On May 24, 1738, John Wesley had his famous heartwarming experience at Aldersgate. Wesley went “unwillingly” down to a Christian society meeting, and there encountered a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Listen to Wesley’s own words in describing what happened:
About a quarter before nine, while the reader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Wesley, by the grace of God, heard the full force of Paul when he said, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17). This is one of those foundational doctrines that defines Christian identity. The doctrine of justification by faith is a doctrine that everyone really needs to personally hear at some deep level. You need to believe it—but you also need to experience it. This is precisely what happened to Wesley on May 24, 1738. For convenience sake, let’s call this the May 24 story. You need to have a May 24 story. It may not happen to you on May 24—you may not even remember the date, but you need a May 24 story. This is your stake in the ground. This is that point where you say to the Lord, “I do trust in Christ alone for my salvation, and an assurance is given to me that my sins, even mine, are taken away, and I am delivered from the law of sin and death.”
There are some stories that must be told before other stories are possible. You must have a May 24 story as a prerequisite to the Holy Spirit’s further work of sanctification. Both stories are the result of God’s grace, but they are two different stories. Wesley had his May 24 story, but he also had an encounter with the Holy Spirit on January 1.
It was on New Year’s Eve, bringing in the year 1739, that Wesley attended another society meeting. He went down, not to Aldersgate, but to Fetter Lane. That night at Fetter Lane, Wesley attended a prayer meeting that was a night watch vigil to bring in the New Year. While they were praying, at around 3:00 am, something dramatic happened to Wesley. He received a sanctifying experience where God reoriented his heart and life. Wesley wrote in his journal:
[On Monday morning, January 1, 1739,] Mr. Hall . . . and my brother Charles, were present at our love-feast in Fetter Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. At about three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily among us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.” (Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 170).
Wesley believed in sanctification as a doctrine before 1739, but it was here that he experienced it. It became a new chapter in his spiritual journey. Perhaps we can call this his Fetter Lane story. There is the May 24 story, and there is the Fetter Lane story—both are essential in the life of the believer. Wesley’s life was reoriented. He became sanctified. He was filled with the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of entire sanctification is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in the Methodist movement. It is misunderstood because we haven’t been prepared to hear it. When most of us hear the word sanctification we think of it as a legal or forensic term. In other words, we think that being “sanctified” means that you have been divinely certified before God’s court of justice as someone without any sin in your life, and once sanctified, you will never sin again. That is not what Wesley taught or meant by sanctification. For Wesley, sanctification was not really a legal term at all. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification must take place in the context of relationship. Sin is, therefore, not merely the deeds we do that break God’s law; it is the expression of a broken relationship. Whenever we sin, at that moment of choosing sin, we are actually electing the absence of God in our lives at that point. You see, sanctification is always relational. Sin separates us from God. Sin is our embrace of the absence of God in our lives.
This is the great insight of the holiness movement. The holiness movement reminds us that alien righteousness is not God’s last word for the believer. Salvation is about more than justification. Righteousness for Wesley was about more than God just looking at us through a different set of glasses. Alien righteousness must become native righteousness; imputed righteousness must become actualized righteousness; declared righteousness must become embodied righteousness, wrought in us not by our own strength but through the power of the living God. We are marked, oriented, and reoriented by love.
Wesley taught that we are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith. We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but we are sanctified by faith as we come into full relationship with the triune God. It is not true that we are justified by God’s action and we are sanctified by our actions. No, both justification and sanctification begin with God’s prior action in our lives that calls for our response.
As a relational term, entire sanctification means that your whole life, your body, and your spirit have been reoriented. Entire sanctification means that your entire heart has been reoriented toward the joyful company of the triune God. Sanctification was, for Wesley, not the end of some long drudge out of the life of sin, but joining the assembly of those who have truly found joy. For Wesley, holiness was the crown of true happiness. Sanctification is what purifies us from everything that “contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
Sin is encamped around us on every side, but it is no longer our ally. We leave behind the agonizingly torn hearts, where we always live under condemnation because sin is always creeping back into our desires. To be sanctified is to receive a second blessing, a gift from God. It is a gift that changes our hearts, reorients our relationship with the triune God and with others, and gives us the capacity to love God and our neighbor in new and profound ways. It transforms our whole life because our hearts have been reoriented.
Sanctified people still sin. However, the difference is that in the life of a sanctified person, sin becomes your permanent enemy and no longer your secret lover!
The language of “entire sanctification” uses the word “entire” in reference to Greek, not Latin. In Greek “entire” or “complete” can still be improved upon. H. C. Morrison, the founder of Asbury Theological Seminary, once said, “There is no state of grace that cannot be improved on.” J. C. McPheeters, the second president of Asbury, was once asked, “How are you doing?” He joyfully replied, “I’m improving.” Sanctification is a new orientation that no longer looks back longingly on the old life, but is always looking forward to the New Creation. It is a life that has been engulfed by new realities—eternal realities—not the realities of that which is passing away.
Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins that we avoid. If you were to eradicate every sin in your life, you would only be halfway to holiness. This is because for Wesley, holiness was never just about sins we avoid; it was about fruit we produce! In Wesley, faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed! We no longer have a view of holiness that is legalistic, private, negative, and static. It is not merely legal, but relational; not merely private, but embedded in community; not negative, but the joyful advance of God’s rule and reign. When Wesley calls us to be “made perfect in love,” he is not envisioning that we are without sin. Wesley actually never used the phrase “sinless perfection.” Rather, he meant that we have been oriented toward God’s love, which is found in full perfection (as explained in chapter 1). Perfect love does not mean that we have climbed the ladder of works and attained perfection. Rather, it means that we have fully surrendered to the power of God’s grace in our lives. We never stop growing in God’s grace. It is instantaneous in the sense that it is God’s gift to us that reorients our hearts. It is a lifetime process.
One of the best metaphors I ever heard for perfect love was a story told by Dr. Robert Coleman, who taught at Asbury Seminary for twenty-seven years. Dr. Coleman was out in the garden, working, on a hot day, with sweat pouring off his body. His son saw him through the window of the house and decided to bring him a glass of water. The boy went down to the kitchen, pulled up a stool, and managed to get up to the sink. He picked up a dirty glass lying in the sink, filled it with lukewarm water, and brought it out to his dad. Dr. Coleman commented, “The glass may have been dirty and the water warm, but it was brought to me in perfect love.” That is the essence of sanctification. We are each endowed with a self-forgetful heart—a heart that has been reoriented toward love.