This week I have found myself reflecting on Wesley’s sermon, “The Witness of the Spirit,I” (1746). This sermon addresses the doctrine of Christian assurance, which was a central concern for Wesley’s theology, but a controversial one at that. Because of his insistence upon assurance and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, Wesley was often accused of ‘enthusiasm.’ While Wesley seems aware of the dangers associated with these critiques, he is equally concerned with the opposite extreme – ‘rationalism. Thus, Wesley attempts to pave a middle way by avoiding both extremes and incorporating both the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (objective) and the believers’ own conscience or consciousness (subjective) as the grounds for Christian assurance.
Wesley spends a lot of time discussing the “marks” or evidence of true faith in Christ from scripture. He argues that there are both inner marks (humility, repentance, fruit of the Spirit) and outward marks (obedience to God’s commandments, loving others, holy living). The inward marks are the ascribed to the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s soul, whereas the outward marks are the grace-enabled actions of the individual in obedience to God’s will. Ultimately, Wesley suggests that these marks are the best way to distinguish and discern the witness of God’s Spirit – as opposed to the witness of our own spirit, or that of the Devil.
As I reflected upon this sermon, I was drawn to a couple of general themes – the role of the Church in discerning God’s Spirit, and the pastoral/practical implications of this doctrine of assurance. First, I was surprised that at no point throughout this sermon does Wesley appeal to the affirmation of the Church (or Christian community) as playing a role in discerning God’s Spirit. Wesley seems to only have the individual in view. It may just be my own assumptions feeding into this, but I expected that since Wesley encouraged the Methodists to participate in classes and bands (to study scripture, pray and talk about their spiritual growth), that he would also acknowledge the Christian community to play a vital role in discerning the Holy Spirit, and thus, in affirming assurance for the individual. This seemed somewhat inconsistent. Why would this be lacking in Wesley’s treatment on the witness of the Spirit? Does this appear in his later work? I’ll be looking for it as we continue in the course…
Second, I found myself asking the question, “Why is this doctrine of assurance so important to Wesley?” We know that much of Wesley’s theology is developed with pastoral and practical circumstances in mind. We also know that this sermon was developed in response to the critiques he was facing. This tells me that since Wesley was not willing to refrain from teaching assurance in light of these challenges that it was important to him. There was something causing him to insist on the doctrine of Christian assurance in spite of criticism. What were those things? What is at stake in the doctrine of assurance – for Wesley, and for us today? What are the pastoral and practical implications of this doctrine?
Wesley does not address these questions explicitly in this sermon, so we are forced to infer what we can. Toward the end of this sermon, Wesley suggests that without the assurance that one is an adopted Child of God, they will continue to live “in fear of the wrath of God.” (p. 152) Thus, we might infer that pastorally the doctrine of assurance shifts the grounds upon which we relate to God. No longer do we approach God in fear or guilt. Christian assurance means that we can approach God boldly and in confidence that we are God’s adopted sons and daughters. I see this reshaping the motives for living a life that honors God. No longer are we motivated by fear and guilt, but motivated to serve God willingly out of gratitude for God’s mercy and grace. Clearly this is important for Wesley’s theological commitment to holiness. Anytime the pursuit of holiness is motivated by fear or guilt, it will likely result in legalism. Having assurance of one’s salvation might rather result in the grateful and loving response of children to their gracious Father.
This is one way in which we see the doctrine of assurance as really important for Wesley’s theology – going right to the heart of the pursuit of holiness. What are some other ways? What else is at stake (theologically and pastorally) here for Wesley? For us today? I would be interested in discussing this and developing a response to these questions with the group.