As a Baptist in a Wesleyan school, I have been really reserved in writing about John Wesley…impressed as I am by the man. Nevertheless, I will break my silence here in some thoughts on Wesley’s doctrine of Entire Sanctification; a doctrine which I think is vital for the contemporary church.
John Wesley, knowing there were numerous misunderstandings of his position on Entire Sanctification, in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection, felt the need to solidify his position by releasing some of the baggage that had been attached to this doctrine by others. He did this, initially, through explaining what he did not mean by the doctrine. To this we will initially turn.
Wesley did not hold that an entirely sanctified person is perfect in knowledge. Undoubtedly, Wesley knew not only the limits of his own knowledge, but maybe even more practically, he had seen how a concept like “perfect knowledge” could be used within an ecclesiastical community to oppress the powerless (those without perfect knowledge) and wreak all kinds of evil. Furthermore, because there is no perfect knowledge, Wesley believed that it was essential for him and his ministers to continue to study and pursue the life of the mind.
Next, Wesley also did not believe the “perfect one” could escape making mistakes. “We cannot find any ground in Scripture to suppose, that any inhabitant of a house of clay is wholly is wholly exempt from…ignorance or many things; or to imagine any is incapable of mistake.”
Furthermore, the Christian who has attained perfection must not assume that she is beyond falling to temptations. Indeed, “no state of grace is so lofty that one cannot fall.” Said person has no room for thinking that she will not be surrounded by various temptations, for the Bible makes no such promise to her. The only promise lies in the ability to find a way out of the temptation.
By way of summary, a few other things should be noted. Wesley did not believe in this life that a Christian could ever “arrive” spiritually speaking, nor should the believer ever expect to attain any kind of sanctification which frees them from infirmities.
Entire Sanctification as Circumcision of the Heart
John Wesley ardently believed that when Christ saves a person, He saves her from all sin and saves her to serving God with an undivided heart. This comes first of all from his primary theological stance that it is absolutely impossible to be “half a Christian.”
Christ, through the Spirit, does such a work in the believers life that they develop a “habitual disposition of the soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies, the being cleansed from sin, ‘from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit’; and, by consequence, the being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus.” The experience of this work involves a total death from sin, from evil thoughts, and sin and every evil passion is conquered by love.
The reference to “thoughts” and “passions” is important here, as it highlights the fact that much of Wesley’s emphasis lay in inward religion – a right disposition of the heart. The means by which this inward disposition is developed lies in growing through grace. Positively speaking this means the Holy Spirit becomes gradually more resident in the believers heart such that loves is inculcated in a real and enduring way. Negatively, growth in holiness entails the displacement of unholy tempers and affections, a radical, ‘”cutting” work that results in nothing less than the death of the carnal nature.
The ultimate telos of this process is having the mind of Christ. Faith, hope and love are viewed in relation to the goal of having the mind of Christ. To the extent that a person has the mind of Christ, and thus these characteristics, they fulfill the royal law of Christ. It is “for the sake of propagating this (entire sanctification) chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.” In other words, according to Collins, Perfection is the chief goal of our salvation.
This process, however, is exactly that – a process. There are certainly aspects of our salvation and sanctification which take place at the moment of our conversion and justification. However, from that moment on there remains a growing in graces which spurs the believer on to loving and knowing God more. Sinlessness becomes increasingly important to the believer and, though there is a sense in which certain sins will immediately fall off of the new believer, God has also provided us the ability, through the Spirit, to defeat other sins which tempt us sorely.
That said, there is a sense in which entire sanctification occurs instantaneously. The death incurred at regeneration immediately and effectively displaces and destroys the carnal nature itself. “Entire sanctification, like justification, occurs in a moment simply because this supernatural work of grace represents the utter favor of God and is nothing less than a sheer gift.”
In other words, “There is indeed an instantaneous, as well as a gradual, work of God in his children.” Wesley brings this out quite clearly when he answers the question, “When does inward sanctification begin?” He states, “In the moment a man is justified. From that time a believer gradually dies to sin, and grows in grace.”
Objections to Wesley’s Doctrine of Entire Sanctification
Recent objections to Wesley’s doctrine of Entire Sanctification have run along the same lines as the older objections – and, as then, they still betray fundamental misunderstandings of what Wesley was really saying.
Wesley held that it is not necessary for the Christian to commit sin. Though Entire Sanctification could only be attained by a mature believer, there was nevertheless the ability, even within the most novice Christian, to defeat the power of sin and not succumb to the temptations thereof. For Wesley, to deny this reality was to deny that God had truly saved us from all uncleanness.
Among those who rejected Wesley’s position regarding the necessity of sin were the Calvinists which Wesley had rows with about other doctrines as well. This suggests, then, that the real issue for many people is not whether the doctrine can be found in some form in the biblical text, but what other doctrinal presuppositions filter the way we read these texts.
George Whitfield, like many contemporary Calvinists, believed that God caused sin to remain in the believers life in order to serve as a continual reminder to the believer of their perpetual need to cling to God alone for their salvation and sanctification and to keep her humble before God. As Whitefield said, “There must be Amalekites left in Israelite’s land to keep his soul in action.” In other words, Whitefield felt Wesley was really quite naïve concerning the reality of sin.
It should be clear, however, that the issue for Whitefield doesn’t appear to be with Wesley’s take on certain biblical texts, but rather the necessity of sin in the believers life which must be present by the sovereign purposes of God. In other words, Whitefield’s theological assumptions preconditioned him to reject Wesley’s reading of the biblical texts and hence Wesley’s teachings concerning Entire Sanctification.
Conclusion: Entire Sanctification as a Community Project
Wesley is clear, even when he is not saying so overtly, that Entire Sanctification is a community, not an individual, project. If , indeed, it takes a village to raise a child, how much more the case that it takes a persevering Christian community to raise mature, sanctified, perfect children of God.
This teaching, though, is not restricted to just the community of the Methodists. Wesley believed that that doctrine extend out and was accessible to all the church of God no matter the denomination or the geographical location. “Indeed, the doctrine of perfect love belonged not simply to the Methodists but to the whole church, to the universal community of faith.”
It behooves the church of God all over the world, no matter the denomination, to take heed to Wesley’s teachings concerning this doctrine. Yet, the people called by Wesley’s name must not cease to remember that Wesley himself did not think this doctrine was exclusively his, but belonged to all Christians without reserve.
Personal Reflections on Entire Sanctification
Coming from a Baptist tradition, thoughts on Entire Sanctification are relatively new to me. That said, though the language Wesley uses is nowhere explicitly found in Scripture, there is no doubt that the concept of Entire Sanctification is there. What, indeed, would be the points of Paul’s striving for the perfection in Philippians if, in fact, attaining this goal was impossible? Why would Jesus tell his disciples in Matthew 5 to “be perfect as God is perfect” if this perfection were not attainable? To be sure, there is a sense in which absolute perfection is not possible in this life (as Wesley, himself, notes), but to deny that there can be a putting to death of sinful desires in this life is to have a rather pessimistic and incomplete view of what God has done for us in Christ and through His Spirit. The sinful nature has been crucified. Human nature is no excuse. Perfection ought to be the goal of every Christian.
 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. (Orlando: Relevant Books, 2006), 32.
 Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 298.
 Wesley, 32.
 Collins, 298.
 Collins, 299.
 Wesley, 32.
 Wesley, 3.
 Kenneth J. Collins, John Wesley: A Theological Journey. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 49.
 Collins, John Wesley, 195. Such a gracious activity often occurs in the communal context of the church, through the means of the Word and Sacrament, and is generously manifested in works of piety and mercy – in a faith, in other words, that is ever active in love.
 Ibid., 195. That is, the propensity of original sin is purged, as a consequence of efficacious grace, a heart bent toward backsliding is cleansed.
 Ibid., 258.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 200.
 Wesley, 27.
 Wesley, 38.
 Collins, John Wesley. 116.
 Ibid., 258.
Background: This is a Helen Keller Play
Or, maybe the title should be “Why I Look Forward to Fatherhood – Reason #3: Because I’m Sure to be Better than the Parents of This Kid”
This last week’s Newsweek has generated a lot of buzz for it’s cover story by Lisa Miller on religious justification for Gay Marriage. Miller’s horrific exegesis aside, she makes an interesting case by demonstrating some of the inconsistencies in the Evangelical position – if not logical inconsistencies, at least some practical ones.
Anyway, NPR had Lisa Miller on with Dr. Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. So, of course, you know an interesting conversation ensued.
Like many of these kinds of discussions in a public forum, enough didn’t get said (on either side) that needed to be said.
For my part, I was particularly disappointed by the fact that about the 32-33 minute mark a 20 year old evangelical woman called in and asked an interesting question that I would’ve liked to hear Mohler’s response to. Lisa Miller gave a short answer from her perspective, but Mohler was cut off for time (not b/c of bias).
Anyway, here’s the link. I’d be interesting in hearing what you all have to say…not only about the discussion, but about the question the woman asked and how you would respond to her.
This post has actually taken a different route than I originally intended. After examining the text, itself, I want to say that I think the Calvinist argument from this text has more legitimacy than I originally thought. However, I cannot affirm the implications of their arguments. I believe Calvinists and Arminians can both affirm the Calvinist reading to some degree, but I believe the implications of said reading is where we will part ways – necessarily.
The text is clear that God intended to ultimately bring about the salvation of Jacob’s house through the selling of Joseph into slavery. This is little different than God using the evil actions of Pilate to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus. In both cases God has a plan in mind and he uses the evil actions of men to work out that plan. The goal is always determined.
However, again, this does not necessarily entail that God determines the evil actions themselves. Notice in our passage, Genesis 50:20, that God has intentions that are his own (to bring about good) and the brothers have intentions all their own (to work evil). That God fully knows their actions and intends to use them to bring about his original plan is not problematic. God intended to have Joseph be the means by which Jacob’s household was saved. And God, possibly, even made Joseph ready to be the savior through suffering. But, the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers are their own and the text never connects God’s determination with their actions.
I truly think this distinction is subtle enough that almost everyone can get on board with it. For those who can’t…
Even if we fully affirm the suggestion that this passage points to God actually ordaining/determining the actions of the brothers, here are some consequences which I think are unavoidable and undesirable.
Necessary, Yet Undesirable, Implications of a Purely Calvinistic Reading of this Text
First, humans are not to be held responsible for their immoral actions.
Why do I say this? Because in the context of this passage, Joseph’s brothers think Joseph is going to punish them for their evil deeds. But Joseph, in light of his understanding of God’s sovereignty and ultimate purposes of salvation, affirms that they will not be punished. They are not to be held responsible precisely because God was the determiner of their deeds. The responsibility of the human agents, then, is minimized. When God acts deterministically, in this passage, the human agents through whom he acts are not held liable. As Joseph says, “So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” (vs. 21) He will not hold them accountable.
Second, in light of the first point:
If the determinist perspective is true, when a child is molested or a genocide breaks out, not only can we not hold the violators accountable for their actions, but we also must remind the victims that it was God’s action that brought this about and therefore they should not be angry at the oppressors.
These two consequences, to me, are the logical end of using this passage as a starting point for how God universally works. I say, rather, that this passage is an exception which proves the rule and should not be taken as normative.
Determination and What is Normative
Finally, even if I’m wrong here – and Lord knows I always have the potential for that – there’s a sense in which there is still no need for this text to be normative. That is, it is hermeneutically fallacious to take a single text and make it normative for the way God must always operate. In other words, it is wrong to take a specific statement (especially a contestable one like this!) and universalize it. Both Arminians and Open Theists affirm that God does, in fact, determine certain things (such as the death of Jesus on the cross which happened before the foundation of the world!). But that these things are noted in this way suggests to me that they are not normative. Rather, God’s determinative actions are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Contextually, this means that the extraordinary act of God in saving Jacob’s family meant that He took an extraordinary amount of action in this event. He is demonstrating His providential hand in redemptive history by ensuring that Jacob’s family be saved. Therefore, as Greg Boyd notes, “Under these extraordinary circumstances it should not surprise us to find God involved in extraordinary ways. This text should therefore not be taken as a proof text of how God usually, let alone always, operates.”
Proving Their Point: What Calvinists Need to Textually Demonstrate the Superiority of Their Answer:
In the end, however, I would agree with anyone who says that I did not prove Arminianism from this passage! I have no problem with such a critique. As I said, the Calvinist reading is possible and even likely (on a restricted, localized level). But I believe they are imparting a larger theological/philosophical reading onto this text to come to the conclusion they have. For my part, I think the “text says nothing nearly precise enough to support a particular theory of sovereignty and human freedom to the exclusion of all other competing accounts.”
If Calvinists want to prove their position from this text, to the exclusion of others, they need to provide the following evidence:
- They need to provide a text which says explicitly that God caused Joseph’s brothers to have feelings of jealousy (or at least motivated their hearts to have those feelings – i.e. similar to the claims they make about Pharaoh in Exodus).
- They need to provide a text which connects the God-determined jealousy with their actions of selling Joseph into slavery.
- Demonstrate more clearly the hermeneutical leap from this localized event to a universalized truth
- Demonstrate clearly how universalizing this specific story’s truth won’t lead to a lack of accountability for evil actions perpetuated by humans. (I know these Calvinists believe humans are accountable, but I want to know how they get around the lack of accountability in this, their classical text.)
I actually don’t find the Calvinist reading here all that exegetically wrong. I think their implications from their exegesis, however, are where their errors lie. Did God sovereignly act in the events of Joseph’s brothers? Yes! He intended to bring good out of them. However, this in no way entails 1. That God determined their actions or the evil of their actions, or 2. That, even if he did determine their evil actions, God’s actions here are normative and universal. These are inferences that the text simply does not support. To me, these conclusions come about because of a larger philo-theological framework guiding their interpretation. Indeed, if they took their inferences to the logical conclusion, they end up with no human responsibility – which is exactly what Arminians/Open Theists have been complaining about for years.
In the end, I agree with self-proclaimed Calvinist Walter Brueggemann concerning this text, “This phrase has been endlessly problematic in theological interpretation, as it has lent itself to all kinds of scholastic notions of a blueprint for determinism…[yet] the Old Testament includes no notion of a plan in such a specific and rigid sense.” In other words, it’s not necessarily that the Calvinist’s exegesis here is lacking, but more that they read too much into this text – whether it be through reading their notions of soft-determinism onto a text which simply can’t bare that weight OR through universalizing a very localized incident.
 I want to thank Hank over at Think Wink for his helpful response to my original post. I hope here to find some common ground, though, of course, there will always be some disagreement. Hopefully it will become smaller and smaller, though, as we analyze the text.
 Walls, Dongell, 150.
 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. 355. I say self-identified b/c Brueggemann has called himself a Calvinist, but I’m not so sure most Calvinists will identify with him.
This was originally supposed to be one post, but it got so long I needed to break it into two. My best arguments, I think, are in part 2, but part 1 is necessary foreground, especially for the uninitiated.
A Brief Statement of the Issue:
Certain Calvinists, with their emphasis on the ultimate sovereignty of God, conclude from various biblical passages that Yahweh is the author and determiner of evil. That is, because Yahweh is sovereign, He must have control over both good and evil. My intention in this post is to wrestle with one of those passages – Genesis 50:20, where Joseph, after looking back on all the evil actions of his brothers, says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Some Hermeneutical Humility:
Let me be honest here (and hopefully have a bit of humility in an argument that all too often becomes about ego) and suggest that it is certainly possible to read this text the way Calvinists do – that God determined this particular evil in order to bring about good. It is possible, but not necessary, and maybe not even desirable. The logic of which will lead to dangerous places, which I will discuss further toward the end of this post.
The Calvinist Philosophical Assumptions:
Calvinist’s have philosophical assumptions guiding their interpretation of this text. Contrary to their claim that Arminians are the ones with philosophical commitments hindering a true reading of the text, Calvinists here attempt to preserve the innocence of God in this matter by saying that Joseph’s brothers freely chose to commit this evil, but their decision was determined by God. By making a “free choice” they say that Joseph’s brothers are morally responsible and God is not accountable. Yet, to make such an assertion they have to appeal to a Compatibilistic sense of freedom. A sense of freedom, that I will argue later, is destroyed by this text.
As of yet, my complaints in this post are from a larger theological, philosophical, and maybe even ethical framework. But the true question, for any good Protestant (though I’m not always sure I’m really a good one), is what the text says. Does the text say that God intended (purposed, determined) Joseph’s brothers to commit these evil actions so that His saving purposes (and, might John Piper add, his ultimate glorification) might be revealed and worked out?
Lets begin with the context:
God knew, all the way back with Joseph’s dreams and his Technicolor Dream-Coat, that his brothers were going to be jealous of him. The text nowhere indicates that God determined their jealousy! This is important for Calvinism b/c in Calvinism God doesn’t just determine people’s actions, He actually determines their desires! But nowhere, in any of this, does the text attribute the evil desires of Joseph’s brothers to Yahweh. The actions J’s brothers participate in are solely and completely of their own doing. We have no textual evidence that God determined their actions. Only that God took free actions and determined to make something good out of them. We cannot pull this isolated text out of the larger context and think it has settled the matter.
But here’s the thing, and let me give Calvinism some props here - I actually think this verse does suggest that God sovereignly acts in this localized event, that He is active in the way things played out. While the text does not say that God gave them their desires or determined their actions, it does affirm that he was sovereignly and actively involved in some way.
Arminian/Open Theistic Determination
But does God’s sovereign action in this instance prove Arminianism/Open Theism wrong? No, actually, both of these positions also hold that God can and does determine certain things to happen. In the words of Jerry Walls concerning this text, “God foresaw the good that would eventually come out of this and (after considering all possible creatable worlds) he chose the world in which these circumstances and choices took place, and he allowed them for the sake of the good that would follow. This way of reading the story makes perfect sense of Joseph’s claim that the brothers meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” I
In other words, God’s intentions/determination to work salvation out of evil actions is seen here, but without any recourse to his determination of Joseph’s brothers evil desires. The text never connects the determination of God with the actions of Joseph’s brothers. It is never says that He determines their actions on a primary or secondary level. Yet, it does maintain that God sovereignly decided that this would be the best course of action to bring about the salvation of Jacob’s family.
 John Piper and DA Carson are the two most popular.
 I am no longer convinced that this is Classical Calvinism. I think this is John Piper’s aberrant Calvinism, most likely. Though, he is not the only one who believes this. However, John Calvin, himself, more believed that God allowed sin, but did not determine it. See his Institutes, 3.23.8.
 For more on this see my previous entry, “I Do Not Permit a Calvinist to Use “Permit” Language.” It got raving reviews even from Calvinists!!! (Just kidding)
 Jerry Walls & Joe Dongell, Why I’m Not a Calvinist, 151.
 Also, I might note here that for the Arminian and the Open Theist, what God intends is not the same thing as what God determines. God may intend things that do not come to pass. The Calvinists do not have this same assumption. They maintain that what God intends must necessarily be determined as well. Because of this, our disagreement is not exegetical. Our disagreement is a theological one that must be settled with other texts which connect intention and determination and explicates their differences/similarities. This text does not provide such an explanation.
The other day I listened to a series of sermons by Biblical Complementarians arguing for the traditional role of women in the home and church. Without fail, every sermon mentioned the fact that the Egalitarian position is influenced by secular Feminism, an influence which causes Christian Feminists to obliterate role distinctions and differences between the sexes.
To be sure, there’s no denying the cultural influence of secular Feminism. But does this necessitate that we disregard Egalitarianism simply because it’s been influenced by a culture? Could we not turn the same comments around on the BC position and protest that they’ve been influenced by 1700 years of theologically justified oppression of women? There’s no religious institution which has not in some way been tainted or influenced by secularism. None.
Thus, all sides of any theological/religious discussion have already been shaded by previous predispositions handed to us by culture. Being influenced by culture, then, is no reason to reject a theological position – indeed, if it were, there would be no theological positions to accept or reject.
Most often statements that accuse someone else’s position as being culturally compromised are fear tactics used to persuade people against a position before allowing them to examine the evidence for themselves. If I can convince you that someone is a misogynist bigot before you even talk to them, then I’ve won the argument. If you can convince someone that I’m a bra-burning wo-man, then you’ve won the battle without even allowing me a voice.
The goal, then, is not merely in labeling others as more influenced by culture than myself. The goal is in understanding and critiquing positions on both what they assert and where their logic might end up. How does my cultural influence help or hinder my exegesis or theological analysis? How does yours?
I fear certain BC’s repeatedly fail to understand that Christian Feminism is not the same thing as Liberal Feminism. Liberal Feminism emphasizes the similarities between men and women while downplaying the differences. Christian Feminism, on the other hand, appreciates God-given differences, but maintains that these differences need not necessitate hierarchy or subjugation. The failure of BC’s to understand this, or at least admit this when they do understand it, perpetuates stereotypes regarding their position.
Am I influenced by culture? Yes, but so are you and so is John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Ben Witherington and Michel Foucault. Let us acknowledge this fact and see where we benefit from it, where it hurts us and where to go once we’ve figured this out.