New Wesley Material

Randy L. Maddox, "Wesley's Understanding of Christian Perfection: In What Sense Pentecostal? Wesleyan Theological Journal 34:2 (Fall 1999): 78-110.

According to Marsh Jones, who wrote his Ph. D. dissertation on Joseph Benson, there is a period of about ten years from 1770 to 1880 in which Joseph Benson is struggling to understand entire sanctification and even salvation (see his letter in the Spring 1999 Arminian Magazine). In 1769 Benson had first met John Fletcher at Trevecca College. At the time Benson was 21 and Fletcher was 40. Under the influence of Fletcher's teaching, Benson wrote an essay on the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Although that essay has been lost, apparently Benson sent it to Wesley. On December 28, 1770, John Wesley wrote his famous letter to Benson, in which he first describes being made perfect in love and then corrects the mistaken view that believers receive the Holy Ghost at this second change.

If they like to call this "receiving the Holy Ghost," they may: Only the phrase, in that sense, is not scriptural, and not quite proper; for they all "received the Holy Ghost" when they were justified. God then "sent forth the Spirit of his Son into their hearts, crying, Abba, Father."

While that letter did not refer to John Fletcher by name, in a second letter to Benson on March 9, 1771 Wesley warned him about Fletcher's "late discovery." The editor of Wesley's letters, John Telford explained that Fletcher's "discovery" was his doctrine of "receiving the Holy Ghost," which Wesley thought was unscriptural. Telford continued, "Wesley held that it was improper to separate the work of sanctification from justification, and that all who were justified had received the Holy Spirit."

Maddox concludes that there was a diversity between Fletcher and Wesley over the baptism of the Holy Spirit. By the late 1770s this issue faded from their focus, although both men retained their differing opinions. However, in an appendix, Maddox publishes for the first time ever John Wesley's notes in reaction to the Benson essay on "The Baptism of the Holy Ghost."

This manuscript, in Wesley's handwriting, is located at Duke University. Wesley is reacting to a document which no longer exists, so, in a sense, we only get one side of the "conversation." Here, then, are the significant statements by Wesley regarding Spirit baptism which are contained in this manuscript:

Is not an assurance of God's favor the fruit of "receiving the Holy Ghost"? i.e. in the first degree?

This sentiment, I think, is utterly new. I never yet baptized a real Penitent who was not then baptized with the Holy Ghost. See our Catechism. One Baptism includes the Outward Sign and the Inward Grace. The Quakers only speak otherwise in order to set aside Water Baptism.

Every Penitent is then baptized with the Holy Ghost; i.e., receives righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. I have proved it over and over.

Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost -- i.e. shall receive him as ye have not yet done.

St. Paul certainly means that to Christians there is but One Baptism or Outward sign of the New Birth.

I doubt if the word Baptism is ever used (unless twice or thrice metaphorically) for any but Water Baptism. And we can sufficiently prove our whole Doctrine, without laying any stress on those metaphorical Expressions.

The thing I object to all along, is the laying so much stress on the metaphorical expression, "Baptized with the Holy Ghost."

This entire debate has been reinterpreted to mean Wesley thought Benson and Fletcher were teaching that only the entirely sanctified had the witness of the Spirit and that he dropped his objection when he realized they were using Spirit-baptism phraseology to defend the doctrine of Christian perfection. This is historical revisionism. Maddox sees the true significance of this new Wesley manuscript and writes that Wesley

insisted that the 'baptism' or initial 'receiving' of the Holy Spirit comes at justification as the initiation of Christian life.... the baptism of the Spirit does not bestow Christian Perfection but only the Christian faith of a 'babe.' He willingly allowed that individuals may subsequently experience deeper immersions in the Spirit who indwells them at justification, but Wesley argued that these deeper immersions should not be confused with the 'new birth.' In particular, he rejected the 'metaphorical' use of 'baptism' to refer not to initiatory Christian baptism but to some subsequent immersion in the Spirit.

Wesley basically argues that the doctrine of Christian perfection need not be proven by using the phrase "baptism with the Holy Spirit." Wesley is aware that the phrase occurs seldom in Scripture and he continues to emphasize that all true believers have the Holy Spirit. Although there was diversity in the writings of early Methodism, Dr. Jones concluded

What is relevant is what Benson, Clarke, Fletcher, and others came to expect in a Christian. Do they expect the behavior displayed by the apostles before the Day of Pentecost or after? I would argue (and a little research would bear this out, it certainly does in the case of Benson) that none of them would ever describe the pre-Pentecost Peter as regenerate.


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