The Wesleys, holiness and life in the Spirit

John and Charles Wesley sought to renew the Church of England by having Christians take seriously that they were called to live holy lives. The Wesleys stressed that every Christian should be sanctified. Sanctification is the term used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit to free our lives from sin. Accordingly John and Charles sought to discover modes of life — holiness — that would aid Christians in their desire to be freed from sin and on the way to salvation.

Because John and Charles Wesley were so earnest and organized in their desire for holiness, they often were subject to derision and ridicule. At Oxford those who gathered around John Wesley were given the nickname Holy Club. Methodist was originally a name meant to ridicule Wesley for being too “methodical” in his understanding of how Christians should live. Methodists were labeled by many in the Church of England as “enthusiasts.” That was not a compliment; an enthusiast was thought to have a dangerously emotional, nonintellectual understanding of the faith.

Yet John and Charles Wesley were convinced that holiness was what it meant to be a Christian. Influenced by Eastern Christian theologians, John Wesley appropriated their accounts of “divinization” into his idea of “perfection.” There is no stronger expression of this emphasis on holiness than Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:

Finish, then, thy new creation; 
pure and spotless let us be. 
Let us see thy great salvation 
perfectly restored in thee; 
changed from glory into glory, 
till in heaven we take our place, 
till we cast our crowns before thee, 
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

We are so familiar with “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” that the extraordinary claims of this hymn can be missed. Was Charles Wesley serious when he asked God to make us “pure and spotless”? He was quite serious. Like his brother, John, Charles desired for himself and for all Christians that as far as possible we lead lives free of sin. Each of us should want to be the “humble dwelling” in which the Spirit makes a home. Accordingly Charles Wesley hoped that we might in this life “serve thee as thy hosts above,” which implies that the communion the saints enjoy in heaven is possible here on earth below.

One of the words John Wesley used to describe the holiness characteristic of the Christian life was perfection. He did not think that Christians could be free of ignorance or mistakes, but he did think that through the work of Christ made present by the Holy Spirit, Christians could be freed from “outward sins.” According to Wesley, “the fullness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is brought unto men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.”

Note the last line of Charles Wesley’s hymn — “Lost in wonder, love, and praise.” To be sanctified is not to try very hard to achieve some impossible ideal. That misconception of holiness can lead to narcissistic self-righteousness or to perpetual guilt. “To be made perfect” from a Wesleyan perspective is to be caught up so completely in the life of the Holy Spirit you are not burdened by constant self-doubt. To be sanctified is to be drawn into a way of life so compelling that our worry that we may not be doing enough for God is lost. The saints never try to be saints; it just turns out that way as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

That many people doubt perfection is possible Wesley attributed to mistaken ideas about the Holy Spirit’s perfecting work. Wesley argued that in scripture perfection is “pure love reigning alone in our heart and life.” Perfection so understood means our hearts are so filled with love that all our words and actions are accordingly governed. Yet Wesley warned that simply to “feel” we are free from sin is inadequate. We should never believe that the work of love is finished “till there is added the testimony of the Spirit, witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification.”

Wesley understood justification and sanctification to be intertwined; you could not have one without the other. For Wesley justification names what Christ has done for us in gaining pardon from God for our sins. Yet at the very moment of justification, sanctification begins. According to Wesley, real change is worked in us by the Holy Spirit:

We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” [cf. Rom. 5:5], producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God, expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honour, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will and every other evil temper; in a word, changing the “earthly, sensual, devilish mind” into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus” [cf. Phil. 2:5].

Wesley’s extravagant sanctificationist claims may sound as if he has a too-sanguine view of human nature. Is it realistic of Wesley to claim that our spirits are so sweepingly transformed that all “love of the world” is expelled from us?

John Wesley had a robust, orthodox view of human depravity and sinfulness. But he had an even more exuberant assessment of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives warped by sin. Grace for Wesley meant not some saccharine view of human nature (God says, “I love you just the way you are; promise me you won’t change a thing”). Wesleyan grace is the power of the Holy Spirit working in us to give us lives we could not have had without the Spirit’s work.

Wesleyan sanctification is a “gradual process” that begins as soon as we are “born again.” As Jesus told Nicodemus, the “Spirit blows wherever it wishes” (John 3:8), making us as if we were newborn, dead to sin and alive to God. We should, therefore, desire “entire sanctification”; that is, we should want freedom from pride, self-will, anger, and unbelief. We should want to “go on toward perfection” (Heb 6:1 NRSV) so that love takes over our lives, excluding the hold sin has over us. To be sanctified is to have a kind of “spiritual light” in the soul supplying an evidence of “things unseen.” Faith, for Wesley, was the assurance that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the same dynamic of cross and resurrection that characterized the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus characterizes us.

This article is an excerpt from The Holy Spirit by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press

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