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Spirit Baptism: Wesleyanism & Pentecostalism

Earlier this week I posted: John Wesley and Spiritual Gifts. There I attempted to show that while Wesley was open to both extraordinary spiritual gifts and miracles, he did not insist on them as proof of the Holy Spirit’s presence. So, now let me say something about the distinctive pentecostal and charismatic teaching about Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

pentecostwindow-4360485489There is a relationship between early Methodist teachings and the later development of Pentecostal teaching.  In fact, a direct line can be traced from the teaching of the early Methodists to the teaching of the early Pentecostals. Wesley’s preaching about the Christian life — and what he called Christian Perfection — gave rise to the holiness movement. The holiness movement, in turn, provided the seedbed from which the early Pentecostal movement would arise. Once people’s thinking about Christian experience  begins to go down a particular road, certain directions become inevitable.

We think of the distinctive nature of Pentecostalism as its the emphasis on the Holy Spirit: being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, and Spiritual Gifts (as discussed in 1 Corinthians 12 -14). The distinctive classical doctrine of Pentecostalism is the experience of Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of Speaking in Tongues.

But, some Holiness preachers also referred to Entire Sanctification (Christian Perfection) as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. This, in itself, suggests a connection.

So, what’s the connection?

In the Gospel of Matthew John the Baptist is pictured as announcing Baptism in the Holy Spirit in these words:

Matthew 3:11
Ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν, ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς τὰ ὑποδήματα βαστάσαι· αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί·
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (NRSV)

It appears that John Wesley and early Methodist Bible commentator Adam Clarke saw John the Baptist’s announcement of a Baptism with the Holy Spirit and Fire as referring to the experience of Christian salvation and cleansing by the Holy Spirit in regeneration — the beginning of the Christian experience. It was the New Birth.

In John Wesley’s teaching, the new birth was the beginning of the holy life; but, he also taught that believers could expect a later experience of entire sanctification (also called Christian Perfection), when the person’s heart and soul were fully dedicated to God’s purposes and will. So, this was a two-stage idea of the Christian life: Stage 1 = New Birth, Stage 2 = Entire Sanctification (Christian Perfection).

So, how did the idea of a Baptism in the Holy Spirit experience start? How did this get associated with entire sanctification?

John Fletcher (1729-1785)

John Fletcher (1729-1785)

The Pentecost-interpretation of Entire Sanctification has its true source in the teachings of John Fletcher. Fletcher was a contemporary of Wesley, and Wesley’s primary theological defender. Fletcher’s teachings were very influential on the early Methodists.

Fletcher didn’t exactly teach that Entire Sanctification was “the Baptism in the Holy Spirit” — but he came very close to this.

Particularly relevant is Section 19 of “The Last Check to Antinomianism. A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory.” Here he writes:

Upon the whole, it is, I think, undeniable, from the four first chapters of the Acts, that a peculiar power of the Spirit is bestowed upon believers under the Gospel of Christ; that this power, through faith on our part, can operate the most sudden and surprising change in our souls; 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, who kindled so much love on the day of pentecost, that all the primitive believers loved or seemed to love each other perfectly, 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,’ 1 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, that the effect of a sanctifying truth depending upon the ardour of the faith with which that truth is embraced, and upon the power of the Spirit with which it is applied, I should betray a want of modesty if I brought the operations of the Holy Ghost, and the energy of faith, under a rule which is not expressly laid down in the Scriptures. If you ask your physician how many doses of physic you must take before all the crudities of your stomach can be carried off, and your appetite perfectly restored; he would probably answer you, that this depends upon the nature of those crudities, the strength of the medicine, and the manner in which your constitution will allow it to operate; and that in general you must repeat the dose, as you can bear, till the remedy has fully answered the desired end. I return a similar answer: 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: “His arm is not shortened, that it cannot save;” nor is his promise of the Spirit stinted: he says, in general, “Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely. If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more will your heavenly Father [who is goodness itself] give his Holy [sanctifying] Spirit to them that ask him!” I may, however, venture to say, in general, that before we can rank among perfect Christians, we must receive so much of the truth and Spirit of Christ by faith, as to have the pure love of God and man shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us, and to be filled with the meek and lowly mind which was in Christ. 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.

Notice that he doesn’t speak of a “Baptism in the Spirit” but of numerous “effusions of the Spirit” in the life of a believer. How many are necessary, he asks? As many as may be needed!

But, he makes a mistake in calling these experiences “baptisms” (plural) of the Spirit. The Bible speaks of Baptism as a one-time event, so the use of the plural is technically a mistake. It was this simple mistake, along with Fletcher’s “doctrine of dispensations” that led to the eventual emergence of the notion that the experience of Entire Sanctification was also “The Baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

Wesley spoke of “being filled with the Spirit” as “Scriptural Christianity” — that is, the experience of regeneration. This conforms to Peter’s invitation on the day of Pentecost: “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 2:38, NASB.) But, in his “Last Check” Fletcher tends to equate the experience of Pentecost with “entire sanctification” — thus, as an experience subsequent to regeneration.

Of course, Fletcher would not recognize the contemporary Pentecostal / Charismatic teaching on The Baptism of the Holy Spirit as being anything he ever taught. But, his “Last Check” is where this teaching actually began.

This teaching is not in Wesley, Clarke, Watson or several of the other early Methodist writers — who developed their Christian Perfection doctrine completely without reference to Acts and Pentecost. But, there is a straight line from Fletcher to the late 19th Century Holiness preachers — who most often did identify Baptism with the Holy Spirit with entire sanctification — to Pentecostalism.

And, there are still a lot of people that don’t realize that.


Comments (4) | Trackback

4 Responses

  1. jwlung May 10, 2014 / 7:50 am

    This article by a leader (as if there could be such a thing) in the Roman Catholic renewal movement tracks Fletcher’s understanding, I think.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about our need to be persistent in our seeking. Thanks for this post and the previous one on Wesley’s point of view.

    • Craig L. Adams May 10, 2014 / 8:59 am

      My Pentecostal friends from long ago would complain that what Roman Catholic charismatics called “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” is what they would call “getting saved”! 🙂

      But, the truth is that all the progress we make in our sanctification by faith is the work of the Holy Spirit — from beginning to end.

      Thanks for the link.

  2. Stephen Ronny November 30, 2016 / 11:51 pm

    A fantastic article to read.Thanks a lot for sharing this.Good Work.Keep it Up.

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