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Sanctification as a Central Theme

internet-wrldSince this is actually a blog re-boot,  I thought it would be good to re-iterate my intentions for this web site and this blog — and for my various Internet projects. In other words, I’d like to take a few moments to answer the question: why am I doing this?

There are days when that is quite a serious question. What has kept me at this so long, and what am I trying to accomplish? I maintain not only this blog, but a growing collection of old holiness writings, a blog drawn from the writings of Daniel Steele and a blog drawn from the writings of Thomas C. Upham. So, that’s really quite a lot. And I know a lot of people are on the Internet to convince the world of something — to win people to their point of view, etc. — and my intentions can’t really be described that way. I’m actually not especially interested in convincing any one of anything. My hope is that people will find something here that is interesting, challenging, encouraging, or thought-provoking. And, in another way, my web activities can be seen as my attempt to come to terms with my own past.

The following is my best attempt to explain what I’m doing and why.

I originally built this web site to be primarily about the Wesleyan Doctrine of Christian Perfection. And, that is still my intention.

I have a lot of other interests. But, the Holiness themes in Wesleyan theology have been a long standing interest of mine. I’ve sometime expressed it this way: I have a long standing love/hate relationship with The Wesleyan Doctrine of Christian Perfection.

I’m sure that seems strange.

It is a bit strange on a personal level. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a strict or legalistic person at all. Quite the contrary.

And, I was not brought up in the Holiness movement. I know some people who experienced it as strict and legalistic and oppressive. I met one fellow who felt he had been dangled over the pit of Hell his entire childhood (he was the son of a pastor in a Holiness denomination).

And, I really don’t know what to say about all that.

I was not brought up in what is called a strict “Christian home” — though my parents were church-going people. I was brought up in a “liberal” congregational (that became UCC) church, where, to the best of my knowledge, an evangelical message of faith in Christ was not preached — or, at least, I never heard it. My introduction to the life of faith in Christ came through evangelists at a holiness camp-meeting, during my teen years.

I have not forgotten that the “liberal” church never conveyed the Gospel of Christ to me. I have not forgotten the spiritual debt I owe to those who first presented the message of Christ to me. I hope I never forget.

CampMeetingGC4948And, then, beyond that, the early, formative experiences of my Christian journey were among people in the holiness & pentecostal movements. (Thus, my subsequent interest in the teachings of Wesleyan revivalism.) I am abidingly thankful to those who nurtured me in the Christian faith for encouraging me to believe that God could make a genuine, lived-out change in person’s life.

It has been my observation that the holiness churches are often quite legalistic. This is unfortunate — and a misunderstanding. Wesleyan teaching was originally about (among other things) the love of God overcoming the resistance of the human will and granting to us (by grace) the desire to serve God and others with our whole heart. Wesley taught that “the law” was established by grace through faith. His teaching was about the witness of the Spirit, the possibilities of grace and the life of Christian love. This cannot be reduced to a legalistic system. The essence of the law is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Faith establishes love. Love is the essence of the law. Thus: the “law” is established by faith.

And, such a morality — love enthroned by faith — can never be reduced to a code of rules and regulations. Rules can be guidelines, and guidelines are good, but the life of faith is a life of love. It can never be reduced to a set of rules. It’s more than that.

Strictness actually seems to me to be the opposite of holiness. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 14:17 “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit….”

Now, I have to say, my early encounters with holiness preaching were more confusing and frustrating than helpful. I think a lot of people experience that. When I first heard the “sanctification” message I was a young man struggling with guilt over my sexual drive. I don’t know where or how it is we first learn that sex (and thus, sexuality) are “bad.” But, we do. And, since our sexual drive is an essential part of our nature as human beings, we end up with the clear impression that we are therefore essentially bad.

So don’t tell a young man struggling with that kind of sexuality-guilt about Entire Sanctification. Don’t say that he can come to the mourner’s bench tonight, become filled with the Holy Spirit and be released from inner sin. Because this young man is undoubtedly under the (mistaken) impression that that “inner sin” is his ever-persistent sex drive.

So, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to come. I prayed to be delivered from what I was (mistakenly) sure was my “inner sin.” And, you know what? It never happened. Of course. If anything all that guilt and frustration made my sexual obsessions even worse.

holiness-sign-imageAny sensible person would have given up on this message. A lot of perfectly sensible people have. I understand. But, that’s not what I did. I became fascinated by this Holiness message which I couldn’t understand or (evidently) experience. I started reading the old books of the Holiness movement. Some of what they said I rejected. Some of it, however opened my eyes. Some of it challenged me. Some of it sounded downright hopeful. Holiness was not being released or delivered from our essential humanity. It was having our humanity graced by God. It was having our humanity filled with God’s Spirit. And, how could someone believe in such a thing? Because of Jesus Christ: who was both fully God and yet also fully human. Christ is the proof — even far beyond the “very good” God spoke over human beings in the Creation story — that Divine and Human are not in essential contradiction.

I think for a lot of people, the concept of Christian Perfection is the Hot Potato of the Methodist-influenced churches. It’s something many people would like to avoid — or forget altogether. For many people, the Perfection themes in the teachings of John Wesley are an embarrassment. If the doctrine of Christian Perfection or Entire Sanctification is mentioned at all, it comes at the tail end of the presentation on Wesley’s theology — it is covered quickly — and the presenter desperately hopes no one will ask any questions!

But, I think it’s the heart of John Wesley’s theology. His search for holiness of heart and life — the experience of actually being a Christian, not just thinking like one — was the beginning point of his whole spiritual search.

Wesley’s “heartwarming experience” at Aldersgate did not change that — it just put in on an evangelical basis! How was holiness of heart and life discovered and experienced? By faith!

So, if that’s the case, then it’s not just up to me. It’s not solely the result of my efforts. The grace of God can make me new. And, it can make me new again and again. It’s not the result of my hard work and discipline. There is a God who makes us holy by faith: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13 NRSV).

And, I’m sure it seems crazy to some people — and I even understand that — but, to me that’s a message of hope!


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10 Responses

  1. jwlung January 29, 2014 / 12:03 pm

    One of my most powerful experiences of grace occurred in my struggles with your presenting issue. Travelling down an interstate to a courthouse in another county, my eyes were captured by the entrance to a massage parlor. Of course my imagination immediately went into overload. I drove on, trying to make sense of the dissonance and angst created by the experience.

    Driving into town, I stopped at a Bible Book Store (my other besetting compulsion) and purchased a book by Richard(?) Mouw(?) whose title escapes me. As it was the lunch hour, I stopped at an inconspicuous barbecue joint (I’m in North Carolina, you know, best barbecue there is–I prefer eastern style, but the stuff with the red sauce is just as good). I ordered my standard, a large sliced tray with slaw and hushpuppies, and then cracked open my just-purchased book.

    A quote from G. K. Chesterton in the first paragraph of the Preface leapt out at me as if it were in block caps, italicized: “The man standing at the prostitute’s door is a man in search of God.” In the loving presence of God, alone in the formica (sp?) booth in a barbecue shack, I thought I was melting in the love I felt.

    Unfortunately Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification fell victim to evangelical Protestantism’s gnostic failure to understand that God loves matter, that He gives us our bodies as a blessing, and that we are psychosomatically whole. The flesh that we are to mortify is not our body, but rather a realm of power where self-centeredness and emotional brokenness can destroy us, if we let it.

    You are absolutely correct that we need to recover Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection as love poured out in abundance for our transformation.

    Sorry for the length.

  2. Craig L. Adams January 29, 2014 / 1:06 pm

    Or: is that because we have gnostic ideas we cannot comprehend the idea of entire sanctification?

  3. jwlung January 30, 2014 / 2:25 pm

    For sure. Also, we lack a theology of the body. Wesley’s interest in medicine and his study of the sciences inform his anthropology. It would be interesting to re-read him looking for hints of dualism or notions that somehow our bodies are not perfected as we grow in holiness. I doubt we would find any.

    Paul J. Griffiths (Duke) has done some great work on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Here is a link to a lecture he gave to UM Clergy and Laity in New Bern, North Carolina.

  4. zenobia January 13, 2016 / 7:48 pm

    Most Methodists just use doctrine as an excuse to torture their children.
    The fact that many “Methodist” churches in North Carolina have beliefs that are far more pagan than their part time minsters imagine, and absolutely nothing is being done about this by the conference, makes Methodism little more than the Catholicism to the locals Santeria.

    • Craig L. Adams February 8, 2016 / 10:51 am

      I don’t see any reference to United Methodism in the article — maybe I missed it. I am willing to take your word for it that these people had a connection to a United Methodist Church. The denomination certainly doesn’t advocate behavior like this — in fact, it condemns it.

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