Increasingly, Wesleyans are losing the ability to articulate clearly, succinctly, and persuasively our understanding of holiness. One of the reasons behind our problem is confusion over the meaning of entire sanctification. While the Wesleyan Church has a clearly defined Article of Religion on holiness, different descriptions of entire sanctification exist among laity and clergy. As I have listened to holiness preaching over the years, I have identified four different definitions of entire sanctification. While there is common ground among them, two of these set entire sanctification too low, one too high, and one accurately captures our Wesleyan view.
A. Entire Sanctification as Simple Consecration (Too Low)
The lowest view of entire sanctification I’ve heard preached equates holiness with simple consecration. When Christians sincerely give themselves “entirely and completely” to Christ, when they have surrendered every part of who they are and all they have, when they have offered themselves on “God’s altar,” they are said to be entirely sanctified. To be entirely sanctified means to be fully surrendered to Christ.
Sanctified Christians from this perspective earnestly desire to follow Christ, to love God and neighbor, but still may have strongholds or patterns of sin in their lives over which they have little or no control, may still succumb occasionally to ungodly manifestations of pride, anger, and selfishness, still have a “bent toward selfishness and disobedience,” and may still “give in” to temptations in moments, although this is not what they wanted. Their intentions are good, but there are times and places where they lack the power to follow through on them. However, because they have consecrated themselves entirely to God, these “struggles,” “infirmities,” “weaknesses” often are overlooked and they are said to be entirely sanctified.
At this point, it may be helpful to clarify that while entire consecration is essential to the realization of entire sanctification, it is not the equivalent of it. A truly Wesleyan definition of holiness affirms that it’s possible for a Christian to be fully surrendered to the Lord and not be entirely sanctified.
In short, entire consecration as entire sanctification falls short of a truly Wesleyan definition because it settles too easily for a life characterized by servitude to sin, too quickly glosses over strongholds of sin and original sin. Entire sanctification entails far more than entire consecration. Consecration is a means toward entire sanctification, but not its equivalent.
B. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from the Power of Sin (Too Low)
A second definition of entire sanctification I’ve heard preached equates holiness primarily with freedom from the power sin. When Christians have been set free from intentional sin, when they have the power to refrain from known sin, when they are empowered to walk in obedience to Christ, they are said to be entirely sanctified.
Sanctified Christians from this perspective are freed from the power of sin, but aren’t necessarily delivered from the nature of sin in the present life. Christians will persistently struggle with an inner attitude of rebellion, selfishness and pride. This is more than external temptation, but an internal bent to sinning that persists. The sanctified can suppress the sin nature, but can’t be free from it, be victorious over it in any given temptation, but an internal struggle to sin will persist until glorification in death.
While entire sanctification truly empowers freedom from known sin, this definition sets entire sanctification too low, because it does not take seriously deliverance from nature of sin, our “bent toward sinning.” There have been a number of expressions used by Wesleyans to describe the inward freedom from the power of original sin. Negatively, “eradication of the sin nature,” “overcoming the sin principle, “cleansing from original sin,” and “deliverance from inward rebellion” have been some of the popular ways it has been described. Positively, “baptism of the Holy Spirit, “infilling of the Spirit, “perfect love,” and “full salvation,” have been some of the expressions to define it. Regardless of the language, all these expressions covey a redemption from that part of human existence that sets itself up against the rule of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, a liberation from the “old man” that cries out “I won’t” and/or “I can’t” to the call of discipleship.
In short, entire sanctification as freedom from willful sin falls short of a truly Wesleyan Holiness view, because it loses focus on the possibility of Christians being set free from the “bent toward sinning” and having a heart perfected in love. It captures part of the truth of entire sanctification, but not the whole.
C. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from the Possibility of Sin (Too High)
While I rarely hear the third definition of entire sanctification proclaimed anymore in Wesleyan circles, it occasionally finds its way to the margins of the church and often is the working conception of entire sanctification for Christians outside of the Wesleyan tradition. It understands entire sanctification as an incorruptible state of holiness. In addition to being free from all known sin, and the nature of sin, the sanctified are set free from the possibility of intentional sin. Love for God and neighbor is so complete or perfect, defection from this love is impossible. At times, this perspective has argued that even being tempted is impossible, because the fruit of the Spirit is so perfected in the believer.
While different aspects of this position may be brought to the fore, sometimes emphasizing the impossibility of sin and at other times the impossibility of temptation, the primary focus is the incorruptibility of Christian perfection. The entirely sanctified Christian can’t fall into intentional sin.
In short, this definition of entire sanctification sets holiness too high, a higher state than even Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden of Eden before the fall. There is not a state of holiness in the present life that sets a person free from the possibility of temptation or disobedience.
D. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from the Power and Nature of Sin and a Heart Perfected in Love (The Wesleyan View)
The final definition of entire sanctification I’ve heard preached navigates well between views that set the sanctified life too low or too high. It satisfies the three criteria for our holiness teaching as defined in The Wesleyan Church’s Article of Religion – (1) freedom from the power of sin, enabling the Christian to walk in obedience to the known will of God, and (2) freedom from the nature of sin, correcting our “bent toward selfishness and disobedience, (3) empowering a love of God and humanity with the whole heart. From this perspective, entire sanctification sets people free from the power and nature of sin in order to set them free to truly love God and neighbor. However, the sanctified can still be tempted, are still capable of disobedience, and remain subject to limitations in judgment and understanding (sins of infirmity).
This Wesleyan definition also makes a distinction between entire sanctification and Christian maturity. It is possible for a person to be set free from inward and outward sin, perfected in love, and empowered for ministry, but not have the knowledge, wisdom, and experience necessary for Christian maturity. Yet, a Christian cannot become fully mature without the experience of entire sanctification. A believer can know what to do in a given situation, but not have the power or proper motivation to execute it in a way fitting with spiritual maturity.
While this truly Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification maybe nuanced in different ways, when the Spirit takes residence in our lives, He begins the process of transforming our attitudes, interests, and actions, while confronting us with an internal principle of selfishness and sin, persisting stubbornly in us. This is often called “initial” and “progressive” sanctification. While it may be described in different ways, Wesleyans believe the Spirit in a moment of consecration and faith can (1) conquer this principle or deliver us from this principle, (2) thereby enabling us to love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves and (3) making possible our complete obedience to God’s revealed will.
Even during the 18th century Methodist revival, John Wesley had to address repeatedly definitions of entire sanctification being set too high or too low by his preachers. This issue continued in American Methodism and the holiness movement. As I have observed holiness preaching in my life, I have seen this same tendency. Because of this natural susceptibility, it is important for us as preachers and pastors to reexamine what we preach and teach about entire sanctification to make sure we are not promising too much or too little in the “full gospel” of Jesus Christ and are able to articulate what we believe as Wesleyans.
Dr. Chris Bounds is an Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan. He came to IWU in the Fall of 2002, after serving eight years as a pastor in Arkansas. As a pastor, a theologian and a professor, he is committed to communicating Wesleyan theological distinctives to his students, contemporary Evangelicalism and society. He and his wife Tamara have two children, a daughter named Maris and a son named Morgan.