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What Is A Wesleyan Theology of Sanctification? by Elizabeth Glass Turner

What comes to mind when you think of the word “sanctification”?

If you’re online trying to find a local mechanic to align your tires and somehow ended here, let’s back up.

Lots of people are atheists or agnostics or follow any number of religions. Christians are theists – we believe in God. In particular, whether we’re Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, or another tradition, Christians believe that God in God’s nature is Trinity: three persons, one God. Historic language for this is Father, Son, Holy Spirit, not because two/thirds of God is male, but because to approach God is to discover the tightly knit interconnectedness of how three persons relate in one unity. I promise this connects to the question, “what is the Wesleyan theology of sanctification?” Also, your tires might need rotated or balanced, too.

Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Coptic and other Christians also believe in the Incarnation: the second person of the Trinity, like the Gospel of John tells us, became flesh. The Word became flesh, and dwelled among us, or as Eugene Peterson poetically painted, the Word “moved into the neighborhood.”

Why the “Word became flesh” through the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is where you begin to find some different emphases among Christian traditions. For centuries, some Eastern Orthodox believers have been universalists, believing eventually everyone will have full union with God in the afterlife. Western Christianity (St. Augustine from Africa, the eventual Roman Catholic Church, and many Protestants) has always placed focus on humanity’s tendency to self-destruct. Curved inward with disordered love of self over God and neighbor, humans have repeatedly chosen to reject God’s love in favor of self-will. (Sometimes this is referred to as “original sin” or as “sin” in general.) Humans continually fall short of the profound goodness and love of God; Jesus moved into the neighborhood, so to speak, to redeem the situation, to show us what God looks like with skin on, and to bring new life and hope to people in need of both. The Word became flesh to bridge the gap between the Creator and the creation.

Yes, you say, having finally found the right tire place on Google maps, but what of the Holy Spirit? What about “Wesleyan” and what do you mean by sanctification? These are great questions to ask in or out of a mechanic’s shop, and the longer you wait while your car is being worked on, the more you’ll need the Holy Spirit and sanctification. Or, put another away, the longer you wait, the more opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work sanctification of your soul after you’ve flipped through an old People and watched the clock practically go backwards.

The Holy Spirit pours out the power of God in a variety of ways that always reveal Christ, point to Christ, and empower believers with the love and power of Christ. Christians may point to the Holy Spirit inspiring the formation of scriptural texts or the Holy Spirit being active in varying practices of ordination (the setting aside of specially called, trained, anointed ministers). Some believers affirm the Holy Spirit’s activity in the Eucharist or Mystery or Holy Communion, transforming simple bread and wine or juice literally (if you’re Catholic) or mystically into a grace-filled experience of the body of Christ. Within these various traditions also lies a very real, often impostered, frequently misunderstood reality. The Holy Spirit continues today to surprise us in tire stores or churches or huts around the world with supernatural phenomena inexplicable solely through reductionist materialist scientific inquiry – healing, signs, strange things we can’t comprehend but that always, only reveal Christ and point to Christ and the invisible reality that is as real as a chipped coffee mug next to a stale-smelling Keurig machine. To greater and lesser degrees, and through a variety of means, believers also affirm that the Holy Spirit works to transform our outer behavior and our inner lives and loves so that we aren’t stuck in the same self-destruct patterns forever.

And this is where we intersect the original question: what is a Wesleyan theology of sanctification? Sorry, we’re out of time, we’ll have to look at that later.

Kidding! Kind of. There’s a lot to say and we’ve already condensed 2,000 years of church history and Trinitarian theology in ways that will have pastors, priests, and especially academics clearing their throats and raising their eyebrows and wanting to clarify or redefine everything I just said.

Wesleyan Methodists, or Wesleyans, or Methodists, are a group of Protestant Christians with a particular set of theological emphases from English brothers John and Charles Wesley, who lived in the 1700’s. “Wesleyan” derives from their name, obviously, and “Methodist” began as an insult because of their persnickety adherence to, yes, methods. While I say Wesleyan Methodism sprang up because of two brothers, if you read a basic biography you’ll soon see we wouldn’t have it today without their remarkable mom, Susanna.

Though John and Charles started what would become this movement, the seeds of Methodism grew while they were at Oxford University. Though they had sisters, women weren’t allowed admission at Oxford at the time, so while the mechanic comes over to tell you that instead of alignment, you need four new tires, you can sit and muse about how the movement might have looked had the Wesley sisters been allowed to attend Oxford.

The Wesley kids primarily were raised by their mom, but their father was a clergyman in the Church of England, which matters but we won’t get into why right now. The main point is that the Church of England at the time was nothing to write home about; and the brothers’ zeal for spiritual growth and formation was in stark contrast to the snoozing pulpits of polite civic religion of their day. Thus they were given the snarky brand of being overexcited “Methodists.”

The notion of sanctification doesn’t belong to one Christian tradition; it doesn’t belong solely to Wesleyan Methodists. You can find it in different terminology scattered across church history, through various traditions, and around the globe. But the Wesleyan Methodists were really organized about focusing on it, pursuing it, and living it individually and in community. The impact on real daily lives was astonishing. Child labor was confronted, illiteracy tackled. John Wesley’s most popular writing during his lifetime wasn’t his pile of sermons, it was his little practical, common-sense pamphlet on health, 250 years before Web MD. There were many very tangible outcomes to something that could sound abstract or removed from real life – sanctification and holiness. But for the Wesleys, sanctification was never about traveling to a remote cave to get away from the mundane or insidious. It was about real life, today, given all the less than ideal circumstances that come our way.

“Sanctus” means holy; sanctification simply refers to being made holy. We struggle though with how to define holy: you might say sacred or set apart or pristine or consecrated. Christians call God “holy,” but what do we really mean by that? Pure? Transcendent? Other-than? Monty Python delightfully skewered the weight and the difficulty of applying the word in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a comedic scene about divine commands on how to use the “holy hand grenade.” Obviously, you can agree to call any object holy or sacred but that doesn’t make it so even if you treat it like it is. You may ask your mechanic if she’s using the ancient holy wrench on your car to be charged this much for new tires, and she may say, “yes, this here is my holy wrench,” waving it around while both of you know there’s nothing holy about this grimy dented wrench or her impulse to whack you with it or your impulse to be rude and impatient.

Holiness must be derived from something holy in and of itself. Where God breaks in, there is holiness. We don’t strain and strive to become our version of holy – John Wesley tried that, it didn’t go well. Painting a hammer gold and calling it holy doesn’t make it holy.

But as we follow Jesus, we open space to pursue and receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit, to be transformed so that, while you are still fully you, you are also more like Jesus in your thinking, will, desires, and choices.

Different traditions within Christianity describe a couple of odd phrases: imputed and imparted righteousness. To impute righteousness is to ascribe or assign righteousness to something that doesn’t have it inherently (rather like the “holy hand grenade”). It’s a position you occupy whether or not you bear the reality within yourself. Say a country with a monarchy has a revolution and they want to install a new king or queen. With a great deal of ceremony and ritual, they name someone as monarch who may have no royal family heritage. (That’s how monarchies began. “He is king now.” “But five seconds ago – ” “HE IS KING NOW.” “Long live the king!”) Everyone agrees to that position while knowing that one person’s DNA is not inherently set apart as “royal.” You are assigning a reality onto something.

To impart righteousness is to give righteousness; imparted righteousness is given and received in a meaningful way so that you are not just assigning a position or title or state of being. Righteousness is actually grown into; it is lived out. Say a kid starts taking vocal lessons and is fairly mediocre. But as they internalize their training and mimic the habits and disciplines of their teacher, their skills genuinely change and improve. Someone who begins as a novice singer transforms into a skilled vocalist. In that scenario, a teacher is imparting skill, passion, discipline, advice, correction, and affirmation.

Imagine then if the teacher could reach into their own throat and share a portion of the clarity of their tone, their perfect pitch, their love of music, and infuse their student with those qualities. That is imparted righteousness. It’s a transcendent music teacher not only demonstrating but sharing their own qualities with the student, as the student also exercises their will to show up for lessons, practice at home, and hone a love of singing.

And that – in part, please don’t email nasty remarks about how I’ve butchered a beautiful tradition – is what a Wesleyan theology of sanctification is: it is the belief, practice, discipline, and lifestyle of showing up to voice lessons with a desire to sing like our Divine Virtuoso, and our Cosmic Music Teacher sharing a portion of their own tone, pitch, technique, power, and passion back with us, so that whether or not we occasionally croak, crack, or drop a word, our intent is complete harmony with the Master Vocalist: the aim of perfect love.

More can be said about the nuts and bolts of this pursuit: the value of practicing this together in Wesley’s discipleship bands; the tangible way this works out in pursuit of justice where there is discordant exploitation, poverty, and abuse; the means of grace as a kind of practicing the scales and showing up for lessons; Scripture as a pitch pipe that reveals and tunes.

Your tires are finally ready, by the way. And where ugly attitudes or impatience or self-centeredness threaten to lead you off-key, leaning into the voice of Jesus Christ happens when, with humility, you can see your tired mechanic, make eye contact, smile, love her, and ask her how you can pray for her today. That is the Jesus way; that is what we mean by holy.