The Meaning of Sanctification in John Wesley’s Theology
Updated: Nov 7
John Wesley is located firmly within the mainstream of the Protestant movement, with scarcely a “hair’s breadth” between him and Calvin & Luther on many issues, such as justification by faith. (That's what HE said, not I.) Yet the most distinctive doctrine of Methodism is his view of sanctification.
Wesley’s views on sanctification diverge strongly with some Reformers, as is seen in his comment on Luther’s writings: “Who has written more ably than Martin Luther on justification by faith alone? And who was more ignorant of the doctrine of sanctification, or more confused in his conception of it?” (“On God’s Vineyard,” 2.5)
Let us examine the core concepts in Wesley’s view of sanctification, and especially of Christian perfection.
Why is sanctification necessary?
1. Because sanctification (holiness) is the goal of salvation.
Wesley viewed sanctification as inseparable from salvation itself, indeed as its “end” or goal. While Wesley saw a distinction between concepts like justification and sanctification, he was insistent that they were inseparable in Christian experience.
Nothing short of a recovery of the original creative purpose of God should be considered true salvation. "In the image of God was man made, holy as he that created him is holy; …an incorruptible picture of the God of glory. He was accordingly pure, as God is pure, from every spot of sin. He knew not evil in any kind or degree, but was inwardly and outwardly sinless and undefiled. He "loved the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his mind, and soul, and strength." (Justification By Faith)
2. Because of the problem of inward, remaining sin.
Wesley strongly believed in original sin & the sinful nature of (even regenerate) man, and quotes approvingly the 9th Article of the Church of England, “corruption of the nature of every man, whereby man is in his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth contrary to the Spirit. And this infection of nature doth remain... And although there is no condemnation for them that believe, yet this lust hath of itself the nature of sin." (On Sin In Believers, 1.3) He insists that “but the flesh, the evil nature, still remains (though subdued) and wars against the Spirit.” (Ibid, 5.2)
Wesley viewed this remaining sin as primarily related to inward (not observable) sins: “By sin, I here understand inward sin; any sinful temper, passion, or affection; such as pride, self-will, love of the world, in any kind or degree; such as lust, anger, peevishness; any disposition contrary to the mind which was in Christ. (OSIB, 2.2)
Wesley thought it particularly important that believers understand this, including multiple sermons on it in his collections. He insisted that “those believers who are not convinced of the deep corruption of their hearts, or but slightly, and, as it were, notionally convinced, have little concern about entire sanctification.” (Repentance Of Believers, 4.2)
3. Wesley viewed sanctification as necessary to rid the heart of the sinful nature, and remaining “inward sin.”
Wesley’s concept of holiness was both “inward and outward,” and he strongly insisted that the goal of Christianity was not merely to avoid the appearance of evil without, but to destroy its presence within.
“O do not take anything less than this for the religion of Jesus Christ! Do not take part of it for the whole! What God hath joined together, put not asunder! Take no less for his religion, than the "faith that worketh by love;" all inward and outward holiness. Be not content with any religion which does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil; that is, of all sin.” (Sermon 62: The End of Christ’s Coming, 4.6)
Defining Sanctification With John Wesley
1. Wesley viewed the new birth as the beginning of sanctification.
“And at the same time that we are justified, yea, in that very moment, sanctification begins. In that instant we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit: there is a real as well as a relative change.” (The Scripture Way of Salvation, 4.4)
The sanctification begun at the New Birth granted a power over outward sin. “But even babes in Christ are in such a sense perfect, or born of God… [as] not to commit sin. If any doubt of this privilege of the sons of God… the Word of God plainly declares, that even those who are justified, who are born again in the lowest sense, "do not continue in sin;" that they cannot "live any longer therein;” (Christian Perfection, 3.2)
2. Wesley defined sanctification as the renewal of our moral person in the image of God.
Wesley variously referred to this as “our lost/first estate,” and insisted that the need for it “lies near as deep as the creation of the world”, where man was created in the “natural… political… but chiefly in [God’s] moral image.” (The New Birth, 2.1)
4. Wesley taught that the core of sanctification was love overcoming sin.
“[Sanctification] is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.” (The Scripture Way of Salvation)
Expanding on this, he says in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection that Christian perfection is “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love.”
This love begins to overcome sin in the New Birth, but finds its fullness in entire sanctification.
5. Wesley’s theology of entire sanctification allows for continued growth in grace & continued human infirmities.
Wesley insisted that mistakes of the head, were not the same as sins in the heart: “I see no contradiction here: "A man may be filled with pure love, and still be liable to mistake." Indeed, I do not expect to be freed from actual mistakes till this mortal puts on immortality. I believe this to be a natural consequence of the soul's dwelling in flesh and blood. For we cannot now think at all, but by the mediation of those bodily organs, which have suffered equally with the rest of our frame. And hence we cannot avoid sometimes thinking wrong, till this corruptible shall have put on incorruption.” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Ch. 6)
Alternate Terms for Sanctification
In Wesley’s theological method, he resisted using terminology he considered unscriptural. However, saturated as he was in Scripture, he loved using phrases that he considered to be explicitly or metaphorically teaching the idea of sanctification. Some of the phrases he used include:
Salvation from all sin
Charles Wesley hymns also used poetic imagery for entire sanctification. This necessarily involved a wider range of metaphor and terminology. I'll not go into these here, but they definitely did become part of the Wesleyan pathos on this teaching.
As a side note, Charles was given to "poetic rapture" and would sometimes overreach, and John would come in and edit his brother's hymns to be more clear. For instance, the original words of "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (which is a hymn that references entire sanctification!) included this line from Charles:
Take away our will for sinning,
Alpha and Omega be!
When John was finished editing, it was the clearer and tamer,
Take away our bent to sinning,
Alpha and Omega be!
My study of this question has helped to clarify my opinions on entire sanctification. I found a greater amount of clarity on the topic from Wesley than I expected, even though I have read him before on the subject, and have experienced entire sanctification for myself.
My greatest sense I’ve come away with is Wesley’s practicality as a theologian and his strong sense of both moral urgency and abounding hope that permeates his writings on sanctification.