February 20, 2023
by David Woolverton, Kairos Affiliate Professor
Historically, one of the distinctive features of the Wesleyan tradition is a fundamental pursuit of holiness. John Wesley, the primary founder of what became known as the Methodist movement, had been an Anglican priest. Schooled in the creedal formulas of the faith, Wesley spent over a decade trying to attain a “pure heart before God,” living as best he could the expectations of life rooted in those creeds and the moral rules and ramifications associated with them. According to his journals, his consistent frustrations would cause him to doubt his own faith—even while still preaching and teaching in alignment with the rubrics within which he had been schooled.
Over the course of that decade, Wesley learned that he lacked the assurance of faith that would ultimately draw him to his goal. Yet, on May 24, 1738, the trajectory of his life and ministry would be changed forever. His own words describe his experience: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s ‘Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.’ About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[i]
What since has been known as Wesley’s “Evangelical Conversion” began a spiritual revival that would impact greatly the remaining decades of the 18th century and set the stage for the multiplication of a renewal movement and various denominational expressions to this day. And it began within one person’s decade-long quest for spiritual self-definition and discernment. Before Wesley could hear the voice of the Spirit in that quest, however, he had to learn how to listen for the Spirit’s voice—and he had to learn how to get out of his own way to hear it. What he learned and heard impacted how he taught about the Spirit from that point forward. The Spirit, he said, was like God breathing on His people, and God’s people breathing back to God—a “respiration” process of ongoing renewal whereby “[the believer] feels ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto him;’ and all his spiritual senses are then exercised to discern spiritual good and evil. By the use of these, he is daily increasing in the knowledge of God, of Jesus Christ whom he hath sent and to all the things pertaining to his inward kingdom” (italics mine).[ii] Such rhythmic respiration helps believers discern the voice of the Spirit and their role within the Body of Christ.
Wesley encouraged this act of breathing in and out with the Spirit, of listening to the guidance of the Spirit and acting accordingly. Cohesion came through a shared mission and a willingness to listen to the voice of the Spirit.
Today, Wesleyans of all types tend to self-identify into categories of traditional, progressive, and liberal camps (with some even stretching so far to the theological edge they might even be seen as Universalists). Denominational attempts at bringing clarity to corporate distinctives within such diverse demographics naturally have gravitated toward social sets that range between the porous and central to the highly bounded depending on how centralized they are within their infrastructures. All, of course, claim to be “Spirit-directed.” Books of Discipline, Articles of Religion, as well as a huge archive of contextually significant resolutions, have established precedent-setting boundaries within which many have submitted themselves corporately.
How, then, does a global community that is so widely diverse in its theological expressions, and historically creedal in its orientation, obtain such cohesion? That is the current dilemma—at least within United Methodist and several of its cousin denominations.
It would seem that a return to the “respiration process” described by Wesley would be helpful. It will call us in a common direction as the Spirit invites us to follow Jesus on mission to the glory of God. “Directional sets,” understood as a community engaged in the ongoing discernment of where God is leading while at the same time giving freedom to individual congregations to engage that mission based on the organic voice of the Spirit endemic to its particular culture, are what breathing with the Spirit looks like in practice. A mission to “make disciples for the transformation of the world,” for example, could find its best expression through the social justice ministries of a progressive congregation in center city Philadelphia, while at the same time through the community healing ministry tent meetings of rural Minnesota—each based on the discernment of the Spirit’s direction for that local Body of Christ.
Whether we admit it or not, discerning the direction of the Spirit for the congregations of Jesus followers cannot find its starting point in the power and control mediated through the creedal and disciplinary frameworks that we often use to define the Wesleyan tradition. Yet, those frameworks—as well as their historical contexts—can still assist us in discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit within the vibrancy of today’s world. As with the followers of Jesus in the 4th and 5th centuries, our world is filled with influences that threaten to syncretize that which is uniquely Christian with the current whims of society, requiring some contextually appropriate parameters consistent with what our forebearers sought to provide within their milieu. However, holiness cannot be embraced simply because it is legislated.
What John Wesley’s personal journey teaches us is that no matter what structures form the boundaries of our faith, only the Holy Spirit can change a heart—if we allow ourselves to listen and be caught up in the movement of the Spirit!
[i] W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds. The Works of John Wesley: Journals and Diaries, vols. 18-24 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988-2003), 18:249-50.
[ii] John Wesley’s Sermons, Sermon 45 “The New Birth,” II.4 http://www.wbbm.org/john-wesley-sermons/serm-045.htm, accessed 1-10-23.