John Wesley’s sermon “The Witness of the Spirit” is a head-scratcher.
In it, he is trying to chart a middle course between two extremes. On one hand are those who mistake their own ideas and reveries for the Holy Spirit speaking to them. On the other are those — in part in reaction to the first group — who deny the Holy Spirit speaks to us at all. Wesley says his purpose in the sermon is to teach us how to avoid the mistakes of the first group without rejecting the gift of God like the second group.
My problem with this sermon is not that I cannot follow Wesley’s point. I have read him enough that I often forget that his manner of writing is not always easy for 21st century readers to follow. No, my problem with the sermon is that I do not feel the heat at the core of it.
The entire sermon reads as if Wesley is drawing careful distinctions and is aware of risks and dangers of a rash argument. He navigates shoals and reefs that I do not see, but by watching his movements know are there.
But in our day in the United Methodist Church I cannot find the these dangerous waters. I am not aware of any argument within United Methodism or between the UMC and some other branch of the Christian faith that sounds like the issue that so concerned Wesley in this sermon.
Perhaps this is a sign that our church has wrecked on the reef that Wesley calls the natural mind. We no longer argue about what it means to say the Spirit witnesses to our spirit because we have become the very people Wesley was trying to guard against. We have given up the gift of God that he was contending for.
Here is what he said the Spirit tells us:
The testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.
Wesley argued that we cannot love God until the Spirit impresses this upon our spirit. This is, in fact, the very foundation of faith and holiness. And it is a work of the Holy Spirit, not some assertion on our part or decision for Christ that we make. Rather, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
I cannot recall hearing such things being discussed by United Methodists. Have you?