Not long after I came to faith Pete Greig was beginning his stellar Christian career with a profound and challenging vision you can watch here:

“The vision is holiness that hurts the eyes…” It still shakes me to the core as an intercessor…

This is a vision that fired John Wesley and George Whitefield. It fired Pete Greig when he became head of intercession at HTB.

But is Pete Greig’s 1999 vision, reflecting the early Methodist call to holiness, actually the vision that has prevailed in contemporary charismatic christianity?

To analyse this with a bit of perspective the next three posts do a deep dive into what early Methodist leaders John Wesley and George Whitefield had to say on holiness (from their very different theological standpoints).

Today’s readers may want to ask: does what they believed, said, taught and did seem like the same things we believe, say and teach and do… if not, why? Is it possible that the ‘method’ or ‘model’ used today does in fact change the message? Does a consumer church designed to grow, grow, grow with a strong emphasis on experiential encounter with the spirit at its core inevitably move us away from some of the building blocks needed to preach, proclaim and practice holiness?

The Argument: 

These next three posts introduce John Wesley and George Whitefield as interrelated but distinct normative theological voices for the HTB network. Wesley and Whitefield represent the beginning of the evangelical era defined by Bebbington, [1] and clearly still influenced the twentieth century ‘normative theological voices’ (eg EM Nash/Stott/Wimber) explored in earlier posts.[2] These posts explain how both Wesley and Whitefield as Anglican ordained practitioners in the Evangelical Revival [ER] have been seen by the network as exemplars of Spirit-filled ministers. They also examine other comparisons and continuities between their era and the HTB network, not least in how personal experience of the Holy Spirit can shape theology.

Building on recent comparative studies of Wesley and Whitefield it shows how both men worked from their own normative theologies, combined with manifest experiences of the Spirit in their life and ministries, to steadfastly aim for a ‘telos’ that will be summarised asa holy people for a holy God.’  Their stated discipleship aim of holiness was described by Wesley as ‘the chief reason that the people called Methodists were raised up’ and their motivation was framed in a Godward direction, viz, the glory of God. It shows how they shared their core discipleship goals despite their respective Arminian and Calvinist theological schemes. Included in their theological schemes are soteriologies which will be shown to emphasise both the absolute need of salvation to overcome the issue of original sin and the eschatological eternal consequences of being ‘born again’ which each impact the telos that they are aiming for in discipleship. 

This leads us to five considerations:

Firstly, whether the theme of holiness lived out remains part of the normative theological foundations in the HTB network;

Secondly whether the eschatological breadth of this theological scheme from original sin to eternity remains an espoused and operant focus within the network teaching;

Thirdly whether original sin, and ‘Sin’ generally is a problem for which the network is seeking a solution;

Fourthly whether what Wesley and Whitefield meant by conversion is synonymous with the network’s invitation through the Alpha course into ‘a relationship with Jesus Christ’[3]

Lastly whether, in a truncated scheme focused on ‘A life worth living’ now, the end-goal of discipleship within the network is orientated towards human flourishing rather than the glory of God (if these are indeed to be differentiated).

All of these questions will help the ongoing quest to assess whether the message as well as the method has changed over the period since the beginning of the Evangelical Revival.

The contention is that early Methodism had a clear, compelling discipleship goal of a ‘holy people for a holy God,’ that can be helpfully held up as a mirror to the espoused and operant goals evident in the HTB network.  Birthed in the spiritual furnace of the Oxford Holy Club, this focus on santicfication had for them a compelling theological rationale and was a clear focus of teaching and espoused theology. In his 1783 sermon, The General Spread of the Gospel, John Wesley recounted the whole purpose of his life’s work thus: ‘Between fifty and sixty years ago, God raised up a few young men, in the University of Oxford, to testify those grand truths: That without holiness no man shall see the Lord; that this holiness is the work of God… that this holiness was the mind that is in Christ.’[4] Whitefield likewise, despite his Calvinist stance and aversion to perfectionism, also maintained the goal of holiness. Holiness is rooted for both men in their theological scheme that begins with original sin and ends with eschatology and eternity. The breadth of this theological scheme will be shown to be one of the key points of divergence with a dominant operant theology in the HTB network.  

Holiness as a discipleship goal – Wesley

A survey of Wesley’s espoused theology of holiness shows some fluidity of terminology and emphases as he seeks to clarify and defend aspects of his teaching, particulalry with regards to ‘Perfect Love’. Maddock notes that he freely used the terms holiness, sanctification, entire sanctification, and Christian Perfection interchangeably.[5] Wesley’s teaching certainly develops in at least three clear stages: i) 1725-1732, before his  Sermon of 1 Jan 1733 ‘Circumcision of the Heart’ was given before the University of Oxford,[6] ii) 1732-1738 when he had his evangelical conversion, and iii) 1738-1741. From 1741 his doctrine is fundamentally consistent, despite firstly, being expressed polemically or apologetically in different ways at different times, and secondly, showing a maturing towards a re-focus on perfect love.  Indeed, Outler sees the publication of Wesley’s main work on ‘Perfect Love’ A Plain Account , as ‘a mildly trucluent reaction to the charge that he had changed his teaching on the topic of holiness in the course of the Revival.’[7]

Similarly, he has varying stages of self-disclosure regarding his normative theology. There is widespread debate about the scope of his claim to be ‘homo unius libri’.[8] Steven Harper surveyed the doctrinal works Wesley read predating his 1738 evangelical conversion,[9] which he discovers gives credance to James Joy’s apt reference to Wesley as a ‘Man of a thousand books, and a book.’[10] Wesley ‘read voluminously and encouraged his preachers to do likewise.’[11] A brief survey of his influences will help identify developments in his normative and espoused theologies.

Both of Wesley’s grandfathers had been puritan ministers and various attempts have been made to tie Wesley to that tradition.[12] However the most important of these, presbyterian Dr Samuel Annesley died seven years before his famous grandson was born. It is almost unanimously agreed, however, that it was Annesley’s daughter, Susanna who exerted the most important early influence on her second surviving son, John, with Newton claiming she transmited this puritan link to her son.  However Wesley was brought up in an Anglican household. Archbishop Laud had stamped his mark on the Church of England, and the English church was now a far cry from the inclusivity which had in Elizabeth’s reign had largely accommodated the puritans.[13] This helps to explain why attempts to link the Wesley brothers to continental reformers have largely proved unsuccessful especially with regard to the doctrine of holiness.[14]

Before 1732 Wesley’s reading included three key and lasting influences each named in the Plain Account. In April 1725 he read the first two: Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying  and a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. 40 years later he articulated to John Newton that the origin of Methodism could be traced to this reading.  ‘I saw that one thing is needful, even faith, that worketh by the love of God and man all inward and outward holiness’.[15] In December 1730 he read ‘A serious call to a devout and holy life’ by William Lawthe man he was later to describe as ‘our John the Baptist’, and ‘Christian Perfection’ also by Law  in November 1732 which was just two months before giving his Circumcision of the Heart sermon and after having met Law in person.[16]

Eamon Duffy additionally argues strongly for Wesley’s indebtedness to the counter-reformation after 1732, noting particularly Francois de Sales, who Wesley read in January 1733. De Sales ‘Introduction a la Vie Devote’ aimed to show that ‘a strong and resolute person may live in the world without being tainted by it, find spiritual springs amid its salt waters and fly through the flames of temptation without burning the wings on which they soared to God.’[17] He wished to ‘paint devotion’ onto a ‘man’s heart’. Outler has more tenuously asserted a link back to the early Greek Fathers, particularly Gregory of Nyssa, but this can only be traced through the Homilies of Macarius and there is doubt as to his dependency on Gregory.[18]

Mark Olson has published a thesis considering how to interpret the various narratives regarding Wesley ‘evangelical conversion’ at Aldersgate on 24 May 1738. What is certain is that whether his quest for perfection had been derived from early church fathers, the counterreformation, William Law, puritans or scripture, it had been dragging him down into what seemed a futile and unrewarding introspection. From 1738 however  the experience he had there drove his continuing advocacy of the discipleship goal of holiness. He began to see within himself what the mystics had advocated and he himself had dutifully preached in Circumcision of the Heart in Jan 1733. So Wesley was able to interpret his dramatic encounter with the Spirit in the light of the desire for holiness that was already well developed within him.[19]

From Aldersgate onwards, there is, for the most part, a different tone and feel to Wesley’s diaries, with other highlights to follow. On Christmas Eve 1744 he had an encounter where: 

I saw every thought, as well as every word or action, just as it was rising from my heart; and whether it was right with God or tinted with pride or selfishness I never knew before (I mean not as this time) what it was to be “still before God”. 

John Wesley

On the 25th he continues:  

I walked by the grace of God in the same spirit and about eight being with two or three that believed in Jesus, I felt much awe and the tender sense of the presence of God as greatly confirmed in me therein: so that God was before me all day long. I sought and found him in every place; and could truly say, when I lay down at night, “now I have lived a day.”[20]

John Wesley

The operant theology of Methodism was impacted by these Holy Spirit encounters every bit as much as the eclectic normative theologies which Wesley drew from. Whereas previously he was continually left with the feeling that he had never quite arrived,’[21] after May 1738, and Christmas 1744 the possibility of perfection (in the limited way that he defined it), became a real and tangible goal once again to him. As will be seen in the next chapter John Collins had a similar experience in 1963, 17 years before he took up his role at HTB. 


Holiness as a Discipleship Goal  – Whitefield

Whitefield began with a similar operant system to Wesley, but had reached crisis point before the older man. He had engaged in such ascetism at the Holy Club in Oxford that it had nearly killed him. Ultimately this caused a seven week illness and spiritual ordeal in lent 1735 that led to his evangelical conversion three years before Wesley. 

He counselled others to ‘aspire after the utmost degrees of inward purity,’[22] and initially shared a language of degrees of holiness. Schwanda helpfully points out Whitefield’s autobiographical claim: ‘’I am a thirst for holiness myself’.[23] Yet he also, with Timothy Smith sees Whitefield backing away from a public emphasis on a holy life after 1741. Maddock puts this down to a growing conviction in Calvinism and ‘reticence to embrace Wesley’s insistence on Christian perfection,’[24] but also footnotes that Jonathan Edwards’ Calvinism did not preclude Edwards from continuing to stress ‘thirsting’ after holiness.[25] Edwards was a key friend and influence to Whitefield since the Englishman’s dramatic preaching tour reached his home on 17 October 1740.  He is also a historic figure still considered ‘normative’ by many in the contemporary Charismatic Church,[26] and for both these reasons may be very helpful in explaining Whitefield’s ongoing attachment to the pursuit of holiness despite wanting to distance himself from some of what seemed excesses in Wesley’s interpretation. Indeed, Edwards’ public stance is likely for that reason to be closer to Whitefield’s personal convictions than Whitefield himself felt he could be.[27] Like Whitefield in Oxford, Edwards had lived a deeply disciplined religious life at Yale. But when he dropped his MA studies in 1722 to preach, he reported that over 18 months: ‘My longing after God and holiness very much increased. Pure and humble, holy and heavenly Christianity appeared exceedingly amiable to me.’[28]

As one of his biographers puts it holiness and God were inseparably linked in Edward’s mind. To experience the one you needed to possess the other. Holiness is not a ‘burdensome duty’ but the ‘beautiful condition of the soul in communion with God.’ As Edwards himself puts it:

‘Holiness… Appeared to me of a sweet, pleasant, charming serene, calm nature; which brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness and ravishing to the soul. In other words, that it made the soul like a field or garden of God, with all manner of pleasant flowers; pleasant, delightful, and undisturbed; enjoying the sweet calm, and the gentle vivifying beams of the sun.… There was nothing that I so earnestly longed for. My heart panted after this – to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and God might be all.’[29]

Jonathan Edwards

 In Murray’s summary Edwards endeavours after holiness were from this awakening onwards ‘no more the self-conscious strivings of the moralist’: rather they are the ‘response of the love to the God who had made him a new creature in Jesus Christ’. Sanctification was now a labour of love ‘flowing from communion with God and fellowship with Christ.’[30]

Whitefield remained as committed to holiness as Edwards, despite his wariness of Wesley’s free use of the term and more controversial ‘Christian perfection’. In his journals he affirms the necessity of holiness.[31]Schwanda quotes a 1763 letter of Whitefield including a personal prayer longing for ‘heart-holiness’, to enable him to ‘ripen for full enjoyment of thyself in heaven’.[32] He also helpfully maps other terminology Whitefield consistently uses, capturing ‘the biblical principle of dying to self and mortification’, when not specifically using the words ‘holiness and sanctification.’[33] For Whitefield then, despite all the controversy surrounding ‘holiness’ after 1741, this inner transformation in converts was a key discipleship goal. 

In the next two posts we look further at the theology that underlies this call to holiness, and try to answer the five key considerations listed above (see image).

[1] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to 1980s. See also Hylson-Smith, K Evangelicals in the Church of England 1734-1984 and Noll, M The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Edwards; also Atherstone, Andrew and John Maiden, eds. Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century: Reform, Resistance and Renewal. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY, USA: Boydell & Brewer, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2021. Hylson-Smith, K Evangelicals in the Church of England 1734-1984 and Noll, M The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Edwards. 

[2] Those voices being John Stott as influenced by EM Nash and Iwerne Camps and John Wimber.

[3] Nicky Gumbel, 1994, 203; cf Anna Stout & Simon Dein (2013) Alpha and evangelical conversion, Journal of Beliefs & Values, 34:2, 256-261, DOI: 10.1080/13617672.2013.808032 which outlines a psychological study of 11 participants in the Alpha course. It sees the core methodology of the course as ‘embodying the Holy Spirit and developing a personal relationship with Christ’, which often deepens pre-existing religious faith by ‘God taking control of their lives and them letting go of personal responsibility.’ Those attending Alpha emphasised ‘experience and relationship over and above Biblical teachings.’ See also Gooren who argues that all researchers of evangelical/charismatic conversion need to recognise the importance of subjective religious experience in the conversion process. Gooren, H. 2010. “Conversion Narratives.” In Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, edited by A. Anderson, M. Bergunder, A. Droogers and C. van der Laan, 93–112. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[4] Wesley, J, Works, Vol 2, pp.490-491

[5] Maddock, 186, see also McEwan chp.6.

[6] See Olson, M for analysis of the soteriology in the sermon and the fourfold emphasis on humility, faith, hope and love. Humility requires a ‘right judgement of ourselves’ as sinful and in need of salvation; faith relates to the need for new birth and deliverance from sin; hope speaks of assurance that enables growth in personal holiness; and love refers to perfect love enabling union ‘with him that made them’. 

[7] Outler, 1964, 251. 

[8] Works 1:104-5

[9] Harper, 1981, 324-335

[10][10] In Maddock, 3… who notes similarly Weeter, 118 and Outler who sees it as ‘hermeneutical principle that Scripture would be his court of first and last resort in faith and morals’ rather than a claim to restrict his reading and influences. 

[11] Weeter, 155

[12] See e.g. Monk, R John Wesley; His Puritan Heritage, 1966; Harrison, E, Son to Susannah, Newton, J, 1968, Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism. 

[13] See Stephen Neill’s description of Laud in Anglicanism, 144, and the debate between Peter White and Tyake for details of Anglican changes. White is quite isolated in seeing Laud as continuing a prevalent tradition, contra Tyake who sees him as a vigorous Armininan initiator. 

[14] Outler, 1964, is critical of those who attempt to make a link, while allowing that Hildebrandt, 1948, From Luther to Wesley, (pp81-91) makes a bold attempt.

[15] Wesley, J Letters, Vol 4, pp.297-300

[16] Cf Rack who notes the chronology in Plain Account is faultyWesley consciously or sub-consciously plays down the influence Law had on him in Plain Account artificially creating a five-year gap between his reading of Law and his sermon Circumcision of the Heart. Elsewhere however, Wesley admits there was ‘some truth in the assertion that Mr Law was [Methodism’s] parent’. Works vii.203, Sermon 107.

[17] De Sales, preface to the introduction, 1. 

[18] See Rack, 102, who remains unconvinced arguing instead that ‘Wesley continues to use Westerners [Fathers] indiscriminately… and absorbed what he fancied from the eclectic sources into a synthesis of his own, regardless of content or pedigree.’ Flew, 142, however makes a convincing case for Clement of Alexandria’s influence. Clement’s ideal does not require retreat from the world like a hermit, but rather for us to be as perfect as the Father wishes us to be. He quotes Alexander Knox ‘to realise in himself the perfect Christian of Clemens Alexandrinus was the object of Wesley’s heart.’ Flew, 138. 

[19] We will see this same tendency in discussion of John Collins in the next chapter. 

[20] See Flew 323 for discussion (contra Curtis) of whether this amounted to Christian Perfection. 

[21] Harper, 262

[22] Gillies ed., Works, 1:339, 345-46, 350, 356

[23] In Maddock [ed.], 187; Gillies,, ed., Works, 1:345, compare Smith, 1986, 122

[24] Op cit. 

[25] Edwards, Religious Affections, 382, 104.

[26] Edwards was extensively cited in the debates surrounding the Toronto Blessing: see particularly the two substantive chapters in Guy Chevreau’s apologetic: Catch the Fire (1994) entitled ‘Expanding our Operative Theologies’, and ‘A Well Trod Path’ pp.33-144, which both seek to link Toronto Blessing to Edwards as a normative theology.

[27] Need a ref___

[28] Edwards, Personal Narrative, 286, see Vaughan, 2000

[29] Edwards, Personal Narrative, 287-288

[30] Murray, 1987, 44

[31] Whitefield, Journals, 576-77

[32] Interestingly in full the prayer is: ‘if not in public usefulness, let it be in heart holiness…’ showing Whitefield’s activist spirit still at work. Schwanda, in Maddocks [ed.] 188, quoting from Gillies ed., Works, 3:293

[33] Ibid.