July 30th, 2019


A word on entire sanctification

A recent blog post by Kevin Watson asserts that once we put the current struggles of The UMC behind us, we should focus upon the teaching of entire sanctification, referred to in our hymnody as “full salvation” and labeled by John Wesley himself the “grand depositum” which God had entrusted to the people called Methodist. Hmm, well, yes.

Methodists have had more to say about entire sanctification (also known as holiness or Christian perfection) than most. It is, indeed, a part of our teaching. That said, I think we need to consider this more closely. For I’m not sure that even those who are most eager to lift up the doctrine are correct in their understanding of what it means, let alone agree among themselves.

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary (MDiv 1978), so I know the territory here. When I went off to Asbury, I had never heard the word “sanctification” in spoken modern English. Needless to say, I heard it a lot over the course of my seminary education, and I gave it my utmost attention. And I came to the conclusion that entire sanctification as taught by the Holiness Movement rested upon an error: following the idea that all Scripture has the same author, and assuming therefore that all Scriptural language is one mode of expression, it had conflated the terminology of Paul and John to create an understanding of deliverance from sin that was distinct from what either apostle would have recognized. In doing so, it went beyond what Wesley would have recognized, too, at times.

Asburian holiness teaching was the most careful and realistic in its explication of the doctrine. It avoided the “root and branch,” eradication-of-the-sin-nature teaching that some holiness theologians favored a hundred and some years ago. But in its zeal, it also made the possibilities of Christian perfection seem a little too easy. Teaching on “the second blessing” too easily degenerated into what I have called “two-zap theology.” (Charismatics and Pentecostals also have a two-zap theology, which resembles – superficially -- the idea of sanctification as a blessing which can be received all at once. Considering that the traditionalist faction of The UMC includes both Charismatics and Holiness teachers, a renewed emphasis on the “grand depositum” poses certain additional challenges.)

As I have grown older, I have become more and more interested in “going on to perfection.” The possibilities engage my imagination. My soul yearns to be really clean, and really at home in the Lord. And as I look back over my life and gain a sense of how far I’ve come, so I have renewed hope of attaining to the goal of my journey. So, yes, I’m willing to speak more boldly about entire sanctification than I did in my earlier years. I see what Watson is driving at. For the Methodist teaching is one of hope.

John Wesley taught that Christianity was “an experimental religion.” Words shift meaning over time; in today’s parlance, Wesley would have said, “an experiential religion.” We are not just making assertions about the state of your soul when you get to heaven. You can know, by experience, what God is doing in your life right now. As the old Methodist slogan put it, “Everyone can be saved, everyone can know one is saved, and everyone can be saved to the uttermost.”

Welsey also had a very picky definition of sin: Sin is a voluntary transgression of a known law of God. Every word in that sentence has significance. The doctrine of Christian perfection won’t work unless you stay right on the balance point of that definition. Blunders are not sin, since they proceed from not knowing what the right is (this is why having a known law to transgress matters). Thus, Christian perfection is not perfection from error, nor does it bestow wisdom to know what is right in every case. But sin also has to be voluntary in order to be sin. We have to choose wrongly, and choice proceeds from the heart.

The heart directed by self will inevitably choose wrongly, because its motives are those of the self, and the self is corrupted. But when we are moved by the love of God, we choose rightly. If our motives are pure, our actions are pure. They aren’t always right, since we sometimes blunder, but if they are moved by the love of God dwelling in us, then they are not sin. And here’s the key point: the more we open ourselves to God, the more he fills us with his love, so that he loves through us. And when we are completely filled with the love of God, when we are so open to him that we would not dream of choosing other than as he chooses, so then we will not sin. Notice, I didn’t say, “we cannot sin,” for of course, we can. But our ability is governed by our will, which is captive to Christ, and when we abide in him, so we will not sin. (Back to that key word, “voluntary,” above.)

This filling and choosing is something we experience in ourselves. We are aware of how we were once upon a time, and how we are now. And we can foresee in ourselves, if we stick to it long enough – as we can see in others, who are farther along than we – the end result of the process, which is to love now as we will love in heaven, even as we experience the love of God now that is the very experience of heaven. Heaven begins now, and we should increasingly act like we belong there; God increasingly enables us to act like we belong there.

That is the doctrine of entire sanctification. It is not unique to Methodism, but we have emphasized it more than most, and Wesley’s teaching has elucidated its depths more brightly than most other teachers’. I have found that when you explain it to people in the terms above, they are intrigued. They begin to see the possibility – and the desirability – of pursuing it. But if you merely incarnate it in slogans and lifestyle – the dour expressions, plain clothing, and hints of what awaits on the other side of the second zap – you will seem merely quaint. And if you assume that experience explains itself, which many of our more enthusiastic Charismatic/Pentecostal friends seem to, you wind up with a lot of energy but little in the way of doctrine, which I find dangerous.

If we are going to point the goal, we need to be able to explain the goal in terms even beginners can understand. Hints of esoteric knowledge, nudges and winks, big-sounding words, appeals to the authority of Scripture, or saying “why not tonight?” in your most tremulous voice won’t give people a road map they can follow. A hundred years ago, the Holiness Movement was read out of most of Methodism because it got sidetracked into a better-than-you critique of the church; if we are to revive the teaching, we need to be more careful – and more helpful – this time around.