Richard Watson was born in Lincolnshire, England and began preaching shortly after his conversion at age 15. He was ordained at 19, but then dropped out of the Methodist Conference under the suspicion of being an Arian.
At 31 he returned to the Conference and served as an itinerant preacher, 14 years as missions secretary, and as president.
In 1823 he published his most important work, the two volume Theological Institutes. This was Methodism's first systematic theology and was required reading in the course of study for American Methodists from 1825 to 1876.
John Fletcher Hurst called Watson "the greatest theological thinker of his day." Robert E. Chiles said he "had not serious rival for theological leadership in the first half of the nineteenth century."
Watson also wrote a biography of John Wesley, a theological dictionary, and after his death his published writings were collected in thirteen volumes. He was a scholar and an apologist for Wesleyan Arminianism. He appealed to reason and logic and his style was not dogmatic. He had not time to engage in unprofitable theological arguments. His final authority was not tradition nor philosophy, but the Word of God alone. He made no association between the baptism with the Holy Spirit and entire sanctification. Instead, he held regeneration to be a high state of grace.
Watson was sick nearly all of his adult life, but this did not dampen his missionary zeal. He was an eloquent preacher whose extemporaneous messages endeared him to his congregations.
In a circular letter sent to Methodist missionaries he reminded them not only to preach, but to persuade and "to subdue a revel world to the obedience of faith and love. He preaches best who saves the most souls."
Watson was a rare blend of careful scholarship and evangelistic zeal. Here is an edited version of his sermon "The New Birth," sermon #113 from his Sermons and Sketches of Sermons.
The New Birth
Jesus spoke to the Jews in parables. Since they were often careless about the truth or prejudiced against it, it was hidden from them. But he always received sincere inquirers with the utmost kindness. This was the case with Nicodemus.
He came to Jesus by night. That seemed to imply considerable doubt about his mission and personal fear about his reputation. But Christ did not respond with displeasure at these infirmities. He saw that his heart desired to be right. Therefore at once he unfolded thy mysteries of his religion. He spoke of his own personal claims and the purpose of his coming.
The Jews were not unfamiliar with the phrase "born again." They supposed that though it was necessary for heathen to be born again before they could be entitled to the blessings of Moses' kingdom, that they themselves were entitled to those blessings by virtue of their natural birth.
The three propositions which Christ had just laid down were to him very astonishing. First, that the Jews had not title by natural descent to the blessings of Messiah's kingdom. Second, that to enter the kingdom they must renounce their Judaism by Christ's baptism. Third, that men must be brought under a divine influence. Their former ceremonial religion would avail them nothing.
Our Lord cautions Nicodemus against arguing from the difficulty of the subject to its impossibility. We shall briefly consider:
The Nature of this Moral Change.
The Agency by which this Change is Effected.
We are "born of the Spirit," by the direct influence of the Spirit of God on the soul. All earlier editions of true religion were dispensations of the Spirit to the extend it pleased God to pour out his influence. John, however, especially designated the dispensation of the Messiah as the dispensation of the Spirit. "He shall baptize you with the fire of the Holy Ghost."
I cannot think that the gospel ministry can be faithfully exercised without success. What is called "the gospel" has often been preached with no results. But when the whole gospel of doctrines, experience, and duties is faithfully preached, the promise of Christ is, "I am with you always."
This is an agency that is to be sought and obtained by prayer. The Spirit of conviction comes when men neither seek nor desire him. Christ said, "I was found of them that sought me not."
After being convinced of sin, we obtain additional supplies of the Spirit in answer to prayer. By prayer we obtain the Spirit of faith - the power to believe. By prayer the Spirit of adoption is brought from heaven and fixes his residence in our hearts, enabling us to call God "Father."
The Holy Spirit does not leave the new birth to the operation of some natural power. If God gave the first Christians his Holy Spirit, enabling them to repent and believe and if that Holy Spirit is not given now, then religion has lost its saving power. We are just as corrupt and helpless as were the first Christians. We need the same assistance that they needed. Every man who wished to experience the blessing has only to ask for it in the way God has appointed. "How much more shall your heavenly Father give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him?"
The Difficulties Associated with this Doctrine.
Tell us, if you can account for those mental struggles before the commission of sin or those pangs of conscience afterward. You have not control over them. You cannot account for them except that they are visitations from God.
Here is a person who feels the guilt of sin pressing on him like a heavy load. He is seeking pardon and is believing, as fully as he can, that Jesus Christ has died for him. He derives no comfort from all he does until the love of God is shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost.
There is a power which visits the human heart and works upon it. Whether we can fully explain it or not, we are taught it is the Spirit of God.