It is often pointed out that John Wesley never openly claimed for himself the experience of entire sanctification (or Christian Perfection). And, that seems strange since this doctrine was the centerpiece of his theology of the Christian life. Lindström, in his chapter on Christian Perfection says:
The importance of the idea of perfection to Wesley is indicated by his frequent mention of it: in his sermons and other writings, in his journals and letters, and in the hymn books he published with his brother Charles. He never abandoned the general position with regard to Christian perfection which derives from his introduction to practical mysticism in 1725 and was then first expressed; it is a continuous theme in his sermons and books. The year before his death he says of it: “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”
The point is often made. If this experience is so important — and if people are supposed to testify to what God has done in their life — than why doesn’t Wesley himself ever record in his Journal — or elsewhere — an experience he openly identified as “entire sanctification”? Randy Maddox says in his book Responsible Grace (in footnote 218 to Chapter 7):
Wesley never claimed entire sanctification explicitly. Indeed, he once said he had not yet arrived. (Letter to the Editor of Lloyd’s Evening Post [5 Mar. 1767], Letters [Telford], 5:43-4).
This fact has been a bit of an embarrassment in the Holiness Movement, since it strongly insists upon the necessity of witnessing to entire sanctification. In fact, it is commonly taught that any such experience could not be retained unless the person testified to the experience.
But, there is a problem with the idea of testifying to entire sanctification: it is bound to sound like some sort of spiritual braggadocio. It is bound to sound like spiritual pride. It is bound to sound like claiming some sort of super-human status.
And, there is a problem here with all Holy Spirit movements: the tendency to create an atmosphere of spiritual one-ups-manship, where people are trying to prove their status on a spiritual hierarchy. The question becomes: who is more spiritual than who? This can undermine the atmosphere or grace and acceptance that is so essential for the church.
And, in fact, Wesley himself recognizes the problem and gives some sound advice about this. In his “Thoughts on Christian Perfection” (1759) included in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he responds to the question “Suppose one had attained to this, would you advise him to speak of it?‘” with these words:
At first perhaps he would scarce be able to refrain, the fire would be so hot within him; his desire to declare the loving-kindness of the Lord carrying him away like a torrent. But afterwards he might; and then it would be advisable, not to speak of it to them that know not God; (it is most likely, it would only provoke them to contradict and blaspheme;) nor to others, without some particular reason, without some good in view. And then he should have especial care to avoid all appearance of boasting; to speak with the deepest humility and reverence, giving all the glory to God.
Actually Wesley himself recognized this problem and speaks to it. In the latter part of his “Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection” in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection he gives this advice:
Be particularly careful in speaking of yourself: You may not, indeed, deny the work of God; but speak of it, when you are called thereto, in the most inoffensive manner possible. Avoid all magnificent, pompous words; indeed, you need give it no general name; neither perfection, sanctification, the second blessing, nor the having attained. Rather speak of the particulars which God has wrought for you. You may say, ‘At such a time I felt a change which I am not able to express; and since that time, I have not felt pride, or self-will, or anger, or unbelief; nor anything but a fulness of love to God and to all mankind.’ And answer any other plain question that is asked with modesty and simplicity.
…while Wesley encouraged his Methodists to testify to entire sanctification in a very careful and guarded way, he made no claims himself and never testified to being “entirely sanctified” or made perfect in love. Wesley often linked Christian holiness with humility, and perhaps it was when it came to personal testimony that it came home to him that there is an inherent problem in claiming to be highly holy! But there is also a problem of language here: that so many of the standard terms, both biblical and historic, seem to be absolutes — “perfection,” “purity,”“entirely sanctified,” etc. Any self-aware and sensitive person is going to be very, very, very wary of making claims by applying such words to himself or herself. There is, in fact, an inherent problem in testifying to advanced spirituality, and one only has to put it that way to see that no truly spiritual person could ever make such a claim! The claim immediately invites ridicule precisely because of the paradox at the heart of humility expressed so memorably in the mock book title, “Humility and How I Achieved It.” “Holiness and how I achieved it” would be similarly ridiculous. But of course, Wesley would not regard “perfect love” as an “achievement,” but as God’s gracious gift. It may rather be that Wesley realized that if he as a public figure testified to “perfection,” even in a guarded way that attempted to give all the glory to God, it would still divert any discussion from the biblical basis and truth of the doctrine to focus on himself, and one can imagine the kind of satire and ridicule he would have faced in the age of Swift and Hogarth!
In the evening, while I was reading prayers at Snowsfield, I found such light and strength as I never remember to have had before. I saw every thought as well as action or word, just as it was rising in my heart, and whether it was right before God, or tainted with pride or selfishness.”I waked the next morning, by the grace of God, in the same spirit; and about eight, being with two or three that believed in Jesus, I felt such an awe, and tender sense of the presence of God, as greatly confirmed me therein; so that God was before me all day long. I sought and found Him in every place; and could truly say, when I lay down at night, ‘now I have lived a day.'”
At the same time, given all we have said about Wesley’s own pilgrimage, it is difficult to believe that he could have analyzed the Christian life so perceptively if he had not himself loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Given his life of complete dedication, we scarcely need his verbal testimony.