Several people have asked me to share the sermon I preached on entire sanctification recently at First United Methodist Church, Tupelo, MS and at Pollard United Methodist Church in Tyler, TX as a part of recent speaking engagements. I am hoping to see this doctrine placed at the center of the next Methodist movement. This represents an initial attempt to bring Methodism’s “grand depositum” to the local church.
Towards the end of his life, John Wesley believed there was one key reason God had raised up Methodism. And this was a pretty big deal for Wesley because John Wesley could remember when Methodism started. There was no Methodism before John Wesley.
I want to share with you this morning the one reason John Wesley believed God raised up the people called Methodists. I want to share this with you because I teach Methodist history and I find it inherently interesting and worth studying. But that would not be sufficient grounds for a sermon, would it?
I want to tell you about the one reason John Wesley believed God raised up the people called Methodists because I believe it still encapsulates the best news that we have to offer to those outside the walls of this church. And because we need to receive it first so that our own lives do not make it impossible for others to hear the faith we profess with our mouths.
But before I go any farther, I need you to know that I understand at the outset that at points this morning what I am sharing will sound crazy to you. It will seem impossible to believe. You may even find yourself thinking, there is NO WAY this guy actually believes this. I want to ask you at the outset, then, to do everything that you can to try and hear me out. Because if what I am saying is true and you experience it in your own life, you will never be the same.
How’s that for a hook?
John Wesley died on March 2, 1791 at the age of 87. Less than six months before his death, on September 15, 1790, he wrote a letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, a Methodist preacher. In the letter Wesley identified a particular doctrine as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”
That seems important! The founder of the particular part of the Body of Christ that we inhabit said at the end of his life that he believed that there was one “grand depositum” or great treasure that God had given to Methodists and that we were raised up by God in order to preach, teach, and spread this doctrine.
This morning I want to tell you what this grand depositum was. And I want to try to convince you that it still matters for us today.
One more thing before we get into the heart of this. This message may seem too Methodist or too Wesleyan. I get that. Look, this is an occupational hazard for me. Try to cut me some slack. More importantly, my motivation this morning is genuinely *not* to try to encourage all of us to become followers of John Wesley. Far from it! I want us to see what kind of life is possible by the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I want us to take far more seriously the victory over sin that we see in Jesus Christ and the way that is opened up for us if we put our full trust and confidence in Jesus Christ and him alone.
Ok, so here we go.
The grand depositum of Methodism, according to John Wesley was the doctrine of entire sanctification or Christian perfection. Wesley claimed that Methodist doctrine was derived from Scripture. And this was no exception. Today’s Scripture reading is one of the most important passages for this understanding, but certainly not the only one.
Here is the heart of it: 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” And then, at the end of the reading for today, 5:23-24 says, “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.” (NRSV)
This is the heart of the great treasure God has entrusted to us.
God’s will is that we be sanctified. And He is faithful. He will do this. Entirely.
Before we go any further let me give an initial definition of entire sanctification or Christian perfection (these are synonyms).
Let’s take sanctification first. Ok. Big picture: the Christian life can be divided into two key works God does. First is justification. This is when we are forgiven and pardoned of all past sin through faith in Jesus Christ, by putting our full trust and confidence in the work that Jesus has done for us to be able to be forgiven and made right with God. Forgiveness and pardon are a relative change. When someone is forgiven, they are still the same person that they were right before they were forgiven. Theologians often talk about justification by imagining God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the sinner in need of pardon and forgiveness. In justification, Jesus stands in front of the sinner so that God the Father sees the righteousness of Jesus Christ and forgives the sinner due to the righteousness of Christ – which is not theirs.
At the same time that one is forgiven, they experience the new birth or are born again. And the new birth, as the name suggests, is a real change. The gift of forgiveness itself brings forth gratitude, thanksgiving, joy, a new freedom and peace. We are changed. And this is the first step in sanctification. Sanctification is the process of growing in holiness, of becoming more like Jesus. It is being changed from the inside so that we come to genuinely love what God love and love like God loves. Sanctification can be both gradual and instantaneous. It is gradual in that there is always room for us to learn more about God and learn more about ourselves and give ourselves more fully and completely to loving God and others.
A helpful example of this is thinking about a relationship. Any healthy relationship is dynamic and one where two people get to know each other in deeper ways over time. My wife and I have been married for 15 years. I am sure some of you have been married for a lot longer than that. There is a familiarity in being married for that long that is a blessing. But it is also a blessing to be able to grow closer to someone, to learn more about them, and to be surprised by them even after knowing them for this long.
Entire sanctification or Christian perfection is when we have grown in holiness to the point that the love of God excludes inward and outward sin from our lives.
The language of perfection causes problems and confusion for some. Wesley himself addressed this head on. He said in his sermon “Christian Perfection” that entire sanctification is:
– Not perfection in knowledge
– Not freedom from mistakes
– Not free from infirmities
– Not freedom from temptations
What entire sanctification is:
– Love excluding sin. We “are made free from outward sin.”
– Freedom from evil thoughts
– Freedom from evil tempers
Ok. So to summarize, John Wesley was convinced that God had given Methodism this particular teaching to steward for the sake of the world. Wesley believed that we exist so that this doctrine could get a hearing.
The concern for this doctrine getting a hearing was above all else because it is biblical. We have seen this in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:23-24. The Greatest Commandment in the Gospel of Matthew 22:37-39 is another key passage. Jesus answers the question: “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Greatest Commandment, love God and neighbor, is one of the ways that Wesley would often define entire sanctification.
Today’s passage is actually a prayer of blessing at the end of the letter. As Paul is bringing the letter to the Christians in Thessalonica to a close he prays:
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.
So, we have from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that the greatest commandment is to love God with every part of our lives and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
And then Paul, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, teaches that “the will of God” is that we be sanctified. And he feels comfortable praying that God would sanctify the Christians in Thessalonica “entirely” so that our spirit and soul and body would be sound and blameless at the return of Christ.
Don’t miss the way that last prayer ends:
The one who calls you is faithful – ie., God – and he will do this.
Who sanctifies us? Not us.
God is faithful. God will sanctify us.
Sanctification, like justification, is by faith.
What kind of faith?
– That it is promised in Scripture
– That God is able to do what he promises
– That God is able and willing to do it now.
– That God actually does it.
In his sermon “Scripture Way of Salvation,” Wesley says this is how you can tell whether you are seeking entire sanctification by faith or by works:
“If by works, you want something to be done first, before you are sanctified. You think, ‘I must first be or do thus or thus.’ Then you are seeking it by works unto this day. If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are: and if as you are, then expect it now. It is of importance to observe that there is an inseparable connection between these three points – expect it by faith, expect it as you are, and expect it now!”
The doctrine of entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is not only an old teaching from the beginnings of Methodism. It is something that every single ordained United Methodist pastor has professed belief in and expectation of experiencing in this life. Before ordination, every ordained clergy answers several questions as a part of the “Historic Examination for Admission into Full Connection.” Here are the first four:
1. Have you faith in Christ?
2. Are you going on to perfection?
3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
The anticipated response to each of these questions is, “Yes, by the grace of God.”
When talking about the treasure that God has entrusted to Methodism, there are two mistakes that we can make. On the one hand this can seem like putting a heavy and impossible burden on people. I have to make myself perfect? Impossible! I may as well give up. If that is what you are thinking, I have failed to communicate well. Entire sanctification is by faith in Jesus, not faith in yourself. Here’s the truth: You cannot make yourself perfect in love in this life. Neither can I. No one can make themselves holy. But there is one who is able: Jesus Christ the risen one! Entire sanctification is at one level about learning to put our full trust and confidence in Jesus. Learning to keep our eyes fixed on him and depending on him moment by moment to enable our faith and obedience.
On the other hand, we can decide that it is all about Jesus and not about us and begin to turn a blind eye to the ways in which we are not there yet and just start to pretend. This can and has led to legalism in some parts of our tradition, where people come up with lists of specific sins and as long as we avoid those, we are good to go. This has been said in one refrain as “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do.” It is, of course, not hard to see that this does not encapsulates the beautiful and radical vision of holiness that is offered to us in Christ.
Let me close with what is at stake for us and for those who are not here yet. We live in a world that is broken and hurting. People come to church looking for hope and healing. Increasingly, they are unwilling to give us much time to convince them that we actually have answers. If it appears that all we have to offer are some self-help strategies to tweak our lives and make them slightly better through the sheer force of our will, they will not stick around because they are smart enough to know that they don’t have to come to church to get that.
Here is what I am staking my life on: I believe that Jesus is real. I believe that he really lived, died on the cross, was raised from the dead on the third day, and has ascended to the right hand of God the Father. I believe that the Holy Spirit is with us now. I am staking my life on the truth of the gospel as it has been received by the church over centuries.
Entire sanctification is not about legalism and it is not about working harder and straining more. It is about receiving the gift of God’s perfect love into every single part of your life and allowing the love of God to change you, to heal you, to bring forgiveness, hope, and even healing in every place where it is needed. Entire sanctification is about the radical optimism that the grace of God is sufficient for every need. Entire sanctification makes us bold to look the world full in the face with eyes wide open to suffering and needs we know we cannot meet in our strength and have the faith to say “Jesus!” in complete trust and confidence that he is the answer.
Some of us have been going through the motions. And church has become more about habit and duty and routine than about expecting to meet with the living God. What if God wants to change that today? Are you willing to ask God in faith to fill you with his perfect love as you are, right now, and then to follow where he leads you?
I am not promising you that it will be easy. I am not even promising you that it will mean you avoid suffering. Jesus’s embodies perfect love and it led him to the cross for our sakes. The servant is no better than the master.
But I can promise you that there is no more fulfilling and complete life than life in Christ. Jesus is the treasure. And God has given Methodism, at our best, a burning desire to say that Jesus is enough. He is all that we need. And he is able to make us whole, complete, and to enable us to say no to everything that takes life, that undermines, hurts, or damages others, and to say yes to God and all that God wants for us.
At the end of the day, here is why I believe the doctrine of entire sanctification is true: on this side of the resurrection of Jesus Christ I do not believe I am entitled to say that sin is more powerful than the grace of God. If God hates sin and it is fundamentally at odds with his purposes, I do not believe I am entitled to say that sin must be a part of the lives of those who are in Christ. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! Jesus not on cancels sin, as Charles Wesley, the writer of the soundtrack for our movement has said – he breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free!
May today be a turning point for you. May the Holy Spirit come now and give you a new hunger for more of God and the things of God. May you hunger and thirst to be filled with God’s love so that you can truly love God and love others with all that you are and all that you have. And may the Holy Spirit produce his fruit in your life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May it be so! In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.