Holiness and Entire Sanctification

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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Holiness pertains to two things: separation and purity.  But, we may ask, what are we separated from and what are the characteristics of purity?  Furthermore, holiness generates insiders and outsiders.  Who is included in this community?  And, how do we become a part of this social entity?  It is vitally important that we understand holiness and entire sanctification so that we articulate the doctrine faithfully, especially because it has led to so much confusion and questioning.  As we do this, we may faithfully call our congregations to embody the character and purposes of God in our world.

In the Genesis story of Creation, we see that we were created in the image of God, or the imago Dei.  Humanity was made in the likeness of God.  However, sin entered the world shattering that divine image.  Light became darkness in the human soul.  Sin distorted and twisted God’s creation, including humanity.  There is a sense of longing with which we groan to be restored to this glorious state.

For John Wesley, the restoration of the imago Dei was the chief purpose and telos of salvation.  He preached that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of this divine image, both God and man.  Whereas, the first Adam was the venue by which humanity was enslaved to sin, Christ became the second Adam by which humanity could be saved and restored to proper relationship with God.  So, in a very real way, the restoration of the divine image becomes Christ-likeness in the believer.  Ultimately, the recovery of this image means being perfected in love.  It is embodying the character and purpose of God, which is always life giving.  However, we must then ask, by what means are we saved and what do we mean by such terms?

John Wesley writes, “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness… the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (372).  In other words, salvation is the entire work of God wrought in the souls of men which restores them to the divine image.  Although Wesley broke salvation into several steps, although he believed they were equally important and inseparable in the life of all believers.  These instances of grace and salvation are: prevenient grace, justification, and sanctification (373).

God’s grace was the one and only catalyst in the cultivation of salvation.  Prevenient grace was simply the work of God, the stirring of the heart, in the sinner that leads to justification.  It is God working in our lives before we are even aware of His presence and power.  As one becomes aware of God’s working in our lives, we reach a crisis point which calls for decision.  We either accept God’s grace or reject it.  Upon acceptance, we move to justification through faith and repentance.

Justification is simply the pardoning of our sins.  In a sense, our debt has been paid.  However, Wesley points out that while sin does not “reign,” it does remain (377).  We are no longer slaves to sin but we are prone to backslide.  Thus, Wesley affirmed that justification, as well as, sanctification is both instantaneous and a process of maturing in our faith.  Wesley commented, “Faith is the condition, and the only condition, of justification” (375).  However, Wesley also affirms that repentance must be a part of this process.  Repentance is turning away from evil and doing what is right.  Yet, in the midst of this turning, we eventually come to understand how prone our hearts are to wander.  We become acutely aware of our lack of righteousness before a holy God.  For, even in doing good works, we at times find wrong motivation moving us in those actions.

“Repentance frequently means an inward change, a change of mind from sin to holiness.  But we now speak of it in a quite different sense, as it is one kind of self-knowledge – the knowing ourselves sinners, yea, guilty, helpless sinners, even though we know we are children of God” (406).  Even after justification, we are often confronted with the reality that sin still resides within.  We find ourselves desiring that which is opposed to the Spirit of God.  How might we then bring everything we are under obedience to Christ?

In knowing that sin remains, though it is no longer in control, we are convinced that we have yet to fully take hold of God’s promised life of perfection.  It is this promise that God saves us from the depths of our sins and perfects us in love.  We recognize that we are unable to bring about this perfection through our own power.  Moreover, we are entirely at the mercy of God to work in and through us.  However, we find that God has promised us that we will do such a work through His Spirit, that He is able to do such a work, and that He desires to work it now (379).  Faith, once more, is the catalyst of God’s work in us.  That is not to say that sanctification, or justification, are worked because of something we have done.  Rather, faith is the response to God’s grace that is available.  Sanctification is being set apart totally for the will and purpose of God.

One point of contention arose from Wesley’s viewpoint of salvation and Calvin’s viewpoint.  Calvin had asserted that grace was irresistible.  Essentially, God calls those whom He will to be saved.  We have come to know this doctrine as “Predestination.”  Wesley vehemently opposed this viewpoint by affirming that it is free grace to all that God extends.  This grace is given to everyone who might receive it.  However, God’s grace can be rejected because we do have the power of free will.

Scripture continuously affirms that Jesus died for the world so that none may perish but that all may have life.  It is an open invitation.  God provides the means and the way of grace to salvation.  Calvin believed that God had elected a select few to be redeemed.  Wesley countered that predestination denied the validity of preaching and teaching, as well as, any effort on our part because God was the only one doing anything.  If it be God’s will to obey or disobey Him, who can resist His will?  In a sense, this doctrine, stated Wesley, painted God worse than Satan himself.  Satan too, in this doctrine, did not have to work one iota because God had already determined the future, both redemption and condemnation.  However, if our choices are genuine and really matter, then we cannot neglect the doctrine of free grace.

The means of grace, in this doctrine, thus become important channels for God’s work in the world.  Wesley preached, “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” (160).  In addition, this outward signs of grace pointed to an inward reality.  Furthermore, one must be careful to keep these practices as means, so that they would not become the end in and of themselves.  In fact, if these means of grace do not move one to love through the Spirit of God, they are vain acts of self-glory.

Specifically, for Wesley, there were three means of grace most employed: prayer, Scripture, and Eucharist.  Each of these elements was equally important and interchangeable.  Neglecting one aspect is detrimental to the spiritual life.  These three sacraments were designed as a way to wait for the grace of God.  Everything found in salvation is worked by God alone and in His own timing.  Our works do not convince or bribe God to act.  Rather, it is by these means of grace that God conveys His grace to us.  So, that in everything we might say God works both our faith and salvation.  Wesley concluded, “The mere work done, profiteth nothing; that there is no power to save but in the Spirit of God, no merit but in the blood of Christ; that consequently even what God ordains conveys no grace to the soul if you trust not in him alone” (170).

In conclusion, entire sanctification is the restoration of the divine image.  We are perfected by and in the love of God, through His Spirit.  This salvation and sanctification is the instantaneous and process by which God restores that image and empowers us to live Christ-like lives.  Furthermore, this salvation is wrought by the grace of God alone through faith in Jesus Christ whose atoning blood pardoned our sins.  This salvation is not by works.  Yet, God has ordained means of grace by which he works to communicate salvation, grace, and mercy.  It is for this reason alone, that we participate in these practices, waiting on the Lord in prayer, Scripture, and the Eucharist.  Likewise, we respond to the grace of God in our lives by “ceasing to do what is evil, learning to do what is good” so that in all things God might be glorified.




Works Cited

Outler, Albert C., and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds. John Wesley’s Sermons: An    Anthology.Nashville: Abingdon P, 1991.


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