John Wesley once remarked “[Full sanctification] is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly God appeared to have raised us up.” As a distinctive mark of the early Methodists, entire sanctification/Christian perfection stood as a key distinctive. However, unfortunately, Wesley’s confidence in God raising up the Methodists for this doctrine did not last for centuries, as one rarely hears a doctrine on entire sanctification form Methodist pulpits today. Of course, perhaps this is more attributable to the shift in the content of preaching away from doctrine and more towards application to life, with the idea of entire sanctification being in the background. Nevertheless, what people identify with Methodist today is markedly different mostly due to the conflict surrounding the meaning of marriage.
To that end, it is fitting that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians can be summarized as a letter addressing the practical realities of sanctification. As the Corinthians were divided against each other and were engaged in and approving of various sexual practices that Paul would go on to condemn, Paul writes to them with an eye towards holiness and sanctification. The letter starts off by referring to the Corinthians as those who have been sanctified and are called saints. However, as the letter goes on to reveal, the Corinthians have not exactly been acting in a saintly manner. It appears that many of the Corinthians had embraced a combination of Christian teaching and philosophical Stoicism, which, among other things, prioritized the mind as the center of reason over the body. In response, Paul’s letter addressing two recurring topics, wisdom and the body, with an eye towards pushing them away from this Stoicized form of thinking that make ‘knowledge’ one obtained as a foundation for ethics to a distinctly Christian pattern of life rooted in love. This love is expressed, ultimately, in the way one uses one’s body, such as Paul’s discussion on how one uses one’s body sexually, both in avoiding sexual immorality with a prostitute of an idol’s temple but also in the giving of one body in love to one’s spouse, and how one discerns the body of Christ in relation to the (bodily) presence of each other at the Lord’s Supper. Through challenging the attitudes and behaviors that the Corinthian’s Stoicism ‘rationally’ justified, Paul teaches the Corinthians to use their body in a different way that ultimately has love at the root. Paul’s letter climaxes in the resurrection discourse of chapter 15, which may be summarized as “What happens in Christ’s body happens also to you.” Ultimately, this discussion on the body is interconnected with the introductory theme of sanctification, much as he also does in Romans 6.19 and 1 Thessalonians 4.3-7. The body and sanctification are interconnected for Paul, with the body as the central place of action that allows for sanctification to occur.
Unfortunately, for Wesley, this connection is not clearly and emphatically made. There are repeated references to the body throughout His A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, but what happens to the body emerges as a result of sanctification, not its cause. Furthermore, Wesley describes the state of Christian perfection more by reference to inner thoughts and feelings, following the Augustinian pattern of attributing grace to an inner work of the heart before it is expressed outwardly. However, Paul does not attribute sanctification to some inner work that is labeled ‘grace,’ but to the name of the Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who unites believers to the body of Christ and from who people drink (1 Cor. 12.12-13). It is the action of the Triune God through the power and leading of the Spirit to unite people to the pattern of Jesus Christ that leads to sanctification, which occurs principally through the action of the body rather than simply some inward state and feeling (cf. Romans 6.19). The inward state of love, joy, peace, etc. is the consequence of a person who in faith follows the leading of the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the flesh so that the desires of the Spirit prevail over the desires of the flesh.
So, as Paul reaches the final, dramatic, resounding implication about the defeat of death in 1 Cor. 15.54-57, Paul draws a conclusion in v. 58: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” The implication of Paul’s letter on the body, wisdom, and sanctification is that people be ready for the work that God gives them to do. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2.21, those who have become cleansed are prepared to do a good work. In 1 Corinthians, Paul immediately gives an example of this good work in the taking up of the offering for those in need in Jerusalem. In other words, the movement of sanctification is to direct one to be prepared and open to participating in God’s mission.
The thing with sin is that it actively hardens people (Hebrews 3.13). The more we give into the desires of the flesh, the more our hearts and minds are formed by the exaggerated nature of those desires, increasing their power over us. Our attention and our understanding of the world around us is determined by what it is we are actively desiring. If our hearts are set upon things that go against the will of God, then our hearts are resistant to hearing a word from God to calls us forth from a different direction. In such a state of hardness, a person may hear a word that has been spoken from God, but their hearts will constrain them from adequately understanding and receiving what God’s word is about, much as Isaiah 6.9b-10 describes. So, when we discipline our body so as to not let the out of control lusts of life to have control by the leading of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.13, 1 Cor. 9.25-27; 1 Th. 4.3-7), our hearts become open to the goodness of God’s leading and guidance through His Spirit towards what gives life and brings shalom (Rom. 8.6). As the Spirit leads believers into a deepening sanctification, the desires of the Spirit well up within us, opening us to hear, comprehend, and receive the will and mission of God in the world.
Wesley expresses a similar sentiment about the importance of God’s will to those who are (entirely) sanctified:
Agreeable to this his one desire is the one design of his life, namely, “to do, not his own will, but the will of him that sent him.” His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please himself, but him whom his soul loveth. He has a single eye. And because his “eye is single” his “whole body is full of light.” “The whole is light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.” God reigns alone. All that is in the soul is “holiness to the Lord.” There is not a motion in his heart but is according to his will. Every thought that arises points to him, and is in “obedience to the law of Christ.”1
For those being sanctified to the uttermost, there is the ever-increasing openness and desire to do whatever it is that God is doing. Yet, as already expressed, Wesley defines sanctification by the inner thoughts of the person, as if any thoughts towards sin have passed. However, even while Jesus can cleanse us from every sin, any statement that we have entirely blotted out sin as a principle from our lives is a lie, even if that principle of sin has no power over our purposes and actions (1 John 1.7-8). Rather than describing this depending sanctification as an absence of errant thoughts of sin, it resides deeper in the heart into the recess of the unconscious where sin no longer has an unconquerable control over what one hears, endeavors, and acts towards. God’s desire for love and peace always draws us, even if we still hear faint echoes of the principle of sin within us.
It is in this sanctification that our lives are given over to the mission of God. As Jesus’ beatitude about the pure in heart, reflecting those whose hearts have been sanctified to be wholly focused on God’s purposes, is then followed by the beatitude about peacemakers (Mat. 5.8-9), we see a movement from sanctification to mission, from being set apart and distinct from the world towards being sent out for God’s love of the world, much as Moses time in the wilderness prepared him to be called and sent by God speaking in the burning bush to go to Israel and Pharaoh and also like Isaiah in the sight of the holy God is cleansed of his sin and is open to go on God’s mission (Isa. 6.1-9a). Even Jesus, without being tainted by any act of sin, had to train and be disciplined through His own bodily struggle with fast in the face of the temptations of the devil, which then prepared Him to go and fulfill His purpose, starting off by proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near (Mat. 4.1-17).
Perhaps the reason that entire sanctification no longer defines Methodism, except for those who study the history of theology, is that entire sanctification wasn’t readily understood to point forward to something more. Whether intentional or not, it was understood as sort of the endpoint of the spiritual life here on earth, where sin had been entirely vanquished. If the primary purpose of humans living before God is to flee the wrath to come and overcome sin, then it is understandable why entire sanctification might be seen as the end goal of the Christian life in this life before death takes us. If, however, the blessing, well-being, and flourishing that is part of God’s righteous vision for human life is the end goal of those who believe, then the development towards a whole holiness can be better understood as the preparation of the heart for God’s mission in and to the world. In other words, maybe we can understand entire sanctification as the process by which God leads us to embody His righteousness in us as He has revealed it in Jesus Christ so that we can then be His agents in the reconciliation of the world (2 Cor. 5.18-21), allowing us to be an aroma of the knowledge of Christ’s death and life by having our purposes being wholly directed by our union with Christ (2 Cor. 2.14-17). That is to say, that churches’ involvement in God’s mission is empowered through the growth towards holiness in the believers.
We can discover this pattern of sanctification and mission being witnessed in two parts of the story of Christ. The first part, already mentioned is the example of Christ’s overcoming temptations to sin and then going on His mission to proclaim the kingdom of heaven. The second part is the cross and resurrection paired with the sending of His disciples to make disciples (Matthew 28.18-19). As our union with the cross and resurrection of Christ brings about our sanctification and freedom from the compelling power of sin, we are then ushered into participation with Christ in His mission in the world, as His authority leads to sending disciples out to make disciples. Sanctification leading mission is a reflection of both the beginning and end of the story of Jesus as contained in the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew.