The Revd Paul Smith gives four talks exploring the theme “The Lamb of God.”
A weekend of Bible exposition, encouraging worship and prayer, great fellowship and wonderful hospitality. Come for the weekend or for a day.
The first three articles in this series examined, in order, universal sinfulness, saving grace for all and the witness of the Spirit. Now we come to the fourth ‘All’ – all can be saved to the full, to the uttermost. In half a century of writing, preaching and publishing on this great truth, John Wesley used a variety of terms to describe it. He referred to it as ‘the great salvation,’ ‘full salvation,’ ‘entire sanctification,’ ‘scriptural holiness,’ ‘perfect love,’ ‘the second blessing’ ‘Christian holiness’ and ‘Christian perfection.’ Of all John Wesley’s teachings, this doctrine evolved more than any other as part of his own spiritual pilgrimage. As he examined his heart in 1725 preparatory for his ordination as a deacon, he read Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, and recorded, ‘I began to aim at, and pray for, inward holiness.’1 In that year he embarked on a lifelong pursuit of holiness, understood as the image of God stamped on the soul and showing itself in love to God and man. The doctrine of Christian holiness that emerged from his writings was not just one element in his theological system; it was a foundation of all his thinking about God, and grace and salvation. He traced the beginnings of the Methodist movement to his own and his brother Charles’ search for the secret of holy living. When the question was asked at the first Conference in 1744, ‘What was the rise of Methodism, so called?’ the answer was: ‘In 1729, two young men, reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it, and incited others so to do. In 1737 they saw holiness comes by faith. They saw likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point. God then thrust them out, utterly against their will, to raise a holy people.’2
A later Conference asked the question, ‘What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?’ The answer was: ‘Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.’3 The dates given in the first answer are very significant. Wesley saw 1729 as the year that witnessed the birth of the movement in Oxford that would emerge as ‘Methodism.’ In that year he had returned from assisting his father in Epworth and had joined the small group already organised by Charles Wesley. As they met regularly for prayer and other devotional exercises, they became convinced that to be saved meant being holy. This was a discovery that would influence John Wesley’s thinking for the rest of his life. Being ‘saved’ did not merely mean forgiveness, or even the certainty of eternal life – it meant being holy. Whatever biblical and theological refinements this understanding would undergo in the next six decades, the core truth would remain central to John Wesley’s creed – God has made provision for his people to live holy lives.
The years 1737 and 1738 were very important in John Wesley’s developing understanding of Christian holiness. During those two years, under Moravian influence, he was convinced that justification must always precede sanctification in Christian experience. He now knew that he and his Oxford ‘Methodist’ colleagues had been striving for sanctification without the foundation of justification by faith, and the result had been spiritual frustration and defeat. This crucial new emphasis was nothing less than a revolution in John Wesley’s theological thinking. From this discovery, and reinforced by the ‘heart-warming’ of May 24, 1738, Wesley subsequently proclaimed holiness as the fruit of justification. This brought him into line with New Testament teaching, and with Reformed evangelical theology. Years later he made this distinction crystal clear in his 1787 sermon On God’s Vineyard. While other Christians often seem to be confused on the relationship between justification and sanctification, ‘it has pleased God to give the Methodists a full and clear knowledge of each. They maintain with equal zeal and diligence the doctrine of free, full, present justification on the one hand, and of entire sanctification both of heart and life on the other.’4
It is not possible in a short article to summarise everything John Wesley wrote about Christian holiness across fifty years. Sometimes he wrote in answer to those who strongly opposed his teaching, while other sermons and essays were meant to teach his own Methodist people and help them to ‘perfect holiness in the fear of God.’5 There were, however, three emphases that Wesley consistently made about holiness and from which he never wavered. First, in terms of cleansing, full salvation is entire sanctification; i.e. deliverance from inner sin. While justification saves us from the penalty of sin and restores us to God’s favour, sanctification saves us from inner sin and is the process by which we are being restored to the likeness of God. Wesley mostly spoke of inner sin in terms of its manifestations and characterised it as pride, self-will, love of the world and unbelief. From these inner sins the Christian may be fully cleansed in this life, not in terms of a sinless perfection, but in terms of a cleansing that brings victory from these ‘unholy tempers.’ From 1 John, Wesley argued that Christ is not only able to ‘forgive us our sins’ but also to ‘cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’6
Secondly, in terms of character, full salvation means we are being restored to Christ-likeness. Of all the biblical descriptions that John Wesley used to describe Christian holiness, the two most common were in terms of our likeness to our Lord. We can have ‘the mind that was in Christ’ and we are ‘to walk even as He walked.’ In this way Wesley taught that the sanctified Christian is being transformed into the likeness of the Lord and the consequence of this is holy living. He devoted thirteen sermons to explain carefully that as Christ restores his image in our hearts, he enables us by his Spirit to live out the kingdom life.7
Thirdly, John Wesley consistently advocated that in terms of conduct, full salvation is perfect love. He struck this note as early as his 1733 sermon, The Circumcision of the Heart, and in the latter years of his ministry, holiness as perfected love was a constant theme. Had it not been that controversy and misunderstanding forced John Wesley to use other terms to define and defend this doctrine, he would have been content to preach it in the words of our Lord’s Great Commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbour as yourself.’8 As Paul wrote in Romans 13:10, ‘love is the fulfilling of the law,’ and our love for God and our neighbour is the measure of full salvation in this life. Near the end of his 1766 definitive essay on Christian holiness, Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley gave a description of full salvation in terms of love that still reads remarkably contemporary.
Love is the highest gift of God; humble, gentle, patient love; that all visions, revelations, manifestations whatever, are little things compared to love ... And when you are asking others, ‘Have you received this or that blessing?’ if you mean anything but more love, you mean wrong, you are leading them out of the way, and putting them upon a false scent. Settle it then in your heart, that from the moment God has saved you from all sin, you are to aim at nothing more, but more of that love described in the thirteenth of the Corinthians. You can go no higher than this, till you are carried into Abraham’s bosom.9