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Where Pentecostalism came from (PART 1)

The theology of John Wesley

What are the theological roots of Pentecostalism? In other words, where did it come from?

“Any study of Pentecostalism must pay close attention to the happenings of this period [late seventeenth- and eighteenth- century revivalism in Europe and North America] and particularly to the doctrine of Christian perfection taught by John Wesley...”[1]
Understanding where Pentecostalism came from begins by understanding the distinct doctrine of Wesley regarding sanctification. So to begin with we need to talk about the theology of Wesley.

PART 1 - Eighteenth-century Methodism (Weslyan theology)

The preaching of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and others around the 1730s saw a revival movement spread through Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, and other places, emphasising repentance and purity in the churches and hightening peoples sense of the holiness of God. The movement in England eventually came under the control of John Wesley (1703-1791).

John Wesley was influenced by the Great Awakenings that emphasised sanctification in the Christian life (pietism), by John Calvin's doctrine of justification by “faith alone,” and also by the strong emphasis on holiness in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. He was also inspired by the perfectionist themes of the early saints. He combined some aspects of the Catholic emphasis on perfection with the Protestant emphasis on grace [2], and taught that sanctification involves a second work of grace, distinct from conversion. (The origin of the doctrine of “subsequence.”)

John Wesley saw conversion as an experience with two phases. The first phase is justification, involving the Spirit attributing or imputing to the believer the righteousness of Jesus. The second phase is the new birth, involving the beginning of sanctification, the process of the Spirit imparting righteousness to the believer. Wesley saw justification as being the gateway to sanctification. He understood justification by “faith alone” to mean that justification occurred by faith, in contrast to sanctification which occurred “by the Spirit.” Thus, sanctification became a second work of grace. (“Grace” was almost synonymous with the work of the Spirit). [3]

According to Wesley, justification (imputed righteousness) entitled one to heaven, but sanctification (imparted righteousness) qualified one for heaven. Wesley wanted to remind the church that true salvation is completed by our return to original righteousness; God restoring people in his perfect image in which he originally created man. Sanctification was the Spirit's work in the believer between conversion and death. He believed this involved God returning people to full and perfect obedience in this life through the process of sanctification. God gives his Spirit to those who are justified so that they might overcome sin. This involves them continually yielding to the Spirit's impulses, and it involves the Spirit continually rooting out sinful impulses in their nature.

Wesley insisted that “imputed” righteousness must become “imparted” righteousness. This emphasis on the process of sanctification, known as “fulfilling all righteousness,” (being restored to our original righteousness) became the distinctive of the Wesleyan tradition. [4]

It is here that Wesley had a distinctive teaching about “Christian perfection”. In A Short Account of Christian Perfection (1760) Wesley urged Christians to seek a second work of grace based on his doctrine of “entire sanctification”. This was the beginning of the teaching that sanctification involved a distinct spiritual experience given by God.


Seeing self-love, or pride, as the root of evil, Wesley taught that “perfect love” or “Christian perfection” could replace pride through a moral crisis of faith. By grace, the Christian could experience love filling the heart and excluding sin. He did not see perfection as sinlessness, nor did he understand it to be attained by merit... the believer by faith was brought into an unbroken fellowship with Christ. This was not only an imputed perfection but an actual or imparted relationship of an evangelical perfection of love and intention.[5]
Wesley was not teaching that Christians could attain absolute Christlike sinlessness. He acknowledged that Christians would always suffer from human faults and unintentional transgressions, because he saw sin as involving relationships and intentions, and defined it in terms of the attitude.

Wesley speaks clearly of a process that culminates in a second definite work of grace identified as entire sanctification. Entire sanctification is defined in terms of “pure or disinterested love.” Wesley believed that one could progress in love until love became devoid of self-interest at the moment of entire sanctification. Thus the principles of Scriptural holiness or sanctification are as follows: sanctification is received by faith as a work of the Holy Spirit. It begins at the moment of new birth. It progresses gradually until the instant of entire sanctification. [6]
Wesley's concept was that this second work delivered Christians from the fault in their moral nature that causes sinful behaviour.

The revival movement of England in the 1730s spread Wesley's sanctification theology. It opened the way for thinking of a “second blessing” given to Christians where they experience “instant sanctification.” It was the seed that later germinated the Pentecostal notion of a second blessing in Spirit baptism. But more on that later.

The nineteenth-century saw the emergency of theological distinctives that also played their role in giving birth to Pentecostalism. Next we'll talk about the legacy of Edward Irving and the importance of nineteenth-century premillennialism in understanding the theological roots of Pentecostalism.

More on this topic

(PART 2) Where Pentecostalism came from - The legacy of Edward Irving

(PART 3) Where Pentecostalism came from - The Holiness movement

Why Pentecostalism began

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[1] Gary B. McGee (Ph.D., Professor of Church History, Chair, Bible and Theology Department at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary), Systematic Theology, Chapter 1 “Historical Background,” Logion Press, 1995, p. 11.

[2] R. Larry Shelton (Th.D., Fuller Theological Seminary), “Perfection, Perfectionism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed., Paternoster Press, 2001, p. 906.

[3] Robert G. Tuttle Jr. (Ph.D., University of Bristol), “Wesley, John,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed., Paternoster Press, 2001, p. 1266-7.

[4] Ibid., p. 1269.

[5] R. Larry Shelton (Th.D., Fuller Theological Seminary), “Perfection, Perfectionism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed., Paternoster Press, 2001, p. 906.

[6] Robert G. Tuttle Jr. (Ph.D., University of Bristol), “Weslyan Tradition,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed., Paternoster Press, 2001, p. 1269.


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1 comment:

Kim said...

The line, "According to Wesley, justification (imputed righteousness) entitled one to heaven, but sanctification (imparted righteousness) qualified one for heaven," helps me better understand my objection to Wesley's theology. I ask, "With regard to one's certainly of relationship with God, when is enough, enough?" It is no longer sufficient that I believe, but I must have a relationship with Christ. It is now no longer necessary to have a relationship with Christ, but a "personal" relationship with Christ? It is no longer enough to have a personal relationship with Christ, but I must "accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior." When will it ever end? Is there no certainty of God's love for me?