Sophomore, Westminster School at Oak Mountain
John Wesley was a man whose understanding of the gospel profoundly focused on holiness. He stressed the vigorous, personal nature of the Christian life and the need for individual piety. Ultimately, this emphasis resulted in his doctrine known as Christian perfection. In describing a “good Methodist,” he remarks, “All the commandments of God he accordingly keeps, and that with all his might; for his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows.” Critically, he linked a believer’s growth in faith to increased obedience. He thus hypothesized a state in which a believer achieves freedom from willful sin and complete holiness in thought and deed. Although this assertion may appear far-fetched to many, one must understand this simply represents one man’s attempt to explain the mystery of sanctification first outlined in Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, asking the Father to “sanctify them in the truthi.” Overall, the New Testament portrays sanctification as the Spirit’s work of leading the believer to walk in the hope of salvation in Christ. Sanctification is thus a paradigm for the present tension of redemption: it is initiated with Christ’s work and will be consummated at His Return.
The foundational perspective on sanctification views it as a goal wholly achieved through Christ’s redemptive work. During His manifestation on the road to Damascus, Jesus commissions Saul as a minister to the Gentiles so that “they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). The language here is transformational, pointing to the moment of repentance and conversion that effects salvation. Interestingly, its result is forgiveness as well as a sanctified status before God. Paul later states agreement with the Lord’s view of sanctification accomplished at conversion. He tells the Thessalonian church, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth…so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14). Paul explains salvation as a two-way affair wrought both by individual faith and the Spirit’s sanctifying graceii. Even so, he seems to indicate that the purpose of sanctification is somehow connected to the eternal perfection to come, in which the believer is made like Christ Jesus in totality.
Sanctification is also described in terms of a process that spans a period of time. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul remarks, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:22). Importantly, he links freedom from sin to sanctification. Since fruit refers to the ongoing attitudes that result from this freedom, sanctification must be a process. It is completed when a believer dies and enters into eternal life. The epistle to the Hebrews clarifies this process even more: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:15). In this age the believer stands in the tension of an already-not yet Kingdom. Christ has already made His chosen perfect in the eyes of the Father. Yet they also hope in the promise of total glorification to come and remain in the struggle with sin.
Practically, sanctification should be much more than lofty theological jargon in the eyes of the average believer. It defines the way Christ’s Kingdom operates in this age and how He relates to His church. It illuminates the way in which a believer should live his daily life. In truth Christ is sanctification incarnateiii. The believer’s task, then, is to love Jesus wholeheartedly and embrace Him as the hope of holiness. The relationship between Christ and the church incorporates both aspects of sanctification. Paul states that Jesus died “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor…that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27). Believers are yoked with the man who is the very definition of holiness. As the church grows in her union with Him, she takes on more and more of His character and is continually perfected by the Spirit. Sanctification means death to sin, because “God has not called us for impurity but in holinessiv” (1 Thess. 4:7). It occurs not as a result of human striving but instead flows from the Spirit’s grace and the natural obedience that follows. It is cultivated in the place of personal intimacy with Christ Jesus, experienced through faith in His past work (redemption) and hope in His coming (glorification). In this way, one should never disregard Wesley’s Christian perfection as myth altogether. Each believer will certainly be made perfect; he might have just been wrong as to when it will take place.
i Taken from John 17:17. This and all other Scripture citations throughout the essay are cited from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
ii Furthermore, Paul even seems to equate sanctification with redemption. He states, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
iii See 1 Cor. 1:30. Paul states, “…you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…”
iv In this context Paul specifically is referencing freedom from sexual immorality, but this principle applies much more broadly to freedom from sin in general.