John Wesley on the Love of God Shed Abroad in Our Hearts
As John Wesley translates it, Romans 5:5 reads “And hope shameth us not, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.”¹ This verse describes a distinctive Christian experience, which I will call the Romans 5:5 experience.² This experience plays a crucial role in Wesley’s preaching.³ Several aspects of this experience require clarification. First, Wesley’s earliest understanding of the Romans 5:5 experience differs from his subsequent understanding. Second, the experience is distinct from the faith by which we receive it. Third, this experience is foremost an experience of God’s love for the sinner, rather than the sinner’s subsequent love for God and neighbour. Fourth, this experience of God’s love is a transformative gift — it produces love for God and others. Fifth, this experience also produces hatred toward sin and gratitude toward God. Sixth, this experience of God’s love is the engine of our sanctification. On my analysis, Wesley understands the Romans 5:5 experience as the transformative experience of God’s love for the sinner, received by faith, which transforms people to love God and others via divine empowerment and gratitude toward God in an ongoing cycle of divine-human reciprocity.⁴
A Developing Understanding
In his pre-Aldersgate 1736 sermon “On Love”, Wesley interprets 1 Corinthians 13 in light of the Romans 5:5 experience. Wesley identifies the love without which all else is futile as the very same love described in Romans 5:5. It is “the love of God, and the love of all mankind, ‘shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Ghost given unto me’.”⁵ This love is “an ardent and uninterrupted thirst after the happiness of all his fellow-creatures.”⁶ Those who have this love reorient all their activities toward this one end. “Deceive not, therefore, your own souls: He who is not thus kind, hath not love.”⁷ Furthermore, “if we are not renewed in the spirit of our mind, by ‘the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us,’ we cannot enter into life eternal.”⁸
Wesley’s 1785 sermon “On Charity” also relates 1 Corinthians 13 to Romans 5:5. However, it does so in a more nuanced manner. In this later sermon Wesley maintains that the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is “the love of our neighbour.”⁹ However, “it must be allowed to be such a love of our neighbour, as can only spring from the love of God.”¹⁰ The Romans 5:5 experience concerns this love of God rather than the love of neighbour. However, when a person experiences this love of God it “sweetly constrains him to love every child of man with the love which is here spoken of,” namely, “tender good-will to all the souls that God has made.”¹¹ Furthermore, we ought not to confuse the Romans 5:5 experience with the faith that receives it. Rather, it strictly follows “that faith which is the operation of God . . . then, and not till then, ‘the love of God is shed abroad in his heart.’”¹²
These two sermons reveal a development in Wesley’s understanding of the Romans 5:5 experience.¹³ An experience once seen as fruit becomes the source of fruit. That which proves faith follows upon faith.
Faith and Experience
In a 1760 letter Wesley vehemently rejects the notion of faith shed abroad in the heart. “Faith shed abroad in men’s hearts! I never used such an expression in my life: I do not talk after this rate.”¹⁴ We must therefore distinguish the Romans 5:5 experience from faith.¹⁵ How then are they related? In a 1738 letter, just weeks prior to his Aldersgate conversion, Wesley relates faith to the Romans 5:5 experience as its precondition. He writes that “living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus” is that which “gives us to have . . . ‘the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost’ which dwelleth in us, and ‘the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.’”¹⁶ Like all other gifts from God, we receive the love of God shed abroad in our hearts through faith.
In his 1741 sermon “The Almost Christian”, Wesley describes the Christian experience as one of peace with God through justification as a gift, accompanied by “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us.”¹⁷ The Romans 5:5 experience is a gift that must be received through faith.¹⁸ In his 1741 sermon “True Christianity” Wesley argues that the Romans 5:5 experience, like salvation, cannot be obtained by working but must be received as a gift in faith. Indeed, those who commend working for salvation “cut us off from receiving that faith freely, whereby alone the love of God could have been shed abroad in our hearts.”¹⁹ The Romans 5:5 experience is therefore central to a genuine Christian experience and is received in the same manner as justification — by faith as a gift.
Even so this experience is distinct from conversion. A few months following Wesley’s Aldersgate conversion, he admits in a letter to his brother Samuel that he had not yet experienced the love of God shed abroad in his heart. He expected this experience to produce “joy in the Holy Ghost, ‘joy which no man taketh away, joy unspeakable and full of glory,’ — this witness of the Spirit I have not; but I patiently wait for it.”²⁰ Wesley treats it like something that could occur in the moment, testifying that “I know many who have already received it — more than one or two in the very hour we were praying for it.”²¹
How could the early Wesley regard the Romans 5:5 experience as necessary for salvation (see his 1736 sermon “On Love”), lack that experience, yet also regard himself as justified before God in the months following his Aldersgate conversion? In this same 1738 post-Aldersgate letter Wesley explains that such is the state of “Christians in that imperfect sense wherein I may call myself such.”²² Such as these ought to pray for the Romans 5:5 experience. Indeed, Wesley prays in this letter that his brother “and all who are near of kin to you (if you have it not already) feel His love shed abroad in your heart by his Spirit which dwelleth in you.”²³ In his own life, therefore, Wesley distinguished the Romans 5:5 experience (interpreted as an event) from conversion.²⁴
God’s Love Experienced
In Wesley’s preaching (from his 1736 sermon “On Love” onward), the Romans 5:5 experience proves a Christian genuine despite being distinct from conversion. Specifically, this experience assures the Christian of their filial relation to God as a revelation of God’s love for God’s child. It is an experience of God’s love for oneself rather than of one’s love for God.
In his 1744 sermon “Scriptural Christianity”, Wesley describes “the very essence of faith” as the evidence or conviction “of the love of God the Father, through the Son of his love, to him a sinner, now accepted in the Beloved.”²⁵ Faith is knowing God’s love for oneself as a sinner. The Romans 5:5 experience conveys this knowledge to God’s children, knowledge that they are loved as children of God.²⁶ Wesley interprets it alongside Galatians 4:6, “because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” He writes in his notes on this passage that the Spirit enables those who are children of God “to call upon God with both the confidence, and the tempers, of dutiful children.”²⁷ Wesley also connects Romans 5:5 to 1 John 5:10, “He that believeth on the Son of God, hath the testimony in himself.” In his notes on this passage he describes this testimony as the “dear evidence of this, in himself.”²⁸
Wesley therefore interprets the Romans 5:5 experience, alongside Galatians 4:6 and 1 John 5:10, as evidence of one’s filial standing.²⁹ This evidence does not render apostasy impossible.³⁰ Indeed, Wesley reads the Romans 5:5 experience into the Hebrew 6:4–5 warning passage, alongside being “once enlightened”, having “tasted of the heavenly gift”, and being “made partakers of the Holy Ghost.”³¹ The love of God shed abroad in one’s heart conveys the power (as love) needed to persevere, so long as one remains in that love.
Wesley acknowledges that this experience varies. Indeed, since the Romans 5:5 experience attests to our peace with God, Satan encourages dissatisfaction so as to poison this experience. In his 1739 sermon “Satan’s Devices”, Wesley warns that some neglect the gift of God’s love shed abroad in their hearts because they await a greater measure of that gift. “We may so expect perfect love, as not to use that which is already shed abroad in our hearts. . . . In expectation of having five talents more, they buried their one talent in the earth.”³² One wonders if Wesley speaks from personal experience, having himself expected a decisive outpouring of God’s love within his heart in the months following his conversion.³³
In his later 1760 sermon “Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations”, Wesley describes a “joy unspeakable” that remains amidst trials. “In the midst of their heaviness they likewise still enjoyed the love of God, which had been shed abroad in their hearts; — ‘whom,’ says the Apostle, ‘having not seen, ye love.’”³⁴ The varied nature of the Romans 5:5 experience suggests that Wesley adjusts his prior understanding of the experience as a decisive joyful event. While praying for a greater measure, the child of God ought not to bury their talent. The experience of God’s love for oneself as God’s child is too precious to squander.
The Transformative Gift
The Romans 5:5 experience of God’s love for oneself as God’s child is a transformative gift — a gift which may be squandered. In his 1746 sermon “The Way to the Kingdom” Wesley writes, “Thou lovest him, because he first loved us. And because thou lovest God, thou lovest thy brother also.”³⁵ This logic explains the Romans 5:5 experience. It is our experience of God’s love for us that produces in us love for God and others.
In his 1746 sermon “Justification by Faith”, Wesley links the Romans 5:5 experience to the gospel image of the tree and its fruit. Of the sinner, he writes, “his heart is necessarily, essentially evil, till the love of God is shed abroad therein. And while the tree is corrupt, so are the fruits; ‘for an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit.’”³⁶ Prior to the Romans 5:5 experience there can be no good fruit as the tree is corrupt.
Like fruit to a tree, godliness is inevitable for those who receive the power of God. In “True Christianity” Wesley writes, “For though the form may be without the power, yet the power cannot be without the form.”³⁷ The power in question involves the Romans 5:5 experience.³⁸ This experience bears the fruit of love for God and others. Lack of fruit proves a lack of power. This is why Wesley warns against presuming one is a Christian apart from the Romans 5:5 experience. Those who do so “rest content in the form of godliness, without the power.”³⁹
In his 1748 sermon “The Marks of New Birth” Wesley describes the love received through the Romans 5:5 experience as the greatest mark of “those who are born of God.”⁴⁰ After relating the Romans 5:5 experience to assurance of sonship (in keeping with Galatians 4:6 and 1 John 5:15), Wesley argues that this experience produces our desire to obey God. “The desire of their soul is toward him; it is their ‘meat and drink to do his will.’”⁴¹
Wesley rejects equating love for God with keeping the outward commandments. “To mention so wild an interpretation of the Apostle’s words [in 1 John 5:3], is sufficiently to confute it.”⁴² Instead, Wesley interprets obedience as the “sign or proof” of our love for God.⁴³ “For true love, if it be once shed abroad in our heart, will constrain us to do so; since whoever loves God with all his heart, cannot but serve him with all his strength.”⁴⁴ The Romans 5:5 experience provokes love for God, who first loved us. This love for God constrains us to obey God. Our obedience is therefore a sign of our love rather than a substitute for that love.
Affections Reordered by Gratitude
Christian holiness consists in love for God and hatred toward sin.⁴⁵ Each of these follow from knowledge of God’s love for oneself as God’s child. Concerning hatred toward sin, Wesley describes in a 1758 letter how the love of God opposes the love of the world. The children of God have “the love of God shed abroad in their heart, overcoming the love of the world; and they have abiding power over all sin, even that which did easily beset them.”⁴⁶ Indeed, in his 1763 sermon “On Sin in Believers”, the “state of a justified person” inevitably includes the Romans 5:5 experience and “power over both outward and inward sin, even from the moment he is justified.”⁴⁷ The love of God for the sinner displaces their love of sin, defeating its power in their lives.⁴⁸ It quenches the sinner’s affection for sin.
So powerful is this shift in affections, Wesley writes in his 1767 sermon “The Repentance of Believers”, that “when the love of God is first shed abroad in our hearts . . . it is natural to suppose that we are no longer sinners.”⁴⁹ Caution is needed since sin “does not reign, but it does remain.”⁵⁰ Indeed, in his 1781 sermon “On Zeal, Wesley admits that “some degree of pride may remain after the love of God is shed abroad in the heart; as this is one of the last evils that is rooted out, when God creates all things new.”⁵¹ Contrary to triumphalist interpretations, however, the Romans 5:5 experience yields greater awareness of sin. In his 1748 sermon “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God”, Wesley relates the Romans 5:5 experience to spiritual birth. New knowledge comes with new birth and progresses with growth. New birth involves the “spiritual senses being now awakened,” “clear intercourse with the invisible world”, and “the veil being removed.”⁵² Wesley teaches that this awakening transforms one’s posture toward sin in his 1760 sermon “The New Birth”. The child of God “feels ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto him;’ and all his spiritual senses are then exercised to discern spiritual good and evil.”⁵³ Knowledge of sin follows upon knowledge of God’s love for the sinner.
The Romans 5:5 experience reveals God’s favour to God’s children, which they receive by faith with gratitude. In his 1789 sermon “The Unity of the Divine Being” Wesley writes, “Gratitude towards our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow creatures.”⁵⁴ Our gratitude produces love for God and others. Gratitude, grounded in the Romans 5:5 experience, empowers all sanctification from sin toward God. In this way the love of God constrains us. As Wesley writes in his 1788 sermon “On God’s Vineyard”, “He that finds the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto him; and whom this love sweetly constrains to love his neighbor, every man, as himself.”⁵⁵
Sanctified by Love
The Romans 5:5 experience is the engine of sanctification. In his 1765 sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” Wesley declares that, “at the same time that we are justified, yea, in that very moment, sanctification begins.”⁵⁶ The Roman’s 5:5 experience produces, “love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God; expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honour, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will, and every other evil temper.”⁵⁷ Our experience of God’s love for us, changes “the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, into ‘the mind which was in Christ Jesus.’”⁵⁸ God’s love for us produces our love for others and expels our former love for sin.
In his 1773 sermon “On Predestination” Wesley confirms that the Romans 5:5 experience is the “principle” from which “springs real, disinterested benevolence to all mankind; making him humble, meek, gentle to all men, easy to be entreated.”⁵⁹ In this sermon Wesley relates God’s love for us to our transformation with decisive clarity, confirming much of our analysis thus far:
And it was by this very means they were all sanctified. It was by a sense of the love of God shed abroad in his heart, that everyone of them was enabled to love God. Loving God, he loved his neighbor as himself, and had power to walk in all his commandments blameless. This is a rule which admits of no exception. God calls a sinner his own, that is, justifies him, before he sanctifies. And by this very thing, the consciousness of his favour, he works in him that grateful, filial affection, from which spring every good temper, and word, and work.⁶⁰
The Romans 5:5 experience, as the revelation to the sinner of God’s love for the sinner, initiates a crucial ongoing reciprocity between God and the sinner.
God is continually breathing, as it were, upon the soul; and his soul is breathing unto God. Grace is descending into his heart; and prayer and praise ascending to heaven: And by this intercourse between God and man, this fellowship with the Father and the Son, as by a kind of spiritual respiration, the life of God in the soul is sustained; and the child of God grows up, till he comes to the “full measure of the stature of Christ.”⁶¹
Apart from this ongoing reciprocity, initiated by the Romans 5:5 experience of God’s love, the child of God will not stand against sin and self-destruction.⁶²
Wesley describes the love of God shed abroad in our hearts as a heavenly treasure in an earthen vessel.⁶³ This treasure produces our lasting happiness.⁶⁴ Indeed, “then, and not till then, we are happy.”⁶⁵ This experiential treasure underwrites Christian knowledge of God, distinguishing it from rational approaches to the same. In his 1784 sermon “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered”, Wesley contrasts experiential and rational knowledge of God’s love. Unlike the Romans 5:5 experience, reason can merely “present us with fair ideas; it can draw a fine picture of love: But this is only a painted fire.”⁶⁶ We receive this treasure as a gift. Wesley’s own efforts to discover the love of God apart from the Romans 5:5 experience confirm this. “I was like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision: ‘The skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them.’”⁶⁷
To conclude, Wesley’s use of Romans 5:5 in his preaching, letters, and notes reveal that he understands the love of God shed abroad in one’s heart as a transformative gift. It is the gift of experiencing God’s love for oneself. This gift is received by faith as evidence of one’s justified filial relation to God. This gift is the source of our love for God and others as we respond to God’s love with gratitude. It transforms our posture toward sin from love to hatred as God’s love displaces our love of the world. Finally, this experience of God’s love initiates an ongoing cycle of divine-human reciprocity where the child of God remains secure in their dependence upon God’s love for them.
- Unless indicated otherwise, all scripture quotations are taken from John Wesley’s translation: John Wesley, trans., The New Testament — John Wesley’s Translation (Wesley Center Online, 1998), http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-new-testament-john-wesleys-translation/.
- In his notes on this passage, in Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, ed. Andrew Hanson (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes, Wesley writes, “Hope shameth us not — That is, gives us the highest glorying. We glory in this our hope, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts — The divine conviction of God’s love to us, and that love to God which is both the earnest and the beginning of heaven. By the Holy Ghost — The efficient cause of all these present blessings, and the earnest of those to come.”
- Indeed, an electronic search for the phrase “shed abroad” reveals forty-eight instances in his Sermons on Several Occasions. There are additional instances in his journal and letters.
- Stanley Johnson suggests that Wesley’s “concept of love for God has not received adequate treatment” in discussions of his teaching on Christian perfection. “Christian Perfection as Love for God,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 18, no. 1 (1983): 50.
- John Wesley, “On Love,” in Sermons on Several Occasions, ed. Emmalon Davis (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), sec. I, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/sermons.html.
- Ibid., sec. II.
- Ibid., sec. III.
- John Wesley, “On Charity,” in Sermons, sec. I.2.
- Winfield Bevins argues that “it was not until after Aldersgate that [Wesley] began to develop a distinct pneumatology.” “The Historical Development of Wesley’s Doctrine of the Spirit,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 41, no. 2 (2006): 161.
- John Wesley, “To the Editor of ‘Lloyd’s Evening Post’ (November 22, 1760),” in The Letters of John Wesley, ed. John Telford (Wesley Center Online, 1998), http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/.
- As Stanley Johnson writes, “Wesley does not collapse love into faith.” “Christian Perfection as Love for God,” 53.
- John Wesley, “To William Law (May 14, 1738),” in Letters
- John Wesley, “The Almost Christian,” in Sermons, sec. II.11.
- Laurence Wood argues that for Wesley, “subjective experience is an experience of something which comes to one from ‘the outside’ and not something derived subjectively from ‘the inside’ (as in transcendental idealism).” This is consistent with this experience being a gift rather than achievement. “Wesley’s Epistemology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 10 (1975): 55.
- John Wesley, “True Christianity,” in Sermons, sec. I.10.
- John Wesley, “To His Brother Samuel (October 30, 1738),” in Letters
- Laurence Wood argues that Wesley would subsequently teach that “the witness of the Spirit and justification were not necessarily linked.” One could be justified without the witness. “The Origin, Development, and Consistency of John Wesley’s Theology of Holiness,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 43, no. 2 (2008): 40.
- John Wesley, “Scriptural Christianity,” in Sermons, sec. I.2.
- Donald Thorsen argues that Wesley calls for “the explicit inclusion of experience as a religious authority” in “Holiness in Postmodern Culture,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 43, no. 2 (2008): 126; Thomas Jay Oord claims that “Wesley remained an empiricist in that he argued that knowledge is gained through perception” in “A Postmodern Wesleyan Philosophy and David Ray Griffin’s Postmodern Vision,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 35, no. 1 (2000): 236.
- John Wesley, Notes, Gal 4:6.
- Ibid., 1 John 5:10.
- Mark Noll distinguishes Wesley’s notion of assurance from Calvinist notions of assurance. Wesley means by assurance “the Christian’s certainty that he is right now a child of God,” rather than assurance that one will not or cannot ever fall. “John Wesley and the Doctrine of Assurance,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132, no. 526 (1975): 176.
- They are “saved from the fear, though not from the possibility, of falling away from the grace of God, and coming short of the great and precious promises.” John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” in Sermons, sec. II.4.
- John Wesley, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon On The Mount: Discourse Four,” in Sermons, sec. I.9.
- John Wesley, “Satan’s Devices,” in Sermons, sec. I.11.
- As discussed in Wesley, “To His Brother Samuel (October 30, 1738).”
- John Wesley, “Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations,” in Sermons, sec. I.1.
- John Wesley, “The Way to the Kingdom,” in Sermons, sec. II.12.
- John Wesley, “Justification by Faith,” in Sermons, sec. III.4.
- Wesley, “True Christianity,” sec. II.2; “This insistence on the perceptibility of the fruits of faith distinguishes Wesley’s thought from that of the mystics.” Frederick Dreyer, “Faith and Experience in the Thought of John Wesley,” The American Historical Review 88, no. 1 (1983): 17.
- Wesley, “True Christianity,” in Sermons, sec. II.14.
- John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” in Sermons, sec. II.5.
- John Wesley, “The Marks of the New Birth,” in Sermons, sec. III.1.
- Ibid., sec. III.4.
- Donald Thorsen suggests that Wesley calls for orthoaffectus (right affection) in addition to orthodoxy and orthopraxy in “Holiness in Postmodern Culture,” 128; See also Johnson, “Christian Perfection as Love for God,” 57–58.
- John Wesley, “To Francis Okeley (October 4, 1758),” in Letters
- John Wesley, “On Sin in Believers,” in Sermons, sec. II.4.
- As Stanley Johnson writes, “Love for God is the principal dynamic which as a fire burns up the dross of sin.” Johnson, “Christian Perfection as Love for God,” 55.
- John Wesley, “The Repentance of Believers,” in Sermons, sec. I.2.
- John Wesley, “On Zeal,” in Sermons, sec. III.2.
- John Wesley, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” in Sermons, sec. I.10; See also Thomas Jay Oord, who writes “Wesley postulated that God has given humans a spiritual sense so that they may perceive spiritual realities not available through (natural) sensory perception.” “A Postmodern Wesleyan Philosophy,” 233.
- John Wesley, “The New Birth,” in Sermons, sec. II.4.
- John Wesley, “The Unity of the Divine Being,” in Sermons, sec. 17.
- John Wesley, “On God’s Vineyard,” in Sermons, sec. I.9.
- John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” in Sermons, sec. I.4.
- Wesley, “The Unity of the Divine Being,” sec. 22.
- John Wesley, “On Predestination,” in Sermons, sec. 12, emphasis added.
- Wesley, “The New Birth,” sec. II.4; As Stanley Johnson writes, “The descent of God’s love to human selves makes possible the ascent of human love for God.” “Christian Perfection as Love for God,” 52.
- As Stanley Johnson writes, “The fire of love returns to its primal source in God.” “Christian Perfection as Love for God,” 58.
- John Wesley, “The Heavenly Treasure in Earthen Vessels,” in Sermons, sec. I.3.
- Jerry L. Mercer argues that for Wesley, “the goal of Christian experience is happiness — happiness manifested as inward joy, peace of mind, contentment with life, love of all people, and hope of eternal life.” “Toward a Wesleyan Understanding of Christian Experience,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 20, no. 1 (1985): 80–81.
- Wesley, “The Unity of the Divine Being,” sec. 17.
- John Wesley, “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” in Sermons, sec. II.8.