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Kevin Watson ~ Christian Perfection: Problem or Promise?

John Wesley believed that Christian perfection, love excluding sin, was possible in this life – by the grace of God.

At the end of his life he even wrote in a letter that he believed that the doctrine of entire sanctification was “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”1

Is the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification a problem or a promise?

One of my favorite things to do as a seminary professor is talk with students and church folk about the Wesleyan understanding of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. People often have some understanding of the role that holiness played in John Wesley’s theology. However, they also often assume that he did not really mean that Christian perfection meant “love excluding sin,” which was, in fact, one of Wesley’s definitions of Christian perfection.

When I walk through what Wesley did and did not mean by Christian perfection, people sometimes seem to recoil from the doctrine. To some it seems naïve. To others it is discouraging. For those who have a negative reaction to the doctrine, the common reaction seems to be that it is a problem. What do we do with the fact that in order to be ordained in The United Methodist Church we have to say before God and our colleagues in ministry that we “are going on to perfection,” and that we “expect to be made perfect in love in this life”?

And what do we do about the fact that many of our colleagues in ministry who have already answered this question seem to have lagged in their zeal for going on to perfection?

At maybe the most basic level, how could we ever hope to make this “grand depositum” of Methodism credible in a context where one of the most popular clichés is that “nobody’s perfect”?

Christian perfection is a scandal to most 21st century Americans.

For better or worse, the doctrine of entire sanctification is not going to be purged from contemporary Methodism. In The United Methodist Church, for example, there is an article in the “Confession of Faith,” which is one of the key statements of official UM doctrine, that is specifically focused on Christian perfection. Here is Article XI from the “Confession of Faith” in its entirety:

We believe sanctification is the work of God’s grace through the Word and the Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will, and to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift may be received in this life both gradually and instantaneously, and should be sought earnestly by every child of God.

We believe this experience does not deliver us from the infirmities, ignorance, and mistakes common to man, nor from the possibilities of further sin. The Christian must continue on guard against spiritual pride and seek to gain victory over every temptation to sin. He must respond wholly to the will of God so that sin will lose its power over him; and the world, the flesh, and the devil are put under his feet. Thus he rules over these enemies with watchfulness through the power of the Holy Spirit.2

As we see, in Article XI sanctification is not about something that I either have to do to make myself better, or for which I have to feel guilty about not being good enough. It is a “work of God’s grace,” whereby those who have experienced new birth are “cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will.” Entire sanctification is really nothing more than sanctification happening to the uttermost. It is God’s grace freeing us from everything that has kept us chained to sin and death. It is God’s grace enabling our positive response.

Article XI of the “Confession of Faith” is solid Wesleyan theology because entire sanctification is focused on nothing more than God’s grace enabling us to fulfill the Greatest Commandment found in Matthew 22:37-38, love of God and neighbor.

The doctrine of entire sanctification is not a threat or a problem. It is a precious gift!

God has not only acted in Christ to make forgiveness and reconciliation with God possible. We are not forgiven, and still in bondage to the ways of sin and death. The Triune God has given his children everything they need to live the kind of life for which they were created, in this life.

And, as Article XI affirms, this is not only for spiritual elites or super Christians. Holiness, even to the exclusion of sin, is something that is available for every single person. If the possibility of living the life that God intends is a live option, shouldn’t we earnestly seek it? And encourage others to be made holy as well?

May the Holy Spirit renew the imaginations of Wesleyans, that we would be inspired and enlivened – not threatened – by the possibility of Christian perfection. May the same Spirit give us words to express what God the Father has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. May we see what is possible in this life because of God’s amazing grace. May we believe, know in our bones, that God’s grace is more powerful than the ways of sin, even death itself. May we, as a family of faith, see the promise of entire sanctification once again. Amen.

1 John Wesley, Letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, September 15, 1790; in The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.. 8 vols. Edited by John Telford, (London: Epworth Press, 1931) VIII: 238.
2 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012. (Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), 104, p. 73.