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Victor Paul Reasoner


John Wesley’s concept of the baptism with the Holy Spirit can be determined by the connection he made between Spirit baptism and the sacraments.  It is not my purpose to argue for specific sacramental rituals so much as to point out that the underlying premise for certain Wesleyan traditions was the connection Wesley made between Spirit baptism (initiation into the body of Christ) and water baptism (initiation into the visible church). The American holiness movement shifted the baptism with the Holy Spirit to a subsequent work of grace. 

More is at stake than a hermeneutical debate over the proper interpretation of Acts 2 . As the teachings of John Wesley are rediscovered, there is a return to a holistic understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit which transforms a sinner into a mature Christian.


I.  The Wesleyan Connection Between the New Birth and Spirit Baptism


A. Affusion Illustrates Spirit Baptism. While Wesleyans have generally allowed any mode of baptism, they have tended to argue for affusion on the basis that it best symbolizes the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. All of the classic Methodist theologians argued for affusion, against Baptistic doctrine, because of the connection they saw between the baptism of the Spirit and water baptism. Thus the historic Wesleyan concept of water baptism was influenced by the assumption that Spirit baptism occurred at regeneration. 

John Wesley understood water baptism as the sacrament of initiation into the body of Christ and connected water baptism with Spirit baptism. In his comments on John 3:5 he noted that to be born of water and the Spirit meant “that great inward change by the Spirit” and “the outward sign and means of it” (Wesley 1754, 218). On Acts 11:47 Wesley taught that the baptism of the Spirit does not supersede water baptism: “But just the contrary: if they have received the Spirit, then baptize them with water. . . . If they are already baptized with the Holy Ghost, then who can forbid water?” (Wesley 1754, 305).

Adam Clarke taught that the baptism of the Holy Ghost is “represented under the similitude of water” and without it one could not enter into the kingdom of God (Clarke 1835, 255).  Clarke’s comment on John 3:5 was that “Christians are not only baptized with water, but with the Spirit” (Clarke, Commentary 5:531).

Richard Watson argued for pouring because of “a designed correspondence between the baptism, the pouring out, of the Holy Spirit, and the baptism, the pouring out, of water . . .” (Watson, 2:653, 659). 

Samuel Wakefield concluded: “The manner in which the baptism of the Spirit is spoken of in the sacred Scriptures should settle forever the mode of Christian baptism.” He argued that since the Spirit was poured out, the proper mode of baptism was by pouring ( Wakefield , 2:589–90).       

Thomas Ralston observed: “Look at the intimate manner in which water baptism is connected with that of the Holy Ghost—the one promised upon the condition of the proper reception of the other, and then following it in immediate succession. . . . That the baptism of the Holy Ghost was not by immersion, but by pouring, is put beyond a doubt; therefore the reasonable conclusion is that water baptism was administered in the same way” (Ralston 982).  

S. M. Merrill, in his Christian Baptism: Its Subjects and Mode, included an entire chapter on “Spirit Baptism” in which he declared that under the new covenant the “one baptism” is the symbol of the Holy Spirit and the sign of regeneration, “the emblematic washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Merrill 289). Merrill said the baptism of the Spirit was the promise and the outpouring of the Spirit was the fulfillment; therefore, pouring is the proper mode of water baptism (Merrill 296).

Miner Raymond concluded: “Since in regeneration that which is signified in baptism, the Spirit, is said to be poured out upon us, it seems appropriate that in water baptism that which is the sign of regeneration, the water, should be poured upon the persons baptized . . .” (Raymond, 3:327).  

W. B. Pope favored pouring or sprinkling because it is the outward and visible sign of the influence of the Spirit (Pope, 3:322). 

John Miley wrote: “Indeed, these terms of pouring and sprinkling, as thus applied to the work of the Holy Spirit . . . are quite conclusive against the theory of the immersionists” (Miley, 2:400).          

Even W. B. Godbey, writing his first book in 1883 to refute the Campbellite influence in Kentucky , argued for affusion on the basis that the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost. Godbey objected to immersion because it detracted from the Savior’s baptism: “For out of Christ there is no salvation, and no one can get into him but by the baptism of the Holy Ghost” (Godbey 1883, 22–23).  When he dealt with Acts 2:38 , Godbey argued that “water baptism here is the outward and visible sign of the baptism of the Holy Ghost” (Godbey 1883, 56).  Further, “every time the Scriptures recognize baptism essential to salvation it is the baptism of the Holy Ghost” (Godbey 1883, 64). When Godbey wrote his autobiography in 1909, he included much of the same material on water baptism and again asserted, “The baptism of water symbolizes that of the Holy Ghost, without which we cannot be saved” (Godbey 1909, 207).[1]

Methodism historically has preferred affusion as the form of baptism because it connected the baptism of the Spirit with water baptism, and thereby with regeneration as well.

B. Eligibility at the Lord’s Table. Wesley allowed the unconverted at the Lord’s table provided they were conscious of their utter sinfulness and helplessness and were seeking God’s grace. In his day many argued that the Lord’s Supper was a confirming, not a converting ordinance and “that none but those who are converted, who have received the Holy Ghost, who are believers in the full sense, ought to communicate.” However, Wesley pointed out that when the Lord’s Supper was instituted the disciples were “then unconverted, who had not yet ‘received the Holy Ghost’, who (in the full sense of the word) were not believers . . .” (Wesley, Works 19:158; See also 9:112).     

To this day the invitation to the Lord’s Table in the Wesleyan and Free Methodist (but not Nazarene) disciplines call both those who are walking in fellowship with God and those who truly and earnestly repent of sin and intend to lead a new life (Staples 1991, 251–263). This is in contrast to the Calvinistic view that only those with a credible profession of faith should be allowed at the Lord’s table (Berkhof 656–7; Saucy 229–31). While the Calvinistic position allowed at the Lord’s table only those who professed saving faith, Wesley allowed those who were awakened and seeking God. This important distinction was based on his understanding that the disciples were unregenerate prior to Pentecost and yet they had received the Lord’s Supper at the hand of Jesus.  The basic premise on which this conclusion rests is that the disciples were baptized with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and became New Testament believers at that time. Therefore, Wesley connected the new birth and the baptism with the Holy Spirit.


II. The Connection Between Entire Sanctification and Spirit Baptism in the American Holiness Movement


John Fletcher should not be understood as contradicting the Methodist tradition.  While he did connect the baptism of the Holy Ghost and Christian perfection (Tyerman 180–185), he also exhorted seekers, promising them: “You shall be baptized by the Holy Ghost for the remission of sins, and justified freely by faith” (Fletcher 4:115). He saw both regeneration and Christian perfection as accomplished through baptisms of the Holy Spirit. Fletcher concluded: “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” (Fletcher 2:632).

It was not simply Fletcher’s emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit which created the nineteenth-century holiness movement. The holiness movement came about through an emphasis on a subsequent work of the Spirit coupled with a tendency to minimize initial sanctification, an insistence that this second work of the Spirit must be instantaneous, and that it results in a permanent state of holiness.[2]

A. The Influence of Charles Finney. Although Charles G. Finney described his own conversion as “a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost,” (Finney 1882, 20; see also Grider 66) his theology forced him to separate this experience from regeneration, even though it occurred the same evening as his conversion (Finney 1944, 9; see also Hills 21). 

It is ironic that Finney had so much influence on Wesleyanism since he differed from Wesleyanism at so many points.  Finney did not accept the doctrine of original sin (Finney Theology, 172). He believed humankind has the ability to repent and trust in Christ. Regeneration, according to him, is a change in the attitude of the will. However, after regeneration Christians find themselves falling back into sin and needing to enter into the state of entire sanctification. The baptism with the Holy Spirit is the means of establishing the believer in a life of permanent sanctification (Finney 1944, 37–39; see also Gresham 33–35).

Finney stated that he could not receive “the view of sanctification entertained by our Methodist brethren” (Finney 1876, 340). Yet, according to the evaluation of Timothy L. Smith, “the man chiefly responsible for the adoption by American Wesleyans of the terms ‘filling’ or ‘baptism of the Spirit’ to describe the experience of sanctification was Charles G. Finney” (Smith 1979, 23). 

B. The Controversy over Phoebe Palmer. According to Charles Edwin Jones, “While the holiness movement always regarded John Wesley as its great authority, the movement owed many of its distinctive ideas and practices to Phoebe Palmer” (Jones 5). Palmer not only equated the baptism of the Spirit and entire sanctification, but taught that “there is a shorter way” to the blessing of entire sanctification (Palmer 15). This “shorter way” amounted to a three-stage process: entire consecration, faith, and testimony. She claimed that no one need any evidence other than the biblical text to be assured of entire sanctification. Nathan Bangs, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, confronted Palmer about her teachings. Bangs warned against claiming the work was done without any evidence of the Holy Spirit.[3] 

In Theological Transition in American Methodism, Robert E. Chiles observes that one of the major shifts in emphasis was from free grace to free will ( Chiles 144–183). Both Finney’s concept of regeneration and Palmer’s teaching on sanctification are based more on human works than on divine grace. Yet, through the combined influences of Charles Finney and Phoebe Palmer, the holiness movement began “at about the year 1835” (Grider 62). Timothy L. Smith reports: “So successful were they in identifying sanctification with Methodist orthodoxy that opponents were hard pressed to find ground upon which to stand without laying themselves open to the charge of heresy.”[4]  

C. The Solidification under J. A. Wood. The solidification of the holiness movement is seen in the career of J. A. Wood. In 1861 Wood originally published Perfect Love in which he quoted from some eighty other theologians.  The original edition of Perfect Love was written six years prior to the organization of the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness in 1867 and contains a breadth not found in his later writings. 

Fifteen years later, in 1876, Wood wrote Purity and Maturity, which he claimed to be a defense of Wesleyan doctrine. Wood asserted that “it is necessary that we keep in mind the idea that GROWTH, PURITY, and MATURITY are distinct” (Wood 1876, 157). He contended that purity is a state arrived at by an instantaneous second experience. It cannot be obtained by growth in grace.  After the crisis experience we then grow into maturity.[5] Wood, however, had little to say about maturity in Purity and Maturity. It was not until his 1880 revision of Perfect Love, which is about one-third larger than the first edition, that Wood “viewed entire sanctification as being wrought by the Spirit baptism” (Grider 22). Grider also notes that in the second edition Wood is even more vigorous in his opposition to gradual sanctification (Grider 100).

While Wood compiled Christian Perfection as Taught by John Wesley in 1885, he tended to use only quotes from Wesley with which he agreed. For example, chapter 8 is entitled, “Sanctification Instantaneous, by Faith, and Not by Growth in Grace.” Leo Cox observes that Wesley did not make the same distinction that Wood made, noting that “where Wood emphasized the instantaneous character of cleansing as in a moment, Wesley was more insistent on a gradual cleansing from the beginning of sanctification at regeneration to its completion in entire sanctification” (Cox 93). 

However, by 1905 Wood could claim his distinction between purity and maturity “relieves the subject of entire sanctification of difficulties which have perplexed many good men. . . . It also harmonizes some conflicting items in Mr. Wesley’s works on Christian Perfection” (Wood 1905, 73). With the passage of time Wood developed a more rigid doctrinal position which justified the existence of the holiness movement. This position was perpetuated through most of the twentieth century as “Wesleyan.”

Under the section “Baptism with the Holy Spirit,” The Wesley Bible states: “Entire sanctification is a second definite work of grace wrought by the baptism with the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer subsequently [sic] to regeneration, received instantaneously by faith, by which the heart is cleansed from all corruption and filled with the perfect love of God” (Harper 1990).  This, however, is not the teaching of John Wesley, but the writing of A. M. Hills, based upon the theology of J. A. Wood and others within the holiness movement, which was adopted by the General Holiness Assembly in 1885. This statement served unofficially as the “apostles’ creed” of the holiness movement (Peters, 162), yet George Failing recognized this definition was not Wesleyan and asked, “Can any comparable definition be found in Wesley’s works?”  (Failing 23).


III. The Growing Discontentment with the Holiness Status Quo and the Rediscovery of Wesley


J. Kenneth Grider wrote that prior to the 1970s “perhaps not a single book was authored by a holiness scholar in the previous 100 years or so that had not taken the position that Pentecost was the time of entire sanctification of the 120 disciples” (Grider 89–90). Grider, no doubt, was unaware of some of the growing discontentment within the Holiness movement because those who did not take the “party line” tended to be ostracized.

A. The Case of A. J. Smith. Aaron Jacob Smith (1887–1960) was brought up in a Christian home and professed to have been converted in 1907.  Five years later he attended college at University Park , Iowa , and professed to be sanctified. He went to China as a missionary under the Church of the Nazarene. While in China he read John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection and realized he had never been born again. He experienced the new birth in March, 1927. He wrote: “I had come to teach the Chinese the way of Life and how to live holy lives, and found that I was not converted nor sanctified myself.” When he got honest before God and his co-workers, both Chinese and American church leaders began confessing sin and revival broke out in China (A. J. Smith 1929, 65). 

Smith gave his testimony in Twenty Years in the Dungeon of Doubt and How I Got Out, stating: “I am convinced of the fact that there are millions of church members who are living merely on an intellectual presumption. . . . I believe there are tens of thousands of church members in the Holiness churches who either have never been truly born of God, or have lost out, and are today living merely on past experiences” (A. J. Smith, Twenty 25). However, Smith said that when he confessed to his denomination that he was born again in China , “my ecclesiastical head was cut off.” He suffered no persecution until he was truly born again, but after his conversion he was a “speckled bird” among the holiness people (A. J. Smith 1953, 55).

Smith became president of Intercession City Bible College , then associated with the People’s Christian Movement (later called the People’s Methodist Church ) and was dean of their school at Greensboro , NC , now John Wesley College at Highpoint , NC (Sawyer). Around 1948 he collaborated with Elmer Long to compile a twelve-page tract entitled The Holy Spirit and the Born Again Man. However, his teaching was opposed by John R. Church. A. L. Vess also wrote in response Were the Disciples Born Again Before Pentecost? The inferences by Vess fail to grasp the real meaning of regeneration and he makes no attempt to demonstrate that anyone received the Holy Spirit before Pentecost. 

It is also ironic that John R. Church wrote a booklet defending sprinkling as a legitimate mode of water baptism. His purpose was to equip Methodists who were baptized by affusion, but could not defend their baptism against the arguments of immersionists. He lamented, “There are many people in the Methodist Church today, who have no clear-cut conception as to why they have been baptized by affusion” (Church 6). He argued from scriptural example that affusion was practiced in the early church, but never explained its significance in relationship to Spirit baptism. He contended that the birth of the Holy Spirit and the baptism with the Holy Spirit were two separate experiences (Church 31), which actually weakened his argument for affusion. 

A. J. Smith eventually received his Ph. D. from Harvard University and led an expedition in search of Noah’s ark in 1949.[6] In 1951 Dr. Smith promised before a panel meeting in Greensboro “to refrain from making any further statements about the matter of the Disciples and their spiritual state before and after Pentecost.” However, after studying the scriptures and the writings of Wesley, Clarke, and Fletcher, he retracted that promise (A. J. Smith 1953, 18–19). Smith was dismissed from the college, but the director, Jim Green, later apologized publicly to Smith at Camp Free near Valdese , NC .

Elmer Long was tried in 1947 for teaching that all believers had the Holy Spirit (Long 1995; see also Long 1993).  His writings have also been banned at some Holiness camp meetings.

B. The Rediscovery of Wesley. When Zondervan reprinted the works of John Wesley in 1958, students within the Holiness movement began discovering the inconsistencies between Wesleyan doctrine and the Holiness movement. Rob Staples reported that he first became aware of the shift in the early 1960s (Staples 1979, 2). 

I have interviewed several pastors who did not have the educational background Staples had, but nonetheless began reading Wesley for themselves in the late 1960s. As a result they experienced the new birth personally. Sometimes revival came within their congregations, but always they encountered intense opposition. 

In 1979 a few concerned pastors formed the Fundamental Wesleyan Society in an attempt to proclaim the historic Wesleyan soteriology. Their purpose statement declared that “there has been among second-blessing holiness churches a serious deviation from the scriptural teaching developed by John Wesley and early Methodist writers . . . [that] has led to a shallow preaching of the new birth and consequently, a confusion has developed concerning Christian experience . . . [leading] many to profess salvation without victory over the power of sin nor a direct witness of the Holy Spirit; and others to profess entire sanctification without being made perfect in love” (Brown Arminian, 6).

Herbert McGonigle’s 1973 article, “Pneumatological Nomenclature in Early Methodism,” was a wake-up call in the academic community demonstrating that early Methodism did not emphasize the baptism with the Holy Spirit as the equivalent of entire sanctification. Subsequent articles in the Wesleyan Theological Journal dealt with this issue both pro and con from either an exegetical, historical, or theological framework. While scholars were sometimes accused of debating an irrelevant issue, those at the grassroots level often laid their reputations on the line and were accused of ignorance. 

C. The Holiness Paradigm. Far more is at stake than a hermeneutical question of how to interpret Acts 2 . The holiness movement has created its own distinct method of exegesis. For example, W. E. Sangster’s list of Wesley’s primary texts for Christian perfection did not include even one text from the book of Acts (Sangster 37–52). As research for my dissertation, I surveyed the Inter-church Holiness Convention and asked a 5% random sampling of ministers within the movement to list the three main holiness texts they used in preaching on entire sanctification. The two most popular IHC texts were Hebrews 12:14 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3 , neither of which will bear the weight placed upon them, but evidently were popular because they contain the word “holiness” or “sanctification.” Four texts from Acts were on the IHC list (1:8; 2:4; 15:8–9; 19:2). The implication from their use of these texts is that believers do not yet have the Holy Spirit.

In comparing Wesley’s list with the top seventeen texts listed from the IHC survey, only six texts were on both lists. Sixty-five percent of the IHC texts are not on Wesley’s list. Wesley used 19 texts not on the IHC list. Between the two lists there is an agreement on only 17% of the texts.   

The modern Holiness movement also tends to use Romans 7 to demonstrate a Christian needing entire sanctification. This exegesis depreciates the victory of the new birth and contradicts James Arminius, as well as historic Methodism (Arminius, 2:195–453; Wesley 1754, 359; Clarke, 6:86, 92; Fletcher, 2:529-537; Watson, 2:249; 451–452). A. J. Smith observed: “Only a small percentage of the holiness people know what Mr. Wesley taught. What the holiness preacher today holds up as the standard of entire sanctification and the conditions for its attainment, Mr. Wesley calls Holy Ghost conviction and conversion” (A. J. Smith 1953, 65).

The nineteenth-century American holiness movement developed a new emphasis which tended to discount initial sanctification, emphasize a second crisis experience without acknowledging progressive sanctification, explain Christian perfection in terms of a perfected state, not perfecting grace, and equated Spirit baptism with Christian perfection. Many have come forward to an altar of prayer and have been told they were born again. They left in an awakened state without the Holy Spirit, who gives victory over sin, nor any direct assurance of the Spirit. Realizing they needed something more, they were counseled that they needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They were told to claim this blessing and testify to it. It is quite possible that many have claimed two works of grace while still remaining in a pre-Christian state. In their disillusionment some adopted rationalizations and legalism as their justification, while others sought physical manifestations and emotional excesses (Snyder 72–73).

In comparing historic Methodism with the modern Holiness movement, Wesley Tracy said the holiness movement pressures people into a premature profession of sanctification. He said there are “tens of thousands of persons who were rushed prematurely into testifying to an experience that they have never understood, felt a need for, or permitted God to prepare them for. In contrast, the early Wesleyans “were quick to seek sanctifying grace but slow to profess it” ( Tracy 7).

D. The Wesleyan paradigm. The classic Wesleyan paradigm taught that the natural condition of humankind is spiritual sleep. Through the prevenient grace of God we are awakened to our helpless condition. Wesley used such terms as “the almost Christian,” “the faith of a servant,” or “the legal state.” C. Leslie Mitton explained: “Wesley was convinced that there were many devout and earnest people who never passed beyond this earlier state. In fact, he describes it in his Journal as ‘the state most who are called Christians are content to live and die in.’[7] Saving faith, which comes as a gift to those who have truly repented and believed on the finished work of Christ, leads to “the altogether Christian,” “the faith of a son,” “the evangelical state.”

Through saving faith we are justified and receive the witness of the Spirit that we are accepted. We are born again through the baptism with the Holy Spirit. This is not our final goal, but strictly speaking, the beginning of the race. From this start we press on to perfect love or Christian perfection.      



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Wesleyan Theological Journal

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[1] However, when Godbey wrote his commentaries for the holiness people (Godbey 1909, 366), he taught two works of grace at Acts 2:38. The gift of the Holy Spirit was to be sanctified wholly (Godbey 5:65). In 1911 Godbey participated in a debate on water baptism and the baptism with the Holy Ghost. He argued at one point that the water ordinance is only a sign or symbol of the real baptism—the baptism with the Holy Spirit. However, at another point in the debate Godbey argued for two works of grace—the birth of the Spirit and the baptism with the Holy Ghost. He said Spirit baptism and sanctification meant the same thing. The context of the statement indicates he was referring to entire sanctification, when “the old man got burned up” (McWherter, 7–9; 15–16).


[2] This is discussed in greater detail in Reasoner, Spirit  60–67; Reasoner, Hole 67–70.


[3] Stevens 396–402.  This account has been reprinted as Appendix B in Stackpole 79–86. See also the critique by Foster 209–210.

[4] Smith 1962, 21. In 1852 the Pastoral Address in the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church issued a warning concerning “new theories, new expressions, and new measures.” In 1878 D. D. Whedon, editor of the Methodist Quarterly Review warned that the holiness movement was not Wesleyan in emphasis. In 1880 W. B. Pope cautioned against the modern trend to teach a pentecostal visitation superadded to the state of conversion. In 1894 the bishops’ address to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church warned about the divisiveness of the holiness movement. These citations are given in Reasoner, Spirit 71–74.

[5] The irony is that in Perfect Love Wood had written, “The approach to entire sanctification may be gradual” (Wood 1880, 19; see also p. 82). James Mudge reacted to Wood (Mudge 228).

[6] It is reported that A. J. Smith organized the first Western expedition to Mt. Ararat in postwar years (Tim LaHaye and John Morris, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, The Ark of Ararat, 1976, pp. 119–125).

[7] Mitton 16.  For a more modern attempt to describe the Wesleyan paradigm, see Brush.