Early Methodist Teaching on Water and Spirit Baptism
Mr. Joseph D. McPherson


During his short ministry, John the Baptist introduced Jesus as "he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (John 1:33). Before his ascension, Jesus himself promised his followers that they would "be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now" (Acts 1:5). "And so are all true believers, to the end of the world," responded John Wesley in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament.

What were the views of early Methodist leaders concerning the relationship of water baptism to Spirit baptism? What did they consider to be the significance of these baptisms to both regeneration and Christian perfection? It is hoped that by considering a sampling of the writings of John Wesley, Richard Watson, Adam Clarke, and John Fletcher concerning these issues we shall find some answers to these questions.

In Romans 8:9 Paul assures us that "anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." Again in his Notes, Wesley comments thus: "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ—dwelling and governing him. He is none of his—He is not a member of Christ; not a Christian; not in a state of salvation. A plain, express declaration, which admits of no exception. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."

For the founder of Methodism, all true believers were baptized with the Holy Spirit; not just those who had been entirely sanctified or perfected in love. In his written work entitled A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Wesley asks his readers the question: "Are you still a stranger to that inward baptism wherewith all true believers are baptized?" [Works, 8:184].

In a letter to Rev. Potter, Wesley writes that "it does not appear that [St. Paul's] was a sudden conversion. It is true, ‘a great light suddenly shone round about him;' but this light did not convert him. After he had seen this, ‘he was three days without sight, and neither did eat or drink.' And probably, during the whole time, God was gradually working in his heart, till he ‘arose and being baptized, washed away his sins, and was filled with the Holy Ghost'" [Works, 9:93]. Not only the washing away of his sins (plural), but the being "filled with the Holy Ghost," symbolized by water baptism were, for Wesley, important parts of the initial conversion experience of St. Paul.

In a December 1770 letter to Joseph Benson, Wesley gives a lengthy description of entire sanctification as a second definite "change" in the believer's heart. He then writes, "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'" [Works, 12:416].

Some may look upon Wesley's use of the word "received" as having a less significant meaning than the terms "baptized" and "filled." This, however, is easily settled when recalling that the Samaritans in Acts 8:17 "received the Holy Ghost" after Peter and John had prayed and laid hands upon them. Would any dare to deny that they were baptized with the Holy Spirit on that occasion simply because it is said that they received the Holy Ghost? Various expressions for the baptism of the Holy Spirit were used interchangeably by New Testament writers to describe that great effusion of the Spirit upon new believers. We read that the Spirit fell on some, was sent, given, poured out, and shed forth on others. Believers are also said to receive, be endued, filled, and baptized with the Holy Spirit.

This great work of regeneration, Wesley believed, could be accomplished by nothing less than a powerful effusion or baptism of the Holy Spirit. Although water baptism was not synonymous with regeneration, yet it was to him an outward and visible sign of this inward work of grace [Works, 6:73]. This is supported by a Journal entry in which Wesley writes, "I baptized a gentlewoman at the Foundery; and the peace she immediately found was a fresh proof, that the outward sign, duly received, is always accompanied with the inward grace" [Works, 2:523].

To Wesley, the new birth was "that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is ‘created anew in Jesus Christ'" [Works, 6:71].

In another place the founder of Methodism assures us that "It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation; and none can create a soul anew, but He who at first created the heavens and the earth" [Works, 8:5].

Richard Watson was an able Bible scholar and theologian, who wrote the first systematic theology for early Methodism. His Theological Institutes, have been highly acclaimed by close adherents of Wesleyan Arminianism, and it is from that work of his that we share the following. By several passages of Scripture, Watson shows that water "baptism is to the new covenant what circumcision was to the old, and took its place by the appointment of Christ" [2:620]. He further states that "baptism [was] expressly made the initiatory rite, by which believers of ‘all nations' were to be introduced into the Church and covenant of grace; an office in which it manifestly took the place of circumcision, which heretofore, even from the time of Abraham, had been the only initiatory rite into the same covenant" [2:620-621].

For Watson, baptism is not only "a sign of the new covenant, corresponding to circumcision," but "is the symbol of regeneration, the washing away of sin, and ‘the renewing of the Holy Ghost'… which he shed, or poured out, ‘on us abundantly through Jesus Christ.'… Of this great new covenant blessing, baptism was therefore eminently the sign; and it represented ‘the pouring out' of the Spirit, ‘the descending' of the Spirit, the ‘falling' of the Spirit ‘upon men'" [2:626-627].

Adam Clarke is well known for his excellent Commentary on the Bible. He was one of Wesley's itinerant preachers in early life and later proved himself to be an outstanding scholar and master of Semitic languages.

In his comments on John 3:5, Clarke sees water in the baptismal rite as "an emblem of the Holy Spirit." Commenting on Acts 2:38 he continues to express this concept by explaining that "baptism [points] out the purifying influences of the Holy Spirit; and it is in reference to that purification that it is administered, and should in consideration never be separated from it. For [water] baptism itself purifies not the conscience; it only points out the grace by which this is to be done."

In Acts 10, we read that Peter was preaching, not a second work of grace, but Christ and the remissions of sins (plural), when the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and those gathered with him to hear the word. Clarke has some interesting observations on verse 47, in which Peter asks, "Can anyone withhold water?"

These had evidently received the Holy Ghost, and consequently were become members of the mystical body of Christ; and yet St. Peter requires that they shall receive baptism by water, that they might become members of the Christian Church. In other cases, they received baptism first, and the Spirit afterwards by the imposition of hands; see Acts 19:4-6, where the disciples who had received only the baptism of John were baptized again with water in the name of the Lord Jesus; and, after even this, the apostles prayed, and laid their hands on them, before they were made partakers of the Holy Ghost. So we find that Jesus Christ had his water baptism as well as John; and that even he who gave the baptism of the Holy Ghost required the administration of water baptism also. Therefore, the baptism of the Spirit did not supersede the baptism by water; nor indeed can it; as baptism, as well as the supper of the Lord, were intended, not only to be means of grace, but standing, irrefragable proofs of the truth of Christianity.

The Apostle Paul, writing to Titus assures him that he saved us, according to his mercy, "by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" [3:5]. Clarke gives special consideration to the words "by the washing of regeneration." "Undoubtedly," says he, "the apostle here means baptism, the rite by which persons were admitted into the Church, and the visible sign of the cleansing, purifying influences of the Holy Spirit, which the apostle immediately subjoins. Baptism is only a sign, and therefore should never be separated from the thing signified; but it is a rite commanded by God himself, and therefore the thing signified should never be expected without it."

John Fletcher, the saintly Vicar of Madeley, became the celebrated apologist of early Methodist teachings. His Checks to Antinomianism display the masterful way in which he successfully vindicated Mr. Wesley's theological stance against Calvinism and the antinomianism naturally spawned by it. "One equal to him I have not known," writes Wesley, "one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God."

In his Last Check to Antinomianism, Fletcher makes reference to the Apostles' manner of preaching after Pentecost. He says that they began to preach "the full baptism of Christ which has two branches, the baptism of water, and the baptism of the Spirit, or of celestial fire." For an illustration of this he refers to the responsive question given by penitent Jews to Peter's sermon, followed by the Apostle's answer. "They asked, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Peter answered, ‘Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost'" [Works, 2:525].

"But," cautions this good man, "how many learned men, to this day, see no difference between water baptism and spiritual regeneration, between the means of grace and grace itself, between ‘the form' and ‘the power of godliness!'" [Works, 3:280].

Referring to a page in his essay entitled Spiritual Manifestations of the Son of God, we see that this scholar and saint considered the being "baptized with the Holy Ghost and spiritual fire," as a "blessing which can alone make a man a Christian" [Works, 4:287]. Likewise, he shows in one of his sermon outlines the necessity of being baptized with the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of the new birth [Works, 4:195].

In his Equal Check, he reminds his readers of St. Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Although the Corinthian believers were far from being entirely sanctified at the time Paul wrote, he assures them that "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body … and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" [Works, 2:289]. Paul is not referring to those only who have had an advanced experience of grace. He is making the point that all members, without exception, had entered the body, or the invisible Church of Christ by Spirit baptism. It was an initiatory event and common experience for them all.

In his written work entitled The Portrait of St. Paul, Fletcher describes those who have not yet received a "spiritual baptism" as being "shut up in [a] state of weakness and doubt. But so soon as they are born of the Spirit, they cry out no longer with trembling fear, ‘Save us; we perish:' But they cry out, in transports of gratitude, ‘God, according to his mercy, hath saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he hath shed on us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Savior'" [Works, 3:170-171].

In his "A Sermon on the New Birth," Fletcher contrasts the "difference between the reformation of a Pharisee and the regeneration of a child of God. Some degrees of preventing grace and of reason and reflection, suffice for the first," says he, "but nothing less can effect the second than a baptism of the Holy Ghost" [Works, 4:111-112].

Later in the same sermon, Fletcher speaks of the new birth as a spiritual resurrection. He assures the penitent seeker of a "balm in Gilead." Better yet, "Faith in the blood of Christ," says he, "can not only heal the wounds of a dying soul, but raise to life one that is spiritually dead" [Works, 4:112].

Finally, in this same "Sermon on the New Birth," we find Fletcher giving encouragement to a true penitent and seeker after the new birth. "Yes, you shall," says he, "be baptized by the Holy Ghost for the remission of sins, and justified freely by faith" [Works, 4:115].

We conclude from this short study, which is far from exhaustive, that each of these early Methodist leaders, in keeping with the Church historically, viewed both water and Spirit baptism as initiatory events. They understood that for lack of thorough repentance and a living faith, baptism of the Spirit did not always accompany water baptism at the same moment, though it often did.

None of them subscribed to what is termed "baptismal regeneration," though baptism by water was clearly held to be an outward symbol of that inward baptism of the Spirit which is received in regeneration.

A more extensive study of the writings of these men show that all clearly subscribed to the Holy Spirit's continued work in the believer's heart following regeneration, bringing about growth together with a perfection in divine love. The Holy Spirit's full cleansing of the believer's heart from inbred sin was viewed by all as taking place in an instantaneous experience of entire sanctification.

It is known that Fletcher, in other parts of his writings, applied the language of "baptism of the Holy Ghost" to the work of entire sanctification, as well. Some have mistakenly supposed that he used such language exclusively with reference to entire sanctification. Such is not the case, as proven by the quotations already cited. He, like the others, plainly referred to the baptism of the Holy Spirit with reference to regeneration. By using the same terminology for both regeneration and entire sanctification, he, however, differs from Wesley. He is seen as viewing the work of the Holy Spirit in a holistic sense. Surprisingly, Adam Clarke is also found in a place or two to speak of "another baptism" of the Spirit in the accomplishment of entire sanctification [Clarke's Christian Theology, p. 206].

Did Fletcher influence a change in Wesley's theology, as some claim, so as to alter the latter's views concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit? More particularly, did Wesley in his later writings use the terminology of "baptism of the Holy Ghost" in reference to entire sanctification? A close reading of Wesley's sermons and writings produced in the last thirty years of his life will convince any unbiased reader that the answer is No! The notion that Fletcher influenced a change in Wesley's thinking in this way or in some measure "fine tuned" his theology is unsubstantiated. While Fletcher's strengths are seen in his masterful confutation of the tenets of Calvinism and his exceptionally holy life, Wesley was solidly scriptural in his theological teachings.

Early Methodists would have considered it a grave mistake to make the experience of the disciples prior to Pentecost the pattern for regeneration. One will search in vain to find an eighteenth century Methodist who equated or related the Baptism with the Holy Spirit solely to entire sanctification. They would have considered such a view as regrettably lowering the standards of both regeneration and entire sanctification. Pentecost, to them was the watershed of salvation history. As Kenneth Collins explains, "Pentecost was the birth of the Church, not its perfection." The disciples, under the tutoring of their Master, lived in a time of transition between the old covenant and the new. The old dispensation of the law was giving way to the dispensation of a fuller one of grace and truth. We can never fully duplicate their experience nor tread the same path they trod while following their Master in the flesh. Although Christ's disciples were doubtlessly saved during this period, according to their inferior dispensation, it is impossible for us to look at their experience in those days as a pattern, far less a norm, for the experience of regeneration today. All early Methodist leaders uniformly agreed that Christ's baptism of the Holy Spirit is conditionally necessary for making one a truly regenerated believer and member of His spiritual Church. They understood that such a baptism alone had the power to spiritually raise dead souls to life in Christ.




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