal experience of the same.

In his Explanatory Notes at Acts 9:9 , Wesley remarks, on the “three days” between Paul’s vision and the visit of Ananias: “So long he seems to have been in the pangs of the new birth.”[16] Bengel, whose Gnomon formed the basis of Wesley’s Notes thought otherwise; he placed Saul’s conversion on the Damascus road. Calvin agrees; Paul was “suddenly changed into a new man, . . . framed by the Spirit of God.”[17]

With reference as to whether the baptism with the Holy Spirit comes with initiation into the Christian life, Wesley was not clear. In one of his letters he correctly insists that it is erroneous to equate Christian perfection with receiving the Holy Ghost: “the phrase, in that sense, is not scriptural, and not quite proper; for they all ‘received the Holy Ghost’ when they were justified.”[18]Wesley was reared and lived in a tradition which linked water baptism with the baptism with the Holy Spirit—“baptismal regeneration” especially as it applies to infants. He published his father’s essay on the subject without qualifications. Later, he recognized that this may not be true of adults: “It is sure all of riper years who are baptized are not at the same time born again.”[19] Therefore it is not surprising that Wesley was reluctant to separate the “gift of the Holy Spirit” from justification. All who repent and believe are at the same time “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8; cf Romans 8:9; Galatians 3:2). However, Wesley endorsed Fletcher’s last “Check,” in which Fletcher equates Christian perfection with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as Herbert McGonigle and others have demonstrated.[20] In a later letter to Benson, as Lawrence Wood has noted,[21] Wesley equated perfection in love with being “filled with the Holy Ghost.”[22] Likewise in a letter to Fletcher, Wesley refers to “fathers” (cf. 1 John 2:12–14) whose Pentecost had fully come.[23] In his sermon on “Christian Perfection” Wesley quotes Peter’s description of Pentecost (“purified their hearts by faith,” Acts 15:9) as applicable to those who experience “Christian Perfection” as distinct from the new birth.[24]

In his comment on Matthew 3:11 Wesley remarks, “He shall fill you with the Holy Ghost, inflaming your hearts with that fire of love, which many waters cannot quench. And this was done, even with a visible appearance as of fire, on the day of pentecost,”[25] language similar to that used in “Circumcision of the Heart.”[26] The latter in turn was one of Wesley’s terms for Christian perfection.[27] Thus Wesley associated in his mind the baptism with the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, “circumcision of the heart,” and Christian perfection. Wesley and most of his followers are less than precise (and biblical) when they say, “I was justified and later was sanctified”; they mean “entire sanctification.” For all Christians are sanctified initially at justification, as Wesley agreed when he said sanctification begins at conversion.[28]

William Arnett has gleaned from the writings of John Wesley several instances in which the work of the Holy Spirit is linked with heart cleansing and perfect love. However, the connection is not emphasized and ambiguities exist. Arnett concludes that while this is more prominent in Wesley than most scholars have shown, “there are areas of tension, perhaps ambiguity, in regard to his application of pneumatological phrases, such as ‘receiving the Holy Spirit,’ ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit,’ and ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ . . . Wesley had not worked out fully every facet of teaching on the Holy Spirit.”[29]

Nevertheless Wesley did not object to linking the baptism with the Holy Spirit with entire sanctification and sometimes he made the link himself. He only objected, on scriptural grounds, to the statement that Christians do not receive the Holy Spirit at conversion, and he heartily endorsed Fletcher’s last “Check” in which the baptism of the Holy Spirit was seen as a “second work of grace.” As Wesley’s followers have gone beyond him in the direction of a more biblical and precise formulation in such matters as the distinction between original sin and original guilt (abandoning the latter), leaving baptismal regeneration for believers’ baptism, so we need not fear to go beyond Wesley in the direction of a more biblical doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. This was done by Fletcher, Adam Clarke, Benson, and their successors.


B. Usage After Wesley


Fletcher and Adam Clarke were, next to the Wesleys, the most influential among the early Methodist leaders in the formulation of doctrine.

Wesley wanted Fletcher to become his successor, and endorsed, with the exception already noted, all Fletcher wrote about perfection. After describing the “several degrees of spiritual life, or quickening power” set forth in Scripture, Fletcher summarized the sixth stage as the


. . . still more abundant life, . . . of the adult or perfect Christian, imparted to him when the love of God, or power from on high, is plentifully shed abroad in his believing soul, on the day that Christ “baptizes him with the Holy Ghost and with fire, to sanctify him wholly, and seal him unto the day of redemption.”[30]


In his distinction between the justified person and the one entirely sanctified. Fletcher thus describes the latter:


. . . if . . . you mean a believer completely baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire, in whom he that once visited as a Monitor now fully resides as a Comforter, you are right; the enmity ceases, the carnal mind and body of sin are destroyed, and “God is all in all” to that just man “made perfect in love.”[31]


In his effort at precision in defining “one made perfect in love” it seems natural to Fletcher to use the words “baptized with the Holy Ghost” as one way of describing such a person; throughout it is the language of Scripture which he summons. In his last “Check,” Fletcher endeavors to describe the privilege of all believers.


. . . it is . . . undeniable, from the first four chapters of the Acts, that a peculiar power of the Spirit is bestowed upon believers under the Gospel of Christ; . . . and that when our faith shall fully embrace the promise of full sanctification, or of a complete “circumcision of the heart in the Spirit,” the Holy Ghost . . . will not fail to help us to love one another without sinful self-seeking; and as soon as we do so, “God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us,” (l John 4:12; John 14:23.)


Should you ask, how many baptisms, or effusions of the sanctifying Spirit are necessary to cleanse a believer from all sin, and to kindle his soul into perfect love; I reply . . . if one powerful baptism of the Spirit “seal you unto the day of redemption, and cleanse you from all [moral] filthiness,” so much the better. If two or more be necessary, the Lord can repeat them. . . . And if one outpouring of the Spirit, one bright manifestation of the sanctifying truth, so empties us of self, as to fill us with the mind of Christ, and with pure love, we are undoubtedly Christians in the full sense of the word.[32]

When discussing whether Christian perfection may be experienced gradually or instantaneously Fletcher is open to both alternatives; it may come in both ways. He finds no difficulty in the view that it may be instantaneous. In his words.


May not the Sanctifier descend upon your waiting soul, as quickly as the Spirit descended upon your Lord at his baptism? . . . if the dim flame of a candle can in the twinkling of an eye destroy the flying insect which comes within its sphere, how unscriptural and irrational is it to suppose that, when God fully baptizes a soul with his sanctifying Spirit and with the celestial fire of his love, he cannot in an instant destroy the man of sin, burn up the chaff of corruption, melt the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, and kindle the believing soul into pure, seraphic love.[33]


It is obvious that Fletcher thought it consistent with the New Testament to include baptism phraseology of Scripture when describing, not justification or initiation, but the perfecting of believers in love and in their cleansing from inward depravity.

Fletcher, obviously, has Peter’s analysis of Pentecost (Acts 15:9) in mind when he remarks:


If our hearts be purified by faith, as the Scriptures expressly testify, if the faith which peculiarly purifies the hearts of Christians be a faith in “the promise of the Father,” which promise was made by the Son and directly points at a peculiar effusion of the Holy Ghost, the purifier of spirits; if we may believe in a moment; and if God may, in a moment, seal our sanctifying faith by sending us a fullness of his sanctifying Spirit . . . does it not follow, that to deny the possibility of the instantaneous destruction of sin, is to deny . . . that we can make an instantaneous act of faith in the sanctifying promise of the Father, and in the all-cleansing blood of the Son . . . by the instantaneous operation of his Spirit? which St. Paul calls the “circumcision of the heart in [or by] the Spirit?”[34]


As John A. Knight has pointed out, John Fletcher deserves to be called “the systematic theologian of Methodism.”[35]

In a series of unpublished letters in manuscript, researched by Dr. Timothy Smith in the John Rylands Library, Manchester , one gleans further light on Fletcher’s use of the term “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” Writing to Charles Wesley in November 1771, he says,


I shall introduce my, why not your doctrine of the Holy Ghost and make it one with your brother’s perfection? He holds the truth, but this will be an improvement upon it, if I am not mistaken. In some of your pentecostal hymns you paint my light wonderfully.[36]


In this illuminating facet we detect Methodist doctrine in the process of formulation: “improving” that of John and finding confirmation in Charles.

On August 5, 1771, Fletcher wrote to Charles: “I still want a fountain of power, call it what you please, Baptism of fire, perfect love, sealing, I contend not for the name. In short, I want to be established.”

In this, Fletcher is in the process of linking Scripture and theology with his own experience.

Still seeking and searching for the appropriate language he wrote to Charles again, January 16, 1773.


Perfection is nothing but the unshaken Kingdom of God , peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Ghost, or by the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Now Query. Is this baptism instantaneous as it was on the day of Pentecost, or will it come as a dew, gradually? Nothing can set me clear herein but my own experience. And suppose I was clear by my own experience, would this be a sufficient reason to fix it as a rule for all believers? . . . If I consult Scripture I rather think it is nothing but the Spirit dwelling in a believer in consequence of an instantaneous baptism.


In July of 1774 Fletcher wrote again to Charles Wesley, saying:


I am not in the Christian Dispensation of the Holy Ghost and of power. I want for it, but not earnestly enough; I am not sufficiently straitened till the fiery baptism is accomplished . . . Christian perfection is nothing but the full kingdom in the Holy Ghost.


As late as 1776 he expressed to Charles Wesley his appreciation of his hymns, saying in part, “I think that there is a gradual rising to the top of John’s Dispensation, and that when we are gradually risen to that top, and are fit for the baptism of Christ, it is an instant conferring.”

Obviously, for Fletcher, “the baptism of Christ” is the same as the baptism with the Holy Spirit and it is for believers who have been previously regenerated. It was a conclusion which came gradually and strongly. Mean-while he continued to cling to Charles for support. John Wesley agreed with this linking of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, with cleansing and perfection in love, but John did not press for this linkage.

Thus Fletcher, far from linking the baptism with the Spirit with conversion-initiation, associates it rather with entire sanctification as a work subsequent to regeneration. He views the language of Luke-Acts as appropriate to describe Christian perfection or maturity, and finds it consistent with Pauline usage.

Repeatedly, Charles Wesley in his hymns calls on the Lord for instant and complete deliverance from sin, but he seldom invokes the Spirit as the sanctifier. However in the hymn, “The Promise of Sanctification,” Charles Wesley prays,


Perform the work thou hast begun,

My inmost soul to thee convert:

Love me, for ever love thine own

And sprinkle with thy blood my heart.

Thy sanctifying Spirit pour,

To quench my thirst and wash me clean

Now, Father, let the gracious shower

Descend, and make me pure from sin.

Within may thy good Spirit place,

Spirit of health, and love, and power;

Plant in me thy victorious grace,

And sin shall never enter more.

From all remaining filth within

Let me in thee salvation have,

From actual, and from inbred sin

My ransom’d soul persist to save.

Holy, and true, and righteous Lord,

I wait to prove they perfect will;

Be mindful of thy gracious word

And stamp me with thy Spirit’s seal.[37]


The influence of Fletcher on American Methodist theology has been traced effectively by John A. Knight, in which he demonstrates that, next to John Wesley, John Fletcher was the major factor in the development of Methodist theology. As an example, the Illinois Conference in 1827 recommended Fletcher’s Checks along with Wesley’s Sermons and Notes and Clarke’s Commentaries.[38] He notes also that Fletcher’s last “Check,” the “Treatise on Christian Perfection,” had an influence second only to Wesley’s Plain Account, in the formation of early Methodist definitions of Christian perfection.[39] In his last “Check,” Fletcher urges believers to seek entire sanctification and perfection in love. He suggests this prayer for their complete cleansing:


Lord, I want a plenitude of thy Spirit, the full promise of the Father, and the rivers which flow from the inmost souls of the believers, . . . I do believe that thou canst and wilt thus “baptize me with the Holy Ghost and with fire:” help my unbelief: confirm and increase my faith, with regard to this important baptism. Lord, I have need to be thus baptized of thee, and I am straitened till this baptism is accomplished. . . . O, baptize my soul, and make as full an end of the original sin which I have from Adam, as thy last baptism made of the likeness of sinful flesh, . . . thou canst save from sin to the uttermost.[40]


In a stimulating essay, Allan Coppedge has demonstrated that, contrary to John Peters, the doctrine of Christian perfection was prominent in the early nineteenth century among Methodists in America .[41] For example, Nathan Bangs preached on Christian perfection in 1819. The biographer of Michael Ellis believed that Ellis in every sermon introduced “the doctrine of Christian perfection as taught in the Bible and preached by Wesley and Fletcher.”[42] Likewise in New England Laban Clark “spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit in ‘its renewing and sanctifying influence’ on the ‘pardoned believer, to purify him unto God.’”[43]

Fletcher’s last “Check” (on Christian Perfection) was published in America in 1791 and again in a six-volume set of his Works in 1809. These were avidly read and had a wide influence. Adam Clarke, another early advocate of holiness, published his influential Commentary in 1826. Francis Asbury ardently sought for himself and preached on Christian perfection. Thomas Webb linked “receiving the Holy Spirit” with entire sanctification. As early as 1814 the Cumberland Presbyterians spoke of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as entire sanctification. Their historian reported:


Our fathers believed in an abiding baptism of the Holy Ghost as a distinctive blessing after conversion. . . . Of all the doctrines held . . . the one about this abiding baptism of the Holy Ghost was most esteemed by them.[44]


In 1826, at Ithaca, N. Y., after hearing a sermon on “have ye received the Holy Spirit since ye believed?” one of the Methodist preachers determined to seek the experience of a clean heart.[45]

One of Methodism’s early saints was Hester Ann Rogers, whose testimony for full salvation was printed and widely circulated in England and in America . In her prayer for entire sanctification she prayed,


Lord . . . make this the moment of my full salvation! Baptize me now with the Holy Ghost and the fire of pure love. Now “make me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” . . . Now cleanse the thoughts, desires and propensities of my heart, and let me perfectly love thee.[46]


These and other evidences fully support the conclusion of Coppedge in his over-all assessment. The sale of the works of Fletcher and Mrs. Rogers,


One on the theological level and one on the popular level had the effect over the years by their consistent and wide-ranging influence of predisposing the Americans to equate the biblical data on entire sanctification and Christian perfection with that relating to the baptism of the Holy Ghost and Pentecost.[47]


The two factors which affected this linkage of baptism language with entire sanctification was the language of Luke-Acts and their own experience.

Wesley had said many times that the three criteria of doctrine are Scripture, reason and experience. Hundreds of Christians who knew they had been “born of the water and of the Spirit” later saw the need of heart purity and perfect love. They sought and experienced what they thought appropriate to describe as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” not for the remission of sins, but rather for purity and power, an experience like that of Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost. They had moved away from Wesley’s “baptismal regeneration” language to concepts more in harmony with the New Testament, and with the implications of Wesley’s own position. Later, when earnest Christians realized the possibilities of grace, and when they realized it comes by faith as a gift, rather than as an attainment, they found the phrase “baptism with the Holy Spirit” one of several biblical formulas appropriate to define their experience of full deliverance. In this they were joined by devout leaders, from Asa Mahan, Charles Finney, R. A. Torrey and Dwight L. Moody to J. G. Morrison and H. C. Morrison, to mention a few. This “cloud of witnesses,” is not to be discounted when attempting to formulate a biblical doctrine of Christian perfection.


[1] J. H. Greenlee, “The Greek New Testament Message of Holiness,” in Kenneth Geiger, ed., Further Insights Into Holiness (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 1963), p. 83.


[2] James D. G. Dunn, The Baptism in the Holy Spirit (SCM Press Ltd., 1970), pp. 90–115. similar conclusions are reached by John R. W. Stott, The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit (Leicester, England: Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, 1964).


[3] Donald Dayton , “The Doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Its Emergence and Significance,” in Wesleyan Theological Journal, Spring 1978, pp. 114–26.


[4] Merrill F. Unger, “The Baptism with the Holy Spirit,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-September 1944, p. 368.


[5] Unger, The Baptizing Work of the Holy Spirit (Chicago: Scripture Press, 1953), pp. 116–19; Stott, Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirzt, p. 18.


[6] Stott, Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit, p. 18.


[7] Unger, Baptizing Work of the Holy Spirit, p. 116.


[8] Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, pp. 90–102.


[9] R. E. 0. White, The Biblical Doctrine of Initiation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 190.


[10] Cf. J. K. Parrot, “In Luke’s view there does not seem to have been any necessary connection between water-baptism and the effusion of the Holy Spirit.” Expository Times, 1971, p. 235.


[11] F. J. Foakes-Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, Part I, The Acts of the Apostles, 5 vols. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1922), 4:237; Oxford Bible at Acts 19:1 .


[12] R. A. Torrey, The Baptism with the Holy Spirit (New York: Revell, 1897), p. 12.


[13] Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, pp. 176–80.


[14] Parrot insists that even in this verse there is no essential connection between baptism and the gift of the Spirit, op. cit., p. 235.


[15] Should the “cleansed” of Acts 15:9 be interpreted in the light of “cleansed” in 10:15; 11:9? If 90, it may mean only a change of status (as in justification), as changed relationship. But the reference in Acts 10:15; 11:9 is to “unclean beasts” and their removal from that category. In Acts 15:9 the reference is to God-fearing persons and applies to their “hearts,” i. e., their moral natures.


[16] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the New Testament (Epworth, 1958), p. 428; cf. The Works of John Wesley, 14 vol. ed., 9:93.


[17] John Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Henry Beveridge, 2 vols., reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 1:372. This view is supported by many scholars; cf. Interpreter’s Bible (9:118, 123); International Critical Commentary (27:178); Interperter’s Dictionary of the Bible (3:684); Expositor’s Greek Testament (2:505); Encyclopedia of Ethics (9:682); Anchor Bible (Acts, p. 81); Pulpit Commentary (18:283); J. R. Lumby, Acts in the Cambridge Bible.


[18] Wesley, Works, 12:416.


[19] Wesley, Works, 6:74.


[20] Herbert McGonigle, “Pneumatological Nomenclature in Early Methodism,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Spring 1973, 68ff.


[21] Lawrence Wood, “Exegetical-Reflections on the Baptism With the Holy Spirit.”


[22] The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. John Telford (London: Edworth, 1931). 5:215.


[23] Ibid., 6:221.


[24] Standard Sermons of John Wesley, ed. Edward Sugden (London: Epworth Press, 1956). 2:171.


[25] Explanatory Notes.


[26] Standard Sermons, 1:279.


[27] Ibid. 1:265.


[28] “The New Birth,” Standard Sermons, 2:240.


[29] William Arnett, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Entire Sanctification in the Writings of John Wesley,” The Asbury Seminarian April 1976, p.18.


[30] John Fletcher, Checks to Antinomianism ( New York : Phillips and Hunt. n.d.). 1:160.


[31] Ibid., 1:167–68; italics his.


[32] Ibid., 2:632–33.


[33] Ibid., 2:636.


[34] Ibid., 2:637.


[35] John A. Knight, “John Fletcher’s Influence on the Development of Wesleyan Theology in America ,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Spring 1978 17 .


[36] The “Pentecostal Hymns” are found in Wesley’s Poetical Works, Vol. II, following p. 162, “Hymns of Petition and Thanksgiving for the Promise of the Father”; they are commentaries on John 14–17, and were often referred to as the “Pentecostal Hymns.”


[37] Cited in John Wesley’s sermon, “On Christian Perfection,” Standard Sermons, 2:175.


[38] Knight, op. cit., p. 22.


[39] Ibid., p. 23


[40] Fletcher, op. cit., 2:656; italics his.


[41] Allan Coppedge, “Entire Sanctification in Early American Methodism: 1812-1835,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Spring 1978, 34–37.


[42] Ibid., p 37


[43] The Methodist Preacher, 2:95-96, cited by Knight, op. cit., p. 37.


[44] B. W. McDonald, History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, p. 105, cited in M. E. Gaddis, “Christian Perfectionism in America ” (Ph. D. dissertation, U. of Chicago, 1929), p. 299.


[45] Christian Advocate, October 14, 1826.


[46] Thomas Coke, The Experience and Spiritual Letters of Mrs. Hester Ann Rogers ( London : Milner and Somerby, n. d.), p. 41.


[47] Coppedge, op. cit., p. 46.