Perhaps no doctrine of sanctification has undergone so many and varied permutations as the Wesleyan view. The Wesleyan’s view is best known by either of the two names given to the process: entire sanctification or Christian perfection. As Holiness churches have grown away from the Methodist beginnings of this theological idea, they have often radically transformed it to the point where an accurate definition is required to state what the idea is and is not. According to Wesley, sanctification is that part of God’s plan in which He renews the hearts of men and women in His own image. By His grace humanity would be turned from all willful sin and restored to the holiness that had been lost in the Fall. John Wesley’s words from a sermon serve to summarize:
Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God, after the likeness of Him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul…By nature ye are wholly corrupted. By grace ye shall be wholly renewed. [ Wesley, Works]
Far from a fabrication of Wesley’s intellect, he points to numerous passages of scripture in support of this doctrine, each one, he says, should bring the reader to a similar conclusion. Here are a pair of examples:
The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Deuteronomy 30:5-6
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. 2 Corinthians 7:1
Taken in whole, Wesley sees in these and other passages the promise of freedom from the dominion of sin for every Christian. He states that God’s grace is ever at work in the heart of the believer progressively sanctifying the entire life of the Christian releasing the heart to fully love God and others. It is critical to note the difference here between Wesley and some later Holiness doctrine. He views entire sanctification as a continuum of grace and response, God giving and the believing transforming, with no conclusion prior to glorification. In other words, while the believer increases in holiness, there is no point of perfection this side of heaven in which every scintilla of sin has been removed and the believer is perfect, as a nominal definition of the word would have the reader understand. Some Holiness movement doctrine has evolved to this conclusion but it never originated with Wesley.
Some are also tempted to link Wesleyan sanctification to works. This can perhaps derive from Wesley’s insistence that the Christian faith is experiential; it is not simply head knowledge in which one believes, it is also practice that is a product of the transformed heart. As the believer was further and further sanctified, the new zeal for loving the Lord and others would be demonstrated through the interactions of the Christian. These actions are not quantitative measures of belief but products of the transformative power of that belief.
Though it has been modified considerably through the years, linked by Charismatic believers to a second baptism, taken to ultimate measures by some Holiness doctrine, Wesley’s idea of entire sanctification is thoroughly rooted in the Bible and the Royal Law of Love. Jesus serves to summarize the objective of this doctrine in his words of Matthew 22:
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Mt 22:37-40
Despite the name that is often attributed to it – Christian Perfection – Wesley foresaw no moment in which we would be entirely free from the possibility of sinning, only that our love of God and others would lessen our desire.