Fourth, I am a Methodist because of Wesley’s strong emphasis on the importance of holiness in the life of the believer and the necessity of Christian sanctification. On New Year’s Eve 1738 Wesley went to another society meeting. It was an all-night prayer vigil to bring in the new year 1739. In the early hours of January 1, 1739 something dramatic happened to Wesley. He received a sanctifying experience where God re-oriented his heart and life. Listen to Wesley’s own words:
“On Monday morning, January 1, 1739, Mr. Hall and my brother Charles
were present in Fetters Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. At about
three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power
of God came mightily upon us insomuch that many cried out for exceeding
joy and many fell down to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little
from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty, we broke out
with one voice, ‘We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.’”1
This experience helped Wesley understand God’s ongoing work in the life of the believer. We have already seen the role of prevenient grace prior to our conversion. Then, we examined the role of justifying grace at the point of conversion. Now, we will look at Wesley’s understanding of how God continues to work in the life of the believer through sanctifying grace. Methodists have a view of God’s grace working before, at, and after conversion. This helps build on the Reformation which focused on becoming a Christian to the broader biblical emphasis on what it means to be a Christian.
The doctrine of entire sanctification is one of the most misunderstood of all Methodist doctrines. When most of us hear the word sanctification we think of it as a forensic term – i.e. sanctified means that you are divinely certified before God’s court of justice as someone without any sin in your life and, once sanctified, you will never sin again. That is not what Wesley taught or meant by sanctification. For Wesley, sanctification is not primarily a forensic term. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification, in contrast, is inherently relational since it involves the whole of our daily interactions.
For Wesley, sanctification is what happens when we are brought fully into relationship with the Triune God. For Wesley, sin and God’s righteous judgment can never be reduced to only breaking God’s Law, i.e. forensic guilt. Our sins are, of course, never less than that. But they are also deeply relational. When we sin we not only break God’s law (I John 3:4), but we also breach a relationship. When we sin we, at that moment, elect the absence of God in our lives. Sin separates us from God himself, not just from our right standing under God’s law.
Methodists build on the Reformers’ understanding of “alien righteousness” by declaring that we must not only be declared righteous, we must increasingly live righteous lives. Luther famously declared that Christians are “dung hills covered in snow.” Wesley would not disagree, but would assert that salvation is about more than justification. Righteousness for Wesley is more than God just looking at us through a different set of glasses, i.e., we are filthy rags, but God sees us through the blood of Christ and, thereby, sees the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Wesley argued that alien, imputed righteousness must increasingly become native, actualized righteousness; wrought in us not by our own strength but through the power of the living God. We are marked, oriented, and re-oriented by love.
We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but we are sanctified by faith as we enter into full relationship with the Triune God. Wesley taught that we are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith. As a relational term, entire sanctification means that your whole life, your body, and your spirit have been re-oriented. Entire sanctification means that our entire heart has been re-oriented towards the joyful company of the Triune God. You are in a new colloquy. It 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.
To be sanctified is to receive a gift from God which changes our hearts and reorients our relationship with the Triune God and with others, giving us the capacity to love God and neighbor in new and profound ways. The language of “entire sanctification” in Methodism uses the word entire in reference to Greek, not Latin. In Greek entire or complete can still be improved upon. It is a new orientation which no longer looks back on the old life of sin, but is always looking forward to the New Creation. It is a life which has been engulfed by new realities, eschatological realities, not the realities of that which are passing away.
Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins which we avoid. Methodists believe that even 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 is 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, or static. It is not merely legal, but relational; not merely private, but embedded in community; not negative, but a true vision of the inbreaking 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!
1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, January 1, 1739(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 170.