Ministry Matters™ | The Wesleys, holiness and life in the Spirit


John and Charles Wesley sought to renew the Church of England by having Christians take seriously that they were called to live holy lives. The Wesleys stressed that every Christian should be sanctified. Sanctification is the term used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit to free our lives from sin. Accordingly John and Charles sought to discover modes of life — holiness — that would aid Christians in their desire to be freed from sin and on the way to salvation.

Because John and Charles Wesley were so earnest and organized in their desire for holiness, they often were subject to derision and ridicule. At Oxford those who gathered around John Wesley were given the nickname Holy Club. Methodist was originally a name meant to ridicule Wesley for being too “methodical” in his understanding of how Christians should live. Methodists were labeled by many in the Church of England as “enthusiasts.” That was not a compliment; an enthusiast was thought to have a dangerously emotional, nonintellectual understanding of the faith.

Yet John and Charles Wesley were convinced that holiness was what it meant to be a Christian. Influenced by Eastern Christian theologians, John Wesley appropriated their accounts of “divinization” into his idea of “perfection.” There is no stronger expression of this emphasis on holiness than Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:

Finish, then, thy new creation; 
pure and spotless let us be. 
Let us see thy great salvation 
perfectly restored in thee; 
changed from glory into glory, 
till in heaven we take our place, 
till we cast our crowns before thee, 
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

We are so familiar with “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” that the extraordinary claims of this hymn can be missed. Was Charles Wesley serious when he asked God to make us “pure and spotless”? He was quite serious. Like his brother, John, Charles desired for himself and for all Christians that as far as possible we lead lives free of sin. Each of us should want to be the “humble dwelling” in which the Spirit makes a home. Accordingly Charles Wesley hoped that we might in this life “serve thee as thy hosts above,” which implies that the communion the saints enjoy in heaven is possible here on earth below.

One of the words John Wesley used to describe the holiness characteristic of the Christian life was perfection. He did not think that Christians could be free of ignorance or mistakes, but he did think that through the work of Christ made present by the Holy Spirit, Christians could be freed from “outward sins.” According to Wesley, “the fullness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is brought unto men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.”

Note the last line of Charles Wesley’s hymn — “Lost in wonder, love, and praise.” To be sanctified is not to try very hard to achieve some impossible ideal. That misconception of holiness can lead to narcissistic self-righteousness or to perpetual guilt. “To be made perfect” from a Wesleyan perspective is to be caught up so completely in the life of the Holy Spirit you are not burdened by constant self-doubt. To be sanctified is to be drawn into a way of life so compelling that our worry that we may not be doing enough for God is lost. The saints never try to be saints; it just turns out that way as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

That many people doubt perfection is possible Wesley attributed to mistaken ideas about the Holy Spirit’s perfecting work. Wesley argued that in scripture perfection is “pure love reigning alone in our heart and life.” Perfection so understood means our hearts are so filled with love that all our words and actions are accordingly governed. Yet Wesley warned that simply to “feel” we are free from sin is inadequate. We should never believe that the work of love is finished “till there is added the testimony of the Spirit, witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification.”

Wesley understood justification and sanctification to be intertwined; you could not have one without the other. For Wesley justification names what Christ has done for us in gaining pardon from God for our sins. Yet at the very moment of justification, sanctification begins. According to Wesley, real change is worked in us by the Holy Spirit:

We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” [cf. Rom. 5:5], producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God, expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honour, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will and every other evil temper; in a word, changing the “earthly, sensual, devilish mind” into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus” [cf. Phil. 2:5].

Wesley’s extravagant sanctificationist claims may sound as if he has a too-sanguine view of human nature. Is it realistic of Wesley to claim that our spirits are so sweepingly transformed that all “love of the world” is expelled from us?

John Wesley had a robust, orthodox view of human depravity and sinfulness. But he had an even more exuberant assessment of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives warped by sin. Grace for Wesley meant not some saccharine view of human nature (God says, “I love you just the way you are; promise me you won’t change a thing”). Wesleyan grace is the power of the Holy Spirit working in us to give us lives we could not have had without the Spirit’s work.

Wesleyan sanctification is a “gradual process” that begins as soon as we are “born again.” As Jesus told Nicodemus, the “Spirit blows wherever it wishes” (John 3:8), making us as if we were newborn, dead to sin and alive to God. We should, therefore, desire “entire sanctification”; that is, we should want freedom from pride, self-will, anger, and unbelief. We should want to “go on toward perfection” (Heb 6:1 NRSV) so that love takes over our lives, excluding the hold sin has over us. To be sanctified is to have a kind of “spiritual light” in the soul supplying an evidence of “things unseen.” Faith, for Wesley, was the assurance that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the same dynamic of cross and resurrection that characterized the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus characterizes us.

This article is an excerpt from The Holy Spirit by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press

Source: Ministry Matters™ | The Wesleys, holiness and life in the Spirit


Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 4


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. Let’s see if our book helps to shake up the church in the power of the Holy Spirit!

Shaking Up the Church

The early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit slowly came to some consensus about what really matters. Christians decided what counts as Scripture, as well as what authority Scripture has and which rites are necessary for the churchʼs existence. The church came to a consensus about the role of its leaders. Of course each of these developments, significant as they certainly are, only produced further controversy. That Christians had disagreements is a sign that for the church truth matters and what counts as truth is often discovered through controversy. Few of us enjoy conflict but sometimes our controversy demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is continuing to energize and to reveal truth to the church.

It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to shake up the church, particularly when the church becomes self-satisfied and content with the status quo. For instance, there is still disagreement between churches of whether there are two sacraments – baptism and Eucharist – or seven. Perhaps that argument (between Catholics and Protestants) ought better be framed not by arguing about the number of sacraments but rather by agreement on the purpose of our sacramental worship. We like the way that Claude Welch speaks of the interplay between Spirit and word, sacrament, and ministry: “Word, sacrament and ministry together are structures of human existence taken up by the Spirit (which is to say, given to the church) and used as means whereby the grace of Christ is given, the power of new life made effectual, communicated through the historical life of the people of God. At the same time they are signs and instruments of the promise that Christ is even now newly presenting himself to his people and taking them into his new humanity.”[1]

The special relationship of the Spirit and the church doesnʼt mean that the work that the Holy Spirit is limited to the church. The Spirit that gave life at creation, that breathed life into Adam is the same Spirit that came on those gathered at Pentecost. The same Spirit who breathed new life into the dry bones of Israel (Ezekiel 37:1-14) is the same Spirit at work in the world gathering into the church those who once knew not the name of Jesus. The same Spirit who drove the fledgling church in Acts even toward the gentiles is the Spirit who today makes settled, introverted congregations uneasy with the way they have limited the work of the Spirit to the care, internal maintenance, and safe keeping of the church.

Rowan Williams notes the Spiritʼs work “outside” the church by saying that the church is, “meant to be the place where Jesus is active in the world. And once we have said that, we can turn it around and say that where Jesus is visibly active, something like the church must be going on.”[2]   This doesnʼt mean that the visible church, its teaching and sacraments donʼt matter; it is simply to recognize that at times we learn what is most important for the church by looking beyond its visible boundaries. Though the Holy Spirit birthed the church, the Holy Spirit intends to have more of the world than the church.

Williams says that if we look at the current state of the church from the viewpoint of the Spirit, we must ask some “awkward questions” about how we have let ourselves be distracted so that the Bible and sacraments as well as the Christ whose life is the heart of the church are not at the center of church life. It is important to trust the Holy Spirit to work even in those churches that are in decline as well as those churches that seem to flourish. The Spirit has always challenged the church from unexpected directions. It is, therefore, not without reason that we pray to the Spirit, “Do it again!” so that our church might recover a radical sense of what God wants us to be.[3]

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

[1] Welch, The Reality of the Church, p. 240.

[2] Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 128.

[3] Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 129.

To pre-order:

Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 3


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. May this book be used by the Holy Spirit to address that!

We’ve Got an Advocate

That the Holy Spirit incorporates us into Godʼs very life is not only found in the letters of Paul. In the gospel of John, Jesus promises that though he will return to the Father he will ask the Father to send the “Advocate, the Paraclete,” who will be with us forever. That “Advocate” is the “Spirit of truth” whom the disciples will recognize because, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be with you.” (John 14: 17) The Advocate is sent to “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14: 26). The Spirit has distinct work to do: to make us one body, the Body of Christ.

That the Holy Spirit is here called “Advocate” indicates that in Christ we are more than simply accepted by God or even justified by God. The Advocate continues to plead for us, represent us to God in ways greater than our ways and speak in our behalf to God better than we could speak up for ourselves. At the same time the Advocate is God representing God to us, revealing God to us in ways that we could not have come up with on our own.

That the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you” of all that Jesus said is immensely reassuring. None of us is born Christian. We must learn the faith and, in the Holy Spirit we see that God loves us enough to teach us all we need to know to be with God. Jesus commands us to do some extraordinary things in his name but never commands us to attempt to obey him by ourselves. Jesus tells us some astounding truth that is easy to forget. Therefore the Advocate reminds us. Here is truth we cannot teach ourselves, truth that is not only a great mystery to us but also truth that we, in our human sin, cannot attain on our own. Therefore the Advocate is a truth-teller.

We know a person who suffered a great wrong at the hands of another. She was justifiably angry at the injustice perpetrated against her. In an encounter with her wrongdoer her rage boiled over and she was in the process of, “Giving him a piece of my mind.” In that moment she, “remembered that Christ commanded us to forgive our enemies. I said, ʻLord, Iʼll try to do what you want me to do, but youʼll have to help meʼ.” We believe her remembrance was the work of the Advocate, the true eternal truth-teller, the Teacher, the Living Reminder otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.

We spend most of our lives outside of the sacred precincts of the church. Thankfully, the Advocate is with us “forever,” at all times and places, helping us to be the disciples Jesus calls us to be.

The love that is Trinity is a wonderful but also a harsh and dreadful love, a love that (we learn in Christʼs resurrection) cannot be destroyed. Christʼs church is given the extraordinary opportunity to participate in the love that is God in a world that knows not God.

The Holy Spirit rests upon bodies, first on the crucified body of Jesus, then on the often full-of-holes and beaten Body of Christ, the church.

A little church in Alabama had been saving for a decade at last to build its own church and to enable the congregation to move out of the rented space where it worshipped. A couple in the church had raised four foster children. One Sunday, during the prayers of intercession, the couple said that social services had asked them to take on three more children who had become homeless. They asked the church for prayers,“to help us find a larger place to rent so we can take in these kids.”

With that, one of the oldest members of the congregation blurted out, “We donʼt need to pray for that. Letʼs give them our building fund money!” There was applause. That Sunday the church gave the entire building fund to enable the family to have a larger home. We believe that such a miracle is attributable only to having ordinary people pray, “Come! Holy Spirit!”

The Holy Spirit is the agent of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is present, often hidden, in the church. The Holy Spirit is the way that God keeps actively loving us in time, the way that the Trinity keeps showing up to us, keeps pointing us toward the truth embodied in the Crucified. By Godʼs love, we live in the Age of the Spirit, that new time in which the church exists and testifies to the world that our time is not our own. God has taken time for us and the sign of that divine intrusion is the Holy Spirit at work in the church that is lives and works in the world.

God through the Spirit draws us into the life of the Trinity making possible a people who would otherwise not exist. The Spirit must have a body on which the Spirit can rest. That body turns out to be called “church.”

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

To pre-order:

Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 2


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, the latest collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. In this book, we attempt to lure fellow Christians into the riches of Pneumatology, thinking about the Holy Spirit. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Pentecostal Embarrassment

The Holy Spiritʼs lack of prominence in contemporary theology is odd given that the movement generally known as Pentecostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity. Charismatic Christianity has grown exponentially over the last century. The movement which many think began in 1906 in modest circumstances on Azusa Street in Los Angeles has exploded into a world-wide phenomenon producing some of the most lively churches in South America and Africa.

Of particular note is the Holy Spiritʼs special relation with the poor and the dispossessed. The sermon that Jesus preaches in Luke 4, claiming that the Spirit is upon him to preach good news to the oppressed, deliverance to prisoners, is taking form in worldwide Pentecostalism today.

The charismatic, Holy Spirit induced movement has not been restricted to Protestants. In 1967 during a retreat at Duquesne University a number of the participants were “reborn” in the Spirit. It was not long before the movement spread to the University of Notre Dame spawning summer meetings that for a number of years attracted thousands. This Catholic charismatic movement has generally had the support of the Popes and bishops.

Charismatic forms of Protestantism have often received a different response from the churches. In fact, the “enthusiasm” of the charismatics may be one of the reasons the Holy Spirit does not have, at least among mainstream Protestants, the same status as Father and Son. “Enthusiasm,” (infused with God) was a frequent charge against John Wesley and his Methodists.

Some fundamentalist churches ostracize members who claim to have received charismatic gifts, seeing such claims as dangerous undercutting the authority of Scripture and disrupting congregational order. As mainstream Protestantism loses the social and political status it once enjoyed, unable to attract new members, it becomes fearful about the future. Mainline Protestants sense that just identifying themselves as Christian is enough of a threat to secular culture; they are anxious not to be counted with Christians who speak in tongues, perform signs and wonders, believe in miracles, and are possessed by the Spirit. “Progressive Christians” know that many of their secular friends think that Christianity can no longer be rationally defended. That some Christians in the name of the Holy Spirit claim to be possessed by God in a way that seems irrational to modern, Western people only reinforces the secularist suspicion of the absurdity of Christianity.

In a field education seminar, Will had a student present a case study in which a parishioner asked her pastor, “What does the United Methodist Church believe about speaking in tongues.”

The pastor was rather pleased with himself to respond, “Oh my God, donʼt tell me youʼve gotten into that!”

She reported that she had experienced glossolalia, ecstatic speech, during a session of her Bible study group.

“Perhaps you are still dealing with grief over the death of your daughter,” said the pastor.

“I am. Is that what causes this?” she asked.

“Perhaps you ought to seek professional help,” persisted the pastor.

“Thatʼs why I came to you,” she concluded.

We find this a rather brutal policing of the Holy Spirit to assume that a report of

unusual spiritual gifts should be responded to with, “You are insane.”  

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

To pre-order:

Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 1


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. We hope that our book, in some small way, helps to change that neglect!

The Holy Spirit as God

When we talk about the Holy Spirit we are speaking about God. You may find this an odd remark with which to begin a book meant to introduce the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. After all this is a book written by Christians for Christians. However throughout Christian history and particularly in our own day Christians have had difficulty remembering when they say Holy Spirit they say God.

God as Father, Son, and….

Surveys show that nine out of ten Americans say they believe in “God.” But weʼre not sure that the God in whom so many Americans believe is the God designated by “Holy Spirit.” Actually, when Christians say Holy Spirit they are not merely saying “God;” they are saying Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Often when you are third in a list, for instance, a list like the Apostles Creed, it can seem that third is an after-thought.[1]

Thus the general presumption is that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit—well, what does the Spirit do? Too often the Spirit is associated with our feeling that we have had some sort of “experience” that is somehow associated with God or at least a vague feeling that seems to be “spiritual.” Human experience is a questionable place from which to begin thinking about God. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are often cited by United Methodists as constituting authority in theological argument. Some even claim that John Wesley was big on experience as a source for theological reflection. Subjective experience is no place to begin thinking about the Holy Spirit. Such thinking can result in a dismissal of what the

Bible says about the Holy Spirit and an unfortunate degradation of Christian doctrine. So we say again: to believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in God. To have had experience of the Holy Spirit is to have had an experience of something other than yourself.

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

[1] See Jason Byasee’s book in the Belief Matters series, The Trinity (Nashville: Abingdon 2015).

To pre-order The Holy Spirit: