The Conversion and Cleansing of Pentecost

Vic Reasoner

In The Preacher’s Perspective (6:28, Sept-Dec 2002), Jack Seaney wrote an editorial entitled “Pentecost, Conversion or Cleansing?” I was asked to reply to this editorial. I want to evaluate his appeal to Scripture, his appeal to holiness scholars, and his reference to John Wesley.

1. The appeal to Scripture

The author appeals to three passages of Scripture to prove his point that the disciples were converted before Pentecost. Before looking at these three passages, I must point out that the water has already been muddied. Prior to Pentecost and the inauguration of the new covenant, the disciples were saved, their names were written in heaven, and they would have go to heaven on the same basis that any other faithful Jew under the old covenant would be saved — a faith which expressed itself through submission to the law of Moses.

Furthermore, these disciples had been converted in the sense that they now had taken an additional step of faith — they acknowledge Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah.

The real question is whether they were born again before Pentecost. The new birth was not part of the old covenant. Yet the prophets declared that under the new covenant there would be greater privilege. Such passages as Joel 2:28-29; Jeremiah 31:31-34, and Ezekiel 36:25-29 anticipate the blessings of the new covenant. These blessings were not made available until the day of Pentecost.

Therefore, when we read that justification is by faith, we understand that we are no longer justified by a faith which expresses itself through obedience to the law of Moses. Instead our faith is in the finished work of Christ. Was it possible, then, for the disciples to believe on the death and resurrection of Christ before the fact? The Gospels indicate that they were still filled with doubt and unbelief, even after the resurrection.

And since all who belong to Christ have received the Spirit (Rom 8:9), how was it possible for the disciples to be born again before the Spirit was given? Under the new covenant we are added to the Church and belong to the body of Christ, through the baptism by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). Although the giving of the Spirit was prophesied by Jesus in John 20:22 (which was after his resurrection), the Spirit was not yet given until Jesus was glorified (John 7:39). I understand this glorification to be what he prayed for in John 17 and what he received after his ascension and session at the right hand of the Father.

None of the three passages cited in this article having any true bearing upon the question under discussion. In John 17 Christ prays for the sanctification of his disciples. The term “sanctify” encompasses their initial sanctification, their progressive sanctification, their entire sanctification, and their final sanctification.

Luke 5:24 declares that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins and Luke 10:20 declares that the names of the disciples were written in heaven. Revelation 13:8; 17:8 indicate that God in his foreknowledge wrote the name of every saved person in the book of life before the foundation of the world. I could argue that Jesus declared the names of the disciples were written in heaven because he knew they would be saved. However, even under the old covenant, the name of Moses was written in God’s book (Exod 32:32) and according to Malachi 3:16 all who feared the Lord were written in heaven. Those whose names were written in this book were saved. Therefore the issue is not salvation from hell, but the blessings of the new covenant.

The final passage cited is Acts 15:8-9 which speaks of heart purification that had occurred, first at Pentecost, and then at the household of Cornelius. The account concerning Cornelius records that Peter preached forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43). He later reported that God had granted “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18) and that “conversion” had taken place (Acts 15:19). Cornelius had been converted from a servant to a son.

Acts 15:8-9 declares that the same experience which Cornelius received also is what happened at Pentecost. And according to Titus 3:5 regeneration is cleansing and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Leo Cox, who is cited in this article, wrote concerning initial sanctification.

At the same time that the new life is planted in the soul, God begins the cleansing of sin. The power of sin is broken. Man is made holy, pure, clean, but not entirely so. This cleansing work is the beginning of sanctification. It is holiness begun. It can be called initial because it is just a beginning. This new life exists where some evil is still present [John Wesley’s Concept of Perfection, pp. 86-87].

2. The appeal to holiness scholars

The author also declares that such holiness scholars as Brown, Hills, Wiley, and White affirm that the persons baptized with the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost were truly regenerated believers. However, the author fails to give us the exegesis of these scholars; we are simply expected to accept their conclusion. Earlier in the article the author declared that we do not judge the Bible by Wesley; instead we judge Wesley by the Bible. I agree that the Scriptures are our final authority. Therefore, if the interpretation of Wesley must be evaluated in light of Scripture, so must the opinions of Brown, Hills, Wiley, and White.

The author cites one sentence from Wiley. In its context Wiley makes the comment that the baptism described in Matt 3:11-12 “is applicable to Christians only, not to sinners” [Christian Theology, 2:444]. However, the New Testament contains no command for Christians to receive such a baptism. Since we have already noticed the purifying effect of regeneration, Wiley’s interpretation does not prove his point.

The author also cites Stephen S. White. In its context White argued,

Pentecost as described in Acts 2 is the answer to the great high priestly prayer of Jesus for the sanctification of His disciples (John 17). If such were not the case, we would have no reason to believe that Christ's prayer was ever answered [Five Cardinal Elements in the Doctrine of Entire Sanctification, p. 47 in Wesleyan Heritage Library].

This argument is given by White, not as a scriptural argument, but an argument from reason. Here White argues that if the prayer of John 17 was ever answered, it must have been answered at Pentecost. Of course, White begins with a restricted definition of sanctification, limiting it only to entire sanctification. But while White could see no other logical fulfillment, it is interesting that John Fletcher saw Acts 4 as the occasion when the Lord’s prayer for their perfection was answered [Works, 2:631]. Therefore, White’s argument is not conclusive.

3. The reference to Wesley

The author first warns us that unless we understand the evolution of Wesley’s theology we may not properly represent him. However, in his Journal Wesley, then 75 years old, disclosed that his doctrine of Christian perfection had not changed in over forty years [1 Sept, 1778]. His first tract on the subject, “The Character of a Methodist,” was written in 1739. In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, written in 1777, he said that he had not added one point that he had not held 38 years earlier in “The Character of a Methodist.” In fact, he said that he said he began this pursuit of Christian perfection in 1725 [§ 10]. The title page for A Plain Account of Christian Perfection gives the dates 1725-1777. Although Wesley did not die until 1791, his editor added these words, “It is not to be understood, that Mr. Wesley’s sentiments concerning Christian Perfection were in any measure changed after the year 1777.” Thus, the evolution of Wesley’s doctrine has been greatly exaggerated. And Wesley did not equate Christian perfection with the baptism of the Spirit at any stage of his theological development — covering a span of over 50 years.

The author then refers to an experience which Wesley described as “waves of glory” which occurred in 1744, or six years after his Altersgate experience. His Journal for December 23-25, 1744 does recount an experience which Leslie Wilcox connects with entire sanctification in Be Ye Holy [pp. 272-273]. The passage does not contain the phrase “waves of glory,” nor does it make any association with the baptism of the Spirit or Pentecost. Therefore, when the author writes, “This is believed to have been his Pentecost,” he is imposing his paradigm on Wesley’s experience.

It is interesting, however, that in the Journal of Charles Wesley, the account of his new birth, which occurred May 21, 1738 (three days prior to John’s Altersgate experience) is entitled “The Day of Pentecost.”

The author then cites one paragraph from John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. While there are many editions of this wonderful tract, the paragraph cited may be located in § 13. However, it makes no association between Pentecost or the baptism with the Holy Spirit and Christian perfection.

Thus, the author first depreciates the value of John Wesley’s interpretation of Scripture, then warns us it went through an evolutionary process. Next he appeals to Wesley’s teaching and final to his experience as proof that Wesley equated Pentecost with entire sanctification. The entire attempt to first discredit Wesley, then use Wesley fails because the author fails to establish that Wesley equated Pentecost with entire sanctification.

4. Conclusion

Having failed in his appeal to Scripture, having cited holiness scholars which are inconclusive, and having misrepresented Wesley, the author then claims all who disagree with him are ignorant and that they contradict Scripture, sound doctrine, and experience. While his own scholarship is inadequate and his logic assumes the very propositions which he fails to prove, he ends by warning that those who disagree with him do not love the truth, are willing to believe a lie, and run the risk of damnation.

Thus, the editorial generates more heat than light. Failing to produce a cohesive argument, the author resorts to fear-mongering in order to prop up a doctrine which is neither Scriptural nor Wesleyan. I would suspect that the author has read very little from Wesley, but fervently hopes that such a heavy-handed rebuke to all who do not hold his opinions will distract his readers from discovering for themselves his own ineptness.