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.