A chapter from the book "I believe: Now tell me why"
Entire sanctification is the distinctive teaching of churches in the Holiness Movement. Tragically, both inside the movement and out, this mirroring of and partaking of of God's holiness is a very misunderstood teaching.
by Howard Culbertson, Roger Hahn, and Dean Nelson
The short course
- Leviticus 19:2
- Romans 6:1-12
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23
- 1 John 2:1-2
Question: What is Entire Sanctification?
Answer: Wesleyans believe that, after conversion, but before death, a believer's heart may be cleansed from all sin.
Question: Does that mean sanctified people cannot sin?
Answer: Sanctified people can sin, just like Adam and Eve could sin -- and did. However, believers who have moved to this level of Christian life and experience are more likely not to sin than believers who haven't. Before experiencing entire sanctification, believers often lose struggles against inborn tendencies toward sinning and selfishness. After the experience, they find themselves most often feeling a tendency toward righteousness.
Question: How perfect is "Christian Perfection"?
Answer: Christian Perfection doesn't mean perfect in the sense that many think. The Biblical word for perfect means that a person is as complete as he or she was designed to be at that moment. A seven-year-old piano player might be able to perform a one-handed version of a song perfectly. When the child does so, his or her piano teacher might exclaim: "Perfect!" However, as that little musician grows up and matures, the same teacher will expect a great deal more.
Jonathan Hahn has always been more motivated by recess than by any other of his classes. Take it from his dad, Roger Hahn -- one of the authors of this chapter.
When he was in second grade, Jonathan managed to spend an entire hour one day avoiding working a sheet of math problems. Finally, the teacher reminded him that, before he could go out for recess, every problem on the sheet had to be completed. Within two minutes, his teacher reported, Jonathan had written an answer to every single problem. Sadly, every single one of those answers was wrong. So, the teacher sent the work sheet home for Jonathan to re-do it under the watchful eyes of his parents.
At home, his dad read the note from the teacher and then said, "Jonathan, you'll have to do all these problems again."
"Why?" asked Jonathan.
"Your answers are all wrong."
"So?" Jonathan shrugged. "Nobody's perfect."
Jonathan's concluding phrase pretty well sums up why many people today reject the idea of entire sanctification. His words said echoed a once-popular bumper sticker: "Christians aren't perfect -- they're just forgiven." Those who have felt they need more authority than a bumper sticker to sound the "I'm-not-perfect-and-that's-OK" theme turn to 1 John 1:8: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."
Question: Why teach entire sanctification?
Answer: Contrary to conventional wisdom, catchy bumper sticker phrases, and some interpretations of 1 John 1:8, Christians within the Wesleyan theological tradition have insisted on teaching a transforming experiences they label "entire sanctification." Why do they do that?
Well, those in the Wesleyan theological tradition teach and preach entire sanctification because the Bible does call us to love perfectly, to live with a pure heart, and to be free from slavery to sin. Those three ideas are integral to the biblical concept of entire sanctification.
The possibility of deliverance from all sin and of renewal in God's image permeates Holy Scripture. Take Bible prayers, for instance. Several contain clear yearnings for a holy relationship with God (Psalm 51; John 17:17-23); To the believers in Thessalonica Paul wrote that sanctification was his heart's desire for them: "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through" (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
In addition to prayers for holiness, the Bible contains commands that we be holy. "Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy" is one of several passages that call us to a high plane of living (Leviticus 19:2; see also Matthew 5:48 and Hebrews 6:1).
The Bible also has examples of people who lived in holy relationship with God. Noah was called "a righteous man, blameless" (Genesis 6:9). Job, it was said, was "blameless and upright" (Job 1:1). In his first letter, John remarks: "Love has been perfected among us" (1 John 4:17, NRSV).
Such Bible passages clearly point to holiness as a core message of God's revelation to us. At its heart, the Bible is not about the bad news of defeat and enslavement to sin or of the awfulness of humanity. Rather, woven through the whole fabric of Scripture is the vision of a people set apart into a holy relationship with our holy God.
Scripture sings out the optimistic Good News that God's grace can give us victory over sin and can move us into a holy, joyful relationship with our Creator -- a relationship we were created to have.
Why is it so hard to understand?
One reason people may have difficulty understanding entire sanctification is that a wide variety of terms have been used to explain it -- words like perfect love, Christian perfection, and holiness.
At times, Holiness theologians seems to say that all these terms refer to exactly the same experience. At other times, they try to separate them a bit. That can be perplexing.
The confusion is a bit like the "system overload" a young sportswriter experienced at a sports journalism conference in Florida. A group of high school sports writers from around the country joined seasoned professionals covering a National Hockey League game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Buffalo Sabres. A student from Mississippi had never seen a hockey game. So, he launched a barrage of questions. A veteran sports writer sitting nearby tried to explain the meaning of offsides, icing, a two-line pass, and penalties unique to the game of hockey. The student grew visibly irritated at the complexity of the game. As irritation evolved into boredom, he pulled out his headphones and music player, abandoning the effort to understand the hockey game going on in front of him.
Suddenly, as often happens during a hockey game, a fight broke out among the players. At that point the student from Mississippi came alive. He nudged the veteran sports writer saying, "Now this part of the game I understand!" he said.
We don't need a fight to break out in the church to help everyone understand entire sanctification. In fact, fights over holiness (which do happen) only complicate things. What we do need is a clear explanation that can be understood.
Here is what Wesleyan Christians believe (which many other Christians do not believe): After conversion, but before death, a believer's heart may be cleansed from all sin. Expressions like "entire sanctification," "perfect love," and "Christian perfection" are some of the terms Wesleyans use to describe this experience.
Two words -- "entire" and "perfect" -- have often led to a misunderstanding of this doctrine. To clarify these and other areas of misunderstanding, we'll try answering questions we think you'd like to ask.
Question: Why is the experience called entire sanctification?
Answer: The doctrine and experience are called sanctification because that's the biblical word for the act of being made holy -- something which begins at the new birth (conversion) and continues until death. The adjective entire comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify believers "entirely" (NRSV) or "wholly" (RSV).
In the 1700's the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, understood this. He often spoke of the experience of being sanctified "entirely" or "wholly."
Using those two adjectives can raise even further questions, however. Scripture clearly says that though sanctification begins in a moment, growth in becoming more like Christ happens throughout one's lifetime. Thus, one can legitimately ask: How can one point fairly early in that process be called entire if further sanctification cames after it?
Question: How did the word "perfect" get linked to this experience?
Answer: John Wesley himself said that the only reason he used this word the word "perfect" is because the Bible spoke of perfection. Wesley, however, did insist that the words perfect and perfection never be used by themselves to describe the experience. He urged his followers to always say Christian perfection rather than simply perfection and perfected in love rather than just perfected.
The original biblical words for perfect and perfection do not mean absolute perfection with no possibility for more improvement. The Hebrew and Greek words mean that a person or thing is as complete as it was designed or expected to be at that moment.
This can be illustrated by the marriage relationship. When two people decide to get married, they make commitments to each another. They decide that they will no longer live their lives separately. On their wedding day the marriage relationship is as complete as it can be that day. As the marriage continues, however, the couple can grow in the relationship.
Was this couple's relationship less complete on the wedding day than it was at an anniversary many years later? No. It was as complete as it could be at each moment.
That is what Christian perfection is like. We can -- and must -- grow each day in our relationship with God. We are perfect at each moment of growth, as a result of having a perfect God residing in us.
Remember the example of the piano player? A little girl would likely play a simple one-hand piece on the piano for her first recital. Her teacher may well exclaim, "That was perfect!" Years later when that girl has grown into an accomplished musician, she could not expect to play the same simple piece and have her teacher still be exclaiming: "That was perfect!" Much more would be expected of her.
Likewise, when a person comes to love God with an undivided heart, the Bible says this is perfect love. That does not mean that no further growth is possible. In fact, the contrary is true. Once we love perfectly, or completely, that's when growth becomes possible.
Question: What happens to sin when I am entirely sanctified?
Answer: Sin, in the sense of worshiping self instead of God, rules the life of an unbeliever. In conversion, the ruling power of sin is broken, but the results of that life of sin remain.
Wesley and other theologians have described this sin that crops up in the lives of believers as including things like pride, self-will, and inappropriate desires. These are not outward acts that clearly break the commands of Scripture for Wesley taught that such blatant sins stopped when a person was converted.
The sin remaining in believers, he said, reflects a disposition or tendency of the heart toward self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. Entire sanctification cleanses the heart of this self-centeredness, bringing victory over this sin that remains in the believer. To describe what happens here, Wesley used Paul's words in Romans 6:11-12: "Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires."
Question: Does this mean that an entirely sanctified person cannot sin?
Answer: No, being entirely sanctified doesn't mean that a person will not sin again. Entire sanctification is not a Wesleyan form of eternal security, teaching that, once we're in, we're in for good.
The point of entire sanctification is to restore people to the kind of holiness that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall. They had a perfect relationship with God. Yet, inexplicably, they chose to sin.
Entire sanctification means that a person's tendency -- some call it "bent" -- is toward righteousness rather than toward sinning. The goal and the reasonable expectation of the entirely sanctified life is to not sin, as 1 John 2:1 makes clear: "My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin." The expectation was that the believers would live as Christ lived and do His will. Sanctified people not only do the will of God but also want to do the will of God. [ see illustration from Greek mythology ]
Question: What if I do sin?
Answer: First John 2:1-2 answers that question of what a believer should do when he or she sins:
- Confess it
- Seek forgiveness
- Stop doing it
- Accept Christ's atonement
So, those of us who talk about entire sanctification must resist the temptation to deny that we have sinned, if indeed we have. We should also refrain from giving sin less offensive names, such as "mistake," to downplay what we have done. (By the same token, we do not use the word "sin" for honest mistakes or even just plain poor judgment.) [ Susanna Wesley's definition of sin ]
Sins of unbelievers and Christians alike violate the law of God and need the atoning blood of Christ. When promptly confessed and forsaken, sins need not break the relationship between the believer and God.
Question: How does entire sanctification take place?
Answer: A believer with little or no "hunger and thirst for righteousness" -- as Jesus said in Matthew 5:6 -- is not a candidate for entire sanctification. The experience comes only after the new birth and growth in grace.
Total commitment -- sometimes called entire consecration -- is the necessary human preparation for entire sanctification.
Wesley himself cautioned against preaching this experience to believers who were not pressing on toward the goal of spiritual maturity mentioned in Philippians 3:14.
Entire sanctification builds on a certain measure of spiritual maturity, so in most believers there is a gradual leading up to it. However, since entire sanctification is also death to sin, there is a noticeable crisis or instant in which the experience takes place.
Some people say they can point to more than one occasion when this death occurred. However, Wesley compared death to sin with a physical death. A person may be dying for some time, but there is an instant when life ceases. Likewise, a person may be gradually dying to sin and becoming more Christlike over a long period of time. Wesley and others would say there does come a point when death finally happens and the believer may be said to be dead to the power of sin.
Paul Pate -- a 45-year-old landscaper, husband, and father of three in San Diego -- describes his experience of entire sanctification. He had been a Christian for 20 years when it begin to gnaw at him that he was missing something in his spiritual life:
"I was a believer -- I had had a powerful conversion experience -- but there was no power in my life. Instead of attempting to be victorious over sin, I rationalized away its existence in my life. I was like most people around me: good folks who love God, love our neighbors, share our testimony when asked, and focus our lives on our rents, mortgage payments, jobs, and getting ahead."
After spending a lot of time in God's Word, Paul Pate came upon Deuteronomy 4:28-29: "There you will worship gods made by human hands out of wood and stone, gods that can neither see nor hear, neither eat nor smell. But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him, if indeed you search with all your heart and soul" (NEB).
Paul described what happened at that point:
"I was so dissatisfied with my life at that point, and when I read this I decided that is what I wanted. I felt like I had only known God as a concept. Now Jesus was saying to me what He said to His disciples in John 14: Have I been with you so long and you still don't know Me?
"I wanted to know Christ as I had never known Him before."
More than a year after that search began, Paul was driving home from his sister's house in Ramona, California. Suddenly, he says, "I connected."
The presence of God filled Paul's truck in such a way that he began to weep. "On that drive," he said, "I reached a new level of intimacy. And then I wondered how I could have known Christ so long and missed this!"
Brennan Manning described a similar experience in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel. Manning was on a winter retreat when one thought kept resounding in him during times of solitude: "Jesus did not say this on Calvary, though He could have, but He is saying it now; I'm dying to be with you. I'm really dying to be with you." "It was as if He were calling to me for a second time," Manning said, "I realized that what I thought I knew was straw. I had scarcely glimpsed, I had never dreamed what His love could be. The Lord drove me deeper into solitude. I sought not tongues, healing, prophecy, or good religious experience each time I prayed. My quest was for understanding and for pure, passionate Presence."1
More important than human consecration and the length of time involved is the fact that it is God who entirely sanctifies. Cleansing from sin is not something we do for ourselves; it is a gift from God. Because it is God's gift, there is also a certain mystery to it. As Brennan Manning and Paul Pate discovered, we cannot schedule entire sanctification to happen at our command.
Question: What's left after entire sanctification?
Answer: Entire sanctification is not the final goal of the Christian life. It's really just the beginning point -- a vital step in the lifelong process of being made more like Christ.
John Wesley put it this way: justification (forgiveness of sins) is the porch; entire sanctification is the door; but the house is full fellowship with God.
So, entire sanctification is the way we enter the fullness of the Christian life. The door is not where we're headed; we want to get inside the house so that we can enjoy full fellowship with God.
Maintaining full fellowship with God is something the apostle Paul said was his lifelong passion: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Philippians 3:12).
Question: What happens to me when I am entirely sanctified?
Answer: Wesley said that entire sanctification enables people to fulfill the Great Commandments enunciated by Jesus: Love God with the whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30-31).
Wesley observed that a person who had entered the experience usually felt a great sense of joy and peace. However, he also noticed that most who had experienced entire sanctification did encounter fluctuations -- peaks and valleys -- in their sense of joy and peace.
So, though entire sanctification radically changes our desire and ability to show love, it rarely changes our basic personality. "Driven" sinners become "driven" Christians, and they may remain so through a lifetime of sanctification. Laid-back sinners become laid-back Christians who rarely show outward signs of excitement when they are entirely sanctified. In this vein, religion professor Malcolm Shelton would often quip: "Some people are better by nature than others are by grace."
People tend to make their own experiences the standard for other people. Thus, the search for clear evidences of entire sanctification has led to some unpleasant results. Some people have given up hope of being entirely sanctified because they were fairly sure their personalities would not allow them to exactly match another person's experience. Recognizing the variety of ways the work of sanctification affects individuals may help us restore this hope.
Through the years, some people who believed they were entirely sanctified have shown unusual responses at that moment. Shouting, running, jumping, and weeping have all been described -- and in some cases promoted -- as evidences of entire sanctification. It is clear, however, that people who have exhibited dramatic physical demonstrations have had no better track record in growing in grace following entire sanctification than other people who have not experienced dramatic outward responses. Clearly, outward physical demonstrations are not a dependable confirmation of the inward work of sanctification.
Some Christians today teach that speaking in tongues is evidence of entire sanctification. That belief is not supported either in Scripture or by experience.
We human beings cannot precisely measure the real evidence of entire sanctification. That's because the evidence is an increasing Christ-likeness. The evidence is the image of God becoming increasingly visible in a believer's life.
Question: Will there be people in heaven who have not experienced entire sanctification?
- Heaven is not reserved just for Wesleyans or for those who use the phrase "entire sanctification." Plenty of devoted Christians outside the Wesleyan movement have found this kind of relationship with Christ. Christian leaders like Billy Graham and Lloyd John Ogilvie -- neither of whom would consider themselves Wesleyan -- tell about having a second and distinct experience of sanctifying grace. These men do not use Wesleyan terminology, but their testimonies are easily recognized by people in Wesleyan circles. Sadly, in churches where entire sanctification is not preached and taught, such testimonies are too often the exception. That's why one reason the Wesleyan movement must clearly enunciate God's call to holiness as well as His provision for it.
- Since Wesley taught there was usually a period of maturing that must occur between the moment of salvation and the work of sanctification, there may be some in heaven who were in this "in between" period when they died. Eternal life is promised to all those who believe.
- However, for those who have been saved and have knowingly rejected the Holy Spirit's leading into entire sanctification, a heavenly destination may not be guaranteed. We are called to walk in all the light that has been revealed to us.
One popular theological tradition says that all believers sin every day in thought, word, and deed. That seems so much less than the victory over sin promised by the Bible. Across the years far too many Christians have settled for too little, emphasizing human frailties and the pervasiveness of sin. Caving into the argument that a person is doomed to stumble along in constant failure, they have lived defeated lives. Some have given up Christianity altogether. Not only did individuals suffer personal defeat, but the reputation of the Kingdom also suffered.
As human beings, we were created in the image of God to live in holy fellowship with Him. Much of that fellowship was lost to sin. The experience of heart holiness offers us a restoration that put us back on track to fulfilling God's original plan.
Because of this, genuine, wholehearted love for God, our neighbors, and the rest of His creation is possible for us again. The doctrine of entire sanctification is the door that leads us into glorious, full and perfect fellowship with God.
1 Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1990), 168.
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