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Holiness Texts: John 17:17-23

This series of posts highlights the primary Scripture texts cited by John Wesley and his earliest followers in defense and explanation of the doctrine of Christian Perfection. These are posted (as always) for information and possible discussion. It is not assumed that because Wesley or his followers said a certain thing, everyone else is somehow obligated to agree. The Scriptures are quoted below from the New American Standard Version of the Bible. They are followed by comments from Wesley himself, as well as some of his early followers: John Fletcher, Adam Clarke and Joseph Benson.

An introduction to this series is here:
The Holiness Texts of John Wesley. Links to the other posts in this series may be found on the Wesleyan Theology Page or on the Bible Studies page, listed as “The Holiness Texts of John Wesley.”

"'Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth. As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me.'" (John 17:17-23 NASB).

John Wesley said:

"Verse 17. Sanctify — Consecrate them by the anointing of thy Spirit to their office, and perfect them in holiness, by means of thy word.

"Verse 19. I sanctify myself — I devote myself as a victim, to be sacrificed.

"Verse 20. For them who will believe — In all ages.

"Verse 21. As thou art in me—This also is to be understood in a way of similitude, and not of sameness or equality. That the world may believe—Here Christ prays for the world. Observe the sum of his whole prayer,

  1. Receive me into thy own and my glory;
  2. Let my apostles share therein;
  3. And all other believers:
  4. And let all the world believe.

"Verse 22. The glory which thou hast given me, I have given them — The glory of the only begotten shines in all the sons of God. How great is the majesty of Christians."

Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.

Question 6. Does the New Testament afford any farther ground for expecting to be saved from all sin?

Answer: Undoubtedly it does, both in those prayers and commands which are equivalent to the strongest assertions.

Question 7. What prayers do you mean?

Answer: Prayers for entire sanctification; which, were there no such thing, would be mere mockery of God. Such, in particular, are,

  • (1)“Deliver us from evil;” or rather, “from the evil one.” Now, when this is done, when we are delivered from all evil, there can be no sin remaining.
  • (2)“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.” (John 17:20, 21, 23.)
  • (3)“I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ — that he would grant you — that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend, with all saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14, 16-19.)
  • (4)“The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23.)

— Minutes of Some Late Conversations Between the Rev. Mr. Wesleys and Others. Conversation 5: Wednesday, June 17th. Also included in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

John Fletcher said:

"To make you believe this important promise [of the Spirit’s stronger influences under the Gospel dispensation & of Christian Perfection — ed.] with more ardour, consider that our Lord spent some of his last moments in sealing it with his powerful intercession. After having prayed the Father to sanctify his disciples through the truth, firmly embraced by their faith, and powerfully applied by his Spirit, he adds, 'Neither pray I for these alone, but for them who will believe on me through their word.' And what is it that our Lord asks for these believers? Truly, what St. Paul asked for the imperfect believers at Corinth, 'even their perfection,' 2 Corinthians 13:9. A state of soul this, which Christ describes thus: — 'That they all may be one, as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they may be made one in us, &c, that they may be one as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected in one, and that the world may know that thou hast loved them as thou hast loved me,' John 17:17, 23. Our Lord could not pray in vain: it is not to be supposed that the Scriptures are silent with respect to the effect of this solemn prayer, an answer to which was to give the world an idea of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, a specimen of the power which introduces believers into the state of Christian perfection; and therefore we read that on the day of Pentecost the kingdom of Satan was powerfully shaken, and the kingdom of God, 'righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,' began to come with a new power: then were thousands wonderfully converted, and clearly justified; then was the kingdom of heaven taken by force; and the love of Christ and of the brethren began to burn the chaff of selfishness and sin with a force which the world had never seen before: see Acts 2:42, &c. Some time after, another glorious baptism, or capital outpouring of the Spirit, carried the disciples of Christ farther into the kingdom of grace which perfects believers in one. And therefore we find that the account which St. Luke gives us of them after this second, capital manifestation of the Holy Spirit, in a great degree answers to our Lord’s prayer for their perfection. He had asked 'that they all might be one, and that they might be one as the Father and he are one, and that they might be perfected in one,' John 17:17, &c. And now a fuller answer is given to his deep request. Take it in the words of an inspired historian: — 'And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together, and they were [once more] filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word with [still greater] boldness; and the multitude of them that believed were of one heart, and of one soul; neither said any of them, that aught of the things which he possessed were his own; but they had all things common, &c, and great grace was upon them all!' Acts 4:31-33. Who does not see in this account a specimen of that grace which our Lord had asked for believers, when he had prayed that his disciples, and those who would believe on him through their word, might be 'perfected in one?'"

— The Last Check to Antinomianism. A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory. Section 19.

Adam Clarke said:

Verse 20. Neither pray I for these alone. This prayer extends itself through all ages, and takes in every soul that believes in the Lord Jesus.

“And what is it that Christ asks in behalf of his followers? The greatest of blessings: unity, peace, love, and eternal glory.

Verse 21. That they all may be one. This prayer was literally answered to the first believers, who were all of one heart and of one soul: Acts iv. 39.

“And why is it that believers are not in the same spirit now? Because they neither attend to the example nor to the truth of Christ.

That the world may believe. We have already seen that the word, κοσμος, world, is used in several parts of this last discourse of our Lord to signify the Jewish people only.

“Christ will have all his members to be one in spirit — one in rights and privileges, and one in the blessedness of the future world.

Verse 22. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them. That is, the power to work miracles, and to preach unadulterated truth, say some; but as our Lord is not here praying for the disciples, but for all those who should believe on him through their word, ver. 20, it is more natural to understand the passage thus. As Christ, according to his human nature, is termed the Son of God, he may be understood as saying: “I have communicated to all those who believe, or shall believe in me, the glorious privilege of becoming sons of God; that, being all adopted children of the same Father, they may abide in peace, love, and unity.” For this reason it is said, Heb. ii. 11, Christ is not ashamed to call them brethren.

“However, our Lord may here, as in several other places, be using the past for the future; and the words may therefore be understood of the glory which they were to share with him in heaven.

Verse 23. That the world may know. That the Jewish people first, and secondly the Gentiles, may acknowledge me as the true Messiah, and be saved unto life eternal.”

— Clarke’s Commentary.

Joseph Benson said:

Verses 13-19. These things I speak in the world — That is, before I leave the world; that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves — I offer this prayer in behalf of my apostles, with this intention; that being heard for them, they may receive all the endowments necessary to qualify them for converting the world, and be filled with my joy, the great joy I have in being the means of saving mankind. I have given them thy word, &c. — I have omitted nothing that on my part was necessary to fit them for converting the world, and partaking of my joy. And — Though they are indeed the greatest friends and benefactors of the human race, yet the world hath hated them — And will be sure to persecute them with the utmost violence; because they are not of the world — Are neither influenced by the principles, nor conformed to the spirit or conduct, of carnal men; even as I am not of the world — In which respects they resemble me. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world — As if he had said, Although these persecutions, which shall befall them, are another great reason why I offer up this prayer for them; nevertheless, my meaning is not that, on account of these difficulties, thou shouldest immediately remove them out of the world by death; but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil which is in the world, or rather, from the evil one, as κ το πονηρο properly signifies, that is, from the influence of his subtlety and power; from being taken in the snares he will lay for them, deceived by his wiles, or led into sin by his temptations. They are not of the world, &c. — This sentiment he repeats, as reflecting with great pleasure on their being separated from the world, both in their dispositions and actions; and on their resembling himself in this respect; and hence he was the more solicitous that, after his departure, they might be preserved blameless, and therefore prays as in the following words, Sanctify them through thy truth — Consecrate them to their office, and perfect them in holiness, by the instrumentality of thy truth, accompanied by thy grace. Thy word is truth — Thy gospel, which they are to preach, is the great system of sanctifying truth, whereby real holiness is ever to be promoted: and may these my apostles experience more and more of its vital energy on their own souls, to qualify them more fully for the office of dispensing it to others. As thou hast sent me into the world — To be the messenger of this grace; even so have I sent them — Namely, on the same errand, to publish and proclaim what they have learned of me. And for their sakes — As well as for the salvation of all that do or shall believe in me; I sanctify myself — I set myself apart, as an offering holy to thee. Or, I devote myself as a victim to be sacrificed; that they also might be sanctified through the truth — That, taught by my example, and animated by my dying love, they may be fully fitted for, and wholly devoted to, their important work. To sanctify, signifies, in general, to set apart to some appropriate use; and is used with peculiar propriety with reference to a sacrifice, which seems to be the sense in which our Lord applies it to himself in this verse.

Verses 20-23. Neither pray I for these alone — I do not make my apostles the only subjects of this my last prayer; I pray likewise for all such as shall by their word, whether preached or written, be brought to believe on me, in whatever age or nation; that they also, being influenced by the same Spirit, and possessed of the same love; may be one — Truly and intimately; (see on verse 11;) as thou, Father, art in me — Dwelling in me by thy Spirit; and I in thee — By a constant, indissoluble union; that they also may be one in us — Closely and vitally united to us, and deriving from us the richest supplies of divine wisdom and grace, power, purity, and consolation. This also is to be understood in a way of similitude, and not of sameness or equality. That the world may believe — That, seeing their benevolence, charity, and holy joy, the people of the world, the carnal part of mankind, may believe that a religion productive of such amiable fruits is indeed of divine original. It is plainly intimated here by our Lord, that ‘dissensions among Christians would not only be uncomfortable to themselves, but would be a means of bringing the truth and excellence of Christianity into question: and he must be a stranger to what hath passed, and is daily passing, in the world, who does not see what fatal advantage these divisions have given to infidels, to misrepresent it as a calamity, rather than to regard it as a blessing to mankind.’ — Doddridge. Here we see Christ prays for the world, and may observe that the sum of his whole prayer is, 1st, Receive me into thy own and my glory; 2d, Let my apostles share therein; 3d, And all other believers; 4th, And let all the world believe. And the glory which thou gavest me — With respect to my human nature, namely, to be a habitation of thyself by the Spirit; I have given them — Have bestowed on them the honour and happiness of having a measure of the same Spirit dwelling in them, enriching them with various gifts and graces, stamping them with thine image, and communicating unto them thy divine nature, 2 Peter 1:4. That they may be one, even as we are one — May possess the closest union, and enjoy a most holy and happy fellowship with us and with each other here, and in consequence thereof may dwell together with us in eternal felicity hereafter. I in them — Dwelling in their hearts by faith; (Ephesians 3:17;) and thou in me — By thine indwelling presence; that they may be made perfect in one — May possess the most perfect and uninterrupted union of love and purity, without any jarring affection or disposition, and through that union may grow up into me their living head in all things, till they arrive at the measure of the stature of my fulness, and are perfected in that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. That the world may know that thou hast sent me — That the clearest demonstration may thus be given of the efficacy of thy grace in creating men anew, and constituting them saints indeed, visibly and justly the favourites of Heaven; and that it may be manifest to all that thou hast loved them as thou hast loved me — And hast conferred this grace upon them for my sake.

— Benson's Commentary.

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