I have been thinking quite a bit about the doctrine of entire sanctification, which John Wesley referred to as the “grand depositum” that God gave to Methodism. In a post a few weeks back, I argued that entire sanctification is the reason for Methodism and that any attempt to renew or revive Methodism without entire sanctification at the center will fail.
Here, I want to point to warrant for the doctrine of entire sanctification in Scripture and point to some ways of thinking about retrieving this in our own preaching and teaching.
First, entire sanctification is taught in the New Testament. Here is one example:
Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.
– 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
And in the conclusion of the letter, Paul wrote:
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
I have emphasized parts of this passage that are crucial to a Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification. Our sanctification is not Wesley’s idea. It is God’s will that we be sanctified.
How sanctified? Entirely!
How can this even be possible? Wesley would unpack it this way:
Entire sanctification is promised in Scripture.
Entire sanctification is God’s will.
God is faithful.
God will do this.
It is essential to notice that God is the primary actor in this understanding of holiness. We are not talking about a grand self-improvement project where we make ourselves better. We are talking about a work God does in us.
Here is an elegant description from C. S. Lewis:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
(If you have not read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, where the above quote is found, I highly recommend it!)
Entire sanctification is this kind of radical change. It does include freedom from sin and sin’s power in one’s life. But it is far richer and deeper than simply avoiding sin. It involves a radical and often surprising transformation.
One of Wesley’s favorite definitions of entire sanctification is a summary of the greatest commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And to “love your neighbor as yourself.” [Matthew 22:34-40]
At our best, this is a glimpse of what Methodists are called to offer:
God is in the business of rescuing people who are lost, desperate, hurting, hopeless, or abandoned. The Lord freely offers forgiveness and pardon through the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. But God does not only wipe the slate clean. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of sin is broken in our lives so that we are free and made pure.
We get stuck when thinking about holiness because it is so hard to stop looking at ourselves. We know that there are things that we are strongly drawn to and often give ourselves to that are not holy. It can be hard to have hope for real change because our own shortcomings are what seem most real.
A related challenge is that we can come to think of holiness as solely fighting against doing that thing that we so often do – and sometimes love to do.
Here is the good news of the full gospel: God is coming after every part of us. The Lord is not interested in merely helping us manage our sin better. Not at all! The gospel is the good news that we can not only be forgiven of our sin but be set free from it. This means that we can be made new so that our hearts no longer yearn for sin.
Entire sanctification does lead to outward change.
It absolutely will impact what we do with our bodies, the words we speak, how we spend our time and our money, and so forth.
But entire sanctification is also an inner change, a transformation of the heart.
This is crucial because it means that God’s sanctifying grace enables us to actually love what God loves instead of loving sin and fighting with all of our willpower to not give in to it.
Can you see the difference that this would make? Where would this connect in your own life? What difference would it make if God touched the place where you struggle so that your affections were changed and you found that you genuinely love what God loves? If this stirs up something in you, please bring it to God in prayer now!
This is the grand depositum that God has given to the people called Methodists.
For too long we have offered cheap grace and gospels of sin management. We have been defeated and powerless in the face of our own failings. And so we have shrugged our shoulders and told ourselves this is just the way things are. Or we have tried to stir up more willpower to fight harder (in our own strength) next time. Or we have blessed what God has not blessed. To be clear, I don’t have one particular part of United Methodism in mind here. We have all fallen short.
There is a better way.
We are to offer to the world the good news that God wants to give us a heart and life that loves God and what God loves.
But before we can offer this to the world, we need to experience it ourselves.
The Christian life is not supposed to be one of ongoing futility and frustration. It is a journey of growing in grace and participating with God as we move all of our lives into God’s house.
Come Holy Spirit! Awaken your people. Raise up a generation that is desperate for you and is captivated by the full gospel. Empower us to receive the gift of full salvation and to preach our grand depositum. Give those who receive this gift the grace to retain it and continue to grow in grace.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.