Posts tagged ‘justification’

Altar Theology or Altered Theology? – Part Two

Theological differences become apparent swiftly when the teachings of Phoebe Palmer on entire sanctification are contrasted with John Wesley’s own. In stark contrast to Wesley’s vision of a lengthy, often difficult effort concluding with sanctification, Palmer expressed sanctification as a state of being that all believers could achieve in an instant. This was a viewpoint that Wesley had specifically warned against, as can be seen in the Minutes of the Methodist Conference (1771). Charles White has identified six primary areas in which Palmer departs from Wesleyan views of entire sanctification.

The first of these is that she equates entire sanctification with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Second, Palmer equated holiness with power. Palmer saw entire sanctification as a means by which the sanctified Christian was given power for a life of service in behalf of God and others.

Third, she focused on the instantaneousness of entire sanctification, having little or nothing to say about any progressive growth in grace either before or after sanctification. Palmer’s reasoning was that “whatever my former deficiencies may have been, God requires that I should now be holy … God requires present holiness.” Palmer’s logic was that this “shorter way” was not just possible but a reality, because God would not withhold something that he had required of the individual Christian. In her outlook, Palmer seems to have followed Charles G. Finney, whom Ivan Howard notes “held that entire sanctification could be received at any time, whenever one appropriated Christ by faith.”

The fourth way in which Palmer deviated from Wesley was that she taught sanctification as the beginning of the Christian life, not the goal of it as Wesley had done. Mark Mann notes that Palmer “came to view full holiness as the duty of all Christians, thereby substantially deflating the importance of justification and the new birth (against which Wesley himself had warned). Related to this, Palmer came to emphasize Christian perfection as a grace normally available early in one’s spiritual growth, even as early as a couple hours after one’s conversion.” Such a view of holiness inevitably would lead one to the conclusion that to doubt in entire sanctification would be amiss to sin, and Palmer certainly articulated such to her followers.

“What you need, in order to bring you into this state, is an offering up of yourself through this purifying medium. Now do you still ask, How soon may I expect to arrive at this state of perfection? Just so soon as you come believingly, and make the required sacrifice, it will be done unto you according to your faith….When the Savior said, “It is finished!” then this full salvation was wrought out for you. All that remains is for you to come complying with the conditions, and claim it…it is already yours. If you do not now receive it, the delay will not be on the part of God, but wholly with yourself. … And now my dear K, if you will resolve to let faith depend on the word of God, and not upon your uncertain feelings, your difficulties will all be at an end.”

The fifth difference which White identifies is Palmer’s promulgation of what became labeled as “altar theology,” a concept she drew from Exodus 29:37.

“The acceptance of the gift [of entire sanctification] does not depend on the worthiness of the offerer or the greatness of the gift, but upon the sanctity of the altar: Matt. 23:19, “For whether is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?” It is by virtue of the altar upon which the offering is laid that the gift is sanctified: Exod. 29:37, “And it shall be an altar most holy: whatsoever touches the altar shall be holy.” Christ is the Christian’s altar.”

This altar theology compacted entire sanctification into a process of three steps: an act of entire consecration in which one placed one’s all on the altar, faith in God’s promise of sanctification, and giving public testimony to sanctification. This last step Palmer viewed as a necessity due to the order of God not being fully met until confession was made with the mouth.

The sixth divergence from Wesley’s teachings that is noted by White is that Palmer posited that there was no further evidence needed for the assurance of entire sanctification than Scripture itself. She wrote, “God did not require … anything but what was thoroughly substantiated by the requirements of his written word.” Palmer eschewed any evidence of sanctification in the form of the witness of the Spirit (which Wesley had insisted was vital as an assurance of entire sanctification), writing, “What is the evidence of entire sanctification? … How might an offerer at the Jewish altar arrive at an evidence that his offering was sanctified? In the first place, God had explicitly made known just the sacrifice required, and the manner in which it should be presented. If the offerer had complied with these requirements, he, of course, knew he had done so.”

Although these differences in theology might seem trivial to some, Randy Maddox has demonstrated that John Wesley had spoken quite strongly against each one of the modifications that Phoebe Palmer would make to the doctrine of entire sanctification.  Hardly trivial, Palmer’s alterations in fact caused a theological dissonance in holiness teaching, one that has lasted to the present day and continues to cause serious problems for the Holiness movement. The crux of the problem is that the Holiness movement has since its inception been playing an internal tug-of-war over the matter of its own identity. Is it a Wesleyan identity, or a Palmerian identity? This tension of identity is likely to be one of the reasons for the loss of a laity truly educated in holiness; a problem that Keith Drury has argued has contributed to the death of the Holiness movement as a movement.

In Part Three, I will address the consequences of the identity crisis in the Holiness movement.
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Altar Theology or Altered Theology? – Part One

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.

In Part Two, I’ll be exploring Phoebe Palmer’s theology of entire sanctification

The Cost of Following Jesus, Part Two

This is part two of a three-part series.

Is there a cost to follow Jesus? There are those who have come before us who have understood clearly that we follow Jesus at some price. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Boenhoeffer was one who understood this very clearly. Bonhoeffer was among the few in the German church who publically opposed the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler. Although friends in England got him out of Germany, his conscience told him that he could have no part in helping to rebuild and heal Germany after the war ended if he did not share in his fellow Germans’ sufferings. His leadership within the state Church the Nazi party was trying to destroy, and his close ties to individuals who plotted to assassinate Hitler led to Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment in a concentration camp and eventual death by hanging.

The writings of Bonhoeffer can be a bit weighty. I’ll go so far as to let you know that outside of the Bible, I have not read any work as convicting as his best known work, The Cost of Discipleship. Although first published in 1937 it is almost frighteningly contemporary in the topic it addresses, especially when set against our post-modern culture. Bonhoeffer lambasted the idea that intellectual assent to belief in Jesus was sufficient. In speaking to the true price of following Jesus, Bonhoeffer decried what he saw as “cheap grace.” Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, “means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”

Let me break this down for you, because this is something that has become pervasive. We continue to battle today in the Church against the idea that you can say “I believe in Jesus, and I know he forgives my sins,” and yet not turn away from that sin! The cheap grace Bonhoeffer wrote of is a grace that is assigned to us by ourselves, not by God. It’s a grace that requires no change in our lives. We have those who profess themselves Christians today who have bought this hook, line, and sinker without any knowledge of how false it truly is. Cheap grace means proclaiming yourself forgiven without ever having bothered to throw yourself on your face before the Lord and repenting of your wickedness. Cheap grace means proclaiming yourself a saint without having bothered to give up being a sinner. Bonhoeffer called it “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” What a sad, pathetic “grace”.

The rich young ruler sought a cheap form of grace. While his desire to gain eternal life may have been genuine, he wanted it on his own terms. He mistook the outward display of righteousness – following the commandments – for righteousness itself. For him, it was simply about following a list of rules. When presented with God’s terms, when asked to turn his whole life over to God, he turned away. But it doesn’t work that way. We cannot come up with Christianity on our own terms.

You cannot call yourself Christian and continue to live a sinful lifestyle. Simply saying that you believe in Jesus does not make you a Christian, anymore than walking into Taco Bell makes you a chalupa, people. If you are Christian, the life you lead must reflect that. If you are Christian, you cannot continue to fill your head with all manner of ungodly things from TV or movies or magazines. A Christian lives a life in which they die to self. A Christian seeks a life of service, not a life of self-gratification. A Christian lives a life in which they allow the Holy Spirit to be their guide … not the prevailing culture.

Is there a cost to follow Jesus? In 1945, the Communist party in Romania convened a conference of 4,000 of the country’s religious leaders. Many of these leaders, afraid for their lives, proclaimed that there was no difference between Christianity and Communism – despite the fact that in every country where it had taken root, Communism had dedicated itself to destroying faith in Jesus. In the midst of this shameful display, a pastor named Richard Wurmbrand took the stage and proclaimed, “Delegates, it is our duty not to praise earthly powers that come and go, but to glorify God the Creator and Christ the Savior, who died for us on the cross.”

Richard Wurmbrand would spend much of the next 20 years in prison for his faith, where he was repeatedly beaten, tortured, and brainwashed.

“When we were first put into solitary confinement,” he wrote, “it was like dying. Everyone of us lived again his past sins and his neglects of duties. We all had an unimaginable pain in our hearts thinking that we had not done our utmost for the Highest, for the One who has given His life for us on the Cross.”

“After years of solitary confinement, we were put together in huge cells, sometimes with 200 0r 300 prisoners in each cell. I will not tell you the whole truth, because you could not bear to hear it. But this I will tell. Christian prisoners were beaten, then tied on crosses for four days and four nights without interruption. The Communists then stood around them, jeering and mocking, ‘Look at your Christ, how beautiful He is, what fragrances He brings from heaven.’ Then they kicked the other prisoner, forcing them to kneel down and to adore and worship this besmeared living crucifix.”

Years later, Wurmbrand would describe how he was kept imprisoned for so long, without a book to read or paper to write on, that when he was eventually released and had to write again, he could not remember how to write a capital D. In 1965, after his final release from prison, Wurmbrand testified in Washington, D.C., before the United States Senate. Many of the Senators would remember with horror for years the moment that Pastor Wurmbrand stripped to the waist and revealed eighteen deep torture wounds. Until the day he died, he could not wear shoes for any great length of time, because his feet had been so damaged by the tortures he endured.

At the beginning of his time in prison, Wurmbrand was ordered to write out a confession of all the Communist rules he had broken. Although he willingly signed, he ended with a declaration that he had never spoken against his torturers, saying that He was a disciple of Christ, who had given him love for his enemies. He wrote also that he prayed for their conversion, that they might be his brothers.

The Communist officer who had forced him to write his confession jeered at this declaration, telling Wurmbrand that this was a Christian commandment that no one could keep. Wurmbrand’s reply to this man who had the power to have him killed in an instant was simply, “It’s not a matter of keeping a commandment. When I became a Christian, it was as if I had been reborn, with a new character full of love. Just as only water can flow from a spring, so only love can come from a loving heart.”

Pastor Richard Wurmbrand had many other encounters with that particular officer during his time in prison, and in time would come to have the privilege of leading the officer to Christ, but that is a story for another time. Today, I want to talk about the price that Richard Wurmbrand was willing to pay for following Jesus. When we consider the cost of his following Jesus, there was nothing cheap about it. Wurmbrand lost years of his life, not just in terms of time with his wife, family, and friends, but in his very health. At any moment, it could all have been restored to him, simply by acceding to the Communist wishes that he stop proclaiming the Word of God. Yet Wurmbrand was willing even that he should lose His life in order to truly follow Jesus.

The third and final part of this series will examine more about how Bonhoeffer and Wurmbrand accepted the cost, and conclude with some questions and challenges about whether you or I are doing the same.

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