In The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century, Melvin E. Dieter discusses the tension that developed as the holiness revival progressed amongst its Methodist adherents over “come-outism.” This term referred to Methodists who left (or came out of) Methodism to pursue a purer form of holiness fellowship or association. Dieter argued that there were many Methodists who were advocates of the importance of holiness and who felt that it was essential that this movement stay connected with Methodism. In fact, some seemed to have seen this connection as crucial to Methodism’s future vitality.
Dieter goes on to discuss a parallel debate within Methodism over whether entire sanctification was Wesleyan. According to Dieter, “critics of the revival often had charged that the preaching of the Christian perfection which became characteristic of the revival was un-Wesleyan because the context of American revivalism tended to create significant variations from Methodism’s standard teachings of the doctrine” (256).
Interestingly, though, this argument was actually not all that persuasive or effective. Dieter argues that the holiness movement was “so closely identified with traditional Methodism and Wesleyan doctrine and life that Methodist opponents of the revival were forced to distance themselves from Wesley and the standard authors of prevailing Methodist theology to resolve the struggle with the holiness elements within the church” (256). In other words, those who opposed the holiness revival recognized that they could not win the argument by appealing to Wesley’s authority, so they looked for other sources of authority, and even a new heritage.
The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South, then, shifted strategies. Instead of looking back to their heritage and the tradition that they were living out of, they looked forward “to the new and greener pastures in more modern teachers and theologies” (256). And so Dieter argues:
The legacy of entire sanctification, with whatever modifications may have been made to it during the course of the American deeper life revival, was now being surrendered, in large part, to the holiness movement; it had become difficult for the tradition to survive within its original Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church South home. (256)
Oddly, or perhaps hopefully, the MEC and MECS did not entirely officially abandon its connection to the doctrine of entire sanctification. For example, this morning I verified that the historic examination questions for admission into Methodist ministry are included in every MEC Discipline from 1884 until union with the MECS and Methodist Protestant Church in 1939. These are the very questions that are asked today of every person who presents themselves for ordination in the United Methodist Church as an elder or deacon. The second, third, and fourth questions are: Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it?
Yesterday, I asked the students in my United Methodist History class if any of them had ever heard a sermon preached on entire sanctification or christian perfection. Not one of the nineteen students present had. As United Methodists, we seem to be living in a strange tension. In many ways we seem to have surrendered the doctrine of entire sanctification to other Wesleyan holiness groups, while still officially holding to the teaching in our doctrine and Book of Discipline. Or perhaps we have not surrendered the doctrine, just our commitment to teaching and preaching it. Somewhere along the way the very thing that Wesley believed to be one of the very reasons God raised up the people called Methodists became an embarrassment to later generations of Methodists.
I wish more ordained United Methodists would become uncomfortable with the fact that they have publicly affirmed their commitment and expectation that, by God’s grace, they expect to be made perfect in love in this life. United Methodists should not become familiar with this teaching only if they go to seminary. It should be preached in every Methodist pulpit, as the result of every UM pastor’s wrestling with what Wesley did and did not mean by “perfection,” and their efforts to present this to their parishioners in a way that they can understand. May we reclaim this “grand depositum” that God has entrusted to those who faithfully live out of the Wesleyan heritage.
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Ben Simpson said:
I just read about this over on John’s blog, where I left a comment on another thread.
In response, I have heard one sermon on Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, since moving to Kansas City and keeping company with Methodist people. This was at a Methodist camp for high school students. I remember it. I’m not sure if any of the high school students would. It has been about four years since I heard that sermon.
I’ve also taught students about this doctrine, as I’ve read Wesley’s Plain Account. While I do have some issues with the idea of Christian perfection that I have yet to work out, I find the idea compelling. I also find it hard to dismiss considering Dallas Willard remarked that the Plain Account is the best account of sanctification ever written.
Craig L. Adams said:
Thanks for this. I agree with you. I have preached on Christian Perfection, though (oddly enough) not recently. I have preached on it without using the traditional Wesleyan language, too.
Craig L. Adams said:
(Oh, I hope you don’t mind if I link to this on FaceBook and Twitter.)
Richard Evans said:
Or perhaps we have not surrendered the doctrine, just our commitment to teaching and preaching it. Somewhere along the way the very thing that Wesley believed to be one of the very reasons God raised up the people called Methodists became an embarrassment to later generations of Methodists.
How many that preach today actually understand entire sanctification or Christian perfection? How many in the congregation would understand? Is this what Wesley emphasized in the “Select Scoieties’?Where would one go in today’s UMC to learn about entire sanctification?
Ruth Atterberry said:
I can’t remember preaching on perfection but whenever I have introduced it in small group studies, it has prompted scoffs and outright rejection. In each of these settings I have felt my ability, much less defend, this doctrine to be inadequate. So any help you can suggest would be welcome.
My brother (Denise’s cousin Monty) includes the following in his personal/professional email signature: “Are you (we) moving on towards perfection?”– John Wesley
(And if you are ever in need of a “sparring partner” to clarify your own statements on this doctrine, Dr. Marshall would be a good choice if he’s available.)
John Earp said:
As someone with deep family roots in historic Methodism and a major offshoot, Holiness Pentecostalism, it seems to me that Christian Perfection as Mr. Wesley proclaimed it is so hard to keep up over time because of the fact that preaching it as he preached it will always (by definition) have such a very profound affect on both the preacher and his hearers. A preacher who preaches entire sanctification and doesn’t by faith truly expect it must in due course abandon it.
I preach a very similar idea (with combined elements of Wesley and Finney’s views) on a very regular basis to my congregation. Most seem kind of scared of the idea and don’t seem to really believe it possible to be entirely sanctified in this life, but I patiently and persistently keep plugging away at it, as I personally believe, with Wesley, that the hottest place in Hell belongs to Christians who do not fulfill all righteousness. We have no right to call ourselves Christ’s disciples if we are not loving Him supremely and our neighbor as ourselves.
1 Thess 5:23-24
Ben Simpson said:
Grace means that calling ourselves Christ’s disciples is a gift, not a right. We do not earn it. We are offered it.
And, oh, how sweet a gift it is.
Kevin Watson said:
Ben – Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for sharing the comment by Dallas Willard, very cool!
Craig – Thanks for the comments. And by all means, please share links on Twitter and Facebook!
Richard – Thanks for your comment. You raise some great questions. My first reaction is that I hope that every pastor who has taken United Methodist History and United Methodist Doctrine in seminary would understand Christian perfection. If they were still unsure, I would hope that they would investigate it before answering the questions where they give their word of support to the doctrine and their personal commitment to doing all they can to pursue it. Nevertheless, I suspect that you may be pointing to something important – that there may be many pastors who do not fully understand what entire sanctification is.
To you second question, I think people in the pews are very capable of understanding what I take to be a biblical teaching… provided that it is taught with clarity and conviction. But this probably goes back to your first question.
To your third question: In the select societies the pursuit of entire sanctification was emphasized. I think the teaching of what Christian perfection is, however, was distributed more broadly. (For example, in the sermons “Christian Perfection” and “The Scripture Way of Salvation” which Wesley published, as well as his “Plain Account of Christian Perfection.”)
To your final question: My off the cuff, tongue in cheek response is: A United Methodist Church that is thoroughly grounded in its Wesleyan heritage! There are also several good resources that try to help people see the connection from Wesley’s teaching to the contemporary UMC. The first is Steve Manskar’s A Perfect Love: Understanding John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. The second is Reclaiming the Wesleyan Tradition: John Wesley’s Sermons for Today, which uses a format similar to Disciple Bible Study to introduce lay Methodists to John Wesley’s sermons.
Ruth – Thanks for your honesty. I commend you for your efforts to help people understand the doctrine.From a teaching standpoint, I think it is important to first acknowledge the discomfort than many will have with the word “perfect” or “perfection” and to start by outlining what Wesley said Christian perfection is NOT, and then move to what it is. Second, I think it is crucial to emphasize clearly and consistently that this is about God’s grace and what God is able to do, not about us and what we can do. In other words, if you deny the possibility of being made perfect in love then you are saying that it is not possible for God to do this.
John – Thanks for stopping by. To your first point – I think you are exactly right. This would be a very difficult doctrine to preach if you were not personally convinced it was true. (Thankfully, in theory at least, every single United Methodist pastor not only agrees with the doctrine but expects it to come to life in their own lives.) Thank you, also, for point to 1 Thess 5:23-24, a key Scripture point to entire sanctification.
Rev. Ralph Wesley Howe said:
In order for the UMC to preach entire sanctification, the antecedent spiritual journey must become real for the preacher and members. Entire sanctification presupposes that one has experienced graces of conviction, conversion, justification and regeneration. I find that most folks stop a justification, if they get that far. Regeneration–the transformation of the person through cooperation with the Holy Spirit seems to have lost appeal to the sometime Christians, and has slipped from the experience of many others. In part this is because we have made an ideological religion out of our faith, in which much of Scripture is co-opted by an ideological overlay or is converted to purely linguistic imagery, rather than “experimental religion.” Those who have not surrendered to regeneration will find entire sanctification nonsensical. If we preach more on holiness in general, then those who make that their prayer will find sanctification appear on the horizon. I preach on holiness and point toward sanctification a lot.
John Earp said:
I think you missed my point. I am not saying we can earn the status of a disciple, nor am I denying that the gracious gift of relationship with God is just that–a gift.
What I am saying is basically what Pauk the Apostle said when he exhorted Christians to “walk worthy of the calling by which you were called.”
If we say we are His disciples and do not obey His command to love God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves, we are shown to not be what we claim to be. He that is begotten of God does not practice (do) sin. He that sins (goes on sinning) is of the Devil. 1 Jn. 3:1-9.
Luther Warner said:
Wesley was correct on the work of entire sanctification. The Church of the Nazarene is the child of the Methodist that continues to teach and preach this work of grace following salvation. It is real and necessary to be what God desires of Christians today.
Every Methodist Pastor should experience this work of grace and preach it regularly. This will bring revival to a spiritual sick people. Wesley changed Great Britian with this message.
Ralph Howe said:
Amen Luther! As a UMC seeking to bring back Wesleyanism I urge it often. Pray for us.
Randy Olds said:
Thank you for this post. I have just discovered your blog and like your approach to “fundamental” Wesleyanism. I converted to Methodism/Wesleyanism several years ago and the idea of entire sanctification as taught and lived by John Wesley was one of the things that drew me and keeps me in the the Methodist Church.
It troubles me that I rarely if ever hear Christian Perfection brought up in my church, not from the pulpit, not in small groups or even in casual conversation. I believe that this is a core belief of Wesleyanism and should be fully embraced by all United Methodist pastors and teachers.
I look forward to continued reading of your blog, and as I live in the DFW area, I hope to hear you preach one day.
Les Conry said:
I think the biggest problem here in thinking we can obey the law perfectly is defining the law. If we can love the Lord with all our heart and mind like some of you are saying then we wouldn’t need Christ and His sacrifice would we? We could just give people a list of things to improve our lives and make us stop sinning anymore. I keep asking folks that believe that we can live a sinless life.
Who’s robes of righteousness do you want to stand in when your before the throne of God? Yours of His. I would say His any day. What comfort does that bring Christians when you keep telling them they need to be perfect and holy. Can anyone really lay their heads down on their pillow at night and think to themselves. Lord Jesus come now because I’m holy. No because their pastor is telling them that they need to be perfectly holy all the time. Where is the Gospel in all of this holiness preaching? Don’t leave your people in despair leaving your church thinking they have to do something more. But yet is always vague and they are not quite sure what they have to do.
End All your sermons with the Gospel not the Law. The Gospel is the only message that is empowered. The Law was given to show us our sin and to make us see we can’t fullfill it. Oh but I forgot, many of you think we can. Look at this website and you might change your mind. That’s if you don’t just write him off as a false teacher.
Let’s see if any of you can love the Lord as spelled out like this.
How are you doing Earp? Do you love the Lord this much?
Les Conry said:
Oh and by the way, I was brought up in the United Methodist church. I see many “Evangelical churches now going the same way that church has gone. You folks are just at the opposite extremes.
The liberals think they are justified by their good deeds and the conservatives think they are kept by their good deeds.
In both cases Christ doesn’t get ALL the Glory like He deserves. And both are giving Him and what He did for us a slap in the face.
Kevin Watson said:
You have pointed to one of the major objections that is often made against Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. However, from the Wesleyan perspective, this is a misconception of entire sanctification, not its correct understanding. Christian perfection does not proclaim the amazing ability of humans to save themselves. On the contrary, it is surrounded by grace at every single turn. We can do nothing but sin if not for God’s grace. Rather, Christian perfection proclaims the amazing grace of God, that is able to save us to the uttermost. There is no limit to what God’s grace is able to do in our lives.
The notion that Christians can be made perfect in love for God and neighbor is based on a few key convictions: Jesus would not have told us to do something that is impossible (i.e. he would not have lifted up these as commandments if they could only be violated). More importantly, those who believe in Christian perfection are convinced that God is more powerful than anything else, even sin and death itself. Therefore, Christian perfection is rooted in the conviction that if God wants to save us from sin in this life, by his grace, then God is able to do this. Those who argue for the inevitability of sin put themselves in the odd position of arguing that even though sin is against God’s purposes, God is incapable of doing anything in the lives of those who God has created in order to free people from committing sin.
I am well aware that there are many parts of the Christian faith that are unconvinced by these arguments. With respect to your concerns, the original motivation of my post was not to convince people who do not belong to a denomination whose doctrine teaches entire sanctification that they must do so in order to be faithful Christians. Rather, the purpose of my post was to call United Methodists to proclaim and seek the grace to live out what we already have said that we believe.