Holiness Of Heart and Life by Maxie Dunnam

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In an earlier article, we reflected on Wesley’s insistence on perfection being an essential dimension of our going on to salvation. He came from his Aldersgate experience convinced that all could be saved, and all could be saved to the uttermost. Thus assurance and perfection became essential in his understanding of grace working for our full salvation.

As I wrote in my last article, for Wesley, the terms Christian perfection, sanctification, and holiness carried the same meaning. Holiness is not optional for Christians. Jesus was forthright: “You shall be perfect, your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 NJKV). The Holy Spirit, through Inspiration given to Peter, confirms the call: “As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” (1 Peter 1:15 NKJV)

Wesley’s concern about holiness/perfection did not begin at Aldersgate. He preached a sermon on it, using the verse, “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal,” as the text for the  sermon, “Circumcision of the heart,” which he preached at Oxford University on January 1, 1733. This is the only sermon Wesley preached before his conversion at Aldersgate in 1738 that he kept in its original form and used throughout his life in teaching Methodists. This consistency underscores a distinctively Wesleyan view of the Christian way: holiness of the heart and life, or personal and social holiness.

In 1725 he had a conversion to the ideal of holy living. He never abandoned that ideal, though it was cast in a different framework after his Aldersgate conversion.

Between 1725 and his Aldersgate experience in 1738, he consistently misplaced holiness. He was driven by the idea that one must be holy in order to be justified. That was the futile process which drove Wesley to the deep despondency that eventually brought him to Aldersgate. One of the decisive shifts that came in his conversion at Aldersgate was a reversal of the order of salvation-justification preceded holiness, not vice versa.

Howard Snyder reminds us that a part of Wesley’s genius, under God, lay in developing and maintaining a synthesis in doctrine and practice that kept biblical paradoxes paired and powerful. He held together faith and works, doctrine and experience, the individual and the social, the concerns of time and eternity.  So is the synthesis of personal and social holiness, holiness of heart and life (Howard A. Snyder, The Radical Wesley, p. 143).

It is important to keep a perspective on at least a skeletal outline of Wesley’s thought, especially about our need for salvation. For Wesley, it was a matter of the circumcision of the heart which was issued in love of God and love of neighbor-holiness of heart and life.

This was captured clearly and succinctly at the formal establishment of Methodism in America at the 1784 Christmas Conference in Baltimore. The question was asked, “What can we rightly expect to be the task of Methodists in America?” The answer came clear and strong: “To reform a continent and spread scriptural holiness across the land.” That’s personal and social holiness.

But what does all this mean? Simply put, it means that we as Christians are to be holy as God is holy, that the church is to be that demonstration plot of holiness set down in an unholy world. Jesus said it means that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. And Paul said it means that faith without works is dead, and the work of faith is love.

Wesley would affirm this as the sum of Christian perfection – loving God, and loving our neighbor. He spoke of “inward holiness,”that is love of God and the assurance of God’s love for us. And he spoke of “outward holiness,” that is, love of neighbor and deeds of kindness. He was fond of speaking of persons being “happy and holy.” For him the two experiences were not opposites, but actually one reality.

“Why are not you happy?” Wesley frequently asked. Then he would answer, “Other circumstances may concur, but the main reason is because you are not holy.”

That’s enough for us to go on. I want to be happy and holy, don’t you?

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