There is perhaps no doctrine as closely associated with the holiness movement as that of entire sanctification. It is undisputable that this is a teaching that the holiness movement owes to John Wesley. Entire sanctification – or Christian perfection, as Wesley referred to it – was central to Wesley’s personal spiritual growth and the development of the 18th-century Methodist movement. Thomas Jay Oord recently pointed out that more than eighty Christian denominations today – among them the United Methodist Church, the Salvation Army, the Free Methodist Church, the Church of God (Anderson), and the Church of the Nazarene – consider Wesley to be their primary theological ancestor, which makes it hugely important that entire sanctification be defined precisely.
When Methodism came to America in the late 18th-century, it grew numerically yet departed from perfectionist teaching as a priority, causing it to suffer spiritually as a denomination. During the 19th-century holiness revival, entire sanctification once more regained its status, due primarily to the ministry of Phoebe Worrall Palmer (whom I’ve previously written about here). Randall J. Stephens credits the success of the holiness movement, particularly in the pre-Civil War north, mostly to her efforts. Yet even as Palmer introduced thousands to the concept of entire sanctification (through her Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness and her prolific writings), she represented a divergence from pure Wesleyan teaching. Over the next few posts, I’ll be exploring the argument that Mrs. Palmer’s teaching on entire sanctification – her “altar theology” – was in fact an altered theology of entire sanctification, to examine the consequences of that for the Holiness movement, and to briefly examine possible solutions for the problems caused by those consequences.
In this first post I’ll be discussing precisely what John Wesley taught regarding entire sanctification or, as he termed it, Christian perfection. By his own report, Wesley’s insights grew out of his readings of Jeremy Taylor, Thomas à Kempis, and William Law. Taylor and Kempis convinced Wesley of the importance of purity of intention and the giving all of one’s heart to God, but it was Law’s Treatise on Christian Perfection and Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life which had the greatest impact.
“Meeting now with Mr. Law’s Christian Perfection and Serious Call, although I was much offended at many parts of both, yet they convinced me more than ever of the exceeding height and breadth and depth of the law of God. The light flowed in upon my soul, that everything appeared in a new view. I cried to God for help, and resolved not to prolong the time of obeying Him as I had never done before. And by continued endeavor to keep His whole law, inward and outward, to the utmost of my power, I was persuaded that should be accepted of Him, and that I was even then in a state of salvation.”
Devotional material such as this, in addition to the Bible, was the source from which Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection was deduced. As early as 1733, it is possible to see the seeds of this had begun to sprout, particularly in Wesley’s sermon on “The Circumcision of the Heart.” Here Wesley begins to describe love as the essence of perfection, describing it as, “that habitual disposition of soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies, the being cleansed from sin, “from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit;” and, by consequence, the being endued with those virtues which were also in Christ Jesus; the being so “renewed in the spirit of our mind,” as to be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.”
Early in his career, Wesley viewed sanctification as something to be achieved instantaneously, yet later in life he would admit that he had confused the consequences of the new birth (i.e., justification) with those of perfection (i.e., entire sanctification). By the time he published the first edition of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection in 1766, Wesley’s views had solidified into the avowal that God had given the promise of salvation from willful sin. Wesley found this promise in passages such as Deuteronomy 30:6; Psalm 130:8; Ezekiel 36:25, 29; Matthew 5:48, 6:13, 22:37; John 3:8, 17:20-21, 23; Romans 8:3-4; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 3:14-19, 5:25, 27; and Thessalonians 5:23. Further, Wesley held that Scriptures such as Luke 1:69-75, Titus 2:11-14, and 1 John 4:17 gave signs that this promise of sanctification was to take place within the lifetime of the individual Christian.
Melvin Dieter has noted that Wesley detailed features of this sanctification in his sermon “On Perfection,” which included:
1. To love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbors as oneself;
2. To have the mind that is in Christ;
3. To bear the fruit of the Spirit (in accordance with Gal. 5);
4. The restoration of the image of God in the soul, a recovery of man to the moral image of God, which consists of “righteousness and true holiness”;
5. Inward and outward righteousness, “holiness of life issuing from holiness of heart”;
6. God’s sanctifying of the person in spirit, soul, and body”;
7. The person’s own perfect consecration to God;
8. A continuous presentation through Jesus of the individual’s thoughts, words, and actions as a sacrifice to God of praise and thanksgiving;
9. Salvation from all sin.”
It is quite evident that Wesley saw entire sanctification as the conclusion of a developmental process, setting “a point after justification as a terminus a quo and a point, however indefinite, sometime before death as a terminus a quem.” Wesley at times had to combat his own earlier views on sanctification as occurring instantaneously with justification. In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection he clearly argues against this, saying, “Yet we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever he is perfect, he hath still need to ‘grow in grace,’ and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his savior.”
Wesley’s view on sanctification can be summarized as a gradual yet dynamic process, not as a state that once reached remained unchanged. His teaching did not disavow that sanctification could be instantaneous but he did not see it as typical based on his gathering of the testimonies of many who had claimed the experience. Wesleyan scholar Randy Maddox views this confirmation through the experience of the individual Christian, as well as the attestation of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer, as crucial to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection as being a relation of love for God and others. Ultimately, for Wesley entire sanctification was understood – as Paul Bassett has expressed it – as “the perfecting threshold. Now the life of Christian perfection begins. One does not seek to become more perfect. One seeks, by grace, to express more clearly the gift of perfection that has been given.”