I am not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line the people who follow in the stream of Christianity charted by John Wesley began to drift from one of the central aspects of his theological understanding. And by we, I mean me.
I don’t know exactly what happened. I’m not sure if it was a desire to be more relevant (whatever that means), or if it was a simple confusion about what the word actually meant, but several years ago I found myself afraid of engaging students in the process of sanctification. Somewhere along the line I had added a second “s” word to my list of things I shouldn’t say in front of students.
The problem is that a Wesleyan without sanctification is like a ship without a rudder. It is at the heart of how John Wesley understood the life of faith, and the piece of our tradition that has the most potential for transformation in the next generation. Understanding it is very important.
When thinking about an individual, sanctification is the grace of God that is extended to us as we surrender to the cleansing, transforming love of the Holy spirit. The more dams we can dismantle within our soul, the more the love of the Spirit is able to transform us into the image of Jesus.
Externally that looks like a life that is increasingly holy and decreasing in the frequency of intentional sin. That phrase is an important distinction: intentional sin. That was where Wesley drew the line. For him sanctification was about stopping willfully sinning. Could we mess up by accident? Yes. Could we violate a law that we did not know existed? Yes. That was not the focus. Rather, he focused on the letting go of intentional sin.
His prescription for this was not “work harder.” It was focused instead of a deepening and increasing surrender to the Holy Spirit. Was that hard work? Yes, but it was hard work that released a power within us that was beyond what we could do on our own.
Why on earth does this matter in youth ministry?
Because our students are surrounded by a society that expects less and less of them. From inflated standardized test scores to teachers who give in to their overbearing parents, they are not challenged.
When it comes to “holiness,” the word has passed beyond being uncool. It is unspoken. Instead of being called to increasingly high moral standards, they are greeted with messages from every media source that validate any and all behaviors no matter how morally polluted.
No matter where you look you can see it in their eyes: boredom and apathy. When whatever they want to be or do is ok, they have no boundaries. When the lack of boundaries are combined with the lack of challenge, they have no direction, and it is this that contributes to the blank stares that are all too familiar to youth ministers.
Like a baby bird who has never flown, they want someone to challenge them to be more. They want a higher standard. They want to be part of a faith that calls them to stretch themselves and become more.
Sanctification is not a curse word. It is not a taboo. It is the very life-blood that this generation needs. It is a faith that calls them to act, sacrifice, and soar beyond their natural ability into a passionate, redeeming relationship with their creator. Let us stop hiding the power of our tradition. Let’s open the floodgates of the sanctified life and see how God might use this generation to spread scriptural holiness throughout our land.