The beauty of The Wesleyan Church’s teaching on holiness is the optimism and expectation that God can work in the present moment to bring about entire sanctification. It fosters in us a posture of expectation and earnest seeking, confident that the holiest longings of the human heart can be realized in our lives, sooner rather than later. As a preacher who regularly calls people to the experience of entire sanctification and desires they have a genuine experience, I share with you the counsel I offer in preaching, personal advice and altar counseling.
A. Surrender Fully to Jesus Christ – Make a Total Consecration of Life to God
If we desire to experience entire sanctification, we need to fully surrender our lives to Jesus Christ. We cannot hold back any part of our lives from God. We need to give it all to God – our dreams, talents, fears, emotional wounds, physical resources, strongholds of sin, divided heart, pride, etc. – and withhold nothing. We must be willing to go anywhere and do anything for God. We must consecrate to God all areas of our lives over which we have control, as well as those over which we have no control – the beauty and ugliness of our lives. Christ must have it all. If we are unwilling or unable to do this, the possibility of entire sanctification for us is handicapped and we need to seek Christ for His grace to enable us to make this total consecration.
In the American holiness tradition, the total consecration of a Christian to God is described as placing our lives on “the altar of God,” offering it as a sacrifice to God, waiting to be consumed by God’s sanctifying fire. The attitude of the human heart in this full surrender is captured well in John Wesley’s Watchnight Covenant Prayer, “I am no longer my own, but I am Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low for You; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am yours. So be it.”
B. Believe in the Divine Work of Entire Sanctification
If we desire to experience entire sanctification, we need to believe that Christ presently makes people holy in decisive moments. It’s not enough for us to suppose theoretically that it’s possible for God to bring about personal holiness; we must believe that God indeed does it in Christian hearts. If we do not see entire sanctification as something God does in a moment or if we are not at least open to the realistic possibility that God can do this in human lives now, the prospect of us personally experiencing entire sanctification is weakened.
While belief in entire sanctification may seem simple enough “on the face of it,” there is a deep and pervasive skepticism about it in the American Church. Even in traditional Wesleyan Holiness denominations cynical attitudes about its possibility are found. There are at least three reasons for such disbelief. First, even though Evangelicalism talks about spiritual transformation in Christ, focus is placed on justification and forgiveness of sins. Salvation is seen primarily as a ticket to heaven. When sanctification is taught, it’s portrayed as a slow and gradual process in a Christian’s life, with little emphasis and expectation of a sudden, decisive intervention of God that radically alters a person’s life, much less setting people free from the power of sin and orienting their hearts in love of God and neighbor. Second, many believers who grew up in the American Holiness tradition at some point sought entire sanctification in their lives and when they did not experience it after a period of seeking, lost hope that it could be realized in the present moment. Finally, many doubt the possibility of entire sanctification because they witnessed such poor examples of holy living among those professing the experience of entire sanctification.
Holiness theology has “fallen on hard times,” resulting in greater difficulty for people to believe that God sanctifies entirely in a decisive moment. Therefore, if we desire personal holiness for our lives, but are skeptical about its attainability, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to its possibility.
C. Ask Christ in Faith Specifically for Entire Sanctification Now
If we desire entire sanctification, we need to go to Christ in faith and specifically ask Him to sanctify us entirely in the present moment. Because entire sanctification is the work of Christ and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it is not something we can generate, produce or bring about in ourselves. We are totally dependent upon God to do this miraculous work. Therefore, we must go to Him and ask Him for the gift of entire sanctification. While God can and does the work of entire sanctification in human hearts without specific intercession for it, He brings personal holiness most often in response to prayer. We need to “call on the name of the Lord” for it.
When we ask, we must exercise faith in Christ. This faith in Christ is more than a general belief in the divine work of entire sanctification, the belief that God does this work in human lives; it is a personal faith in Christ that Christ desires to do this work in our lives and will do it now in our lives. John Wesley describes the personal faith that sanctifies entirely as “a divine evidence and conviction, first, that God has promised it in the holy Scripture…secondly, that what God hath promised He is able to perform…thirdly, that He is able and willing to do it now…and to this confidence, a divine evidence and conviction that He does it.”
As has been stated already, American Christianity as a whole is deeply suspicious about the possibility of entire sanctification. There is a climate of unbelief. In the face of such skepticism, personal faith for entire sanctification is even more difficult to come by. It is one level of faith to believe that the Holy Spirit can sanctify wholly another person, but it is another level of faith all together to believe that He can do it and will do it now in us. If we lack personal faith to believe God for entire sanctification, if God has not given us “faith to believe,” again we need to go to the Lord and ask for this faith. The enduring scriptural prayer, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” is most appropriate here. We must ask the Lord for personal faith to believe that He can make us holy in a moment.
In the history of Christianity in general and in the history of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition in particular, there are many testimonies of God bringing entire sanctification about in the lives of people in the first moments that they asked for it. God does this work of grace in the instant they ask in faith.
D. Seek Entire Sanctification Persistently until God Brings It
If entire sanctification does not happen in the moment we initially ask for it or even after a season, we need to persistently seek this experience and the faith that appropriates it in the means of grace, looking for the Holy Spirit to work through these means to bring personal holiness into our lives, and not grow weary until God brings it to us. While God is not limited to bringing entire sanctification only to those who persistently seek it, we most likely will miss out on this divine gift without such diligence and hunger. Entire sanctification by faith must be actively sought, not passively.
What does it mean to seek entire sanctification persistently until God brings it? Although hardly exhaustive, here is a sketch of some of the ways we can diligently seek for personal holiness in the means of grace. We can regularly set aside specific time in our lives to fast and pray for the experience of entire sanctification. We can find people who have experienced entire sanctification in their lives, listen to their testimonies and counsel, and ask for their intercession. We can read and study holiness literature and biographies of Christians who lived lives of complete surrender to God. We can seek out other Christians who believe in entire sanctification to “lay hands” on us and pray for this work of grace to be done in our lives. We can seek to be a part of a group that keeps us accountable for persistently seeking entire sanctification until it happens. As we participate in Holy Communion, we can ask God to sanctify us. When altar calls are given to invite people to experience entire sanctification, we can go forward to pray. We take opportunity to serve others through our local church, asking God to perfect our hearts in love as we serve. As we worship and hear the Scriptures read and the Word of God proclaimed, we can listen attentively for the still small voice of the Spirit to say to us, “Today is the day of your deliverance.” Through actively seeking the experience of entire sanctification by faith in these and other means of grace, we position ourselves to receive God’s sanctifying work when God brings it.
In the American holiness tradition, this active seeking is often described as “tarrying in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes,” as adhering to the exhortation “do not grow weary” in seeking the fullness of His Spirit, and “praying through” until victory has come. If we persist in seeking entire sanctification by faith in the means of grace, God will come and give this gift.
These are not rigid boundaries for God, God is not bound or limited to them, but they express the wisdom and ways in which God has most generally worked to bring people into this beautiful work of grace. They may be helpful to you as you preach on holiness and guide seekers.
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.