After John Wesley’s “Aldersgate experience,” the spiritually recharged Anglican churchman became much more open to the notion of supernatural expressions of the Holy Spirit than were many of his contemporaries. He refused to reject the emotionalism exhibited by many of his converts as well as that of the “French prophets,” the most radical French Protestant immigrants. He even acknowledged that trances, healings, miracles, and other extraordinary events might occur in the lives of believers (though he later said such signs were not in themselves necessarily an indication of the Holy Spirit at work).

Fellow evangelist George Whitefield complained increasingly of this tendency in Wesley’s thought. While he did not discredit emotion as a legitimate expression of what they both called “living” faith, he felt it was not the primary focus of the Spirit’s work.

Wesley and Whitefield differed in much the way contemporary Christians do over the question of power and the Holy Spirit. For although Christians through the ages have generally agreed that the Holy Spirit offers “power” to the believer, differences over describing the nature of that power have led to the development of separate schools of thought. Today’s opposing camps of charismatic pentecostalism and fundamentalist dispensationalism are merely two features of a landscape inhabited by a number of finely nuanced interpretations of the kind of power made available by the Holy Spirit.

Who Will Receive Power?

Discussions of the Holy Spirit’s power must begin with the feast of Pentecost, where, as Jesus had prophesied, the disciples received power after the Holy Spirit had fallen upon them. When Peter preached to Gentiles gathered at the home of Cornelius, wrote Luke, the apostle heard the members of Cornelius’s household “speaking in tongues and extolling God.” He reported that the Spirit “fell on them just as on us at the beginning.” Paul, who was not present at Pentecost, had his own personal manifestation of the Holy Spirit after the disciple Ananias laid hands on him and restored his sight. This experience, along with the Damascus Road vision of Jesus as God’s divine Son, gave him a sense of forgiveness of sins, a hunger for inward purity, and love for both God and human beings.

Both Paul and Peter thereafter made various references to the “gifts of the Spirit,” including healing and the ability to speak a human language that they had not known before. Paul added the gifts of prophecy, discernment, faith, knowledge, and administrative ability. Some think that 1 Corinthians 14 provides evidence that Paul also believed some of his converts spoke with an ecstatic prayer language.

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In any case, Paul, Peter, and the author of the letters attributed to John made such “gifts” secondary to the Holy Spirit’s work in cleansing the heart and perfecting it in love. And the first generations of Christians followed this apostolic lead by making the recognition of any particular gift dependent on the Christian’s experience of the fullness of love.

What, then, ought we to mean when we refer to the Holy Spirit’s power? Jesus greatly enriched the content of this idea he had inherited from the prophets. The Hebrew Scriptures record many manifestations of God’s power. Indeed, John the Baptist’s phrase, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” summarized a great promise—that the Holy Spirit was about to bring humankind the power to make God’s rule on earth a moral reality. The Spirit would empower believers to overcome their sinful nature and demonstrate the kingdom attributes, such as righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

For this reason, all Christians believe that the “power of God” was evident in the lives of such people as Francis of Assisi and David Brainerd, and is today revealed in the piety of Mother Teresa and others who subjugate themselves to the highest biblical standards of devotion and service. The validity of their Christian experience is apparent, because we equate spiritual with moral power.

Conversely, we are wary, as were Luther and Calvin, of those who seem to substitute mere human emotion for the Holy Spirit’s work in transforming the moral natures of men and women. In the early church, opponents attributed the “heresy” of Montanus to a preoccupation with miraculous gifts. But 1,500 years later, Wesley concluded that the chorus of disapproval confronting Montanus may have stemmed from the effort of “rich and honourable Christians, who will always have numbers as well as power on their side,” to ridicule the real faith of “one of the holiest men of the second century.” Wesley believed it likely that Montanus made obedience to divine law and love for God and humankind central, but put stronger emphasis than others did upon manifestations of power that seemed to flow from being filled with the Spirit.

Indeed, the Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists thought that Luther and Calvin placed too much emphasis on the inward aspect of faith and too little on outward obedience to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Accordingly, the Mennonite heirs of the Anabaptists have emphasized throughout their history the suffering that obeying Jesus’ injunction to follow him often brought.

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Likewise, in both old and New England, Puritans declared that the power of the Holy Spirit was manifested in the experience of regeneration and in the Christian’s subsequent pursuit of holiness. The revival of the emphasis on sanctification by their modern followers, thanks to evangelical scholars such as Richard Lovelace, seems a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Wesley taught his own preachers that the Spirit would, in answer to prayer, bring each person the “prevenient grace” that enables fallen human beings to receive and believe God’s promises of regenerating and sanctifying faith. Methodists taught that this grace would release seekers from the notion of predestination and convince them that freedom of the human will was not a natural inheritance but a gift of God’s Spirit. Wesley thought the early Moravian pietists agreed with him, although they were not, in his view, clear enough on the necessity of complete obedience or on the extent of the perfection in love that should flow from the work of the Spirit.

Certainly American Puritans of Jonathan Edwards’s era—that is, of Wesley’s time—allowed no substitution of miraculous “gifts” and manifestations of great “spiritual power” for loyal obedience to the commands of Christ. Here the Puritans and Wesley agreed more closely than modern theological arguments between so-called Arminians and Reformed Evangelicals would lead us to believe. Both Wesley and the Puritans thought George Fox’s “Quakers,” as they were derisively called, were far too much given to emotionalism; and they believed Fox’s Society of Friends relied insufficiently on Scripture to restrain demonstrations of what they called the Holy Spirit’s power.

Religion Of The Heart

In the revivals that swept America during the nineteenth century, Charles G. Finney moved slowly over to the Methodist doctrine of entire sanctification. But from the very first, Finney emphasized that the “religion of the heart” was manifest in love and purity rather than emotional signs. Repeatedly he called for that change in the will, which he thought was the true manifestation of the Spirit’s power.

So with later evangelicals during the nineteenth century. The preaching of the Keswick “higher life” evangelists, such as R. A. Torrey, as well as that of the holiness movement, which flourished among American Methodists and some Friends, Congregationalists, Baptists, and German-speaking members of the Evangelical and United Brethren denominations, agreed with Wesley. Like the Puritans and Finney, they thought obedience and love were both the real and realistic signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

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In the twentieth century, however, a widespread popular revival has grown steadily, which emphasizes precisely those “gifts” that Wesley and Whitefield thought were secondary. Yet this emphasis on “signs and wonders” has ancient Christian roots, a fact that should not be forgotten. It gives expression to the widespread feeling that when God is at work, sensational things will happen: healings, miracles of various sorts, incredibly rapid conversions, prophetical insight into the future, and the removal of barriers of language that many Christians believe have divided humankind since the Tower of Babel.

The openness of Roman Catholic faith to the miraculous during recent centuries has done much to reinforce this common view that one can expect sensational miracles from God. Especially evident in both America and Europe is the popularity of shrines such as that of Our Lady of Lourdes, in France (where thousands have claimed healing, though the church has only certified about one hundred), Saint Anne de Beaupre, in Canada, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Italian Harlem. There and elsewhere, sacred relics alleged to be descended from Jesus and the apostles seemed to believers to help them have faith for healing. In addition, Catholics frequently called on various persons their church had elevated to sainthood to intercede with the Holy Trinity for such temporal favors as health, personal safety, and individual success. The reporting of alleged answers to these prayers helped to inspire widespread belief that faith in God’s Spirit was a key to power in human affairs as well as divine ones.

The theological upheaval of the Protestant Reformation polarized Protestants and Catholics on miracles, as on many issues. Catholics had traditionally looked to miracles to authenticate the ministry and teaching of the church. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621) taunted his Protestant opponents: If they taught the truth, he asked, where indeed were their miracles?

Perhaps in reaction to this challenge, Protestant theology developed in a different direction, saying that while miracles could happen and the way of prayer was always open, the magisterial power to work miracles had been withdrawn after the Apostolic Age. The sacraments, not miracles, were now the seals of the Word.

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In our own time, the Pentecostal revival and the charismatic renewal movement have become major forces in Christendom. Thanks to those influences and increased contact with Third World Christians, there has been a renewed expectation among many believers that the Spirit will authenticate both their personal experience and their corporate evangelism with extraordinary happenings and spiritual manifestations. Old tensions have been reborn between those who emphasize power for holy living and those who focus on the extraordinary and emotional. Historians must now watch and listen before writing the rest of the story.

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