Perfecting Holiness

“Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

I cannot fully express to you the joy that was ours when in the spring of 1985 – over 25 years ago – our first child was born. Jonathan was born rather late at night after 30 hours of labor, and I remember looking at my watch right there in the delivery room when he was born. It was 10:30 p.m. and it was May 24. For a Methodist to have a child born on May 24 is a great gift, indeed. May 24, you will recall, is also the day when John Wesley had his famous heartwarming experience at Aldersgate. It ranks as the most well-known historical event in our movement. (In contrast, my birthday is Sept. 24, and about the only thing I know in history that happened on Sept. 24 is the birth of the American Postal Service, which is, shall we say, not quite up there with Aldersgate). But, it was on May 24 that Wesley went “unwillingly” down to a Christian society meeting and there encountered a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Listen to Wesley’s own words: “About a quarter before nine, while the reader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Scholars and historians still debate about what precisely happened to Wesley that night. Was this his conversion experience, or not? The point, however, is that Wesley went away transformed. That night he heard the gospel, he really heard it at the deepest level – it was a “splagchnizomai” moment, the word used to describe Jesus being “deeply moved within.” Wesley got the point; we are justified through the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. We cannot add to that work. Sola Christus, sola fide: Christ alone, faith alone. Wesley really heard the Reformation recovery of the biblical message. It is no mistake that this transformation came as someone was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans – that point should not be lost on us. For Luther’s “tower experience” in the 16th century (tower of the Black Cloister of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg) where the gates of heaven were opened – “I felt myself born anew and to enter through open gates into paradise itself!” – was much like Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in the 18th century. They suddenly really heard the full force of Paul when he says, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17). They really heard something deep within when they read those words, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). Some fresh wind blew across their darkened souls when they read those words of St. Paul, “No one is justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). It is not less than a doctrine, but it is much more than a doctrine. It must be personalized. We need to understand that the doctrine of justification by faith is one of those doctrines that you don’t just believe or affirm – like people believe or don’t believe in infant baptism or the rapture or supralapsarianism. This is not in that category. This is a foundational doctrine that defines Christian identity. The doctrine of justification by faith is a doctrine that you really need to personally hear at a deep level. You need to believe it, yes, but you also need to experience it. To use the language of the 18th century revivalists, this is not theoretical religion; this is experimental religion (we would say “experiential”). This is precisely what happened to Wesley on May 24, 1738, at about quarter till nine. For the sake of convenience, let’s call this the May 24 story.

You need to have a May 24 story. It may not have happened to you on May 24 – you may not even remember the date or that it took place at a quarter before nine (process versus crisis). But you need a May 24 story. This is your stake in the ground, the point when you “got it,” when you said, “I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation, and an assurance was given to me that my sins, even mine, were taken away, and I was delivered from the law of sin and death.” It’s your birth story! It’s about the foundation. It’s about walking through the front door. I was on a youth group trip up in the mountains of north Georgia, and we stopped one evening at a boarding school in Rabun Gap, and we, along with a few hundred residents of the school, sat on wooden stools around tables and ate supper in a large, grungy cafeteria. In was the summer of 1975. At the end of supper, we were anxious to board the bus and get on home to Atlanta when a man got up to give an after-supper devotional. I – if I can borrow the language of Wesley – reluctantly sat back down on my wooden stool to wait out the devotional. The chaplain opened his Bible to Philippians 3 and shared very clearly from Paul’s declaration that Paul counts all things rubbish that he might be “found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own…, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8,9). Something happened as I sat there: I heard the gospel. Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, like Luther’s tower experience, my own boarding school cafeteria experience, and your experience, are May 24 stories.

There are some stories in life that are logically prior and, indeed, necessary prerequisites, to other stories. Your birth story, your conversion story, or your wedding story often lay logically prior to other kinds of stories. Your May 24 story is a vital and logically prior story to what I want to share now – a new story for some of you. However, I’m acknowledging up front that this new story requires that you already have a May 24 story as a prerequisite. If you don’t have that, then nothing I am about to say will make a bit of sense.

On New Year’s Eve, bringing in the year 1739 (283 years ago), Wesley goes to another society meeting. This one hasn’t penetrated the popular imagination like Aldersgate, but it is essential if you are going to really understand Wesley and the whole Methodist movement. He goes down, not to Aldersgate, but to Fetter Lane.

That night, at Fetter Lane, they have a prayer meeting, a vigil to bring in the new year. Praying in the new year is a long-standing tradition among many Christians – it is a lot more exciting than watching the ball drop with Dick Clark. So they are praying, and around 3 a.m. (Wesley was very particular in his journals about recording the time things happened!) on January 1, 1739, something dramatic happens to Wesley. He later calls it his personal Day of Pentecost. He received a sanctifying experience where God reoriented his heart and life. Listen to his own words: “Mr. Hall . . . and my brother Charles, were present at our love-feast in Fetter 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 among us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell 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.” Wesley believed in sanctification as a doctrine before 1739, but it is here that he experienced it. It became a new chapter in his spiritual journey. We’ll call it the Fetter Lane story. There is the May 24 story, and there is the Fetter Lane story – both are essential in the life of the believer. Wesley’s life was reoriented. He became sanctified. He was filled with the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of entire sanctification is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in our movement. It is misunderstood because we haven’t been prepared to hear it. 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 really a forensic term at all. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification is inherently relational. In fact, it is relational to the core – it is Trinitarian. It is that which happens when we are brought fully into relationship with the Triune God. You see, we are judged not just for the temporal sins that we commit – that would reduce the whole thing to a forensic discussion. When we sin, we are judged because, in that moment of choosing sin, we are actually electing the absence of God in our lives. You see, sanctification is always relational. Sin separates us from God; it is our embrace of the absence of God in our lives.

This is the great insight of the Holiness movement. Luther and the early Reformers understood “alien righteousness.” For Luther, we are only “dung hills covered in snow.” The Holiness movement reminds us that salvation is about more than justification. Righteousness for Wesley was about more than God just looking at us through a different set of glasses. Alien righteousness must become native righteousness; imputed righteousness must become actualized righteousness; declared righteousness must become embodied righteousness, wrought in us not by our own strength but through the power of the living God. We are marked, oriented and reoriented by love.

We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but we are sanctified by faith as we come 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 reoriented. Entire sanctification means that our entire heart has been reoriented towards the joyful company of the Triune God. 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 use the language of our text this morning, sanctification is what purifies us from everything that “contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”

Sin is encamped around us on every side, but it is no longer our ally. We burn the secret agreements we have to nod and wink and dance 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 great gift from God – a gift that changes your heart, reorients your relationships with the Triune God and with others, giving you the capacity to love God and your neighbor in new and profound ways. It transforms your perspective because your heart is reoriented. Even sanctified people sin, but the difference is that in the life of a sanctified person, sin becomes a permanent enemy and no longer a 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.” Whenever J. C. McPheeters, our second President, was asked, “How are you doing?” he would joyfully reply, “I’m improving.” It is a new orientation that no longer looks back on the old life but is always looking forward to the New Creation. It is a life that has been engulfed by new realities, eschatological realities – not the realities of that which is passing away.

Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins 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 we produce! In Wesley, faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed! We no longer have a view of holiness that is legalistic, private, negative and 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 that 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!

A sanctified person is “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). How could Paul write such things? How can you declare such things in your own life? Because he had been caught up into a higher frame of reference. Your heart has been reoriented. Who needs wine when we’ve got the Holy Spirit? You have what Wesley once called a “self-forgetful heart” and a life engulfed by “perfect love.”

The best metaphor I ever heard for “perfect love” is a story told by Robert Coleman, who taught here for 27 years and, after years at Trinity and Gordon Conwell, is back here in retirement still teaching at Asbury Seminary. Robert Coleman was out in the garden working on a hot day, sweat pouring off his body. His son saw him through the window of the house working hard and decided to bring him a glass of water. He went down to the kitchen, pulled up a stool, and managed to get up to the sink. He picked up a dirty glass laying in the sink, filled it with lukewarm water, and brought it out to his dad. Robert Coleman commented that the glass may have been dirty and the water warm, but it was brought to him in perfect love. Don’t you love that? The self-forgetful heart is the heart that has been reoriented towards love.

I shared with you earlier that I have my May 24 story. But in September of 1977, I was a freshman at Young Harris College in the mountains of North Georgia. I was a baptized Christian believer, but I had many other affections. I was engrossed in politics and, in fact, the same day I received the second blessing was the day that I was elected President of my college freshman class. I had two narratives unfolding in my life. One was to be a Christian but still follow my own affections. The other was to become totally reoriented to divine purposes. I thank God for those dear brothers in Christ who came to me and said, “Do you really want to live for Jesus? Are you prepared for radical change? Do you really want to be put on fire for Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit? I said yes. They prayed for me, and I was filled with the Holy Spirit. My heart was reoriented, and I’ve never looked back.

I believe that there are some of you who would like to stand before God and say, “Fill me with the Holy Spirit! Give me the second blessing! Lord, sanctify me in Jesus’ Name! Lord, reorient my heart! Let me be governed by love. Deliver me from me so that I am truly crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” You have a May 24 story. But God will give you a Fetter Lane story when He reoriented your heart towards perfect love!


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