This is my tenth convocation address to the Asbury Theological Seminary community. Each Fall, I have sought to focus on different phrases in our mission statement, or, some aspect of our history or heritage which gave rise to our mission statement. This year, we look at the phrase “sanctified, spirit-filled.” This is surely one of the most daunting and humbling aspirations which we set forth at the core of our mission. It is not enough, we have said as a community, to graduate students who are “theologically educated”—as central and important as that is. That is, of course, being done in seminaries all across the world. But, we have also determined that ministry effectiveness must always connect what we know with who we are. Our mission, therefore, is not merely intellectual or cognitive, it is deeply formational. The whole phrase goes, “to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, spirit-filled, men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.”
I have gone onto the websites of some of our sister institutions to see what their mission statements say in comparison with ours. This is not intended to be a critique of other institutions’ mission statement. I have served joyfully under two of these non-Asbury mission statements. But, a comparison is a helpful way to explore what, if anything, differentiates Asbury from other institutions, at least in our own missional aspirations.
The mission of Fuller Theological Seminary is “forming Global Leaders for Kingdom Vocations.” Gordon-Conwell declares that it is “an educational institution serving the Lord and His Church. Its mission is to prepare men and women for ministry at home and abroad.” Denver Seminary exists to “prepare men and women to engage the needs of the world with the redemptive power of the gospel and the life changing truth of Scripture.” Trinity Divinity School—part of Trinity International University—declares that their mission is “To educate men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world by cultivating academic excellence, Christian faithfulness and lifelong learning.” Reformed Seminary’s mission is “to prepare students to serve Christ and His church through biblical, experiential and practical ministry.” Duke Divinity School’s mission is “to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy and the world.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary states that “under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the mission of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is to be totally committed to the Bible as the Word of God, to the Great Commission as our mandate, and to be a servant of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention by training, educating, and preparing ministers of the gospel for more faithful service.” Nike’s mission statement, is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” That has nothing to do with the others, but I just threw that one in for the fun of it.
Those are all beautiful and well-crafted statements. But, Asbury Theological Seminary has this remarkable phrase, “sanctified, Spirit-filled.” This is a gem for us. I love our mission statement. I could spend ten years expositing all the reasons why I find our mission so compelling. Oh yeah, I have! But, for those who may not know my background, I am the first President of Asbury who had no prior connection whatsoever to Asbury Theological Seminary, Asbury University, or Wilmore, Kentucky. I always loved Asbury from afar, but my first real engaged encounter with the seminary was to read the mission statement. I was a professor at another institution and I went on the web and I typed in “Asbury Theological Seminary mission statement,” and it popped up. Let me say, I was very impressed.
It is such an evangelical and thoroughgoing Wesleyan statement. I love that it begins with the affirmation of community. We are a community deeply rooted to our heritage, our mission and to one another. I love the explicit Trinitarian framework of our statement (through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father). I love that it is framed by the missio dei. We are a community “called.” It emphasizes God’s prior action. With one word it acknowledges that it is He who planted this community, He who calls us forth, and He who ultimately sends us out. Of course, I love the emphasis on theological education, because that is what I have given my life to. I love the historical nod to JohnWesley with that great phrase of his “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land/world.” But none of those are the phrases that first captured my attention as I looked at my computer screen years ago and said, “Oh Wow!” It was the phrase “sanctified, Spirit-filled.” Brothers and sisters, this is what rings out as the distinctive phrase in our mission statement as compared with so many others.
My role as president, among other things, is to assure that we as a seminary are vibrant and moving in the right direction. I oversee our 2023 Strategic Plan. I am responsible to make sure that we are economically viable, and so forth. However, no role of mine is more sacred than guarding and joyfully promoting our mission statement. Will you, our beloved students, and those who have gone before you, truly go forth to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world? Are you becoming theologically educated? Are you “Spirit-filled and sanctified”? If you don’t know already, every phrase of this is repeated on graduation day and all graduates are asked to publicly declare that this is exactly what has happened while you were here. But, is it truly descriptive of who we are, or is it merely aspirational? Let me say it again, the phrase, “sanctified, Spirit-filled” is what sets us apart from the vast majority of the 250 or so other institutions who belong to the Association of Theological Schools. Therefore, it is vital that we as a community never allow the phrase “Sanctified, Spirit-filled” to become mere dead letters, or mere historical markers, which only point to our beloved founders, or some earlier embodiment of our community. Rather, they must continue to be descriptive of who we are and what happens to someone who becomes part of this community of faith and learning. You have not been “prepared” unless you are becoming both “theologically educated” and “sanctified/Spirit-filled.”
I would like to ask two key questions. First, are the words, “sanctified” and “Spirit-filled” redundant expressions, saying the same thing in two ways? In other words, is it kind of like a strophe of Hebrew poetry where parallel phrases are used for beauty and for emphasis, but both carry essentially the same message. If so, we shouldn’t try to distinguish greatly between “Spirit-filled” and “sanctified.” Or, are the two words capturing different aspects of our Christian experience? Second, what does it mean for you to be Spirit-filled and sanctified? How do these words or phrases connect with our history and our current practice? What can we do to more fully live into these great missional aspirations? Let be begin by saying that the two phrases are not redundancies even if we are not precise about what distinguishes them. Both words were carefully chosen by our founders to say something about the process of discipleship which lies at the heart of Wesleyan identity.
Sanctification as the “Grand Depositum”
On Wednesday, September 15, 1790 John Wesley wrote a letter to his dear friend, Robert Brakenbury. Brackenbury was a Methodist preacher who established and led the movement in Lincolnshire and was one of Wesley’s 100 top advisors. Wesley wrote him 18 letters and the one I want to highlight is his 17th. When Wesley wrote this letter it had been 52 years since his famous Aldersgate experience where his heart was “strangely warmed” back in 1738. As Wesley lifts his quill to write his dear friend, he is 87 years old. In six months Wesley would be with the Lord. Let me read you the first part of this letter:
“Dear Sir, Your letter gave me great satisfaction. I wanted to hear where and how you were; and am glad to find you are better in bodily health, and not weary and faint in your mind. My body seems to have nearly done its work, and to be almost worn out. Last month my strength was nearly gone, and I could have sat almost still from morning to night. But, blessed be God, I crept about a bit, and made shift to preach once a day. On Monday I ventured a little farther, and after I had preached three times, (once in the open air), I found my strength so restored that I could have preached again without inconvenience. I am glad brother D___ has more light with regard to full sanctification. This doctrine is the grand depositium which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up . . .”
Brothers and sisters, John Wesley is looking back over his entire ministry and this remarkable Methodist movement which God unleashed. Historians would later call this period the Great Awakening. Wesley looks back at this, and if I can borrow the phrase from Jonathan Edwards describing these same revivals, “surprising work of God.” And Wesley declares that the doctrine of sanctification is the “grand depositum” of what we preach. In fact, he says, it is the very reason that God raised up this movement. This is the great doctrinal deposit (that’s what grand depositum means) the great doctrinal deposit—for the people called Methodists. The 16th century Reformation under the amazing ministries of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Latimer and all the rest had restored the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. But, it was the 18th century which restored the doctrine of sanctification more fully to the church. It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that Wesley would have said this as clearly in 1738 as he did in 1790. The so-called “grand depositum” was surely the result of what I would call a “grand journey” of the Wesley brothers, and Peter Bohler, and Zinzendorf and Christian David and John Fletcher, and amazing women preachers like Ann Cutler, Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet—and so many others who were all part of this. They all, despite their differences, gradually realized that the doctrine of sanctification was the grand depositum. This was, in fact, the great contribution of the 18th century revivals to world Christianity.
Of course, all authentically Christian movements embrace the doctrine of sanctification. That is not in question. However, what became increasingly clear to the Wesleys and to those who became co-laborers in this movement is that the church was debilitated and diminished by equating the word “salvation” with the word “justification.” As John Wesley and others re-examined the apostolic and patristic writings they saw that this doctrine had been neglected and had become disconnected from soteriology. Salvation had become reduced to a transactional event, and the longer process of biblical soteriology needed a full recovery. They saw that the church needed to be more intentionally pneumatologically focused—making the shape of our theology more natively Triune, as our mission statement also reflects. Compare, for example, some of the classic Reformed systematic theologies such as Henry Thiessen or Louis Berkhof with the Wesleyan theologian Thomas Oden. The former place the Holy Spirit as either a subset of Christology or as a subset of the doctrine of the church. Oden, in contrast, frames his entire three volume systematic theology around the persons of the Triune God. This grand depositum of sanctification was the holy reminder that the reception of grace is not merely an event, but an ongoing process in the life of the believer. Prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, and finally, in the New Creation, glorifying grace are all part and parcel of a grand, unfolding story of grace and redemption which was not fully restored in the 16th century. We shouldn’t be overly critical of the Magisterial Reformers on this point. They never claimed that they had completed the Reformation. So, Wesley extends the Reformation. If I may quote a beautiful sentence from Kenneth Collins’ writings: “Wesleyan theology is optimistic about the capacity of God’s grace to transform a person.” (Put that on your screen saver!) We don’t deny total depravity. We just believe that God’s grace is greater than our sins. We believe that the “Yes” of Jesus Christ is greater than the “No” of the Devil! We believe that becoming a Christian is not the same as being a Christian. We believe that holiness is not an optional accessory for a few, but God’s plan for every believer. Every single person in this room can be made holy and can live a victorious life in Jesus Christ.
What is quite clear in Wesley’s writings and preaching, and ultimately why the phrase “sanctified, Spirit filled” eventually found its way into our mission statement, is the belief that there are works of grace, subsequent to justification, which are crucial for your Christian life and the effectiveness of your future ministries. The writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley are filled with many different words they employ to capture this work of grace we call sanctification. I have made a list – by no means comprehensive – of some of the terms which have appeared either in the writings of John Wesley or the hymns of Charles Wesley to describe sanctification: “second blessing” “second gift” “farther grace” “personal Pentecost” “fullness of the Spirit” “Spirit of holiness” “going on to perfection” “baptism with the Holy Spirit” “Seal of the Holy Spirit” “effusion of the Spirit” “wrestling Jacob” from the hymn, “Come O Thou Traveler Unknown,” “inward baptism” and one of my favorites, “uninterrupted holiness.” Some may want to argue about the best word for us to use, but the NT itself models for us a wide range of terminology for the indwelling empowerment of the Spirit. There is also no precise pattern in which people receive the Spirit. No one makes this point better than Craig Keener in the first of his four volume commentary on Acts where he says, “Luke allows for a diversity of pneumatic experience and presumably invites his audience to show the same courtesy” (Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-2:47, Baker Academic, 2012). So, we are in good company. But, let me say, brothers and sisters, I don’t care what you call it, or even how it happens, just make sure you don’t leave here without it! The re-directed, sanctified heart is at the core of our message, our identity and our contribution to global Christianity—“don’t leave home without it!”
I am indebted to the writings of Larry Wood for pointing out to me that John and Charles Wesley, and several of the other leading writers in the 18th century revivals, relearned from the New Testament and patristic writings that the baptismal liturgy of the early church was a symbolic uniting of Easter with Pentecost. Going into the waters of baptism is, of course, a clear recapitulation of the cross and resurrection as we die with Christ and are raised with him through the waters of baptism. That is fairly standard across almost all Christian movements. But, what has been often missed, is that baptism was coupled with the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit which was a recapitulation of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is why in Acts 19 they asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” It turned out that they only knew John’s Baptism which was a baptism of repentance, but was not, in fact, the same as Christian baptism. Therefore, they baptized them and they laid hands on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. We had already seen this in Acts 6, Acts 8, Acts 9 and Acts 13. In John’s gospel, we have Jesus breathing on the disciples and Jesus saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” demonstrating a coming together of the Resurrected Lord with Pentecost in that profound post-resurrection encounter found only in John’s gospel. The liturgy could have called for us to breathe on our parishioners but the liturgy was developed before the age of tooth paste and mouth wash!
John Wesley recovered this, as seen in a letter to William Law when he said, “‘baptized with the Holy Spirit’ implies this and no more, that we cannot be renewed in righteousness and true holiness any otherwise than by being overshadowed, quickened and animated by the blessed Spirit” (Works, vol. 9, p. 495). We must restore as part and parcel of our pastoral ministries the laying on of hands for men and women to receive the Holy Spirit. We must resist with every fiber of our being the noisy gong or clashing cymbal of minimalistic Christianity. We must embrace a full soteriology which is fully Trinitarian and orients believers to both Jesus Christ as our glorious Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as our blessed Sanctifier.
Five Appropriations of the Holy Spirit in the Lives of Believers
I will now highlight five major appropriations of the Holy Spirit which we need in our lives. The list could be ten, but because of time I going to limit it to five which all arise from the New Testament and from our own tradition. This is your test to know if you have been filled with the Holy Spirit. For you new students, this is your first test. Because if you can respond favorably to these five marks, then you are going on to perfection, I don’t care what you call it. And if you cannot, you are not yet sanctified.
First, the Spirit gives us the assurance of our justification. We believe that every believer should have an inner witness of the Spirit that they are a child of God. Wesley is very clear that the moment a person exercises faith in the justifying work of the Son, you should receive a witness of the Spirit that God loves you, that he has pardoned you through the good news of the gospel, and that you exhibit joy and peace through the reconciling work of Christ which is confirmed through the Holy Spirit. This is not only confirmed inwardly in your own heart, but it is confirmed through the community of believers and through the means of grace which you receive in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There is a lot of pastoral work here for you in your future ministries. I cannot tell you how many times when I have inquired of one of my parishioners about their spiritual state, some on their death beds, they could only say that they hoped that they were going to heaven.
Second, the Spirit grants us bold confidence in the Word of God and we are enabled to proclaim the Word of God boldly. We are experiencing a crisis today of confidence in the Word of God. But, the Spirit of God attests to the authority of God’s word. Wesley understood that when you read Scripture, you do not read it alone, but you read in the presence of the Risen Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit inspired the Word of God and He enables us to understand it and to appropriate it into our lives. Once understood, we are empowered by the Spirit to preach it and teach it with boldness. Wesley uses as an example the text in Acts 4 where the elders and scribes are amazed at the boldness of Peter and John—who after being rebuked, returned to the church and prayed that they might preach the Word of God boldly. Then, they were filled with the Spirit and for the third time in this chapter it states that they spoke the word of God with boldness. This is repeated in chapter 9:27 with the newly converted Saul of Tarsus, and again in chapter 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8, 26:26 and 28:31 where Paul and his various companions are said to have preached boldly. Today, preaching across all of our traditions has become tentative, tepid, fearful, and, at times, almost apologetic. We seem to think that the Word of God is boring and people would rather hear our stories and our opinions than the Word of God. This should be seen as a real sign that we have not been filled with the Holy Spirit with the measure we should be when it comes to our preaching. You can preach a lot of sermons in the flesh, but transformative preaching occurs out of the overflow of the Spirit of God working in you and through you.
Third, the Spirit enables us to live in ever-increasing holiness. The contemporary church has turned discipleship into sin management programs, without addressing the redirected heart which only happens through an encounter with the Holy Spirit that is just as real as the encounter we insist one must have with Jesus Christ. If you are struggling with persistent or re-occurring sins in your life, you need to be filled and keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit. This comes to us both as an event, as well as process and appropriation. We need clear moments where the Triune God acts and fills you with the Spirit—through the laying on of hands—that is an event. But, we also need ongoing growth through disciplined membership in band meetings—that is a process. This is why, I believe, our mission statement distinguishes between “spirit-filled” and “sanctified”—because we can be filled with the Holy Spirit and yet we continue to need more of the Holy Spirit as we move towards full sanctification. The terms are not interchangeable. “Be filled with the Holy Spirit” is both a command and an ongoing process. Pentecost is not like the Resurrection. It is not a one-time event, but one which happens over and over again in the book of Acts. The early church kept getting filled with the Holy Spirit, even as they were “going on to perfection” with the goal of entire sanctification. Both are “event” and “process” but the purpose of being filled with the Spirit is so that you might be sanctified.
I exhort every student—indeed everyone at Asbury Theological Seminary—staff, faculty, administration, students—everyone – to be part of a band meeting. Kevin Watson’s book, The Band Meeting published by Seedbed is probably the best introduction to the nuts and bolts of being part of a Band if you need more guidance. Seedbed has a special App—Band Together—which is dedicated to helping facilitate band meetings. This will also be facilitated by our Community Formation team here at the seminary.
The fruit of the Spirit should be manifest in our community in an ever-increasing way. We live in a culture which has become degraded and crude. We live in a culture which is shockingly deficient in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Therefore, to bear these fruits is to shine like bright lights in a culture filled with hatred, sadness, warfare, profanity, anxiety, impatience, faithlessness and being out of control—the anti-fruits of the Spirit—or the fruit of the flesh. We want to see the end of all bondages to sin in our community, whether it be pornography or gaming addictions or opioid use, or drunkenness, or hating your body, or shaming, or any other signs of brokenness which would creep into our community.
We also joyfully recognize the gifts of the Spirit as available to the church through all time. I am indebted to Thomas Oden for setting forth so clearly in his multiple volume work on Wesley’s theology, that John Wesley established a clear via media between, on the one hand, a cold, rationalistic kind of Christianity which was closer to Deism than it was the New Testament, and, on the other hand, emotional extremism which is focused more on experience than on the cultivation of holiness. Properly ordered, Wesley believes that the gifts of the Spirit should be fully operational in a truly renewed church, as his lengthy letter to the skeptic Conyers Middleton makes abundantly clear. In fact, Wesley even envisions a church whereby a dead person could be raised up or demons be cast out, experiences foreign to much of our western contemporary Christian experience.
Fourth, the Spirit calls us to be agents of societal transformation. We reject a truncated, post-Enlightenment form of the gospel which turns the whole enterprise into a privatized faith disconnected from the world we live in. The modern world is content with our being Christian as long as we keep it in our heads as nothing more than personal preference. The New Testament understands that holiness has implications which are personal as well as societal and structural. The church is helping to foster the in-breaking Kingdom when we work for justice for the poor, hope for the disenfranchised, and desperately needed racial reconciliation. The church celebrates recovery for addicts and mercy to the immigrants. The church holds up truth in morality and righteousness in a culture which has lost its way. There is no part of creation which we do not work to see under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, as we become his co-laborers in redeeming the world! Does your heart ache for all this?
Fifth, the Spirit empowers us to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth—to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.” We are those who are burdened—our hearts burn like fire—for those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this is the primary function of the Spirit in Acts; namely, to witness to the nations. There are thousands of people groups in the world with no gospel witness and no one to bring them the gospel unless the church acts. There are thousands of biblical nations (i. e. people groups) with not even John 3:16 translated into their language. There is an entire rising generation of young people in this country who have no Christian memory.
Brothers and sisters at Asbury Theological Seminary, we are called to go into all the world precisely because God’s prevenient grace has already beat us there. That prevenient grace becomes embodied in modern flesh and blood versions of the Macedonian Man who continues to call and beckon us to new places of ministry.
When H. C. Morrison founded Asbury Theological Seminary in 1923, he called this community to be “sanctified and Spirit-filled.” To be Spirit-filled and sanctified is not some sectarian doctrine, but is at the heart of the gospel “once for all delivered to the saints.” This is basic “scriptural Christianity.” Scriptural Christianity is what the early Apologists defended in the second century. This is why Athanasius wouldn’t budge as he fought the Arian heresy in the third century. This is the legacy of the Cappadocian fathers in the fourth century. This is at the heart of Aquinas’ Summa in the 13th century. This is part of the Puritan and Pietistic struggle of the 17th century. This is Wesley’s grand depositum of the 18th century. The mantle has now passed to us. It is now our turn to keep remembering the faith. Let us not believe too small, or be found with tiny prayers, stunted faith, or powerless lives. Let us not lose our courage when it comes to standing in the truth of the Word of God. Let us embrace with boldness the full inheritance which is ours through the full ministry of the Triune God. May each of us be “spirit-filled and sanctified.” Amen.