This is the last of a 3 part series. Read Part I, “Remembering our Heritage: The Grand Wesleyan Vision” and Part II Four Great Wesleyan Distinctives.”
Together, they formed Timothy Tennent’s 6th Convocation Address
Asbury Theological Seminary
Estes Chapel, September 02, 2014
Florida-Dunnam Campus, September 04, 2014
Third, the Wesleyan view of the holy Christian life.
A doctrine of justification separated from a robust doctrine of sanctification has left the church in a weakened state which compromises our witness to the world, dishonors Christ and denies the very power of the gospel which we proclaim. Wesley was first and last passionate about holiness. Today much of the church is not holy and there is no more important legacy we can leave the contemporary church than to fully embody holiness. The great ramparts, gates and walls of holiness which have long set the church apart today lie in ruins and the world is now freely importing wickedness into the church. This is our hour to rise up and re-assert one of the four marks of the church: holiness.
Wesley taught the doctrine of entire sanctification. For Wesley, salvation could never be simply God looking at us through a different set of glasses where he sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ, but we are still bound in sin. Wesley envisioned a holy church. He understood that God’s purpose is not complete until alien righteousness becomes native righteousness; imputed righteousness becomes actualized righteousness, declared righteousness becomes embodied righteousness. We do not put grace in a dialectic tension with the Law, but, rather see Christ as a new Lawgiver, deepening the moral call of God on our lives through the Spirit of God working in us. This is not justification by faith and sanctification by works. No, Wesley saw both justification and sanctification as gifts from God, wrought in us not by our own strength, but through His saving power.
Entire sanctification never meant that we never sin. Wesley actually rejected the phrase, “sinless perfection.” This is because for Wesley sanctification is not primarily a judicial, forensic term. Rather, it is a relational term. Entire sanctification means that your whole life, your body and your spirit have been re-oriented towards the joyful company of the Triune God. You are now oriented towards the eternal community of God himself. Entire sanctification was, for Wesley, not the end of some long drudge out of the life of sin, but joining the joyful assembly of those who have truly found joy. For Wesley, holiness is the crown of true happiness. Sin is still encamped around us on every side, but it is no longer our ally. We burn the secret agreements we have with sin in the night while we confess Christ in the day. We leave behind the agonizingly torn hearts, where we always live under condemnation because sin is always creeping back into our lives. To be sanctified is to receive a second blessing, a Spirit-baptism, a great gift from God. It is a gift which changes your heart, re-orients your relationships with the Triune God and gives you the capacity to love God and your neighbor in new and profound ways. It transforms your perspective – because your heart is re-oriented towards him in perfect love. In the life of a sanctified person sin becomes your permanent enemy, not your secret lover!
The language of “entire sanctification” uses the word “entire” in reference to Greek, not Latin. In Greek “entire” or “complete” can still be improved upon. Our founder H. C. Morrison once said, “there is no state of grace that cannot be improved on.” It is a new orientation which no longer looks back on the old life, but is always looking forward to the New Creation. It is a life which has been engulfed by new realities, eschatological realities, not the passing shadows of that which is passing away.
Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins which we avoid. If you were to eradicate every sin in your life, you would only be halfway there. Because, for Wesley, holiness is never just about sins we avoid, it’s about fruit which we produce! In Wesley, faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed! We no longer have a view of holiness which is legalistic, private, negative and static. Rather it is relational, communal, and captivated by a vision of the in-breaking of God’s rule and reign!! The witness of the Spirit which confirms faith becomes in Wesley the power of the Spirit to produce fruit and to transform the world – to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world!
Fourth, the Wesleyan view of the world.
Our movement has never been committed to a precise theological system which becomes an overlay through which we view Scripture and the world. The reason we do not have our version of TULIP is not because we are not clever enough to come up with five points, the first letter of which spells a word. Many of us have actually worked out the “five points of Wesleyanism.” But, upon reflection, Wesleyans have rejected that kind of systematic overlay which creates a lens between you and the Scriptures. Those systems tend to domesticate the text, sand down all the mysteries, and rob us of all the necessary tensions. The Wesleyan vision of Christianity is not at root a theological system trying to solve theoretical theological problems and make everything fit into a single coherent system which is put forth over against other systems like dispensationalism or covenant theology, and so forth. Rather, our movement is fundamentally missional. Our theology is soteriologically framed and driven, not epistemologically framed and driven. Thus, our theology thrusts us out to a lost world. It is acknowledging that the Scriptures are, at root, a missional document which brings good news of salvation to the ends of the earth, or, as Wesley would put it, helping people to “flee from the wrath to come.”
Our vision for the world might be called mobile holiness because it is never static, but always moving us to the ends of the earth, since “the world is our parish.” We declare the year of Jubilee for those who are enslaved by human trafficking in Bangkok. Mobile holiness announces the good news to the Alagwa people of north-central Tanzania who have never heard of Jesus Christ. Mobile holiness shines the light of justice on child labor in China! Mobile holiness establishes peace in broken homes in America. Mobile holiness sets the drug addicts free right here in Highbridge / on OBT. Mobile holiness acts on behalf of the 40,000 Iraqis left to die on Sinjar mountain. You see mobile holiness is viral and there is no part of creation which it does not declare under the Lordship of Jesus Christ! We claim the “whole field” – no privatized religion for us! Remember how Jeremiah had the courage to purchase a field even as the Babylonians invaded and were taking everyone into exile. That’s the kind of global vision we need. We look at the most dismal situation on the planet and we declare, in faith, that we will buy that field. We will buy the field of Anathoth even as the Babylonians are moving in! We’ll buy the field of hope even when the drugs still hold on. We’ll buy the field of faith, even while the Alagwa are still resistant! We’ll buy the field of reconciliation, even when the divorce papers are on the table. Because we hear the strains of the New Creation! We have been caught up in a greater narrative!
A Wesleyan, neo-holiness vision does not fall into the trap of an over-realized eschatology which fails to take seriously the full force of human – personal and systemic – rebellion against God. However, it also avoids the trap of an under-realized eschatology which can only rehearse the bad news and does not see the New Creation already breaking in – in the faith, life, experience and witness of the church of Jesus Christ. We have a vision for the power of transforming righteousness in the world.
In conclusion, it takes courage to occupy and hold the high ground of Wesleyan faith. It will empower us to announce the gospel, even as it is being decried as outrageous and offensive. It will send us into a world enmeshed in deep spiritual and moral chaos. It will enable us to descend into the gutter of despair to bring someone up to the high road of holiness. This vision will help us to boldly confess Christ when even big swaths of the church have lost the patience to listen to Him. It will enable us to stand firm on the Word of God, even when the prevailing winds of culture are blowing hard in your face. But, like the Taj Mahal, this great treasure has been passed on to us that we, in turn, might give it to the world. May we joyfully take up this mantle and be found faithful in our time. May Asbury embody that which we teach and so remain a beacon of hope and grace to this generation. Amen.