Entire Sanctification Resources
I was asked to present a session on the Biblical terms for entire sanctification at School of the Prophets in Pell City, Alabama. If you wish to have more information about this session, you can download a PDF of handout #1 here:
I also presented a handout collecting together terms that refer to entire sanctification in Scripture.
You can download that handout at the link below:
If you are looking for more teaching about entire sanctification, but in a more devotional way, I would encourage you to check out www.40daysofholiness.com
The terminology of entire sanctification
Methodist Churches as well as churches in the holiness tradition, believe that the will of God the Father, the provision of God the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit combine to lead us into a place where our hearts can arrive at a place of purity of intention and power over sin that is termed entire sanctification.
It is the distinctive doctrine of Wesleyan/Arminian theology, and a theological heritage of John Wesley’s Methodism, which Wesley recaptured from its loss through the centuries, and popularized by his writings on “Christian perfection.”
This article will deal primarily with how preachers can more accurately communicate, teach and preach entire sanctification.
The Holy Spirit illuminates entire sanctification
I want to begin with a story that illustrates an important truth about preaching entire sanctification. My grandfather, Rev. V.O. Agan, was preaching a revival at a Bible Methodist Church pastored by my uncle, Rev. Dan Stetler.
He was preaching on entire sanctification, and as they were at the back of the church shaking hands and greeting people on the way out, a lady came by and gushed to my grandfather, "This is amazing truth! Why have I never heard this preached before?" My uncle, standing behind her, was horrified.
After the lady filed out, he awkwardly told my grandfather, “I have preached this! I really have.”
My grandfather, out of his wisdom and years of experience in preaching, said, "I know you have, son. When the holy Spirit is pleased to reveal truth to someone, it sometimes seems so clear that it seems as though they've never heard it before."
In the offices of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is passionately committed to bringing about the full measure of Christlikeness available to us. It is important for us to realize that none of our own efforts can produce spiritual life or spiritual breakthrough.
John Wesley once wrote in his journal about a girl of 8 years old who testified to entire sanctification. He marveled, but said, "if the Holy Spirit is pleased to teach, who can resist?"
It is right and important that we acknowledge right up front the sovereignty and ability of God to create the breakthroughs needed for our people.
We must still think carefully about terms we use for entire sanctification.
Our responsibility to communicate and preach entire sanctification clearly
It would be a significant mistake to assume that because the Holy Spirit can create these spiritual breakthroughs any time he desires, that we have no responsibility to think carefully about
how we choose and define them
How audiences are most likely to hear and believe
Here’s another story, which is really a composite story of dozens of conversations I’ve had over 2 decades as a pastor at a holiness church. After sitting down and explaining the concepts of entire sanctification, somebody would ask me, “Why didn't God simply make this plain in Scripture?”
Anyone else ever had that conversation? Sure you have. Some of you have had it with yourself.
What they mean is this: Why didn't God simply write a systematic theology, a document that would fill in the gaps, organize the information, make plain exactly:
what the doctrine of entire sanctification accomplishes?
Why it is needed?
How it is attained?
Perhaps some of that will be a tiny bit clearer before we are done today.
Toward a Bibilical theology of sanctification
There are two Pathways before us today, which are used to discss the terminology of entire sanctification. We might refer to one as the pathway of biblical theology, and the other as a pathway of systematic theology. Both of these have their advantages, both are appropriate ways to discuss the doctrine, and both have appeal to some audiences more than others.
However, it is significant that God did not primarily choose to present his truth in logical and propositional form, but in story, in metaphor. He chose to present it, in other words, not logically and systematically, but in pictures, and scattered in various places within his revelation. Similar to the doctrine of the Trinity, not every data point is clarified. Instead, it is presented spread out over various passages and at various times, to various audiences.
Systematic theology can be a helpful discipline to collect, organize, and create a system that is helpful for understanding doctrines that are revealed by God in this way. However, systematic Theology can have some unintended consequences. Sometimes in the effort to make one aspect clear, we cloud another, or fail to include some valuable concepts because It is not immediately clear how they fit into the framework we have created.
In this session, I will contend in this session that God was not incompetent or unintentional in the way that he chose to communicate, and that we ought to let our presentation of the doctrine of entire sanctification be significantly shaped by the way in which God presented it… In other words, by biblical theology first.
How does the Bible Communicate entire sanctification?
The Scriptures make clear that there is a glorious goal of God to make his people holy. There’s a glorious heritage of God’s people pursuing holiness together. Today we are gathered to contemplate that portion of the saving work of God. We remember that in the wisdom of God, Christ has become for us “our sanctification.” (1 Corinthians 1)
But how do we present that?
How do we speak about it entire sanctification in a way that is as clear as possible?
Three overall concepts I will cover in this session:
1. The Bible seems to use two approaches to communicating the concept of entire sanctification.
When we gather the biblical passages that seem to teach entire sanctification, I will argue that we have two types of terms.
Imaginative terms - Metaphors, illustrative terms, stories
Didactic terms - conceptual, philosophical & more precise
These vary in their usefulness depending on the context and audience, but are definitely two different approaches.
2. The Bible doesn’t attempt to make every relationship or data point clear from a “Western logic” point of view.
Therefore, each term exists on a continuum on at least these two values:
How certain are we that this refers to entire sanctification and not some other part of the saving work of God?
How powerful is this to clearly teach entire sanctification, so that we are compelled to believe rightly about it?
How powerful is this to access the imaginative work of the mind to help us feel rightly about God’s work?
Two important observations must be made here:
First, it is important that we not represent the exegetical certainty of a term more highly than it is.
The surest way to discredit the truth is to exaggerate it.
There is something in the human psyche that rebels against the exaggeration of things we know are not accurate. Failling to recognize this makes us subject to shifting attention away from what should be noticed in a conversation.
This is obvious enough in politics. When Donald Trump claimed that his inauguration was the largest ever, the narrative immediately was distracted from the facts of its significant size – and attention was turned to the gap between the claims and the reality.
When Democratic opponents claimed dramatic proof of Trump’s collusion with Russia, then failed to produce that proof… the narrative was immediately shifted to the gap between the claims and reality.
When we preach about entire sanctification, we should not allow this dynamic to influence our preaching, and distract the attention of our audience.
In his commentary on Galatians, W.B. Godbey, a preacher in the holiness movement, comments on Galatians and says (paraphrased), “This is one of the clearest passages to teach a second work of grace [of entire sanctification] in all the Scripture, which should sweep away all possibility of disagreement.”
This is simply not true, and the idea that this passage teaches it without any doubt even makes me disagree, and I already believe in entire sanctification!
Second, it is important that we recognize that emotional connection to biblical truth is valuable.
God chose metaphor for a reason. I would argue that the reason he did is because metaphor has an emotional weight, a gravitational force that logic does not, and cannot.
They say that as you travel through Death Valley, there used to be a huge billboard that is located a couple miles from the first exit on the far side. It was a huge billboard showing a bottle of water. Ice cold water, with beads of delicious condensation running down the side, and one gigantic bold word: “THIRSTY?”
What they were looking for was an emotional connection to water, that motivated economic activity. If you've ever truly been thirsty, the metaphor that Jesus is the Water of Life, becomes incredibly, gravitationally powerful.
It is far more meaningful than a logical syllogism to convince you of your need for water.
Imagine a different billboard:
Premise A: Humans can live for approximately three days with no water before beginning to die of thirst.
Premise B: You do not wish to die of thirst.
Conclusion: You need water right now.
That is 100% true, and logically coherent, but not as emotionally compelling as billboard.
3. For a teacher/preacher, the comparative value of a term for entire sanctification is connected to the audience.
The value of a term is in its venue.
I argue that the needs of the audience are what controls the way we present the truth. It does not change the truth, but it does change the way in which we present it.
Have you ever considered the difference between the way Peter presented the Gospel in Acts 2, and how Paul presented it in Acts 17?
Peter opens right up with a quote from Joel 2, “This is that which was spoken of by the prophet Joel…”
Paul begins with shared moral ground, and by defining what he means by “God”.
Peter goes for the jugular, calling people to account for the murder of God’s Son.
Paul never once quotes Scripture. He does, however, twice quote the pagan poet Epimenides.
They both get to the Resurrection, and a call to repent and believe, but the roads they travel to get there are very different.
I want to point out that these are not simply random collections of facts, they are God-inspired changes in the way the Gospel was presented before different audiences.
Are we convinced yet that VENUE and AUDIENCE shape the way in which Truth is communicated? Now, is it just the Gospel, or can we be convinced that entire sanctification is the same way?
I would argue it is.
Today I want to talk about 3 Venues, with 3 audiences, and how terms for entire sanctification might be well-used for each:
Venue 1: Devotional Teaching on Entire Sanctification
Audience: Already Convinced about entire sanctification
Precision needed: Low
Key Words: Rejoice & enjoy
A group of the already-convinced can get together and rejoice in God’s work through verses and terms that they already accept. Sometimes it might not even what the Holy Spirit originally meant through the term, but it’s real to the person, and the Spirit uses it to strengthen their spiritual walk and devotion to Christ.
The connection need not even be 100% that “this is exactly what the Holy Spirit meant when he inspired this passage/story” – it may be closer to “this reminds me of entire sanctfication” or “this is like that full surrender.”
For each venue, I will be providing a list of recommendations on how we should respond, and strategically use terms.
Recommendations on teaching holiness to the devotional venue:
Respect the audience before you
Enjoy the richness of biblical metaphor
Recognize the limitations of this venue in the other contexts/venues
Don’t insist that others feel about it as you do;
Don’t critique those who won’t use the terms you use; they may be speaking primarily to a different venue
Illustrate with this venue in a pastoral context; good for seasoning, not as good for entree
Venue 2: Pastoral Teaching on Entire Sanctification
Audience: Needing spiritual shepherding, possibly unaware of their need or the possibility of entire sanctification
Precision needed: Medium
Key Words: Challenge, Call, Illustrate, Instruct
Some people have bought in mentally to the possibility of entire sanctification, but not experientially. They believe it’s possible, but have not appropriated that knowledge for themselves. Others have not bought in mentally, but it simply because they are not yet aware of it.
They need spiritual shepherding, which will need to be done with wisdom and patience.
Recommendations on teaching holiness in the pastoral teaching venue:
Stay with the passage in its context, and let the Holy Spirit do what he originally intended with it.
Don’t feel the need to always treat systematic theology as a set of handles to import all the concepts from other passages. Remember, it is doubtful that the many of the Thessalonians, who read Paul’s letter, ever saw the full surrender part of Romans, which was written probably 15 years later.
God had something to bring to that audience at that moment, and he did. When you stand to preach, you have an audience, and a moment. God is in that moment, and has a message for that audience.
There is a weakness with jumping straight to an importing of theology to a passage. If you do it, the passage may not be exposited as deeply as it should be. You may fail to plumb the depths of what God has said there. The metaphors or teaching may be exactly what is needed, but we moved on too quickly, because of our greater comfort with other terms.
Stay there. Let that metaphor live and breathe. Let the audience sit and contemplate it.
Illustrate with metaphors to give imagination and emotion
Someday I’m going to write on this topic more extensively, but the imagination is a gift from God which enables us to move from orthodoxy, (thinking rightly about God) to orthopathy (feeling rightly about God.) It is to this that God is appealing when he uses metaphor, because he cares about both our minds/mental assent and our hearts/enjoyment of Him.
Think about it:
Why does God call himself the Water of life if not to appeal to our enjoyment of being satisfied?
Why does he call himself a strong tower if not to appeal to our love of security?
Why does he call himself a Father to the fatherless if not to appeal to our emotional need for fathers?
Jonathan Haidt wrote a book called “The Righteous Mind” where he argues that the thinking part of the brain is primarily used to support decisions that we already desired to make with our emotional cognition. He compares the relationship to a rider and an elephant. The brain is just the rider, which is only partially in control, and the elephant that provides the power is the emotional type of cognition.
I know as a pastor, or preacher, you want – We want people to move from
orthodoxy about entire sanctification… rightly believing that it is possible.
To orthopraxy about entire sanctification… choosing to surrender & appropriate it by faith
But the cold truth is that many people will never be able to move directly from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxy (right action) without passing through this stage: ORTHOPATHY - They must feel rightly about it.
We want them to move from orthodoxy to orthopathy about entire sanctification… rightly feeling that they desire it (as God desires to give it to them!)
God has, in his wisdom, chosen a variety of metaphor and illustration to help people from thinking rightly about his saving work to feeling rightly about it.
Recognize the limitations of some members in your audience who need the next level.
Venue 3: Apologetic teaching on entire sanctification
Audience: Skeptical or unconvinced
Precision needed: High
Key words: Prove, clarify, reason, demonstrate
RON’S STORY A young man I recently spoke with said that entire sanctification was heresy when he first heard it. He couldn’t see how it was possible to live in full surrender and victory over sin. And he couldn’t get past the word “perfect.” I'll tell you the rest of his story at the end of this session.
You will for sure run into these kinds of people. But WHY they are that way, WHY the venue is what it is can vary widely.
The reason that this could be is at least threefold:
It could be an academic context where standards of thought demand greater rigor.
Let’s stop and recognize that this is not an illegitimate expectation.
It is true that
“professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,” and
“God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” and
“the preaching of the Cross is foolishness” to the Greeks that demand wisdom,
but the Gospel need not fear to tread into these places - academia, and other environments that may be occasionally hostile. Neither does the Bible's teaching on entire sanctification.
2. It could be a theologically different context where a different hermeneutic is a barrier to belief.
The first step of argumentation is agreement on terms and definitions.
Start with where we agree.
Begin with where you agree, then reason from it. I have had churches that are Baptist use my material for discipleship, and I tell them, “I’m a guy who believes in a deeper life in the tradition of guys like DL Moody.” And some of them use my 40 Days of Holiness journey in their churches. :)
Start with shared Scriptural ground.
3. It could be a person wounded by poor teaching, trauma, or painful experience.
Can we take a moment and recognize that people have been genuinely, actually wounded by every religious movement… AND that we are no exception?
Do I dare say that those wounds and the soreness that comes from it that makes them jerk away from the faithful touch of a healer… IS NOT THEIR DOING?
Are you ready to hear that what they are shying away from may not be YOU, and it may not be HOLINESS, but a caricature of it, a false and unbalanced picture of what ought to be the most beautiful reality in the world?
People from my church may help to illustrate this. Someone asked me after I preached a message on entire sanctification on Sunday night… “Why have people preached it so high and lofty that no one can ever live up to it? Why did they tell me that if I was hurt or tempted, that it meant I didn’t have it?”
And I had to tell them, “Sometimes it is because it was just all they knew… other times, I think it was because if they preached it high, they could get sensitive people to come to the altar and make them feel good about the fact that they had seekers.”
A man, a good and godly man came to me afterwards and said, “I was in a church like that for years, and I never saw until recently that this was what they were doing.”
Sometimes you preach for years about the beauty of entire sanctification before someone is able to hear it ALONE -- for what it really is -- and not with all the baggage they associate with it. Sometimes, hurting people can be some of the most frustrating people.
“I'M TRYING TO HELP YOU – why are you attacking me??!!”
When you’re rejected, attacked, etc…
Are you ready to turn the other cheek?
Are you ready to lay down your life and reputation for Christ who laid his down that THEY might be made fully conformed to his will?
Or are you ready to call down fire from heaven on them, and consign them to the ranks of “enemies of holiness?”
So in these contexts, you’re going to have to treat things differently:
Recommendations for teaching entire sanctification in the apologetic context:
Some terms will not bear the weight of apologetic. Don’t make them try.
If you’re on this side of an ideological or emotional chasm, and you can feel the solid ground under your feet, it is not very helpful to be frustrated at the people on the other side because they cannot feel it. It is up to you to build a bridge out of materials that will hold up under the weight of the baggage and objections they are bringing across.
Change your goal from making traditional CHM systematic theology to making holiness plausible.
Let me give you a term that I think will be helpful: Overton Window.
This is a fairly recent term that was coined in the political world, but has really helpful as a mental framework for understanding what happens here. It means “the plausible range of belief” in a particular cultural current.
You’re hoping to move the Overton Window to include entire sanctification. That might be the only thing that God wants you to accomplish for now.
For people like CS Lewis, in his conversion, the Overton Window moved… followed by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.
Be patient with people, and be slow to overspiritualize their objections.
We run the risk of alienating people in the apologetic context because they will not accept what is *devotionally real to us.*
It is far too easy to say, “Well, they just don’t want holiness.” That’s sometimes just not true. (Sometimes it is, of course… but sometimes it’s not, and I’m not confident that you or I can tell the difference easily.)
Don’t stay here forever with people.
It may not be their time yet. Be at peace with that. The Holy Spirit is more committed to God’s eternal purpose of creating holiness and the likeness of Christ in their heart than you are.
Eventually, you may need to move on, if the spirit of the discussion becomes contention and nitpicking.
Remember the power of example, especially with those who are wounded.
They probably will have reason to deny your other sources of authority: anointing, consensus, tradition, logic, etc. They may even fight common Scripture.
Let it be that they may not deny your love and patience and compassion.
If you are called to communicate in this venue more frequently, Limit your critique & raise your appreciation of those who live in the devotional and pastoral contexts more frequently.
It is not good for the unity of the holiness people to chastise people for a difference in gifts and callings, and (to use the term I’m using in this session) venues.
In fact, it is harmful. There’s a reason why the old Methodist discipline (and the modern Bible Methodist one, and probably many of yours) warns us to “take care not to despise one another’s gifts.”
What cultural currents are fighting against entire sanctification?
Now, a word about cultural currents, and spiritual movements and how it affects our use of terms.
In the 1800s, human perfectibility and achievement were objects of fascination. A combination of
the cultural currents of romanticism and transcendentalism
Supported by authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, and Alcott
It was the era of Jules Verne: “Around the World in 80 days” - railroads, hot air balloons, steamships, and more.
The wonders of science in the Industrial revolution
The rapid social change taking place (i.e. slavery’s outlaw in Britain and USA, within 30 years of each other)
This led to a hopeful sense of “what next? How high can we go?”
During this time, there was also a tremendous revival of Wesleyanism and teaching on Christian perfection.
The national camp meeting association for the promotion of holiness
The Methodist church was planting 2 churches per day during the mid-1800s
Holiness teaching leaped denominational boundaries and became ecumenical.
WHY? Of course, we believe it was the moving of the Holy Spirit.
But there’s more as well. While not desiring to take away from the sovereign power of God to overrule cultural currents, I want to point out that he sometimes uses them.
The cultural zeitgeist of that moment lended itself to asking, “And how perfectible are humans? How much can we rise? What is possible?” In other words, huge swaths of American culture were wearing what I would call a hermeneutic of “possibility glasses.”
And with those glasses, they saw Christian perfection as a perfectly reasonable solution, and embraced it in large numbers.
What about today?
What’s the cultural current with regard to human perfectibility and entire sanctification?
Finish this sentence: “Well, nobody’s _______.” Perfect.
How did you know? Because there’s this deeply embedded cultural current that we are swimming against, and we know the pull of it, even though we are not part of it.
I could point out that 5 Point Calvinism has been largely resurgent in this moment, but that’s beyond the scope of what I’m considering.
The only verse that tons of people know is, “Judge not.” This means that when we stand up and say, “We are made perfect in love by the power of the Holy Spirit,” it sounds not just wrongheaded but also arrogant, in the cultural moment in which we live.
But God has called us to this moment, and not another one.
Can people still be convinced of entire sanctification?
I told you earlier about a young man who first heard teaching on Christian perfection and said, “That’s heresy!” That young man was fortunate to be mentored by a black pastor in Florida who was Wesleyan-Arminian. That young pastor, whose name is Carl Guillame, was mentored by GR French.
He began teaching and training…
That young man eventually came around.
He became a convinced “Methodist”
He came to believe in AND experienced what he called “a clean heart”
He asked his mentor about a college to go to.
His mentor told him about Hobe Sound.
He graduated from there.
We have further to take people. But it can be done.
This calls for patience with people AND with ourselves…
This calls for wisdom in our preaching and our choice of words…
And it calls for persistence in proclaiming entire sanctification in whatever place the Lord Jesus has called you, until he comes again, and perfects all things in one.