An interesting extract from John Wesley’s journal dated March 25, 1739:
I baptized John Smith (late an Anabaptist) and four other adults at Islington. Of the adults I have known baptized lately, one only was at that time born again, in the full sense of the word; that is, found a thorough, inward change, by the love of God filling her heart. Most of them were only born again in a lower sense; that is, received the remission of their sins. And some (as it has too plainly appeared) neither in one sense nor the other.
I cannot tell from Wesley’s words here how he interprets his own report. Is this a sign of failure? Is it a defense of infant baptism, noting that adult converts by and large do not show any more signs of total reformation of life than babies? Is it something else? I’m not sure, but I do find the facts of the case interesting. As often is the case with Wesley, I find his categories interesting as well.
We see here at least three different states of the soul.
Born again in a lower sense — in which the sinner receives and is aware of a formal and positive forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.
Born again in the full sense — in which, added to the above, the sinner experiences a profound inward transformaion and a filling of the heart with the love of God.
The original state — in which we receive neither of the above even if we do the outward duties and rituals of the church.
It is notable that Wesley’s experience is that only a tiny subset of converts experience full rebirth at the moment of their baptism or conversion. For most, that is something that comes later. This would, of course, comport with Wesley’s own experience. Indeed, it is very likely that he would say he experienced neither the lower nor fuller sense of rebirth until his encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate in his mid-30s.
I don’t know if these ways of talking about the state of our soul need “translating” to make sense to people today. I am sure, however, that most of the people in our churches are not accustomed to thinking in such ways about their own spiritual life. I am also constantly struck by how little people in our churches can articulate their own spiritual experience. They lack the language, the categories, and the experience to talk in any concrete ways about “how is it with your soul?” I think one service Wesley and his preachers provided Christians in his day was to give them language and practice in talking about these important matters.
We could certainly do worse than provide our people the same thing.