John Wesley’s sermon “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption” argues that human beings fall into one of three spiritual states: natural, legal, and evangelical.
In a state of nature, we are spiritually blind.
In the legal state, we have come to know God as holy and ourselves as sinners.
In the evangelical state, we know the pardon of God through faith in Christ.
These are the only three options Wesley allows. He does in the sermon sketch out fairly subtle ways a person might straddle more than one of these states, and he does not let us confuse spiritual states with social graces and personality traits. A person can be kind, good, pious, and sincere without emerging from the spiritual stupor of the natural state, he writes.
This is one of those cases in which Wesley’s use of experience comes into focus. He has biblical arguments for why these three states describe the human soul and only these three. He has biblical arguments for why people — perhaps with rare and extraordinary exceptions — must move through these states to experience true Christian holiness. But the biblical arguments could be argued otherwise, and have been.
What sealed Wesley’s conviction that this is the proper way to describe and understand “the three-fold state man” was his experience as a leader of the Methodist movement. In his own life and in the lives of thousands of Methodists, he found confirmation that his biblical theology was correct.
So, what do I make of contrary experience? I know people who say they are justified in the full evangelical sense of the word but never felt the conviction that Wesley describes. They never passed through the legal state. Or what about those legions of Christians who reject all three of Wesley’s categories and the theological assumptions that lie beneath them?
Is Wesley wrong in total? Is he wrong that his categories are exhaustive? Is he right? Is there another option?