John Wesley wrote, “There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offense than this. The word ‘perfect’ is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them” (Outler 70). John Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification and Christian perfection, due to its seemingly radical and fanatical nature, came under heavy opposition from many of his contemporaries, especially those of Calvinist leanings.
As recipients of this tradition, Wesley’s inheritors have not always clearly understood or communicated the doctrine of entire sanctification and Christian perfection. The result inevitably has been confusion about entire sanctification, not only from the general public, but within the Wesleyan tradition itself. What did Wesley mean when using the term entire sanctification or Christian perfection? And, how did this influence his personal spirituality and practice of ministry? These are the two questions this paper will attempt to answer.
First, I trace Wesley’s understanding of grace and how it functions throughout the process of being made holy. Following this, I define preventing grace, convincing grace, justification and sanctification. A great deal of attention is given to expounding Wesley’s concept of justification and entire sanctification or Christian perfection. The concluding portion of the paper is dedicated to an overview of the practical theology of holiness. First, I explore inward, personal holiness and its connection with “true Christianity”. In addition, I describe the ordinary and prudential means of grace John Wesley thought important for growing in our relationship with God and with others. Finally, I construct the connection between inward holiness and outward, social holiness. Further commentary is provided on some of the practical ways that Wesley and the Methodists embodied their faith.
THE WORK OF GRACE
Wesley asserts, as in Genesis 1:27, that humanity is created in the image of God. Wesley writes, “Man was what God is, Love. Love filled the whole expansion of his soul; it possessed him without a rival. Every movement of his heart was love: it knew no other fervor” (Outler 15). However, due to sin, that image is distorted and broken. All of humanity participates in this sinful rebellion against God; we all live under the curse (Rom. 3:23). We are under the bondage of sin and death.
God desires to restore creation back to its original state. For humanity, it is the restoration of the divine image. The work of grace shapes us into the likeness of Christ, the personification of God’s love. This is the chief aim of God’s plan of salvation, to restore the love of God within us so that we might reflect His Love back into this world. Wesley stated, “This great gift of God, the salvation of our souls is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts. It is the ‘renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that created them’” (Wesley 28). Furthermore, Wesley believes that it is only by grace through faith that humanity can be restored to right relationship with God and with each other.
In his sermon “The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption”, Wesley envisions three states of relationship that one can have with God: the “natural” person, the person “under law”, and the person “under grace.” The “natural” person is equated with a person that is asleep. They are not aware of God or their sinfulness. God calls to this person to awaken them from their spiritual slumber. They become aware of God and His Law. They sense the gap between God and themselves. Thus, they are “under law.” Finally, they sense that they still are in bondage to sin, possessing a divided mind and heart. The individual “under grace” is able to proclaim: “Here end both the guilt and power of sin” (Outler 141).
In the sermon “The Image of God”, Wesley lays out three stages in the work of grace. These three stages correlate to the three states previously mentioned:
The first step to this glorious change is humility, a knowledge of ourselves, a just sense of our condition… (2) The understanding, thus enlightened by humility, immediately directs us to reform our will by charity… (3) Thus it is that the ‘law of the Spirit of life makes us free from the law of sin and death’; thus it restores us, first to knowledge, and then to virtue, and freedom, and happiness (19).
Thus, the grace of God is infused throughout the process of transformation. God’s grace first awakens us to our depraved state, calls us to turn from our sins, and gives us freedom from the power of sin and death.
Wesley further divides and defines the work of grace indicative of God’s transformative work: preventing grace, convincing grace, justifying and sanctifying grace.
’Preventing grace’; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight, transient conviction of having sinned against him… Salvation is carried on by ‘convincing grace’, usually in Scripture termed ‘repentance’, which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone… By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God: by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God (488).
To better understand Wesley’s distinctive doctrine concerning grace, it is informative to see how he opposed the popular notion of grace demonstrated in Calvinism. Wesley and Calvin both assert the total depravity of humanity; Wesley’s view of God’s grace and election, however, is very different from Calvin’s limited atonement and predestination.
Wesley [in the sermon Free Grace] totally rejected predestination in all its Calvinist versions… Whitefield, an exciting preacher who was Wesley’s junior by ten years, took for granted that the doctrine of justification by faith stood or fell with the presupposition of irresistible grace… In 1765, Wesley claimed that on the point of justification, he had never differed ‘from [Mr. Calvin] a hair’s breadth’ (49).
Yet, because Wesley firmly believed God is Love, he could not abide in any theology that compromised this truth. Thus, Wesley adamantly contended against irresistible grace. For instance, in his sermon “Free Grace”, Wesley comments: “This doctrine not only tends to destroy Christian holiness, happiness, and good works, but hath also a direct and manifest tendency to overthrow the whole Christian revelation” (54). In other words, it is inconsistent with the Scriptural witness to God’s nature and character.
Calvin’s doctrine of irresistible grace, Wesley maintains, compromises free will in the human agent, which is exactly what Wesley believes is restored by God’s work in the believer’s life. If grace is irresistible, then it follows that God chooses to save some and condemn others. Wesley argues that free grace, rather than limited grace, reflects a loving God consistent with Scriptures and consistent with his personal experience. How could a loving God seriously only predestine some to eternal salvation and others to eternal condemnation? Wesley is convinced this is entirely incoherent.
John Wesley describes grace as a gift that God extends to everyone. “For it cannot be denied that he everywhere speaks as if he was willing that all men should be saved. Therefore, to say he was not willing that all men should be saved is to represent him as a mere hypocrite and dissembler” (56). Grace is available to all people at all times. Whether a person responds to God’s grace is a different story. For those who do respond to God’s invitation, growth in grace is never fully completed, even in eternity (Wesley 94). So, there is never a point where we are beyond the need of God’s grace.
Thus, Wesley affirms that the awakening, justification, and sanctification of a person are entirely God’s work, by grace. Moreover, God’s grace is made available to everyone at every moment. God is not stingy or reserved in this matter. Rather, He is willing to do the work, if we are willing to receive His grace. His desire is that none should perish. This stance protects the integrity of a God who is Love. This becomes the very foundation Wesley constructs his concept of justification and sanctification upon.
Justification, for Wesley, is freedom from the guilt of sin and restoration to the favor of God (Outler 488). “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sins” (115). Wesley notes that this is not freedom from accusation from the Law or from Satan, nor does it mean that God “deceives” himself into thinking that “those whom he justifies… he accounts them to be otherwise than they are” (115). God does not have amnesia about our sinfulness, but rather chooses to pardon us because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Furthermore, Wesley maintains that justification is not being made “just or righteous.” That is the work of “sanctification; which is indeed in some degree the immediate fruit of justification, but nevertheless is a distinct gift of God, and of a totally different nature. The one implies what God does for us through his Son; the other what he works in us by his Spirit” (114). This is the key distinction between justification (what God does for us) and being born of God (what God does in us) (184).
As with the Reformers, Wesley contends that justification comes through grace by faith alone. Good works do not justify anybody; rather, they are inextricably the fruit of a relationship with God. In addition, good works cannot be accomplished apart from justification (117). As noted earlier, prevenient (or preventing) grace is made available to all before we are aware of it. Convincing grace confirms in our hearts and minds that we are sinners who cannot save themselves. Justification comes through the realization that God alone saves us from our sinfulness, trusting him to work that salvation in us. Grace marks the entire journey, from first to last. Faith, Wesley contends, is the only “necessary condition of justification” (119). If justification is dependent upon good deeds, we would likely become prideful. Humility is the only appropriate temper to have in this model because justification is wholly God’s work. However, this does not indicate that there is no action on the part of the human agent. It is the work of God in us that empowers us “to work out our salvation” (488). We are called to “fight the good fight of faith.”
Wesley’s view of grace and justification are optimistic, but hardly unrealistic about the challenges that face all believers. In the sermon “On Sin in Believers”, Wesley states, “And this infection of nature [sin] doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh… is not subject to the law of God” (360). However, that does not mean that Wesley does not set the bar high, nor that he excuses anyone acting upon temptations. Instead, he announces, “And he has power both over outward and inward sin, even from the moment he is justified” (362). This is the sanctifying power of God’s Holy Spirit enlivened within each believer.
Sanctification, which begins in justification, “save[s] from the power and root of sin, and restore[s] to the image of God” (488). It might be formulated in this way: justification is the moment in which the work of sanctification begins the process of being made Christ-like. The grace of God is made available to all: “So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath” (491). So, even at the moment of justification, believers are empowered to sin no longer, though the “being” of sin remains (366-367).
If sanctification begins at the moment of justification, what does entire sanctification or Christian perfection mean? If we are capable of no longer sinning at the moment of justification, then what work is described by entire sanctification and Christian perfection? Is this a different “state” or “level” of Christianity that believers can enjoy? What is the qualitative difference between justification and entire sanctification in the life of the believer? And, furthermore, what is the telos of Christian perfection? These are the questions to which we now turn.
ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION AND CHRISTIAN PERFECTION
To better understand the doctrine of Christian perfection, we must look at what Wesley believed Christian perfection was not. In his tract, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley outlines the boundaries of perfection: “There is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood” (Wesley 35). In other words, sanctification and perfection are not static realities. Rather, they are dynamic realities that can progress and grow, even regress and diminish.
In addition to these allowances, Wesley further explains that Christian perfection does not mean that we are:
Perfect in knowledge… not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behavior. From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect till then to be wholly freed from temptation; for ‘the servant is not above his master.’ But neither in this sense is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, none which does not admit of a continual increase (Wesley 23).
Obviously, Wesley does not mean perfection in the typical sense that we use it. He confirms that people are still prone to mistakes due to lack of knowledge or insight, lack of creativity or imagination, miscommunication, or infirmities that typically occur within humanity. Perfection, then, must have a different definition than simply being without flaw. So, we must ask: What does perfection entail?
Wesley’s reply to this question has two parts. First, “even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin” (23). The grace of God is made available and is sufficient for those who will respond to it. Denying this premise is to affirm that sin is stronger than God’s grace or that God withholds grace from people. Either way, this flies in the face of Scripture, which Wesley would not allow. Secondly, mature Christians are freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. Christ cleanses the heart and mind of a person which causes that person to bear good fruit accordingly. And, in fact, the mature Christian puts on the whole mind that was in Christ (26-28). Wesley states, “It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers” (27-28).
If this is true, then what exactly does Christian perfection entail? Wesley replies in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love” (51). That does not mean that Christians cannot be tempted, for Christ was tempted. Rather, our affections are subject to the Law of Christ, which is the Law of Love. This is the telos of entire sanctification. If Christian perfection falls short of this goal, then it has utterly failed. Christian perfection is to be perfected in love.
As with justification, entire sanctification is the work of God, not the work of humans. Christian perfection occurs by grace through faith. We can only receive the grace available by faith alone; we cannot earn it through good works. Wesley maintained Christian perfection could be either gradual or instantaneous (90). It could be received in a moment. If this is true, Wesley contended that this gift was not simply to be expected in death but in this life, at this moment, and at every moment. Freedom from both the guilt and power of sin is attainable in this life. Of course, it is not until death that we are freed from the being of sin within our lives, but we no longer have to be enslaved to the passions of sin but can be servants to the Law of Love.
Still, many questioned how someone could live without sin and be “perfected in love” when experience showed that people constantly make mistakes. Wesley responded, “’A man may be filled with pure love, and still be liable to mistake.’ Indeed, I do not expect to be freed from actual mistakes, till this mortal puts on immortality. I believe this to be a natural consequence of the soul’s dwelling in flesh and blood” (52). Wesley further remarks:
This easily accounts for what might otherwise seem to be utterly unaccountable; namely, that those who are not offended when we speak of the highest degree of love, yet will not hear of living without sin. The reason is, they know all men are liable to mistake, and that in practice as well as in judgment. But they do not know, or do not observe, that this is not sin, if love is the sole principle of action (53).
As is evidenced in this excerpt, mistakes can be made with right, good intentions. This does not alleviate the need for forgiveness when mistakes are made. On the contrary, we are still totally dependent upon the cleansing power of Christ’s atonement, even though every word and action is guided by love (52).
To clarify, Wesley distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary “sin” in the life of the believer. “I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions” (54). As such, Wesley never employs the term “sinless perfection” (54). Although people are still susceptible to involuntary transgressions, Wesley does not believe this is “sin, properly so called.” In fact, Wesley is wont to call involuntary transgressions “sin” at all because he defines sin as a voluntary violation of God’s Law. As such, involuntary transgressions, although in need of repentance and forgiveness, are categorized as failure or lack of knowledge and insight, not sin. And, since involuntary transgressions are performed without awareness, this in no way violates love which governs the heart. As such, it is “sin, improperly so called” (54).
To combat the problem of setting the bar too high or low, Wesley suggests that Scripture is the mediating medium. In fact, Wesley maintains that his doctrine of entire sanctification is entirely in line with Scripture. “It is 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 neighbor as ourselves. It is love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions” (55). This, of course, is the Greatest Commandment referred to in Matthew 22 and Mark 12. Love is the sum of the Law and Prophets.
Although freedom from sin is an important element in entire sanctification, Wesley does not promote this as the most important aspect. Even at the culmination of God’s saving work and the beginning of the new creation, sin’s banishment only opens up the possibility for something greater! “And to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him” (Outler 500)!
Freedom from sin is not the telos of Christian perfection. It is only a means to something greater. Love is the telos, the end goal, of entire sanctification. It is the giving of one’s entire heart to God, not simply “orthodoxy or right opinion” (Maddox 201-04). “We must be holy in heart and life before we can be conscious that we are so. But we must love God before we can be holy at all, this being the root of all holiness” (202). Yet, love is not only the source and root of holiness, it is also the fruit of holiness.
It is the love of God that is first given to us and that seeks us out; we call this grace. It is the love of God that convinces us that we are far from what we were created to be; we are broken and need a savior. God’s love, in Christ Jesus, pardons us from sin upon repentance. And, it is God’s love that draws us deeper and closer to be more like Him, which is holiness. But, should we ever believe we possess His Love, we cause it to be stagnant in our lives. If we conceive of love being only a personal matter, then we miss the point entirely. Rather, love must also flow out to our neighbor and our brothers or sisters. Loving God and loving neighbor is the sum of Scripture and it is the sum of holiness. If we have not love, we only possess an empty shell of works that is but a shadow of true religion.
WESLEY’S PRACTICAL THEOLOGY
“Wesley wanted more out of knowledge than acknowledgement. Just as ordinary knowledge is incomplete (or even meaningless) unless it can be re-applied to reality, so, too, the spiritual truths that reason has determined based on the data of Scripture must be re-applied to experience to have true value” (Crutcher 135). As such, the experience of a person of faith, if genuine, should be able to be “experienced” by others in the faith community. Theology, for Wesley, could not be purely theoretical but needed to be applied in concrete reality. After all, Wesley maintained that even the devil was orthodox, so correct knowledge was not true Christianity’s only goal (Maddox 202).
John Wesley’s empirical understanding of knowledge would not allow his doctrine of entire sanctification to be an idle theory. Rather, the work of God in one’s life called for a response in that believer’s life. As a movement of grace in a person’s life, God “breathes into us every good desire, and brings every good desire to good effect” (Outler 488). The process of sanctification motivates those being sanctified to respond to God’s grace, not only by abstaining from evil, but by doing good to others.
Wesley understood the outcome of God’s work to have a two-fold purpose: “to will and to do” (488). “First, ‘to will’ may include the whole of inward, ‘to do’ the whole of outward religion. And if it be thus understood, it implies that it is God that worketh both inward and outward holiness” (488). Inward holiness is connected with our disposition toward God and outward holiness specifies our disposition toward others. Because God has lavished such love upon us, we too can love God and others through the empowerment of His Spirit and the grace that He extends to us. This is the goal of Christian perfection or entire sanctification: Love. This is the work that God undertakes in making us holy.
To keep others from twisting this into a works-based salvation, Wesley clarifies that true religion is not simply a matter of outward deeds, but is foundationally about the disposition of the heart. The cultivation of inward holiness is the chief ambition of true religion. Yet, genuine Christianity does not exclude outward holiness. “The Way to the Kingdom” records Wesley’s thoughts concerning the matter:
Yea, two persons may do the same outward work… and in the meantime one of these may be truly religious and the other have no religion at all; for the one may act from the love of God, and the other from the love of praise. So manifest it is that although true religion naturally leads to every good word and work, yet the real nature thereof lies deeper still, even in ‘the hidden man of the heart’ (125).
Thus, “true religion” is always motivated by and aimed toward love of God, this is inward holiness. Because God loved us first, we are enabled to love God, thus, we can rightly love our neighbor… which, in turn, is a way to love God. Any other motivation than love of God is a distortion and malfunction of pride, not love. It is a way for gaining praise for our piety instead of glorifying God.
Yet, to combat an idle religion, Wesley teaches that God will only work in one’s life if they are willing to receive the grace God extends. Thus, he challenges his audience to work out their faith with fear and trembling (487). This does not indicate that Wesley believed we could earn grace. He explains, “First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works; therefore you must work” (490). Furthermore, he exhorts his listeners:
Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace… ‘he that made us without ourselves, will not save us without ourselves.’ He will not save us unless we ‘save ourselves from this untoward generation’; unless we ourselves ‘fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life’; unless we ‘agonize to enter in at the strait gate,’ ‘deny ourselves, and take up our cross daily’, and labour, by every possible means, to ‘make our own calling and election sure’ (491-92).
Thus, the work of God in believers is not simply a passive receptivity, though we are called to “wait upon the Lord.” Rather, it is a response to God’s work and a partnering with God in that work. As a result, Wesley calls his listeners to “work out their salvation… by every possible means.”
Encouraging his followers to continue to be perfected in love, Wesley constantly reminds them “that Christ had ordained certain outward means for conveying his grace into the souls of men” (158). He explains, “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end – to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace… a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same’ (160). God can and does, at times, offer grace through extraordinary means, however, “ordinary channels” are the usual means by which God typically acts. As such, Wesley calls for Methodists to employ all of these means as often as possible.
In the sermon “The Means of Grace, Wesley proposes three ordinary means of grace conducive to the development of inward holiness: prayer, Scripture, and communion. Fasting is also added to this list “in the Minutes of the first Methodist conference in 1744” (Maddox 228). True Christians are called to “wait upon the Lord” by the use of these channels. “Waiting upon the Lord” is seeking God with a “single eye”, it is the primary desire of our hearts. It is an expectant, active waiting through which people engaged the means of grace, focusing their affections upon Him.
There were other channels of grace that were commonly used by the Methodists. “To the instituted means they also added ‘prudential means of grace’ – practices that the church had initiated for particular needs in various times and places, such as participation in accountability groups… visitation of the sick, and attendance at special services of worship” (229).
These means of grace have no merit or value apart from the power of the Holy Spirit and the merit of Jesus the Christ.
But we allow that the whole value of the means depends on their actual subservience to the end of religion; that consequently all these means, when separate from the end, are less than nothing, and vanity; that if they do not actually conduce to the knowledge and love of God they are not acceptable in his sight; yea, rather, they are an abomination before him; a stink in his nostrils; he is weary to bear them – above all if they are used as a kind of ‘commutation’ for the religion they were designed to subserve. It is not easy to find words for the enormous folly and wickedness of thus turning God’s arms against himself, of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in (160).
To comprehend how Wesley envisioned inward and outward holiness being cultivated, it is necessary to briefly reflect on his early years of life and the Methodist movement’s practices. In pursuing true, Scriptural Christianity, Wesley’s Pietist roots influenced his desire for rigorous discipline. Susanna Wesley, John’s mother, believed in strict discipline of children early on to instill in them a sense of proper behavior and religion. This attitude invariably carried over into John’s life and ministry.
While studying for the Anglican ministry at Oxford, Wesley and a band of fellow students became disillusioned with the spiritual emptiness that had fallen upon the Anglican Church as well as its subservience to the government and the aristocracy. The group’s lives became such examples of piety and moderate regularity that their fellow students branded them ‘Methodists’ in derision (Sherman 545).
Engaging the format that the Holy Club had employed during Wesley’s time attending Oxford, as well as, implementing the group accountability found in the Moravian societies, Wesley constructed a movement within the Anglican Church that created and implemented discipleship effectively among Methodist membership.
Initially a movement within the Church of England, Methodists worshiped in their local parish church but met in small classes with twelve to fifteen other Christians. The class encouraged spiritual growth and discipline, and met for structured Bible study. The class leader, a mature Christian, kept in close touch with each member… Some mature Christians wanted a more intimate group than the relatively informal class and formed bands of six to eight people that met more frequently than classes and practiced encouragement and mu-tual [sic] confession of sins. Class membership was a prerequisite for the bands, and bands consisted largely of class leaders. The third level of Methodist organization was the select society… The select society was intended to allow Methodists to form an intentional community, sharing a common purse on the model of Herrnhut (Spickard 248, 250).
The Methodist movement, as it matured and grew, was often known for its strict, disciplined practices.
Even at a late period in his life, John Wesley remarks, “Deny yourselves every pleasure which does not prepare you for taking pleasure in God, and willingly embrace every means of drawing near to God, though it be a cross, though it be grievous to flesh and blood (Outler 490). The Methodist movement had little room for those who did not constantly want to grow deeper in their relationship with God. Although Wesley does make a distinction between “lower and higher orders of Christians”, he always pushes and exhorts other Christians to not be fully satisfied but to go farther and deeper. It is a call to be perfected in love.
The societies, bands, and classes provided accountability for those striving toward Christian perfection. Such “prudential means of grace” allowed for the “instituted means of grace” to be a regular, continuous part of the communal life. Prayer, communion, fasting, and Scripture were all a vital part of the practices that were in place for those that met together for communal accountability. Inward holiness, due to these means of grace, or acts of piety, allowed many to not only be justified, but to go on to sanctification. Those that did not show evidence of desiring to pursue holiness were sometimes kicked out of the Methodist societies (they could re-join if they became serious about pursuing holiness again). The societies, bands, and classes birthed members committed to being transformed by God’s grace rather than simply performing lip service.
Dr. Leo G. Cox, professor of theology and New Testament at Marion College, notes: “For the light to shine as it should, there must be moral discipline. It is unique that the manual of rules and regulations for Methodists was called a Discipline. Outward holiness came, not by a crisis of faith, but by gradual sanctification in Christian growth through earnest discipline” (162). A disciplined life tills the soil of the heart so that it might produce good fruit, works of righteousness.
This disciplined life had several elements that comprised the whole of true religion. In the sermon “On Zeal”, Wesley breaks down the order and importance of religious zeal. As such, it touches on the disciplines that cultivate both inward and outward holiness.
In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne, which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival. In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance – and if any other is comprised in ‘the mind which was in Christ Jesus’. In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to. Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety: reading and hearing the Word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our bless Lord has united them together in one – the church (Outler 468-69).
Sustaining his focus on the Church as vital to holiness, Wesley diligently labored not to allow his theology to produce hermits closed off from the world. Inward holiness may be true religion, but it could not help but be outward holiness as well. “Let the light which is in your heart shine in all good works, both works of piety and works of mercy” (206). In other words, inward and outward holiness cannot be separated out but are integrally and intricately intertwined. Wesley fervently advanced the notion that inward holiness produces outward holiness.
Wesley claims that Christianity is “essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it; secondly, that to conceal this religion is impossible, as well as utterly contrary to the design of its author” (195). He qualifies the connection between personal and social holiness, commenting:
It is also true that bare, outside religion, which has no root in the heart, is nothing worth; that God delighteth not in such outward services, no more than in Jewish burnt offerings, and that a pure and holy heart is a sacrifice with which he is always well pleased. But he is also well pleased with all that outward service which arises from the heart; with the sacrifice of our prayers… of our praises and thanksgivings; with the sacrifice of our goods, humbly devoted to him, and employed wholly to his glory; and with that of our bodies (201).
Genuine outward holiness can only be derived and motivated by inward holiness. It is the seed of love for God growing in the heart which then bears tangible fruit in our lives as we love our neighbor. In a real sense, outward holiness is a means of grace for both believers and unbelievers. The sanctified believers are the embodiment and extension of God’s love to a hurting world. They are a city on a hill for all to see.
Not everyone responded kindly to Wesley’s ministry that sprouted from his logical progression from inward to outward holiness. In response to criticism concerning his unorthodox ministry, John Wesley articulates his calling:
I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that his blessing attends it. Great encouragement have I, therefore, to be faithful in fulfilling the work he hath given me to do. His servant I am, and, as such, am employed according to the plain direction of his word,’ As I have opportunity, doing good unto all men:’ and his providence clearly concurs with his word; which has disengaged me from all things else, that I might singly attend on this very thing, ‘ and go about doing good’ (138).
Wesley’s response gives us insight into his conception of outward holiness. Outward holiness is living into the call given to the disciples by Jesus in the Great Commission to go and preach the Gospel, which is also endowed upon contemporary disciples to fulfill (Matt. 28:19-20).
“Preaching the Gospel” is Wesley’s main concern in promoting Scriptural Christianity, keeping Christianity from becoming a “solitary religion”. But, for Wesley, preaching the Gospel is not only orating sermons and teaching lessons over Scripture. Preaching the Gospel is also achieved by living in faithful obedience to God and in humble servant-hood to others. In addition, this quote evidences the natural overflow Wesley conceives between inward holiness and outward holiness. Wesley’s love for God propels him to do whatever is necessary to fulfill his calling to preach the Gospel by doing “good unto all men.”
John Wesley “preached the Gospel” in myriad ways in his culture. His entire ministry can be seen as the cultivation of outward holiness flowing from inward holiness of heart. Loving his neighbor is not simply an option but a mandate. And, he cannot accomplish this at a disinterested distance. Love drives him to be intimately involved with his parishioners’ lives. Although John Wesley is hardly a pioneer of methods for the practice of ministry, he creatively adapts others’ ideas with great skill and foresight.
Thus, George Whitefield and the Welshman Howell Harris had pioneered field preaching, but it was John Wesley who became the great organizer of itinerant, outdoor evangelism. Again, the Moravians had pioneered the small-group cell meeting. But it was John Wesley who attended diligently to organizing these small-group cells into bands, societies, and circuits, and in so doing founded the Methodist Church. Once more, Wesley was not the first Protestant to organize voluntary agencies for reform in society but his campaigns against slavery and excessive drinking, and for the education of unschooled children, set precedents that many evangelicals have followed ever since (Noll 224).
Wesley maintains his loyalty to the Anglican denomination throughout his life, but his view of grace and his sense of mission allows him to circumnavigate the normal parameters of ministry for his context. Thus, ministry for Wesley is not contingent upon structures given outside of Scripture. Rather, the dissemination of the Gospel to society is the most urgent matter to Wesley. As long as the structures promoted that end, Wesley operates within Anglican boundaries quite cooperatively. Despite this fact, he is also willing to change methods if he deems them prohibitive to preaching the Gospel.
Wesley does not start Methodism as a new denomination but as a movement to revitalize the Anglican Church. Wesley’s catholic spirit does not desire schism, but rather hopes that Scriptural Christianity would transform a society. Wesley extends the hand of fellowship to any that pursue this same goal. The preaching of the Gospel is not a trivial matter, but a mission entrusted to the Church, to all Christians.
Outward holiness, though not conclusive, is evidence of God’s work of sanctification in the life of the believer. These are markers consistent with the experience and testimony of the Christian community throughout history. John Wesley instructs his audience:
Over and above all this, are you zealous of good works? Do you, as you have time, do good to all men? Do you feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction? Do you visit those that are sick? Relieve them that are in prison? Is any a stranger and you take him in? Friend, come up higher…. Does he enable you to bring sinners from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God (Collins 146)?
Wesley is really asking his audience whether or not the power of the Gospel is truly transforming their lives as evidenced by the transformation of their surrounding culture. Has the very community that receives God’s grace now offering itself as a means of God’s grace? And, are they preaching the Gospel by every conceivable means possible so that others too might be saved?
If entire sanctification is the full surrender of a heart to God so that it is perfected in love, then it cannot help but pour out that love toward others. It is not a solitary religion, though it is a religion of the heart. But, there cannot be holiness if there is a lack of social holiness. If we do not love both God and neighbor then our piety and our deeds are dead. Love must be the source, the motivation, and the product of true, Christian religion.
We are created in the image of God, reflections of His Love. However, due to sinfulness and rebellion that image is broken and distorted. The Gospel is a testimony to God’s redemptive plan through Jesus Christ. God’s grace makes us aware of our depravity and sinfulness (preventing grace). We are brought to repentance for our rebellion (convincing grace). By grace through faith, God justifies us, removing the guilt of sin from us (justification). And, finally, we are saved from the power and root of sin and restored to the image of God in sanctification. Sanctification begins at justification. Entire sanctification is for our affections to be governed fully by love. This is what Wesley preached and taught during his life and ministry as the Methodist reformer.
We then looked at the practical implications of Wesley’s theology. Inward holiness is not simply about passive receptivity but about active waiting upon God’s work in grace. Active waiting calls for us to “work out our own salvation”, whereby practice of both instituted and prudential means of grace become channels for God’s justifying and sanctifying work A heart that has a loving disposition toward God is true Christianity. However, Christianity is not a solitary religion, but a social religion. Both personal and social holiness are intimately connected and cannot be pulled apart. There is a natural outflow from inward holiness to outward holiness. Ultimately, holiness is about fulfilling the Law of Love. It is obedience to the Great Commandment: Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
Collins, Kenneth J. A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley. New York: Abingdon Press, 2000.
Cox, Leo George. John Wesley’s Concept of Perfection. 1964. Reprint. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1968.
Crutcher, Timothy J. The Crucible of Life, The Role of Experience in John Wesley’s Theological Method. Lexington: Emeth Press, 2010.
Maddox, Randy L., and Jason E. Vickers. The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Sherwin, Oscar. John Wesley: Friend of the People. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961.
Spickard, Paul R., Kevin M. Cragg, and Gordon William Carlson. A Global History of Christians: How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001.
Wesley, John. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1966.
Wesley, John, Albert Cook Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.