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Sanctification and Fanaticism


Thomas C. Upham

The other day I posted this on the Hidden Life blog:

In proportion as the heart becomes sanctified, there is a diminished tendency to enthusiasm and fanaticism. And this is undoubtedly one of the leading tests of sanctification. One of the marks of an enthusiastic and fanatical state of mind, is a fiery and unrestrained impetuosity of feeling; a rushing on, sometimes very blindly, as if the world were in danger, or as if the great Creator were not at the helm. It is not only feeling without a due degree of judgment, but, what is the corrupting and fatal trait, it is feeling without a due degree of confidence in God. True holiness reflects the image of  God in this respect as well as in others, that it is calm, thoughtful, deliberate, immutable. And how  can it be otherwise, since, rejecting its own wisdom and strength, it incorporates into itself the wisdom and strength of the Almighty.

Religious Maxims (1846) XII.

And I still like this quote, in part, because it seems at first so counter-intuitive. Isn’t fanaticism too much religion? Here Upham says just the opposite: it is the result of having not enough religion: or, more properly, not having enough sanctification.

But, what is “religion” or “sanctification” or “piety” or “holiness.”? All these words seem to gain negative connotations over time. But, they were intended to express something positive: a life characterized by devotion to God and devotion to the best interests of other people. But, over time, the words gain a connotation of hypocrisy. Over time, people get a bad taste from these words. And, then Christians play into this by saying things like: “well, it’s not about religion, it’s about Jesus” or “I don’t claim to be super-pious, but I have a relationship with Jesus” — when, in fact, all those words were meant to convey the idea of having a day-to-day relationship with Jesus.

 So, I don’t think it is in the best interests of the Christian faith to go along with the idea that these words have a negative connotation. Piety is a good thing. It is devotion to God. Religion need not be simply an outward form but it can be an inward reality. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27 NRSV). And sanctification is to love God and love other people.

Now, in Wesleyan theology especially the term “sanctification” has a special meaning: it refers to the whole process in which God transforms our lives into the image of Christ. Thus, while “justification” refers to a change in relationship (forgiveness & acceptance), sanctification refers to the ongoing change in the life and behavior of the Christian believers. I’m not saying that the New Testament writers necessarily used the words in that sense. I’m saying that is the way the words came to be used.


John Wesley

The goal toward which the Christian is aiming is full love for God and love for others.

“What is, then, the perfection of which man is capable, while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command: ‘My son, give me thy heart.’ It is the ‘loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.’ This is the sum of Christian perfection: it is comprised in that one word; love. The first branch of it is the love of God: and as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;’ Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets;’ these contain the whole of Christian perfection.” — John Wesley

So, what is the goal toward which sanctification tends? It is two things intertwined: (1) devotion to God and to God’s will and (2) genuine concern for the well-being of other people. This is the essence of holiness, or piety or religion or Christian perfection. And, it cannot be measured by any other standard.

From this point of view, holiness is also seen as being true wholeness, bringing the person’s life into its proper harmony. In this way it is also related to the concept of peace in the Biblical sense (שָׁלוֹם) of balance and harmony — everything in its proper, harmonious order. We were created to live a life characterized by devotion to God and devotion to the best interests of other people.

Now, return to the original quote: “In proportion as the heart becomes sanctified, there is a diminished tendency to enthusiasm and fanaticism. And this is undoubtedly one of the leading tests of sanctification.” As the process we call sanctification continues, our lives come more and more under the control of the principle of love — and we are therefore less and less likely to be carried away by momentary but false enthusiasms.

And, what makes it counter-intuitive is that it would seem that people who are carried away into some form of fanatical religion have too much religion — when in fact the issue is that don’t have enough — or don’t have the right kind.

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