Sanctification as a Central Theme
I have a lot of other interests. But, the Holiness themes in Wesleyan theology have been a long standing interest of mine. I've sometime expressed it this way: I have a long standing love/hate relationship with The Wesleyan Doctrine of Christian Perfection.
I'm sure that seems strange.
It is a bit strange on a personal level. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a strict or legalistic person at all. Quite the contrary.
And, I was not brought up in the Holiness movement. I know some people who experienced it as strict and legalistic and oppressive. I met one fellow who felt he had been dangled over the pit of Hell his entire childhood (he was the son of a pastor in a Holiness denomination).
And, I really don't know what to say about all that.
I have not forgotten that the "liberal" church never conveyed the Gospel of Christ to me. I have not forgotten the spiritual debt I owe to those who first presented the message of Christ to me. I hope I never forget.
And, then, beyond that, the early, formative experiences of my Christian journey were among people in the holiness & pentecostal movements. (Thus, my subsequent interest in the teachings of Wesleyan revivalism.) I am abidingly thankful to those who nurtured me in the Christian faith for encouraging me to believe that God could make a genuine, lived-out change in person's life.
It has been my observation that the holiness churches are often quite legalistic. This is unfortunate — and a misunderstanding. Wesleyan teaching was originally about (among other things) the love of God overcoming the resistance of the human will and granting to us (by grace) the desire to serve God and others with our whole heart. Wesley taught that "the law" was established by grace through faith. His teaching was about the witness of the Spirit, the possibilities of grace and the life of Christian love. This cannot be reduced to a legalistic system. The essence of the law is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Faith establishes love. Love is the essence of the law. Thus: the "law" is established by faith.
And, such a morality — love enthroned by faith — can never be reduced to a code of rules and regulations. Rules can be guidelines, and guidelines are good, but the life of faith is a life of love. It can never be reduced to a set of rules. It’s more than that.
Strictness actually seems to me to be the opposite of holiness. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 14:17 "the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit...."
Now, I have to say, my early encounters with holiness preaching were more confusing and frustrating than helpful. I think a lot of people experience that. When I first heard the “sanctification” message I was a young man struggling with guilt over my sexual drive. I don't know where or how it is we first learn that sex (and thus, sexuality) are "bad." But, we do. And, since our sexual drive is an essential part of our nature as human beings, we end up with the clear impression that we are therefore essentially bad.
So don't tell a young man struggling with that kind of sexuality-guilt about Entire Sanctification. Don't say that he can come to the mourner's bench tonight, become filled with the Holy Spirit and be released from inner sin. Because this young man is undoubtedly under the (mistaken) impression that that "inner sin" is his ever-persistent sex drive.
So, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to come. I prayed to be delivered from what I was (mistakenly) sure was my "inner sin." And, you know what? It never happened. Of course. If anything all that guilt and frustration made my sexual obsessions even worse.
I think for a lot of people, the concept of Christian Perfection is the Hot Potato of the Methodist-influenced churches. It's something many people would like to avoid — or forget altogether. For many people, the Perfection themes in the teachings of John Wesley are an embarrassment. If the doctrine of Christian Perfection or Entire Sanctification is mentioned at all, it comes at the tail end of the presentation on Wesley's theology — it is covered quickly — and the presenter desperately hopes no one will ask any questions!
But, I think it's the heart of John Wesley's theology. His search for holiness of heart and life — the experience of actually being a Christian, not just thinking like one — was the beginning point of his whole spiritual search.
Wesley’s "heartwarming experience” at Aldersgate did not change that — it just put in on an evangelical basis! How was holiness of heart and life discovered and experienced? By faith!
So, if that’s the case, then it's not just up to me. It's not solely the result of my efforts. The grace of God can make me new. And, it can make me new again and again. It's not the result of my hard work and discipline. There is a God who makes us holy by faith: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13 NRSV).
And, I'm sure it seems crazy to some people — and I even understand that — but, to me that's a message of hope!