How Does a Person Experience Entire Sanctification?
THE THREE ANSWERS IN THE WESLEYAN HOLINESS TRADITION
If a person is convinced that there is a work of God that can set Christians free from willful sin and the nature of sin, orienting the heart in love, leading to the fulfillment of the two great commandments, then the question arises: how can a person experience entire sanctification? How does a person enter into this life of holiness? Just as there are different definitions of entire sanctification in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, there are different teachings about appropriating entire sanctification.
The primary purpose of this article is to explore the three dominant models on becoming entirely sanctified in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. Historically, each paradigm has been used by God to help people enter into the experience of entire sanctification. However, some are more theologically accurate while others are less so; some are more helpful, while others are less so. While the focus here is on describing the three means, the secondary goal is to set up a critique in the subsequent essay.
II. THE THREE MODELS OF EXPERIENCING ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION
In the doctrine of salvation a distinction is made often between an ordo salutis and a via salutis, between an order of salvation and the way of salvation, between a nice, linear, logical understanding of salvation and the way salvation actually occurs in people’s lives. The two, while having overlap and similarities, can be quite different. The purpose of an ordo salutis is to help guide people in the via salutis. The three models presented below are ordines salutis of entire sanctification; they are theological articulations to help people enter into the experience of entire sanctification, but with any formal expression, the actual experience may not fit easily into any one of these. Thus, an experience of entire sanctification is not bound by them.
The three general paradigms of experiencing entire sanctification in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition are (A) entire sanctification now by consecration and faith - “the shorter way,” (B) entire sanctification by seeking until you receive – “the middle way,” and (C) entire sanctification by long process of growth – “the longer way.”
A. Entire Sanctification Now by Total Consecration and Faith – “The Shorter Way”
The most optimistic model, the teaching that believes entire sanctification is most easily accessible to people, states that Christians can experience entire sanctification now, in the present moment, through an act of entire consecration and faith, whereby believers surrender their lives to the lordship of Christ and trust God to purify and empower them. Entire sanctification is a simple synergism in which the work of consecration and faith by a Christian is met immediately with deliverance from the inner propensity to sin by the Holy Spirit.
What makes this position unique in the larger Wesleyan-Arminian tradition is its understanding of the ability Christians have to consecrate themselves and exercise faith. Every believer has an inherent power, either as a gift of prevenient grace, regenerating grace, or as an uncorrupted part of free will, to do the human work required in entire sanctification. From the moment of conversion any Christian has the ability to appropriate entire sanctification. Because the Holy Spirit is always ready to respond to a personal act of consecration and faith, only ignorance on the part of a believer, an unwillingness to surrender fully to the Lord or a lack of will to believe become the root causes for not experiencing entire sanctification.
Traditionally, this view has been termed the "shorter way" for its emphasis on the immediacy of the experience of entire sanctification, not having to wait any significant length of time to experience after conversion. Primarily associated with the teaching of Phoebe Palmer and the holiness movement, this position can be seen in Keith Drury's Holiness for Ordinary People, in Kenneth Grider’s A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology, and is the most probable position expressed in the Articles of Religion of The Wesleyan Church. This model has been the most popular and dominant teaching in the American Holiness tradition.
B. Entire Sanctification by Seeking until You Receive – “The Middle Way”
The next paradigm for experiencing entire sanctification in the Wesleyan tradition affirms that through personal consecration and faith entire sanctification is realized in a Christian's life. However, unlike the “shorter way,” it does not believe that faith necessary to appropriate entire sanctification is a power inherent at any given moment in a believer's life. Rather, sanctifying faith is seen as a gift of grace, a grace with which a Christian can choose to cooperate or not. The grace capable of creating this faith often requires more grace than is made available at conversion.
John Wesley's teaching on levels or degrees of grace and faith is at the heart of this holiness teaching. Wesley taught that a person is totally dependent on God's grace for the work of salvation. At each stage or level of progression in the way of salvation more grace is needed to move forward. For example, Wesley taught that prevenient grace given to every person enables a person to respond to grace, but prevenient grace does not have within itself the power to generate faith to appropriate the new birth. To prevenient grace more grace has to be given to create the possibility of saving faith. This grace is communicated through the various means of grace, most notably through the preaching of the gospel, but also through other “instituted” and “prudential” means, such as prayer, Bible reading, fasting, Holy Communion, and the General Rules of Methodist societies. Through participation in the means of grace, grace capable of creating saving faith can be communicated, with which a person can choose to cooperate or not. In the same way, to the grace made available at conversion, more grace must be given in order to make possible the creation of faith necessary to appropriate entire sanctification.
From this perspective Christians actively seek entire sanctification, availing themselves of the various means of grace, waiting for God's grace capable of creating faith to appropriate it. Thus, a person cannot be entirely sanctified at any given moment, but only in those times and places in which God's grace is being made available that can create such faith. There are moments, windows of opportunity for believers to experience entire sanctification, those moments when God makes grace available to create sanctifying faith. For example, while Wesley describes faith that sanctifies entirely as a trust that “God hath promised it in the Holy Scripture,” that “God is able to perform” it, that “He is able and willing to do it now,” and a “that He doeth it,” he makes clear that it is a “a divine evidence and conviction,” it is a faith that God creates and enables through the means of grace.
Among the various Wesleyan models, this teaching may be called the "middle way," sympathetic to the optimism and simplicity of the "shorter way," but recognizing the necessity of further grace and God’s timing in making grace available, while at the same time refusing to succumb to the arduous nature of the "longer way," addressed in the next position. The “middle way” is optimistic about the experience of entire sanctification being sooner, rather than later, not being an experience that has to be sought over the course of a lifetime. For the person earnestly seeking entire sanctification and placing herself in the means of grace, opportunities will arise. "The middle way" is seen in Steve DeNeff's Whatever Became of Holiness?, in some of John Wesley's more optimistic pieces like "The Scripture Way of Salvation," and can also be argued as a possible position taken in The Wesleyan Church’s Articles of Religion. Of the three models, this view has received the least attention, often remaining unnoticed in many scholarly discussions and practical teaching on entire sanctification.
C. Entire Sanctification by Long Process of Growth – “The Longer Way”
In contrast to the previous two positions, the third Wesleyan teaching on holiness emphasizes that entire sanctification is realized most often in a Christian's life after a long journey of dying to self, following many years of spiritual development. There will be some Christians who will realize entire sanctification in the present life, but most will not experience it until just before death or at the point of glorification. A belief in the persistence and stubbornness of original sin forms the heart of the doctrine, a recalcitrance that can be overcome only gradually through significant growth in grace, personal denial, and spiritual development.
The analogy of a slow death is one of the most well known descriptions of this view, an analogy which emphasizes the complementary nature of process with an instantaneous moment. In a slow death, there is a long process leading to the point of death, often a painful and arduous process. Nevertheless, there is a point in which a person dies. While this view does not deny the possibility of a short process and early death, or the exercise of personal faith in appropriating entire sanctification, its focus is on the long progression. While the moment in which a Christian dies completely to self is always the goal in the present life, the process leading to the goal takes preeminence.
The movement toward this state of perfection can only be brought about by growth in grace, knowledge, wisdom, experience, and the practice of spiritual disciplines. As such, entire sanctification is not really seen as a possibility for new converts, but only for those who have diligently followed Christ for many years.
In the Wesleyan tradition this view has been called the "longer way," because of its focus on an extended process in the realization of entire sanctification. The "longer way" is described and embraced in Thomas Oden's Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology Volume Three, in Randy Maddox’s Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology, and in John Wesley's more pessimistic writings, such as "Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection." While not as popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the “shorter way,” and even the “middle way,” the “longer way” has more recently come to the fore in American Wesleyan-Arminian circles, particularly in academic arenas.
While all three models of entering into the experience of entire sanctification have their proponents in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and are legitimate Wesleyan holiness views, there differences are great, not easily reconcilable with each other. Depending on what model a person uses in pastoral practice or personal discipleship, will impact how ministry is done, what counsel is offered in guiding people in the way of salvation, and how entire sanctification is sought. Fundamentally, their differences arise over their respective understanding of the operation of God’s grace in salvation and sanctification. In the next entry, these differences will be explored and critiqued.