Wednesday, May 10, 2006




While entire sanctification is defined in different ways by people in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, five basic understandings can be discerned. While these definitions are hardly exhaustive, providing only the most general of descriptions, they do provide a lens through which most teachings on entire sanctification can be seen. The five distinctive definitions of entire sanctification equate holiness with one of the following: (1) entire consecration, (2) freedom from willful sin, (3) freedom from willful sin and the sin nature, (4) perfection in love, and (5) freedom from the possibility of sin. Their differences center upon their respective understandings of willful sin, the sin nature and fulfillment of the two great commandments – love of God and neighbor.

The purpose of this article is to identify the legitimate definitions of entire sanctification, perspectives which capture the heart of the Wesleyan tradition of holiness and articulate the fullness of salvation made possible by Christ through the Holy Spirit, as well as identify illegitimate expressions, views which “sell short” ” the work of holiness or “promise too much.” I will begin with the inadequate definitions, ones that are not truly Wesleyan, and move to faithful expressions.


Of the five definitions of entire sanctification, three are illegitimate: (1) entire consecration, (2) freedom from willful sin, and (5) freedom from the possibility of sin. The first two definitions have “too low a view” of the work holiness in the present life, while the last has “too high a view.”

A. Entire Sanctification as Entire Consecration

The first view, entire sanctification as entire consecration, has its origins in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, being found prominently in John Wesley’s and Phoebe Palmer’s teaching on sanctification. Wesley assumed entire consecration on the part of Christians at or before the experience of conversion. Wesley did not believe a person could be born-again apart from entire consecration. Entire consecration was essential in becoming a Christian. Palmer, on the other hand, saw entire consecration as an act of a believer subsequent to conversion and an essential element in appropriating entire sanctification. Along with the exercise of faith, entire consecration was the means by which Christians entered into the life of holiness. For Wesley and Palmer consecration was a means to holiness, but not the equivalent of it.

In the American holiness tradition, a transition took place, particularly at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the early twentieth century, making entire consecration synonymous with entire sanctification. The rationale: if people relinquished control of their lives and surrendered everything to the Holy Spirit, then of course the Holy Spirit would take complete control and exercise dominion in their lives. The Spirit always receives and takes control of what people freely give to Him. At the moment Christians fully surrender to Christ, the Holy Spirit performs the work of entire sanctification. Therefore, when people entirely consecrate their lives to Christ, they are said to be entirely sanctified, whether they have had a deeper cleansing work of the Holy Spirit or not. Over time as entire consecration rose to the fore as an equivalent to entire sanctification and the power and hold of sin was not broken, remaining patterns of sin and obvious sin were classified as “struggles,” “infirmities,” and “weaknesses.” They were overlooked or explained away. An emphasis upon freedom from sin and perfection in love receded to the background.

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 has affirmed that it is possible for a Christian to be fully surrendered to the Lord and not be entirely sanctified. To entire consecration faith must be added in the appropriation of entire sanctification. If this is not affirmed, then many Christians will settle for an experience that “falls short” of the salvation made available thorough Jesus Christ, living in the bondage of sin or being forced to live a lie – claiming to be free from sin, when in fact they are not.

In short, entire consecration as entire sanctification as presently expressed falls short of a truly Wesleyan-Holiness definition because it too easily settles for a life characterized by servitude to sin, too quickly glosses over willful and original sin, and misses the role of sanctifying faith in the appropriation of entire sanctification. Entire sanctification entails far more than entire consecration.

B. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from Willful Sin

The next illegitimate definition, entire sanctification as freedom from willful sin, has often been called the Keswick view of holiness, and historically has had a close relationship with the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition at least on two levels. First, like a truly Wesleyan Holiness view, the Keswick understanding believes Christians can be set free from willful sin, often in a second work of grace subsequent to conversion, enabling lives of obedience and surrender to Christ. Like the Wesleyans, freedom from willful sin is emphasized. Second, the Keswick view through the preaching of D.L. Moody and teaching of Hannah Whitehall Smith became intimately entwined with the Holiness movement in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. At times they became virtually indistinguishable, often working in conjunction with one another, allowing much cross pollination of ideas, so that, often Wesleyan Holiness preachers and evangelists preached the Keswick teaching.

The strength of the Keswick teaching is its Christian realism. There is power to live in obedience to Christ, to live as a Christian and truly be a Christian. Yet, the pull of temptation, the desire to serve self, the divided heart, and a strong carnal passion are acknowledged in believers. Christians do not have to give in to the “flesh,” “the carnal nature,” and/or “the law of sin” in them, but they will never be free from this internal bent. The Keswick teaching describes what many people believe is realistically possible in the present life, what they believe they can live in this life. As such, and because of the Keswick’s historic relationship with the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, the Keswick view is a popular definition for entire sanctification among many leaders in Wesleyan circles.

However, the Keswick definition “falls short” of describing the holiness possible in the present life, because it does not take seriously deliverance from nature of sin. 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 this work of sanctification has been described. Positively, "baptism of the Holy Spirit, "infilling of the Spirit, "perfect love," and "full salvation," have been some of the expressions used to define this work of sanctification. Regardless of the language used, all of 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. Because the Keswick definition fails to recognize the depth of entire sanctification, it is not a legitimate Wesleyan Holiness view.

Stated more concisely, entire sanctification as freedom from willful sin falls short of a truly Wesleyan Holiness view, because it does not take seriously the possibility that Christians can be set free from the “bent toward sinning” or the sin nature. Christians can overcome willful sin, live in obedience, but that obedience often is “hard fought,” because of the “flesh.”

C. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from the Possibility of Sin

The final illegitimate view, entire sanctification as freedom from the possibility of sin, is the highest view of entire sanctification. Like the other illegitimate views, there is a history with and relationship to the Wesleyan Holiness movement. From the time of John Wesley’s ministry to the nineteenth century holiness movement, through the twentieth century, there have been Wesleyan groups who have so emphasized the power of God’s grace of God and fullness of salvation, they have taught that entire sanctification sets a person free from the possibility of sin. Generally, this optimism has been expressed either as freedom from all temptations, freedom from the possibility of sin, or a combination of both teachings. As a result of entire sanctification a person no longer experiences temptation, and thus has no possibility of really sinning, or they are rendered incapable of sinning, being made immutable in their holiness.

John Wesley encountered this view of Christian perfection in the 1760’s in London. Two Methodist preachers, Maxfield and Bell were teaching that once people were entirely sanctified they were free from every temptation and could not sin. Wesley vigorously denied and refuted such a high view of Christian perfection. The Holiness movement in the nineteenth century had people like G.D. Watson and followers who argued for immutable perfection. Holiness camp meetings in the twentieth centuries have had a long history of people testifying to being freed from all temptation. However, Wesleyan Holiness theologians and leaders have continually rejected this highest view of sanctification.

As a definition of entire sanctification, this view overstates the possibilities of holiness in the present life. While orthodox holiness teaching has affirmed, that a person by grace can have the nature of sin removed, this state of holiness does not place believers in a state of perfection higher than Adam and Eve had in the garden. Even though they did not have the sin nature, they were subject to temptation and capable of succumbing to sin. As such, entire sanctification has not historically been viewed as a state of perfection equal to or superior to the perfection Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall. Entire sanctification is not an immutable form of Christian perfection.

In short, entire sanctification as freedom from the possibility of sin promises too much to Christians in the present life. From a true Wesleyan-Holiness perspective, there is no state of perfection in the present life that makes Christians impervious to temptation and/or the possibility of sinning.


In order for a definition of entire sanctification to be a truly Wesleyan-Holiness definition, that definition must address positively freedom from willful sin, freedom from the sin nature (original sin), and freedom to love God and neighbor. This threefold liberation, two of which are negative and one positive, forms the heart of the Wesleyan-Holiness teaching on entire sanctification. Of the five definitions given, two meet these criteria: (3) freedom from willful sin and the sin nature and (4) perfection in love.

A. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from Willful Sin and the Sin Nature

The first legitimate Wesleyan-Holiness definition of holiness, entire sanctification as freedom from willful sin and the sin nature, satisfies the three criteria for Wesleyan holiness teaching – freedom from willful sin, freedom from the nature of sin (original sin), and a heart oriented in love for God and humanity. From this perspective, when the Spirit takes residence in human lives, he begins the process of transforming their attitudes, interests, and actions, while confronting them with an internal principle of selfishness and sin, persisting stubbornly in them. This is often called “initial” and “progressive” sanctification. While it may be described in different ways, this view believes the Spirit can conquer this principle and enable believers to more fully love God, to live in complete obedience to His revealed will and to serve others in love.

Entire sanctification sets people free from sin in order to set them free to love. However, this definition, primarily found in the later American Holiness tradition, recognizes their may be limitations to the expression and experience of this love. People who have been entirely sanctified may have their hearts oriented in love, love may be the natural disposition of their hearts, and yet love may not always be fully expressed or actualized in their lives. They may not always love God with “all of” their “heart, soul and mind” and may not always love their neighbors to the full extent to which they should be loved. These limitations may be a result of ignorance (lack of self awareness of cultural bias), physical limitations (lack of sleep, food), emotional trauma (due to poor modeling of love), etc.

Therefore this view strongly affirms that in entire sanctification Christians are redeemed from self-focused living, and their hearts are renewed, restoring the capacity to fully love God, humanity, and self. However, this view recognizes that this love may be limited in experience and expression, arising from deficiencies created during life or related to our physical limits as human beings. At this point, they may distinguish between the sin nature humanity inherits from birth from which Christians are delivered in entire sanctification and the prejudices, lies, and misconceptions acquired from environment. A Christian’s ability by grace to fully love God and humanity is made possible by the cleansing of the sin nature, but may be limited in expression by other factors. However, as these areas are addressed by the Holy Spirit, this view believes Christians can experience greater depths and expressions of love.

For some in the Wesleyan holiness tradition this would be an expression of a “lower” view of Christian perfection because fully loving God and humanity is made possible by the cleansing of the sin nature, the heart is oriented in love, is naturally disposed to love, but may be limited in experience and expression by other factors.

B. Entire Sanctification as Perfection in Love

The highest legitimate definition of holiness, entire sanctification as perfection in love, primarily found in John Wesley and associated with the American Methodist tradition, differs from the previous view, only in regard to the issue of love. Entire sanctification means freedom from sin and the sin nature, but goes beyond a simple heart oriented in love, more than a restoration of the capacity to fully love God and neighbor. Entire sanctification ultimately entails the actual loving of God continually with all “heart, soul, mind, and strength” and continually loving neighbor as self. In these higher expressions of entire sanctification, this view sees Christian perfection as loving as Jesus loved, being just like Christ, “Christlike” in love of the Father and in love of humanity, which is the fullest expression of human love.

In the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition this is the higher view of Christian perfection. Entire sanctification is not only freedom from willful sin, freedom from the sin nature, but ultimately is perfect love, always loving God and neighbor to the full extent of Christians are capable of doing.


In summary, I have identified three illegitimate definitions of entire sanctification, illegitimate not because they are without history in or relationship with the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, but because they do not meet the three essential criteria of Wesleyan Holiness teaching – freedom from willful sin, freedom from the sin nature, and love of God and neighbor. I have also identified two legitimate definitions, with the difference between them being their respective understandings of fulfillment of the two great commandments. One see entire sanctification as an orientation in love while the others sees love as fully expressed and experienced in the lives of the entirely sanctified. Both understandings have strengths and weaknesses which I will explore later.


At 4:13 PM, Blogger Ken Schenck said...

Great typologies and no doubt eye opening to those of us who have dared considered ourselves a part of the holiness movement without really knowing what we were talking about!

At 9:50 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Good stuff.

At 6:17 AM, Blogger Pastor Dave said...

For years I struggled with the understanding of Sanctification. When I thought I understood it, I would have another professor who seemed to say something different. I read books from the denomination but they didn't agree. I read DeNeff's books and said "Hey that's me" and Phobe Palmer's stuff and thought "I don't think so". Still I didn't have a good grasp why until I read your paper for the Denominational Theological Symposium. It was like the light bulb went on and the missing pieces of the puzzle were found. Wesleyan's have more than one view of Sanctification. I get it. Thanks for the epiphany- it has helped me understand where some of my fellow Wesleyan's of the Shorter Way are coming from and while I don't agree, at least I understand!

At 7:32 AM, Blogger John Mark said...

I hope you are saving this material, for I see the genesis of a book here.
I have wondered for a while if you would ever join your collegues and blog. I look forward to future posts.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Mike Cline said...

The blogging has begun.

May it never end.

Thank you for finally posting something for me to continue my search in orthodoxy.

At 11:20 PM, Blogger Steve King said...

If a husband and a wife both have the experience of entire sanctification which means each of them no longer possess a sinful nature, if they had a child, wouldn't that child be born without the sinful nature you say is inherited? If that child would in fact inherit a sinful nature, please explain how that would happen? It seems that the sinful nature would not really be cleansed or removed, but rather it would become dormant in the parents, yet passed on to the offspring. Another possibility is that the sinful nature is not removed or cleansed but remains until the death of our unredeemed bodies and this doctrine is untrue. 1 John 1:8 says - If we claim to be without sin, we decieve ourselves and the truth is not in us. Note that "sin" is used here not to describe a certain behavior or breaking of a command. Instead is is describing something possessed by all peopl, within everyone. Obviously we could describe something possessed by an entire race or species as being a natural characteristic of that species. Thus a sinful nature. We can read this verse as follows: If we claim to be without a sinful nature, we decieve ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Also, this doctrine is not found in the Bible. That point is made throughout Wesleyan circles. Wesley's answer to this was Christian experience. However, truth is not based on a subjective experience. Without an objective point of reference to which we can comare our experiences, we have no way of knowing the truth about our experiences. The Mormon says he knows the book of Mormon is true because he has an experience described as a "burning in the bosom." However, Scripture tells us in Jeremiah 17:9 "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure." Feelings and experiences can decieve. For them to be a basis for doctrine is dangerous. Entire Sanctification, as described in Wesleyan Holiness tradition, is not in the Bible. To make an argument from silence is a precarious basis for truth. I understand the desire to try and logically form this doctrine by attempting to suggest that God would not command something that wouldn't actually be possible. This was Wesley's point. But I think He would though. He demands absolute obedience. Yet Romans 3:23 says all have sinned. His demands are not based on our abilities, but on His Holy and righteous nature. Attempting to defend this doctrine may be an attempt to appease personal desires rather than accept truth. We find this situation in 2 Tim 4:3 "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." It is possible that someone may defend this doctrine because they simply desire not to be wrong about it. It takes quite the humility to admit error, especially in the theological intellectual underworld. Note that Mormons will defend their beliefs even to the point of denying logic. The stakes are too high for them to be wrong. Their lifestyle, family structure, and social life would be destroyed if they were to admit their false belief system. Of course these are all worldly things. Jesus demands total commitment to Him, not the world. (Matt. 10:37).

Lastly, I want to say that wrong theological ideas are tantamount to not really knowing God. Having wrong information about a person leads you to think they are someone they really aren't. God is a person. He wants us to know what is true about Him. We are to worship Him in Spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)

All glory to Him who justified sinners eternally according to His eternal grace.


Post a Comment

<< Home