Wesleyans in the Wilderness: Assurance vs. “The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Beginnings of Wesleyan Assurance

“Can you be sure of your salvation?” Most evangelicals would answer with a resounding “yes,” but would have difficulty answering the follow-up question—“how?” We may agree on how salvation happens—Romans 10:9-10—but it is more difficult to agree on how assurance happens.

Calvinists tend to see justification as an objective fact, grounded in God’s timeless decrees, independent of our emotions, and for some, even independent of our continued guilt. Christians are taught to distrust their experiences. There is a virtue to this system in that it engenders self-forgetfulness. But it offers precious little compassion in moments of doubt or depression. Depression is only a misapprehension of divine decrees. “Who are you, O man?” Doubt is a rejection of the form of determinism called “the doctrines of grace”. We lack assurance only by lacking understanding.

Into such a theological winter came John Wesley with his “strangely warmed” heart, teaching personal, inward assurance of faith as a distinctive doctrine. Salvation was both fact and experience for Wesley from that moment at Aldersgate Chapel:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.
(Journal of John Wesley, dated May 24, 1738.)

Over against Calvin’s credal, decree-bound assurance, Wesley placed an experience of assurance. He grounded it doctrinally in Romans 8:16, among other verses. Like James Ussher, Wesley translated the verse this way:

The same Spirit beareth witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God.

This verse and the doctrine of experiential assurance was absolutely pivotal in early Methodist theology. In The Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, a compilation of 41 biographies of Wesley’s pioneer preachers, assurance plays a key role in salvation narratives. At least eight of them—Hanson, Hopper, Payne, Rodda, Valton, Walsh and Whatcoat—specifically refer to Romans 8:16 in their conversion narratives. But not all experienced assurance as a lifelong reality.

The Eroding Value of “Assurance”

The irony comes from the volatile mixture of Wesleyan holiness and Wesleyan assurance, both of which play a major role today not just in Methodist congregations—which include some 70 million members—but among the world’s 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics, whose theology is essentially Wesleyan in character.

Wesley taught that total victory over sin is not only possible, but normal for Christians. This is easy to defend from Scripture, with bald statements like “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34); “anyone born of God refuses to practice sin, because God’s seed abides in him” (1 John 3:9; compare though, 1 John 1:8-10). But it is hard to defend from Christian experience.

The strong expectation of assurance and the strong expectation of continuance in Methodism lead us to a strong expectation of continuing assurance. Wesley’s preachers frequently recorded that this combination was stumbling block to them, leading them to rationalize their own salvation. Read the words of Thomas Payne, after his conversion:

. . . But I had a Calvinian library, which I often read. And hence I imbibed that miserable notion, that it was absolutely necessary every believer should come down from the mount [i.e., by sinning, or doubting]. Hence I was persuaded that I must lose my first love; that I must doubt of my justification, which those wretched casuists lay down as one great mark of sincerity. For want of knowing better, I listened to these, till I lost the witness of the Spirit.

“Losing the witness of the Spirit,” of course, is tantamount to losing salvation in Wesleyan language, which rejects perseverance of the saints. Some contemporary writers make a helpful distinction by teaching that we may lose the witness or filling of the Holy Spirit without losing the Holy Spirit.

Another early Methodist preacher, John Valton, has a similar narrative of gaining assurance at the moment of conversion, but losing assurance afterward.

I have been much tempted to doubt of the pardoning love of God which I received in London. Because it was not incontestably clear, I feared it was not really the case; and that my comforts were only the drawings of the Father.

Bruce Hindmarsh comments on John Valton:

A few weeks later he was able to believe again. Significantly, Valton thought he might have been in the “wilderness state described in Mr. Wesley’s sermon”, and acknowledged that not everyone passed through the wilderness to the promised land.  . . .

Valton believed that he had fallen into the desert experience or “dark night of the soul”, and according to Wesley, he might lose his salvation! He referred to a sermon in which John Wesley explained the historic Christian teaching of the “wilderness state” in some detail. The theological tension between the “wilderness state” and Wesleyan assurance is obvious.

The sermon referred to by Valton was one in which Wesley explained the reasons for the loss of love, joy, and peace that so many experienced after conversion. He identified the possible causes of this “wilderness state” as outright sin, simple ignorance, or overwhelming temptation, but stressed that God does not withdraw from us; it is always we who withdraw from him. For Wesley, one might well need to be “renewed by repentance” and “again washed by faith”. Indeed, one could be converted again and again.
(Hindmarsh, Evangelical Conversion Narrative, p. 247; he cites Wesley, Works (BE), ii. 217; see also Works vol. 6, Sermon 46, as published in 1872, here.)

Certainly, to a Calvinist, Wesley’s view of salvation can lead to needless introspection, and a shaky, human-dependent salvation. Anyone in a state of depression may be stumbled by the thought that they might have inadvertently lost their first faith.

One can see how practical pitfalls come up both from affirming and denying the perseverance of the saints—namely, too much assurance on one side, and not enough on the other.

“The Valley” in Arminian Preaching

George MacDonald, an untraditional Arminian, wrote scornfully of assurance in his “unspoken sermon” on “The Hardness of the Way”:

None can know how difficult it is to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who have tried—tried hard, and have not ceased to try. I care not to be told that one may pass at once into all possible sweetness of assurance; it is not assurance I desire, but the thing itself; not the certainty of eternal life, but eternal life. I care not what other preachers may say, while I know that in St. Paul the spirit and the flesh were in frequent strife.

MacDonald made room for doubt and difficulty in his own relational theology. Perhaps, in his view, Christian assurance is distinct from a full-proof certainty.

Oswald Chambers, an admiring reader of George MacDonald, wrote that we usually lose our high feelings by failing to act on what God has revealed to us.

Never allow a feeling which was stirred in you in the high hour to evaporate. Don’t put your mental feet on the mantelpiece and say, “What a marvellous state of mind to be in!” Act immediately, do something, if only because you would rather not do it. If in a prayer meeting God has shown you something to do, don’t say, “I’ll do it”—do it! Take yourself by the scruff of the neck and shake off your incarnate laziness. Laziness is always seen in cravings for the high hour; we talk about working up to a time on the mount. We have to learn to live in the grey day according to what we saw on the mount.
(My Utmost, April 16th entry)

In any case, Chambers concludes, we must live in low moments by what God revealed to us in better times. This was the topic of a famous sermon of his entitled “Can You Come Down?” The sermon deals with Jesus and the disciples’ transition from the Mount of Transfiguration to the valley where he deals with unclean spirits (Mark 9; Matthew 17). The theme was echoed in another famous sermon, Mountains and Valleys in the Ministry of Jesus by G. Campbell Morgan.

In a sermon about “processes”, Joseph Parker preached not only that we must sustain our obedience in the valleys, but that remembering the mountain will help us to do so.

We should lay up some memory of the Divine triumphs which have gladdened our lives, and fall back upon it for inspiration and courage in the dark and cloudy day. Go into your yesterdays to find God!

This was a perennial theme with Parker—we cannot always keep yesterday’s assurance, but we can resurrect it by memory. I believe D. L. Moody had a saying, that if God did no other miracle for him, he could live out his days content upon the memory of all that God had already done in his life. Memories help us make meaning out of our low moments.

“The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a poem and treatise by a 16th-century Catholic mystic, John of the Cross. The title of the book has been borrowed by many as another favorite term for what Wesley called the “wilderness state”, a state of depression or lack of spiritual awareness in the life of the Christian.

John of the Cross relies somewhat on The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous classic from two centuries earlier. ‘Unknowing’ meant ignorance, or unawareness, so the “cloud of unknowing” is a poetic term for whatever blocks the divine vision from view.

The Middle English of The Cloud of Unknowing is difficult, but it is an important work for those trying to understand the theological tradition of righteous unawareness of God. Below is an important passage (ch. 3).

Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list [desire]. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest.

For the anonymous author, this cloud of unknowing between us and God affects not only our feeling, but our reason. This leads us to think that God’s holy ones may be not only depressed, but even doubtful.

One can see why this tradition is not very popular among Protestants. The wilderneds state is frequently maintained as a pattern founded on human experience and tradition, not reason or revelation.

There are hints of the “dark night” in Scripture, though, aside from the impressions we receive from the narrative of Jesus descending the Mount of Transfiguration. Winkie Pratney, an Arminian writer, has written a book called The Thomas Factor which draws on a theological tradition of sanctified doubt. Pratney sees, in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, a kind of dark night of the soul. In spite of his powerful and victorious confrontations with evil, Elijah speaks of suicide. He says he alone has remained faithful. But God leads him to rest. An angel ministers to him and feeds him, not once, but twice. God reminds him that he has “seven thousand in Israel . . . that have not bowed to Baal.”


There is a loss of assurance that may happen in the life of a Christian, but it is not permanent. As Romans says, the Holy Spirit testifies to us that we are God’s children; but from what we know of history and biography, it is neither a constant, continual, lifelong witness, nor is it an emotional or intellectual witness. Spirit speaks to spirit.

The dark night of the soul entails some confusion of both feeling and facts. It led Elijah and Jonah to feel suicidal; it has led others, like Frederick Buechner, to question our most deeply held traditions about death and immortality. But confusion of facts and confusion of feelings should not always lead to a confusion of faith. We do not have to know that the sky is blue, or feel that the earth is round; there are many facts in our lives that are always true, though removed from our awareness or transcending our small understanding. We know they are true by a steady iteration of experiential confirmations, and an interruption does not change what we already know to be true. We may lack certainty and yet maintain assurance.

In affirming these things, we should free believers to rest not on their own awareness or assurance of God’s atoning work in their lives—but on the fact itself.

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