Posts tagged ‘Thomas a’ Kempis’

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
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The Best Laid Plans …

I had intended to dive right back into regular posts to this blog after my recent move and surgery. I definitely had planned originally to post on Ash Wednesday. Fast forward past a couple of bumps in my recovery, and getting used to a radically new shift at work, and here I am.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent, the beginning of a roughly 40-day countdown to Easter Sunday. Although many might associate Lent only with Roman Catholicism, it has also traditionally been celebrated by Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Lutherans, and my own Church of the Nazarene. Lent is often marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I have previously  posted on the importance of Lent as a time of spiritual preparation, getting Christians ready to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.

Confession: every year, I struggle with choosing what I should fast from. Due to medical reasons, I am not permitted to fast from food, so I have tried to fast from things which can be a big part of my life. One year it was T.V. I failed miserably on that one. Last year it was Facebook, at which I fared only slightly better. This year, I made the decision that rather than trying to fast from something, I would instead concentrate on my prayer life.

Curiously (or maybe not so much), I am finding that focusing on doing something seems easier than not doing something. In just four days, I have found that increasing the time I spend in prayer is having the unforseen result of drawing my attention away from the things which distract me from God. This is precisely what I always imagined fasting to accomplish. It occurs to me that perhaps the Apostle Paul would not have been surprised by this.

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth …” (Colossians 3:1-2)

This was a sentiment that Thomas a Kempis echoed in his classic devotional, The Imitation of Christ.

“Fix your mind on the Most High, and pray unceasingly to Christ.”

As I discipline myself to intentionally set aside time for prayer, I experience God responding to me. Will you join me in seeking Him during the Lenten season?

Wesley and Total Depravity, Part 3

Part 2 of this series traced the formation of John Wesley’s theology regarding total depravity, and the transmission of the thought of Jacob Arminius. This concluding post begins with a question: is the theology Wesley embraced 200 years after Jacob Arminius an accurate model of Arminian belief?

Wesley preached,

[Adam] was a creature capable of God, capable of knowing, loving and obeying his Creator. And in fact he did know God, did unfeignedly love and uniformly obey Him . . . . From this right state, and the right use of all his faculties, his happiness naturally flowed.”[1]

Randy Maddox, a master Wesleyan scholar, has pointed out Wesley’s belief that “humans were originally created capable of participating in God, and when they do so participate, they embody God’s moral character and find fulfillment.”[2] The renewing of such participation in God is salvation through Christ, and Wesley did not view the acceptance of this salvation as possible at all without the action of prevenient grace. In the narrowest Arminian sense, prevenient grace meant the work of God in an individual which awakened them spiritually prior to their being justified. Yet Wesley also used prevenient grace in a much wider sense, teaching that every good action or quality (whether the first expression of faith or entire sanctification) had its foundation in a previous empowerment made possible by God’s grace.

Wesley’s expression of this was an answer to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and Wesley was quite careful to set free will in the context of human freedom to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation being the outcome of that will having been freed by the work of the Holy Spirit.

But I do not carry free will so far (I mean, not in moral things). “Natural free-will,” in the present state of mankind, I do not understand. I only assert that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which “enlightens every man that cometh into the world” [cf. Jn 1:9].[3]

In all of this, Wesley falls solidly in line with Arminian belief. Arminius himself had labeled free will as unable to effect any action without God’s grace.

“Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good without grace . . . . I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good.[4]

What is the link between the transmission of Arminian theology of total depravity, and Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection? Wesley gives precious insight into his personal spiritual formation and his theology in  “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” published in 1777. Several of the works he cites as reading early in his life are pivotal to making this connection between his views on total depravity and Christian perfection.

In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s “Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.” In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected; that part in particular which relates to purity of intention. Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts, and words, and actions; being thoroughly convinced, there was no medium; but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil.[5]

The Reverend Jeremy Taylor’s exposition of rules for living affected the formation of Wesley’s theology, as they pointed Wesley to the need to methodically seek to live a holy life. Wesley’s reference to “purity of intention” is the key factor that keeps this from edging into legalism. Following Taylor’s rules for living was in no way meant to lead to salvation; rather, the rules represented a spiritual discipline meant to focus Christians on living completely for God.

In the year 1726, I met with Kempis’s “Christian’s Pattern.” The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw, that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this, and go no farther) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him.[6]

Á Kempis’ devotional work, The Imitation of Christ, would further reinforce for Wesley the concept of purity of intention. From Kempis, Wesley would absorb the idea that purity of mind might be used to achieve a unity of purpose. Kempis believed that while simplicity of life would guide one to God, only those whose lifestyle was holy and pure might truly take hold of Christ.

A year or two after, Mr. Law’s “Christian Perfection” and “Serious Call” were put into my hands. These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian; and I determined, through his grace, (the absolute necessity of which I was deeply sensible of;) to be all-devoted to God, to give him all my soul, my body, and my substance.[7]

Much as with Taylor, the works of William Law – which Wesley first read in 1727 or 1728 – would prove vital to the development of Wesley’s theology. Law proposed that even as God forgives disobedience, he continues to call people to obedience and a life centered on Him. Once Wesley begins to grapple with an Arminian understanding that people could choose to follow God despite their total depravity, Law’s work helped him to see that individuals participated in Christ’s work in them through personal piety and holiness.

As Wesley began to craft a doctrine of Christian perfection, these sources allowed him to cast a vision for the progress of a maturing Christian. Once prevenient grace has allowed the individual to see the need to choose to be regenerated by the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit, Christians must make a further choice: to set themselves apart to a life of personal piety and holiness. By doing so, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit and continue to be transformed and made more like Christ, to grow in God’s graces and love until, as Wesley put it, there is “love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions.”[8]


[1] Wesley. Works. VI: 243.

[2] Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994. p. 10-11.

[3] Outler, Albert C. editor. John Wesley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. p. 447.

[4] Arminius. ‘Grace and Free Will’ in “Letter to Hippolytus,” in Writings, II:472.

[5] Wesley. Works. XI: 366.

[6] Ibid. XI: 366.

[7] Ibid. XI:367.

[8] Ibid. XI: 397.

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