Toward the end of his sermon “Christian Perfection,” Wesley offered a fairly straightforward definition: “Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers.” Again, because of his claim that all Christians no longer commit outward sin, the distinction of entire sanctification is really that Christians receive additional freedom from evil thoughts and evil tempers.
In his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” perhaps Wesley’s best-known sermon, he defines entire sanctification as:
A full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief, or, as the Apostle expresses it, “Go on to perfection” [Heb. 6:1 KJV]. But what is perfection? The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks” [1 Thess. 5:16–18 KJV].
Wesley here describes Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, as “perfect love.” Sin is excluded from perfect love. The two cannot exist together. Sanctification is entire in that the love of God “fills the heart” and “takes up the whole capacity of the soul.” Perfect love leads to constant rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving.
The ability to fight sin and be victorious over its power is good news and dramatically underemphasized in the contemporary church. In fact, this victory, according to John Wesley, actually occurs with justification and regeneration. And so, entire sanctification is more than the ability not to sin.
Entire sanctification is not simply negative—just not sinning. Every Christian, according to Wesley, is free from the power of sin! Entire sanctification is a deeper work: rooting out what Wesley called the “root” or “being” of sin. How? By the love of God filling the heart. This is true freedom, not simply from guilt and power, but from its very being.
Here is Wesley’s concluding exhortation to pursue perfect love in his sermon “Christian Perfection.” Notice that his appeal is soaked with the words of Scripture:
“Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved,” both in the Law and in the Prophets, and having the prophetic word confirmed unto us in the Gospel, by our blessed Lord and his apostles; “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” [2 Cor. 7:1]. “Let us fear, lest” so many “promises being made us of entering into his rest,” which he that has entered into, has ceased from his own works, “any of us should come short of it” [Heb. 4:1]. “This one thing let us do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, let us press toward the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Phil. 3:13–14]; crying unto him day and night, till we also are “delivered from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the sons of God!” [Rom. 8:21].
Let us raise our expectations so that they are in sync with the promises of Scripture! May we refuse to settle for less than the full salvation offered to us through the gospel.
What Is Not Meant by Entire Sanctification?
Of all of the doctrines taught by John Wesley and his first followers, Christian perfection was both the most misunderstood and the most controversial. This was evident to Wesley early on in the Methodist movement.
Because of the extent of controversy and confusion, Wesley spent significant time and energy clarifying what he did and did not mean by Christian perfection. Wesley’s sermon “Christian Perfection” was written to limit the misunderstanding and misuse of the doctrine. He dedicated the first half of the sermon to a discussion of what is not meant by Christian perfection. These clarifications are crucial to avoiding common misunderstandings of Methodism’s grand depositum.
The sermon began by acknowledging that the doctrine has caused offense, especially the use of the word perfect. Many recommended that Wesley simply abandon the phrase because of the misunderstanding and controversy that it seemed inevitably to attract. Wesley refused, asking “are they not found in the oracles of God [Scriptures]? If so, by what authority can any messenger of God lay them aside, even though all men should be offended?”
Among other passages of Scripture, Wesley would have had Matthew 5:48 in mind: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Wesley was adamant that passages of Scripture cannot be laid aside because they are difficult or challenging to our own sense of what is reasonable or possible to expect from ourselves or others. He was equally insistent, however, that the meaning of Scripture be understood as fully and accurately as possible “that those who are sincere of heart may not err to the right hand or to the left from the mark of the prize of their high calling.”
Here are five specific things Wesley says are not meant by Christian perfection:
- They are not perfect in knowledge or free from ignorance.
- They are not free from mistakes.
- They are not free from infirmities.
- They are not wholly free from temptation.
- They are not free from the need for further growth.
The Wesleyan understanding of Christian discipleship is dynamic at every stage. There is always room to grow and move forward in our relationship with God. And there is also the possibility of moving away from God, which has often been referred to as “backsliding” by Methodists.
We may fall short (though we do not need to) even after receiving the precious gift of entire sanctification. But Jesus is always faithful. His promises never change.
Encouraging the pursuit of entire sanctification and embracing the experience when God gives it can be challenging for a variety of reasons. The challenge is to take sin and its devastating consequences seriously and hold up the promise and possibility of freedom from sin’s grip on our lives on the one hand, while also resisting the pull toward legalism or hypocrisy on the other hand.
Only by the grace of God can we walk this fine line. But the good news is Scripture clearly and repeatedly speaks to God’s desire to do a great work in us.
This is an excerpt from Kevin Watson’s latest book, Perfect Love: Recovering Entire Sanctification—The Lost Power of the Methodist Movement. This book calls all Methodists—the spiritual descendants of the Wesleyan revival, regardless of contemporary denominational expression—back to who we have been at our best, in times when we have been a growing, vibrant, and Spirit-filled movement. It is time to retrieve Methodism’s lost treasure, the doctrine of entire sanctification. This doctrine speaks to the radical optimism that through the work of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can move from struggling to survive as Christians to thriving! Perfect Love provides an in-depth explanation of entire sanctification and helps readers pursue all that God has for us.
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