By Hal Knight
The day of Pentecost is sometimes celebrated as the “birthday of the church.” This not wrong but it is far too limited. Pentecost is first and foremost about the coming of the Holy Spirit. We can better grasp the meaning of Pentecost when we compare it to Christmas. At Christmas we celebrate Son of God’s coming to live among us. We read in the gospels how Jesus touched the lives of all around him, and how he died and rose again. This all happened in a few decades over 2,000 years ago in Palestine. Jesus was indeed Emmanuel, “God with us.” But as a human like us, God’s presence was limited in space and time.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit the presence of God is extended to all persons, in all places and throughout all of history. We do not have to have lived in Palestine in the first century to personally encounter the reality of God, for the Holy Spirit is reaching out to everyone. The same love that we see in Jesus is touching lives today through the Spirit.
John Wesley emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit to an unprecedented degree. While there are many things we can say about the work of the Holy Spirit in Wesley’s theology, I want to highlight two. First is that the Holy Spirit assures us that we are children of God. This witness of the Spirit, Wesley says, “is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly ‘witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God,’ that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” (The Witness of the Spirit, Discourse I, I.7).
We do not have to wonder if we are accepted by God. While some may be unable to testify to this witness, Wesley believes it is meant for all Christians and can be prayed for. He also insists that it does not stand alone, but must be evidenced by fruit of the Spirit such as faith, hope, and love.
Second, the Holy Spirit makes us into the image of God, which is love. Wesley makes this distinction: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God; by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God.” (On Working Out Our Own Salvation, II.1). The first “implies what God does for us through his Son;” the second is what God “works in us by his Spirit” (Justification by Faith, II.1).
Sanctification is for Wesley the entire point of salvation, Through the Holy Spirit we are given a new life in which we increasingly come to love as God loves, and have Christ reigning in our hearts and governing our lives. If Pentecost meant only this, it should elicit our joyous and whole hearted thanksgiving.