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John Wesley and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

by Robert G. Tuttle Jr.


Several years ago, United Methodist evangelist Ed Robb spoke of a time in his life when he believed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were exclusively for an apostolic age, not for today. He is now convinced that this age is the apostolic age and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are just as relevant today as they were in the days of the first apostles.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, certainly would have concurred. In his Journal entry for August 15, 1750, he wrote, "I was fully convinced of what I had long suspected, 1. That the Montanists, in the second and third centuries, were real, scriptural Christians; and, 2. that the grand reason why the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn, was not only that faith and holiness were well nigh lost; but that dry, formal, orthodox men began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves, and to decry them all as either madness or imposture."

Wesley clearly believed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were relevant for the church in any age. He defined them. He described them. He experienced them. He defended them.

Although Wesley never emphasized certain gifts such as predictive prophecy or tongues and their interpretation, he did regret their loss to Christians in general. In his sermon, "The More Excellent Way," he writes, "The cause of this [decline of spiritual gifts following Constantine] was not, (as has been vulgarly supposed,) `because there was no more occasion for them,' because all the world was become Christians. This is a miserable mistake; not a twentieth part of it was then nominally Christian. The real cause was, `the love of many,' almost of all Christians, so called, was `waxed cold.' The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other Heathens. The Son of Man, when he came to examine his Church, could hardly `find faith upon earth.' This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian Church; because the Christians were turned Heathens again, and had only a dead form left."

Obviously the implication here is that when the church recovers its first love, the gifts of the Holy Spirit will be available to enable its several parts to minister effectively within their own spheres of influence. Although the "more excellent way" is the way of love, Wesley still insisted that we may "covet earnestly" such gifts as evangelism to "sound the unbelieving heart," or the gift of knowledge to understand both the providence and the grace of God, or the gift of faith "which on particular occasions,...goes far beyond the power of natural causes" (Works, 7:27).

Some argue that Wesley sounded somewhat ambivalent at times with regard to some of the more "extraordinary" gifts as they surfaced within the 18th century Evangelical Revival (no doubt concerned about the charges of "enthusiasm" against the people called Methodist). However, on at least one occasion Wesley defended the gifts of the Spirit. In a letter to Conyers Middleton (Works, 10:1-79), Wesley defined, described, and defended a whole host of spiritual gifts, including: "1. Casting out devils; 2. Speaking with new tongues; 3. Escaping dangers, in which otherwise they must have perished; 4. Healing the sick; 5. Prophecy, foretelling things to come; 6. Visions; 7. Divine dreams; And, 8. Discerning of spirits" (Works, 10:16). Although the order and even the mention of some "gifts" not normally associated with the biblical accounts (such as visions and dreams) may seem a bit strange, the fact remains that Wesley believed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not only important but also were active during the 18th century Evangelical Revival.

When Middleton charged "that the silence of all the apostolic writers on the subject of the gifts, must dispose us to conclude they were then withdrawn," Wesley immediately responded: "O Sir, mention this no more. I entreat you, never name their silence again. They speak loud enough to shame you as long as you live" (Works 10:23).

Healing

Let us examine the gift of healing. I have frequently said that it is not a sin to be sick or to die. It is, however, a sin for sickness and death to go unchallenged because there is no one to pray.

Wesley clearly believed that the gift of healing tapped the supernatural power of God. Again, in response to Middleton's insistence that no "miraculous healing" had ever been proved, Wesley responded, "Sir, I understand you well. The drift of the argument is easily seen. It points at the Master, as well as his servants; and tends to prove that, after all this talk about miraculous cures, we are not sure there were ever any in the world. But it will do no harm. For although we grant, (1) That some recover, even in seemingly desperate cases; and, (2) That we do not know, in any case, the precise bounds between nature and miracle; yet it does not follow, Therefore, I cannot be assured there ever was a miracle of healing in the world. To explain this by instance: I do not precisely know how far nature may go in healing, that is restoring sight of the blind; yet this I assuredly know, that if a man born blind is restored to sight by a word, this is not nature, but miracle" (Works, 10:22).

James 5:14-16 exhorts Christians to pray for and anoint the sick with oil. Surely it is good to know that both Wesley and the Scriptures are on the side of those whose only hope for earthly ministry is in securing "weapons with divine power for demolishing strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4).

"Casting out devils"

In a sermon preached from the lectionary text (Mark 1:21-28) at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary a few years ago, I reminded the students that it was not my task to convince anyone of the existence of demons; their first appointment usually took care of that. Instead, it was my task to be faithful to the biblical accounts of a power available for "demolishing strongholds," demonic or otherwise. Wesley might well have been pleased.

The letter written to Conyers Middleton is Wesley's most definitive statement on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (although written in the sometimes confusing style of rebuttal and controversy). As with the gift of healing, Wesley makes reference both to Scripture and experience.

In his sermon, "A Caution Against Bigotry," Wesley attempts to set the biblical and theological stage for "casting out devils." He writes, "In order to have the clearest view of this, we should remember, that (according to the scriptural account) as God dwells and works in the children of light, so the devil dwells and works in the children of darkness. As the Holy Spirit possesses the souls of good men, so the evil spirit possesses the souls of the wicked."

As he does with regard to all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Wesley responds to Middleton on the subject of "deliverance" openly and plainly: "The testimonies concerning this are out of number, and as plain as words can make them. To show, therefore, that all these signify nothing, and that there were never any devils cast out at all, neither by the Apostles, nor since the Apostles, (for the argument proves both or neither,) is a task worthy of you" (Works, 10:41).

Middleton then claims that "those who were said to be possessed of the devil, may have been ill of the falling sickness...the ordinary symptoms of an epilepsy." As for the "evidence of devils speaking and answering to all questions," Middleton simply shrugs. He accounts for these "by the arts of imposture, and contrivance between the persons concerned in the act." Wesley's reply is straightforward: "Is not this something extraordinary, that men in epileptic fits should be capable of so much art and contrivance?" (Works, 10:41-42).

To Middleton's charge that even the Church Fathers "were either induced by their prejudices to give too hasty credit to these pretended possessions, or carried away by their zeal to support a delusion which was useful to the Christian cause" (a sentiment not unheard of today), Wesley insists that "not one of these Fathers made any scruple of using the hyperbolical style, (that is, in plain English, of lying,) as the eminent writer declares" (Works, 10:42).

As to how these "demons" might be overcome, Wesley is adamant: "All this is indeed the work of God. It is God alone who can cast out Satan. But he is generally pleased to do this by man, as an instrument in his hand; who is then said to cast out devils in his name, by his power and authority. And he sends whom he will send upon this great work; but usually such as man would never have thought of: For `his ways are not as our ways, neither his thoughts as our thoughts.' Accordingly, he chooses the weak to confound the mighty; the foolish to confound the wise; for this plain reason, that he may secure the glory to himself; that `no flesh may glory in his sight'" (Works, 5:484).

Speaking in tongues

Although there is no record that Wesley himself ever spoke in tongues, there is evidence that he believed that this gift of the Holy Spirit was a legitimate gift for the Church of any age. I offer but two quotations from his letter to Middleton.

In response to Middleton, Wesley writes: "Since the Reformation, you say, `This gift has never once been heard of, or pretended to, by the Romanists themselves.' But has it been pretended to (whether justly or not) by no others, though not by the Romanists? Has it `never once been heard of' since that time? Sir, your memory fails you again: It has undoubtedly been pretended to, and that at no great distance either from our time or country. It has been heard of more than once, no farther off than the valleys of Dauphiny. Nor is it yet fifty years ago since the Protestant inhabitants of those valleys so loudly pretended to this and other miraculous powers, as to give much disturbance to Paris itself. And how did the King of France confute that pretense, and prevent its being heard any more? Not by the pen of his scholars, but by (a truly heathen way) the swords and bayonets of his dragoons" (Works, 10:55-56).

As for the relevance of the gift of tongues for the church of any age Wesley once more responds to Middleton: "`All these [spiritual gifts] worketh by one and the self-same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will;' and as to every man, so to every Church, every collective body of men;...seeing He who worketh as He will, may, with your [Middleton's] good leave, give the gift of tongues, where He gives no other; and may see abundant reasons so to do, whether you and I see them or not. For perhaps we have not always known the mind of the Lord; not being of the number of his counselors" (Works, 10:56).

We may conclude this examination of Wesley's views on the gifts of the Holy Spirit with mention of his defense of "raising the dead." Wesley objects to Middleton's insistence that "there is not an instance of this [raising the dead] to be found in the three first centuries." Wesley quotes Irenaeus, the influential 2nd century Bishop of Lyons: "This was frequently performed on necessary occasions; when by great fastings and the joint supplication of the Church, the spirit of the dead person returned into him, and the man was given back to the prayers of the saints." Wesley then concludes himself: "I presume you mean, no heathen historian has mentioned it; for Christian historians were not. I answer, (1) It is not probable a heathen historian would have related such a fact, had he known it. (2) It is equally improbable, he should know it;...especially considering. Thirdly, that it was not designed for the conversion of the Heathens; but `on occasions necessary' for the good of the Church, of the Christian community. Lastly: It was a miracle proper, above all others, to support and confirm the Christians, who were daily tortured and slain, but sustained by the hope of obtaining a better resurrection" (Works, 10:39).

Again and again, the writings of John Wesley remind us that God has more invested in our ministry than we do. God makes power available (there must be thousands of spiritual gifts) to each of us that we might minister effectively within our own spheres of influence. Since our spheres are different, our gifts will be different. I do not covet your gift and you do not covet mine; but, together we are the body of Christ. Let God arise!


This article is adapted from a series that first appeared in Catalyst, an evangelical newsletter for United Methodist seminary students published by A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE).


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