One of the distinctive doctrines of Methodism is assurance of salvation – that believers in Christ can, and, in fact, should know without a doubt that they are pardoned and accepted by God. A. Skevington Wood, in his biography of John Wesley, The Burning Heart -John Wesley: Evangelist, cites Principal H.B. Workman’s claim that the doctrine of assurance “was the fundamental contribution of Methodism to the life and thought of the Church.” It was not a new doctrine, only one resurrected from obscurity by John Wesley when he realized after his Aldersgate experience of regeneration that assurance was what had been missing in his faith life. Wood says, “Wesley and his followers have always maintained that every penitent and believing soul may possess, and ought to possess, an assurance of salvation.” It is a privilege, he says, of every true believer.
This doctrine is actually a prominent teaching of the Puritans, whose theology permeated Wesley’s family’s theological lineage. He would have heard it growing up, without a doubt. His own father’s deathbed advice to him was, “The inward witness, son, the inward witness; that is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.” Also, Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers strongly asserted that every true believer is conscious of his own acceptance with God.
Wesley wrote about the Holy Spirit’s role in illuminating our human spirit, clearly showing us what He has brought about in our lives. “He was firm in his conviction that those who are indeed the children of God will not be left in doubt by the Holy Spirit,” says Wood, adding that Wesley made this the criterion by which the genuine Christian can be distinguished from the nominal (in name only). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God..” (1 Corinthians 2:12). Wood says that “….the Spirit graciously declares Himself.” Charles Wesley wrote in one of his hymns that the inward witness of the Holy Spirit is “strong, and permanent, and clear.”
Can we call ourselves “Christian” if we lack this assurance of salvation? Are we merely wanna-be’s without it, deluded into thinking that we will be in heaven but actually headed for hell? I myself did not know it until I was 38, although I’d been baptized as a 12 year old and had attended church nearly all my life. John Wesley didn’t know it until he was 35, even though he’d been baptized at the age of 8 and ordained a priest in the Anglican church at age 25. He discovered that it was this that was missing in his life through the power of the Holy Spirit, and exhorted others to seek “so clear a perception that Christ abideth in me, as utterly excludes all doubt and fear…” It is this assurance of salvation, he said, that ushers us into the love, joy, peace, and the rest of the whole fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22)
The Apostle John differentiates between “children, young men, and fathers in Christ” (1 John 2:12-14), suggesting degrees of assurance, into which we may grow. Wesley distinguised between a “clear” and “full assurance”, likening the first to the light of morning and the latter to the light of the midday sun.