Over the years, I continue to return to what is my favorite Wesleyan sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God.” Through it, we catch a glimpse of John Wesley’s vibrant and dynamic pneumatology (i.e., doctrine of the Holy Spirit). Many people associate Wesley with holiness; what many may not recognize is that this focus on holiness is very much grounded in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. This sermon may help us see the connections more clearly.
Wesley begins by highlighting the differences between justification and the new birth. Many people simply use these terms interchangeably. Not Wesley. He remarks, “It has been frequently supposed that the being born of God was all one with the being justified. … But though it be allowed that justification and the new birth are, in point of time, inseparable from each other, yet are they easily distinguished as being not the same, but things of a widely different nature.”
Whereas some may want to expansively think of justification so that it is a “master category” to cover all that Christ has done for us, Wesley chooses to delimit it to provide space for equally valid metaphors, which, in this case, would be the new birth. The theme of justification certainly comes through in Paul’s writings, but the theme of the new birth comes through in John’s, which happens to be Wesley’s “canon within the canon.” In short, new birth is an important notion to highlight on its own terms.
What does the differentiation establish? In Wesley’s mind, “Justification implies only a relative, the new birth a real, change. God in justifying us does something for us: in begetting us again he does the work in us.” The language of “relative” here means a change in status and relationship — we are no longer estranged from God once we have been justified. But Wesley’s point here is to highlight a “real” change with the new birth — “real” in the sense that it happens within our hearts; it is definitive; it implies transformation. With “real” change, sinners become saints.
How is this change brought about, and what does it imply? In a beautiful section of the sermon, Wesley elaborates that this change is “wrought in the soul by the operating of the Holy Ghost, [it is] a change in the whole manner of our existence; for from the moment we are ‘born of God’ we live in quite another manner than we did before; we are, as it were, in another world.”
We can draw a couple of conclusions from this remark. First, true change in us — the kind that fundamentally marks us anew as if we were “born again” — is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, we can claim with Paul that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3), but we are speaking of something even deeper and more incisive here. Confession is one thing; being wholly transformed is another, and the work of transformation is properly the work of the Holy Spirit. The change is so profound that Wesley stresses a second point, that it creates a way of life that is of another order. It is as if we were in another world. What could that possibly mean?
Wesley answers that question by promoting a theme that has come up in various mystical and spiritual traditions of Christianity: the spiritual senses. Essentially, Wesley suggests that being in this other world means sensing your way in that world differently and, most importantly, sensing God differently. There are physical senses like the “big five,” but in Wesley’s theology, there are spiritual senses too — ones that are awakened by the Holy Spirit. Wesley talks about people who before they are born of God may not be sensible to God — the presence of God is not easily discernable for them, or God’s voice is hard to hear; their “spiritual eyes” are closed.
But, Wesley contrasts, when a person is of God, that is “born of the Spirit, how is the manner of his existence changed! His whole soul is now sensible of God. … The Spirit or breath of God is immediately inspired, breathed into the new-born soul; and the same breath which comes from, returns to God. As it is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving — love and praise and prayer being the breath of every soul which is truly born of God. And by this new kind of spiritual respiration, spiritual life is not only sustained but increased day by day, together with spiritual strength and motion and sensation; all the senses of the soul being now awake, and capable of ‘discerning’ spiritual ‘good and evil.’”
Spiritual respiration; what a beautiful image! In my estimation, it is a suggestive way of thinking about the holiness of those who are in Christ. It is the way I make sense of Paul’s call for us to “live according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:5 NKJV).
The Holy Spirit gives us life with holy love, goodness and grace. These are further operative when the Spirit changes us from within in a powerful and marvelous way that no manner of talking will do to illustrate it other than to speak of a “new birth.” As a result, we are awakened to be more conformable and sensible to God. There is a joining or coming together here that stresses conformity, amenability and likeness. As a result, we re-breathe that Spirit back to God with that same holy love, goodness and grace that are now registered significantly in our lives by that very Spirit. It is an image of “coming home,” so to speak — creation being recreated so to live as one with its Source and End. This truly is the rendering of worship to Jehovah in holy splendor (see Psalm 96:9). Can you imagine this vision? Can you sense it?
Daniel Castelo, Ph.D., is a Free Methodist elder and the professor of dogmatic and constructive theology at Seattle Pacific University. He has written multiple books, and his research and writing include a focus on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.