Posts tagged ‘Wesleyan’

Lifting Up the Hood: A Sermon on Revelation 12

The following is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on Sunday, August 7 at Faith Community Church of the Nazarene in Ashland City, TN. The actual sermon as preached had some slight deviation from this text.

“I am haunted by waters,” Norman MacLean wrote, as he spun the tale of his family’s life and tragedy in Missoula, Montana in the early 20th century. His was a family who shared a passion for fly fishing, especially on the waters of the Big Blackfoot River, and their tragedy was the brutal murder of MacLean’s brother. As he grappled with loss and pain, MacLean reflected on how the river played a central role in his family story, remarking: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

In any era, stories do more than just entertain. They can teach us right behavior, correct values, and proper morals. Our stories can show rather than tell the difference between good and evil, paint a picture of what makes a hero, give an avenue for catharsis, and inspire hope in the midst of helplessness. There are stories we remember our entire lives because they reach deep down inside of us and touch something in our innermost being. Such stories stay with us because they speak to us of truths greater than ourselves.

  • The orphan farm girl is stranded in a land so very far from where she belongs, traveling with three odd companions. She’s just trying to get to the wizard who can send her home while her partners want respectively, a brain, a heart, and some courage. In the end all four will find that within each of them is enough wisdom, love, and bravery to conquer any challenge.
  • With the destruction of the ship imminent, the science officer exposes himself to a lethal dose of radiation so that by his sacrifice, the rest of the crew can make it to safety. Blinded and dying, he tells his best friend, the captain of the ship, not to grieve for him, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
  • The young woman stole her crippled father’s armor and weapons and left in the middle of the night, pretending to be a son so her father wouldn’t have to answer the Emperor’s call to fight the invaders. Learning to be a soldier almost killed her, but she somehow survived. With luck, ingenuity, and the help of the other soldiers who came to respect her, she defeated the invading army and saved her whole country.

Today let’s explore a story that you and I are already a part of. It’s a story that began an eternity before any of us were born, and is cosmic in scale. Its ending has been written, but no one knows when it will happen.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.  (Revelation 12:1-17)

I wonder, have any of you have ever had car trouble while taking a long trip? I recall such a trip, during one of my summers off in college. I was on my way to a conference for the music fraternity I was involved with as a music education major. It was about a five-hour drive, and after the first couple of hours I began to notice that my car seemed to be a bit underpowered when I was taking some of the larger hills. Shortly after that, a strange noise began to emanate from the engine: fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flap flap fuh flap flap CLONK. With the engine dead, I had to pull over to the side of the road. I knew before I even got out of the driver’s seat that whatever this was, it wasn’t good, but as with any car trouble, I couldn’t know for certain how bad the situation was until I lifted up the hood and saw what was underneath.

In Revelation 12, we find the author John lifting up the hood of the car so that his audience – brother and sister Christians in the churches of Asia Minor – could find out just how bad the situation they were in really was. Mind you, they already knew it wasn’t good. They knew they were in trouble. John’s audience lived in the midst of the Roman Empire at a time when being a Christian wasn’t just frowned upon – it was illegal. The seven churches of Asia Minor, whom John had named earlier in Revelation, were experiencing suffering and persecution due to their faith in Jesus Christ, because they refused to worship the Emperor of Rome as divine.

Listen. Can you hear the signs of trouble? Fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flup.

These churches in Revelation daily faced a flood of images and propaganda that were intrinsic to the Roman worldview, to Roman imperial power, and to pagan religions. They were suffering for their faith, and they were suffering economically as well. The cult of emperor worship acted like a trade union, and you couldn’t get membership in the union unless you worshipped the emperor. If you didn’t belong to the union, you couldn’t even do business. It was economic exclusion. The Christians to whom John wrote were grappling with the grim reality that the famed pax Romana – the peace of Rome – came at great cost to the mass of people in the Empire. Rome was controlling and oppressing every aspect of their lives, from the economic to the spiritual.

And the problems they faced were going to get a lot worse: fuh flup. Flup flup flap flap.

The Revelation was meant to give hope to faithful believers in the midst of persecution and suffering. John needed his readers to get a look under the hood of the car, and to see what the situation really was. He needed them to achiever a greater perspective, and see that their suffering on earth was part of a bigger picture, which spanned the heavens and the earth alike.

John did this by weaving together images and stories that were familiar to his audience in Asia Minor, in order to demonstrate superior Christian truths. He began with a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, crying out in the agony of birth. Her child is described as one who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, which was a very well known Messianic reference from Psalm 2:9. It would be easy to conclude from this that the woman must be the Messiah’s mother, and it’s true that the passage contains elements of the birth narrative of Jesus, which we find elsewhere in the New Testament. Jesus’ mother Mary had to flee from those who sought her infant son’s death. John has something more than just Mary, the mother of Jesus in mind, in order to help his readers understand their own place in the order of things.

His description of the woman dressed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and twelve stars in her crown hearkens to Genesis 37:9, where Joseph describes a dream in which sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. Although the image of the twelve stars in the woman’s crown would have been familiar to John’s original readers as pagan images corresponding to the 12 zodiac signs, the symbolic connection he makes is to Joseph and his eleven brothers, the twelve children of Israel. The twelve sons – later the Twelve Tribes — represent all of Israel, God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets described Israel as a bride, and the Lord as her husband, as when the Lord told Hosea, “I will betroth you to me forever.” (Hosea 2:19) It was out of this Chosen People that Jesus the Messiah came, through whose work in the past God birthed the Church itself. John wanted the Christians of Asia Minor to remember that they too were part of the universal community of God’s people.

The tribulations that the brethren faced were part of a battle that was being waged not just on earth but also in the heavens themselves. John identifies the chief opponent in this battle as a great red dragon, which menaces the woman – the people of God – and threatens to devour her child, the Messiah. This image of the red dragon is taken from Babylonian mythology and was familiar to the churches of Asia Minor, coming as they did from backgrounds steeped in pagan religions and legends. With this image of the dragon tied to Satan, the serpent in the Garden, the message is that the power that threatens the people of God is not the earthly authority of Rome. Although Rome is a tireless promoter of its own glory and supremacy, the Empire is ultimately merely an agent and tool of that power. That power is Satan; the Word of God tells us that he waged a war in heaven and that he was cast down to the earth.

The engine, people, is screaming now: FLUP FLUP FLUP FLAP CLONK!

The dragon was thrown down to earth, and he pursued the woman. In his anger, the dragon came after the people of God, after the Body of Christ. Everything that the Christians of Asia Minor had patiently endured – the persecution, the economic and social marginalization – was a measure of something more vast. The apostle Paul was very explicit about the nature of this battle, writing to the church in Ephesus: “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)

John was drawing the attention of the brethren to awareness of a more immense and supernatural reality outside of their everyday lives. Their pain and distress was a consequence of a cosmic battle, a battle that Satan lost in the heavens but continued here on earth. Revelation is very clear that the devil has come down to earth with great wrath, and that all those who keep the commands of God and who give testimony of the salvation of Jesus Christ are the targets of his anger. Now that is awful news. I can imagine that faced with such tidings the temptation for those churches must have been strong to simply pack it in, join the union, and assimilate into the wickedness of the culture around them.

But John didn’t just lift up the hood and tell them the obvious, “guess what, the engine is seized on the car, people!” The engine was seized, just like the engine of my car seized during my trip to the conference. Yet John had fantastic news for his brothers and sisters. Beginning in verse 10, a loud voice in heaven announces that the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God have come, that the authority of His Messiah is proclaimed! Yes, there was suffering and pain, but that suffering and pain was the last desperate lashing out of an enemy who was already conquered.

Do you understand what it means when the text tells us that Satan was conquered by the blood of the Lamb? It means that when Christ died on the cross, the wily old dragon thought he had scored a victory, but it was the furthest thing from it. The very act that had all the powers of evil chuckling and gloating was the means by which evil was vanquished, for when Christ died on the cross and ascended to Heaven, He prevailed over anything that sin and evil could ever do.

It is not just Christ victorious over Satan that Revelation depicts, but Christ’s people victorious as well. That victory comes first and foremost through His death and Resurrection, but in sharing in His resurrection, John says that their testimony of His salvation has helped to conquer Satan. John points his readers to the victory achieved by the shed blood of Christians who would not renounce their faith in the Lord Jesus even when the price for that was their own life. These are Christian martyrs whom John describes, men and woman who placed fidelity to Christ above worldly peace, financial security, or personal safety. They have conquered Satan’s sway over them through their loyalty to a principle laid out in John 12:25, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Do you understand the significance of the good news that John was sending to Asia Minor? Yes, the engine of the car has seized, and it feels like you’re stranded all alone by the side of the road. But you have the best roadside assistance you can get – you have the Lord Jesus Christ, who will not only never leave you or forsake you, but he is going to replace your engine with a new engine, one that will never stop running!

I wonder, sometimes, if we don’t have difficulty placing ourselves into stories. I wonder if when it comes to a passage like this, we get so focused on understanding what it says that we miss that the story hasn’t ended yet, and that we’re part of it. You and I ride in the same car of which John lifted up the hood. It’s true, John was writing to specific Christians in specific churches, but we too are his brothers and sisters. We too are part of the Body of Christ, united together across all the centuries by the saving grace of God expressed through the death of Jesus on the cross.

It’s perhaps hard for Christians today, particularly Western Christians, to relate to the idea of being persecuted for their religious faith. In this nation, Christians have been blessed in that as a body we have never been prevented from following Jesus. It might be even harder for us to relate to economic exclusion or social marginalization due to Jesus. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is not real suffering and pain among Christians today, as many grapple with a poor economy and high unemployment.

As holiness people, I do think that we can relate to being excluded or marginalized due to our beliefs. As a church in the Wesleyan tradition, we Nazarenes strive to be holy people in a world that does not value holiness. This often prohibits us from full participation in popular culture. We have historically taken a stance of abstinence due to the harmful consequences on human life that alcohol can have, setting us apart from a dominant culture in which social drinking is an accepted norm. As Nazarenes, we desire to choose what our Manual calls, “the high road of holy living” when it comes to entertainment. This excludes us from watching many movies or television shows, due to their glorification of violence, sensuality, and the profane. The cost of giving in to what our culture says is OK is the same cost the churches of Revelation faced: to turn away from God and His standards.

What’s your story today, my friends? Are you suffering, haunted by the memory of tragedies in your lives? Or are you facing obstacles right now that seem insurmountable and hopeless? Take heart. You are part of the same battle, and facing the same enemy today that the Christians of Asia Minor faced in the first century. Satan continues to focus his wrath on all who follow the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 12 tells us that Satan knows that his time is short, and his wrath is directed against us until Jesus returns, hoping to turn as many away from Christ as he can. Be encouraged by the same words that John used to encourage his afflicted fellows: we have conquered by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of the testimony of those who will not be turned from Jesus Christ even though it cost them their lives. For now have come the salvation and the power and kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah, who died to give you eternal life.

Leonard Sweet on Holiness

I’ve been slowly working my way through Leonard Sweet’s The Gospel According to Starbucks. To be honest, very slowly, because the book simply hasn’t done much for me. There has been the ocassional paragraph that reaches out to grab me, such as the following:

God made each one of us special, but consider how quickly we get separated from our specialness. The biblical language for making special is “holiness,” or “set apart.” For example, God declares to Jeremiah that even as he is know he has also been “set apart”–hiqdis. From the Hebrew root qds, this verb indicates the act of setting something apart for a unique specific reason or use. In religious usage this meant setting something aside as special to Yahweh–that is, holy or consecrated. Once this special designation was made, that which was set apart was only for Yahweh’s use. Thus, according to Jeremiah’s calling, he is for God’s use–and God alone. The biblical call to holiness is a relational mandate that requires the connecting of the body, spirit, and soul that God has specially made and made special.

Do you agree with Sweet’s take on holiness? Does this fit with John Wesley’s conception of holiness?

“nothing higher and nothing lower than this,–the pure love of God and man; the loving God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbour as ourselves. It is love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions.”

I think the two are not incompatible, especially as regards Sweet’s comment on holiness as a relational mandate. Wesley saw holiness not as a state of being, but as a relationship of loving God and others.

What do you think?

Altar Theology or Altered Theology? – Part Four

Why is it that I believe that a solution to the identity crisis of the Holiness movement lies within liturgy?

When correct usage of liturgy is employed, the rules that liturgy employs provide a means of not just solidifying identity but of critiquing and examining the behaviors of the church. This has long been described by the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi or “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.” This is ignored at some peril, and Steve Hoskins has argued that this is precisely what the Holiness movement has done. Rather than lex orandi, lex credendi, Hoskins has made the case that the Holiness movement has instead operated by lex orandi, lex oblivisci or “the rule of prayer, the rule ignored.” In other words, as the Holiness movement has ignored its roots within the liturgy of the Christian church, it has lost its sense of identity and subsequently its core beliefs.

Charles Hohenstein notes that the “notion of liturgy as an authoritative source for theology is a congenial one for many in the Wesleyan tradition who have attached such significance to the sermons and hymns of the Wesleys that these have served not only as grist for theological reflection, but as a doctrinal standard.” This reinforces the argument that a return to liturgy is a solution to the crisis that has resulted from the tension between a Holiness movement self-defined by a Wesleyan theological model versus self-definition by the alterations of theology that plague a Palmerian model. Liturgy allows individuals to be active participants in the recovery of memory of the developmental events of the Christian faith and of the principles of holiness.

Paul Bradshaw has written as to the relevance of such memory, in which remembrance does not seek the past for its own sake but because of some contemporary interest. Recollection on the part of the community therefore takes place in order to comprehend the present day. Bradshaw was writing specifically in regards to celebration of the Eucharist, yet the principle he is getting at is one that can be broadly applied. Liturgical participation is an act in which Holiness people will be able not only to re-member their lineage as part of the greater Christian church, but also re-member – to draw together as members of a distinct community within the Church. Hoskins cautions, “Such a remembering is dependent on a liturgy which is theologically and historically well-defined and defining, with rubrics and rules and acts which have proved to be appropriate expressions of the faith.”

This concept of appropriate expressions of faith is important to comprehend in terms of how liturgy can resolve the question of identity, particularly when the goal is a return to a pure Wesleyan identity. John Wesley’s teachings on holiness were formed within the crucible of the Anglican Church; as such, concepts of holiness were set in a particular context. This context included not just Scripture, but time-honored traditions of the Church calendar, life-cycle events that defined how one’s faith was to be lived, and the historic creeds and confessions of the Church. All these aspects of liturgy were considered fundamental and indispensable expressions of faith that formed an identity, which placed one clearly in the community of God’s people. For the Holiness movement to re-orient itself into such a context – albeit one that acknowledges that it is not the 18th century, and makes accommodation for the age in which the movement exists – will allow for the establishment of clearly defined theological boundaries while still permitting for spontaneous expressions of faith that are uniquely part of a Holiness heritage.

It should be obvious that what I am arguing for here is not simply that the Holiness movement return to liturgy as a cure for problems with identity, but that it return to liturgy as a means of recovering a specifically Wesleyan Holiness identity. This does not preclude acknowledgement of other influences on the identity of the movement – it would be utter foolishness to deny that Phoebe Palmer and her theology greatly shaped the movement – but allows for those influences to be evaluated through the lens of Wesleyan identity. Examination of these other influences in such a manner permits those within the movement to appraise the merits of such influences in regards to such a Wesleyan identity.

While there may be historical and theological objections to be raised to this choice, the fact remains that a Wesleyan identity intrinsically seeks self-definition (at least in part) through liturgy. The means of grace that Wesley so urged the early Methodists to partake of – such as searching Scripture, prayer, the sacraments, and participation in the life of the Church – found their expression in liturgy, and as Henry Knight observes, “functioned to portray the identity of God and the resulting identity of the Christian.” Knight also cogently notes that while the liturgical tradition was key to John Wesley’s ideas of the growth of holiness in the individual, Wesley was particular in the parts of that tradition he emphasized, especially in regards to theology. One has only to give attention to the material in Wesley’s famous Christian Library and take note of the abridgement of some of the works to realize that Wesley was presenting only the parts of those works that dovetailed with his vision of holiness of heart and life.

In this as well, the choice to concentrate on a Wesleyan genesis can only assist the contemporary Holiness movement in moving towards resolving a crisis of identity via  liturgical renewal. Wesley drew upon a great diversity of sources both ancient and contemporary for his time in order to devise an expression of faith that would be true to the historical faith and life of the Church, and yet address the needs of his own day. The Holiness movement has the opportunity to do the same today. The movement must commit itself to seeking expressions of faith that draw upon the rich and profound treasures represented by the liturgical traditions of the Church universal.

These liturgical traditions must be allowed to establish the boundaries of identity that place the Holiness movement within the long line of Christian faith, while still allowing for a singular expression of the doctrines that make Holiness people a peculiar people within the greater community of God’s people. While not without its difficulties, this is a task made easier by what has been one of the great strengths of the Holiness movement: the unwillingness of most groups of holiness people to castigate other holiness people over differences in theology or doctrine. If we in the Holiness movement can continue to seek such a unity even as we explore liturgical renewal, then there is hope that our movement may become one marked by a well-defined identity rooted in the wealth of the Christian past and truly moving into the future towards the fulfillment of a Wesleyan goal of spreading holiness throughout the land.

Altar Theology or Altered Theology? – Part Three

It is reasonable at this point to question whether the conflict between Wesleyan and Palmerian definitions of entire sanctification is enough to be considered a point of crisis for the Holiness movement. After all, the movement has endured for a very long time in relative unity. Melvin Dieter certainly seems to have felt that the question of identity was reaching a crisis point as far back as 1985, in a paper titled, “The Development of Nineteenth Century Holiness Theology.” He believed that the movement must choose between the two identities or risk being assimilated into a more general context within the Church. While Dieter was in favor of the choice of a Palmerian identity, other voices within the movement would argue instead for allowing the Holiness movement to move to the selection of an exclusively Wesleyan character. This leads to other questions, such as should the Holiness movement prefer one aspect of its formative past over the other, and why should it examine the past as a solution to a current lack of growth both in numbers and social impact?

The answer to the former question is that it has been a lack of accuracy about the true distinctiveness of the movement that has caused the crisis that Dieter and others have been addressing for over 20 years. In terms of an identity that concerns itself with accuracy, there is no question that the Wesleyan model would present itself as superior. A Wesleyan model would by its nature incorporate logic and reason as part of its identity. John Wesley left capacious writings to indicate that the experience of holiness must be examined theologically to ensure that it did not conflict with Scripture. A Palmerian model, by contrast, would be concerned primarily with the experience of holiness itself. Phoebe Palmer’s writings indicate a primary commitment that is centered on leading the individual Christian to the experience. Some might accuse Palmer of being completely unconcerned with theology; this is not disdain, but simply a belief that the exactness of the theology behind sanctification is simply not as important as achievement of the experience.

The answer to the latter question, why the Holiness movement should turn to the past for a solution to present-day woes, is that embracing either model could well mean a return to the successes that were previously associated with that identity. Certainly within the context of the American Holiness movement, it is unarguable that Phoebe Palmer and her followers enjoyed the fruit of numerical growth and widespread social impact fully as much as John Wesley and Methodism did during the Revival in an English context. A decision for either model would seem to hold the hope of return to such successes and while the argument against Palmer’s lack of theological correctness is quite valid, it is fair to note that Wesleyan model does contain problems of theological exactitude as well.

Chief among these troubles is an inconsistency in Wesley’s own teachings, which Randy Maddox demonstrated to be products of three chronological periods of Wesley’s life. There is little disagreement with Wesley’s own positions during the earlier two periods, yet much disagreement in the third and latest period. Mainly at issue would be the subject of Biblical inerrancy, a position to which for much of his life Wesley did not subscribe; only in the third period, according to Maddox, does Wesley proclaim that the Bible contains no error.

Nevertheless, the Wesleyan model seems to offer a clearer path for the Holiness movement to avoid the ambiguity caused by two differing theological identities. Yet if both the Wesleyan and Palmerian identity present difficulties, what solution can be offered? One can argue that the answer to the dilemma lies in a return to liturgy. Why liturgy? Because it can be proposed that one of the causes of the recent predicament of the Holiness movement lies in insufficient attention being paid within the movement to the critical importance of spiritual formation and practices. The historical liturgies of the broader Christian church provide a means for denominations in the Holiness movement to maintain connection to their past lineage within the Church. This loss of a link to that lineage can have very damaging results; Keith Drury, in his infamous address The Holiness Movement Is Dead, identified one of these results as the adoption of “church-growth thinking without theological thinking.” When holiness denominations become severed from their pedigree, they risk ceasing to be a part of what Steven Hoskins has labeled, “the ancient procession of those who have trod the path of Christian faith that has followed the way of holiness.”

In Part Four, the final part of this series, I will explain why I believe that liturgy is a solution to the identity crisis within the holiness movement, which I believe was caused (at least the majority of it) by Phoebe Palmer’s theology of entire sanctification.

In Honor of John Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience

Today marks the anniversary of the day when John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed,” as he attended a bible study on Aldersgate Street. Many Wesleyan denominations make this “Aldersgate Day” a bit of a memorial, in acknowledgement of the transformation Wesley’s Aldersgate experience accomplished in him, and the ministry that resulted. For some good reflections on this, visit here and here.

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

Watson reviews Campbell on Wesleyan Beliefs

Kevin Watson has written a brief review of Ted A. Campbell’s new book, Wesleyan Beliefs: Formal and Popular Expressions of the Core Beliefs of Wesleyan Communities. He has piqued my interest with this quote on the subject of the doctrine of entire sanctification:

I find John Wesley’s twofold rationale for the doctrine of entire sanctification unassailable:
1. God intends that we should love God completely.
2. God can accomplish what God intends.

I’m adding this one to my never-ending “to read” list.

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