John Wesley only preached one sermon with the word “Trinity” in the title, but don’t let that fool you: he is a great guide to living out the mystery of evangelical trinitarianism. His approach to the Christian life is saturated with the insight that in everything we do, we are surrounded by the work and the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In his sermon “On the Trinity,” Wesley says that “what God has been pleased to reveal upon this head, is far from being a point of indifference, is a truth of the last importance. It enters into the very heart of Christianity: It lies at the heart of all vital religion.” Indeed, “the knowledge of the Three-One God is interwoven with all true Christian faith,” and as Wesley explains its connection with salvation, he marvels that anybody could think of the doctrine as anything but central:
But I know not how any one can be a Christian believer till he “hath,” as St. John speaks, “the witness in himself;” till “the Spirit of God witnesses with his spirit, that he is a child of God;” that is, in effect, till God the holy Ghost witnesses that God the Father has accepted him through the merits of God the Son: And, having this witness, he honors the Son, and the blessed Spirit, “even as he honors the Father.”
The genius of Wesleyan trinitarianism is on display here: it is consistently gospel centered. Wesley rarely announces, “Now I will talk about the Trinity.” He has his hands full evangelizing and discipling believers; he is not, mainly or often, catechizing in a formal way (which is the appropriate place for extended teaching on the Trinity). But he constantly refers to the presence of the triune God in salvation.
For example, Wesley thinks of justification and sanctification, those two central structural elements of the Christian life, in Trinitarian terms: “The one implies, what God ‘does for us’ through his Son; the other, what he ‘works in us’ by his Spirit.” Everything about our salvation is given its shape by this coordinated action of the Father accomplishing our salvation in the Son and applying it in the Spirit. No wonder Wesley claims that trinitarianism “is interwoven with all true Christian faith,” and no wonder he wrote this prayer: “Glory be to thee, O holy, undivided Trinity, for jointly concurring in the great work of our redemption, an restoring us again to the glorious liberty of the sons of God.”
As Geoffrey Wainwright has pointed out in an article entitled “Why Wesley was a Trinitarian,” it was not self-evident that an Oxford-trained young intellectual pastor would be Trinitarian in the mid-eighteenth century. All sorts of anti-trinitarian systems were abroad at the time, and it was not hard to find respectable living advocates of Deistic, Socinian, or even Arian options. Wesley knew these options and rejected them; he was not Trinitarian by default, but chose to be Trinitarian. “Even at his most ‘catholic spirited,’ he refused his hand to Arians, Socinians, and Deists, for their heart was not right with his heart.” How could he join forces with them, when the encounter with the triune God was at the center of his understanding of salvation? Wainwright summarizes Wesley’s Trinitarian theology in these terms:
Our salvation is for Wesley the differentiated but united work of the Three Persons of the Godhead; it sets us into an appropriate relation to each Person, and it gives us, as will shortly be insisted, a share in their divine communion. The Holy Trinity appears, therefore, as both the origin and goal of soteriology.
The Trinity is the origin because salvation comes from the concerted initiative of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one God. And it is the goal because salvation leads us to nothing else but communion with that particular God. In his sermon on The New Creation, Wesley exclaims that in heaven,
to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three One God, and of all creatures in him!
When Wesley says that the Trinity lies at “the heart of all vital religion,” he does not mean that every believer has a special consciousness of the three persons entering into relationship with him. He means that the Father has saved the Christian through the Son and Spirit, whether the Christian knows it or not. The Trinitarian reality is going on, with or without human consciousness of what is happening, and the ordinary Christian experience is an engagement with the triune reality.
On the other hand, Wesley did believe that it was possible to have a clear and distinct experience of each of the three persons. He routinely cited the Roman Catholic mystic Gaston De Renty, whose testimony about this special experience fascinated him. De Renty said, “I have generally within me an experimental realization and a plenitude of the presence of the most Holy Trinity.” He went on, in words that Wesley came back to again and again:
All things are blotted out of my mind as soon as they are done; nothing remains except God, by a naked faith, which, causing me to abandon myself to our Lord Jesus Christ, imparts to me much strength and great confidence in the Divine Trinity, because the operation of the Three Divine Persons is distinctly shown to me therein: the love of the Father, who reconciles us through His Son, and the Father and the Son, who give us life by the Holy Spirit, who causes us to live in communion with Jesus Christ, which communion effects in us a marvellous alliance with the most Holy Trinity, and at times produces in hearts sentiments which are inexplicable.
It was of this kind of experience that Wesley said, “The knowledge of the Three-One God is interwoven with all true Christian faith; with all vital religion. I do not say that every real Christian can say with the Marquis de Renty, ‘I bear about with me continually an experimental verity, and a plenitude of the presence of the ever-blessed Trinity.’ I apprehend this is not the experience of babes, but, rather, ‘fathers in Christ.’” All Christians experience the Trinity, but Wesley hoped that spiritually mature Christians might have a clear understanding of what they were experiencing.
In fact, Wesley remained alert and on the lookout among his own people for such spiritual experiences as De Renty had reported. By 1788, Wesley reported to a friend that he had interviewed a handful of Methodists who had been granted some sort of experiential grasp of “the ever-blessed Trinity.” “I have as yet found but a few instances,” he wrote, “so that this is not, as I was at first apt to suppose, the common privilege of all that are ‘perfect in love.’” A holy woman nicknamed “Praying Nanny” had a kind of vision of the three persons distinctly, and wrote down, “I have union with the Trinity thus: I see the Son through the Spirit, I find the Father through the Son, and God is my all in all.” With these visions among the early Methodists, we are back in the territory of the exotic, and in constant risk of hallucinatory enthusiasm. But John Wesley was always eager to hear of what God could do with his people, so he gathered these stories eagerly. He had also learned some hard lessons by 1790, and he wrote to Nanny,
My dear Sister: There is something in the dealings of God with your soul which is out of the common way. But I have known several whom He has been pleased to lead exactly in the same way, and particularly in manifesting to them distinctly the three Persons of the ever-blessed Trinity. You may tell all your experience to me at any time; but you will need to be cautious in speaking to others, for they would not understand what you say. Go in the name of God and the power of His might.
Uncanny as they may be, these experiences were, for Wesley, simply more concrete signs and manifestations of a spiritual reality that was the common property of every believer: salvation as coming into communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit.