Wednesdays With Wesley: Entire Sanctification

Derek Ouellette —  June 29, 2011

As yesterday was John Wesley’s birthday I have decided to write today’s post on his most controversial and possibly misunderstood teaching: Entire Sanctification.

In order to understand the doctrine of Entire Sanctification we need to give consideration to the context which was formative for its development.

“I Felt My Heart Strangely Warmed” ~ Wesley

On October 14, 1735 John Wesley boarded a ship to Georgia as a mission endeavor. The voyage was quite disruptive as a series of massive storms nearly tore the ship to pieces and Wesley feared for his life so much so that he would write, “About eleven I lay down in the great cabin, and in a short time fell asleep, though very uncertain whether I should wake alive and much ashamed of my unwillingness to die.”[1]

Aboard this ship was a group of Moravians, followers of the Lutheran Bishop Zinzendorf,[2] who so impressed Wesley with their joyful embrace of their predicament and their strong emphasis on having an emotional assurance of their salvation,[3] that Wesley began to question his own state of salvation. After all Wesley had not felt the kind of assurance the Moravians seemed to posses and, Wesley reasoned, this is confirmed by scripture, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16, cf. 1 John 5:10).[4] This Wesley linked to holiness by which, at the time anyways, he meant sinlessness (citing 1 John 3:9 and 5:1)[5]. Finally Wesley would accept the Moravian teaching that all of this was an “instantaneous” act of God. When one is born again, one receives the “witness” of God’s Spirit with their spirit, and they cease to sin.

At last Wesley would receive the assurance he was looking for during a late night study group of – possibly – Moravians while reading, ironically, Luther’s commentary on Romans. In Wesley’s own words written in his journal on Wed. May 24th, 1738:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[6]

It seems in these early years Wesley was confused about his own experiences and scholars have debated ever since whether or not this experience is descriptive of his conversion or of a “special, momentary event of sanctification”.[7] It seems to me that since this experience came to be termed “a second work of grace”, that for Wesley at least, this experience was later viewed as the latter and that in hindsight Wesley believed he was already a Christian prior to his warmed heart. Gordon Smith, dean at Regent College in Vancouver Canada, summarizes Wesley’s experience and concludes that Wesley himself later looking back had become convinced that he was already a committed Christian at least since 1725.[8] Yet in 1738 at the Aldersgate-Street meeting he had an experience that transformed his life. Later he would term this experience the instantaneous moment of Entire Sanctification.

What Is Entire Sanctification?

Keeping this background in mind, one of the most helpful summaries of Entire Sanctification is found in the Nazarene Articles of Faith. To summarize article ten, Entire Sanctification

  • “Is that act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotedment to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.”
  • “It is wrought by the baptism with the Holy Spirit.”
  • “Is provided by the blood of Jesus,”
  • “Is wrought instantaneously by faith.”[9]

In my own words, Entire Sanctification teaches that at some point after justification and regeneration it is possible for a Christian to receive an instantaneous act of God by faith whereupon the believer is made entirely sanctified or holy and is completely purged from their depraved sinful nature. But this does not mean that the believer will live a perfect life and never sin. Not that the Christian will not sin, but that he doesn’t have a nature to do so.

John Knight, a general superintendent emeritus of the Nazarene Church writes:

“In justification we are delivered from the past, or guilt of sin. Simultaneously, in regeneration (new birth) we are delivered from the power of sin. In entire sanctification we are delivered from the pollution of sin. In glorification we will be delivered from the presence and effects of sin.”[10]

Reformed theology has generally focused on and developed the doctrines of justification, regeneration and glorification. Wesley’s contribution was to turn our attention to sanctification.

Smith states that Wesley’s theology was largely in reaction to a weakness perceived in Lutheran and Reformed theology.

“For Luther, sanctification was simply an outgrowth of justification; it was not a second phase following justification. Since salvation was justification by faith, sanctification was not a second element in salvation; it was nothing more than appreciating our justification and living in its reality. This lies behind the common Lutheran discomfort with the idea of necessary spiritual growth – of anything being “added” to our justification.

The problem with this was that justification become so central and defining to Lutheran thought (some have suggested even to the point of displacing the centrality of Christ) that the notion of spiritual transformation become incidental. Neglecting to develop an emphasis on sanctification, Lutheran theology implicitly negated the fact that the transformation of the believer is essential to the Christian idea of salvation.”[11]

This perceived weakness remains even today as the very same debate seems to be echoed in the marvelous writings of N.T. Wright. But whereas Wesley’s corrective approach was to emphasize the doctrine of sanctification, Wright’s corrective approach is to directly take on the distortion of justification, in Smith’s wording, that “salvation was justification by faith”.[12] Wright has contended that we should not make the categorical mistaken of confusing the car with its parts. Justification is only one part of the salvation process, but it is not synonymous with salvation per se.

So it is with Wesley’s theology, salvation is an ongoing process which includes sanctification – entire sanctification – whether while the Christian is still young, active and living, or in the moment before they die.

[1] From John Wesley’s journal quoted in The Essential Works of John Wesley, 2011. (A. Russie, Ed.) Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, Inc; p.27

[2] Olson, R. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove : InterVarsity Press; p.483

[3] Ibid; p.484

[4] John Wesley’s journal, Sat. April 22, 1738; quoted in Wesley, J. (2011). Essential Works of John Wesley, The. (A. Russie, Ed.) Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, Inc; p.36

[5] In Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection, an appendix to (Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, 2007), Wesley writes, “By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions. I do not include an impossibility of falling from it, either in part of in whole. Therefore, I retract several expressions in our Hymns, which partly express, partly imply, such an impossibility. I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it.”

[6] John Wesley’s journal, Wed. May 24, 1738; quoted in Wesley, J. (2011). Essential Works of John Wesley, The. (A. Russie, Ed.) Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, Inc; p.36

[7] Olson, R. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove : InterVarsity Press; p.483

[8] Smith, G. T. (2001). Beginning Well. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press; p.68

[9] For a helpful explanation and summary of the Nazarene Articles of Faith (which is Wesleyan Theology, see Leonard, G. (Ed.). (2005). Articles of Faith: What Nazarenes Believe and Why. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press.

[10] John Knight, Entire Sanctification, in Articles of Faith: What Nazarenes Believe and Why. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press (2005).

[11] Smith, G. T. (2001). Beginning Well. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press; p.91

[12] This is not to say that Wright never emphasizes sanctification, only that his approach in dealing with Reformed and Lutheran imbalance was to more directly take on the subject of Justification. Neither do I mean to imply that Wright shares Wesley’s view of Entire Sanctification, but to only draw a parallel in how these two Anglican theologians have sought to address the same problem each from their own approach.


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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.