"The Curious Doctrine of Entire Sanctification"



Most religious groups have a doctrine or two that is considered “curious” by other Christians and needs explaining. The Roman Catholics have Transubstantiation, the Calvinists Predestination, the Pentecostals tongues. The Wesleyans have “Entire Sanctification” or what the Methodists called “Christian Perfection.” This article explains how the grandchildren of John Wesley’s Methodists came to teach “the curious doctrine of Entire Sanctification.”


John Wesley believed (with virtually all other orthodox Christians) in human depravity—that we are by nature biased toward evil. This inner bias makes it impossible for humans to save themselves and this inner drive reliably causes humans to veer off the road into disobedience.


Wesley and other Methodists in his time observed that “getting saved” did not completely remedy this inner bias toward sin. The believer may have experienced periods of total victory but there seemed to remain within them a bias toward sin that often produced a passionless form of Christian living that fell short of what the Bible seemed to promise—even command.


Thus the question arose, “Could God finish His work—delivering a Christian from sinfulness filling them with perfect love so they could actually obey God completely because they loved Him completely?” It seemed logical but was this idea scriptural” And, even if it was Scriptural…was it possible? Of course all Christians expected to be pure by the time they entered heaven. But was purity and love available in this life for a Christian? This question sent John Wesley and others to the Bible.


When searching the Scriptures the early Methodists saw hints in the Bible suggesting such a life was possible. They found passages like “…just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:15–16). They thought the passage implied that one might actually “be holy in all they did” since it was so obviously commanded—would God command something that was impossible? Likewise they read, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) and thought that whatever “being perfect” was, it must be possible since it was commanded so diirectly. They read the greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) and assumed that such a specific command of Jesus must be possible—to love God and others completely. They read “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it (1 Thess. 5: 23-24) and figured the Apostle Paul was suggesting that God could indeed do what he described in the prayer—sanctify a person “through and through.”  They became convinced that there was “more” to the Christian walk than a life of spiritual mediocrity and failure. They saw these and other promises in the Bible that seemed to promise a person that God’s grace was powerful enough to make us be what we were commanded to become. So they started preaching that way.


In response to preaching Christians started seeking a work from God that would fill them with perfect love for God and others—what  the Bible seemed to promise. They began to believe that God’s grace was strong enough to actually enable Christians to love God completely and love others perfectly… and they believed He could do it in this life, not just after they got to heaven.  They had already experienced God’s “first work of grace” in their conversion but they now sought to “go on unto perfection” (Hebrews 6:1). Believing they could not reach this level of living in their own strength they sought a “second work of grace” from God that might purify and empower them to live an obedient and loving life.


Some of these seekers started claiming they had experienced this second work of grace. They thought God had actually performed in them a fresh work by the Holy Spirit which altered their heart an enabled them to love and obey Christ. They felt “filled with love” for God and others. They really believed that God had cleansed their heart filled them with a new “perfect love” for God and others. They were ecstatic and did not keep quiet. They began to tell others by “testifying” to this fresh “work of grace.” Many doubted, but some who heard these testimonies began to believe that such a work was possible—God could provide a “second touch” that purified and empowered a Christian—so they too began to seek this work. Soon some of these Christians experienced something and added their own testimony saying they too had been cleansed and filled with love.


A hundred years after John Wesley ignited this first “holiness revival” a fresh revival broke out in America in the 1800’s. Methodist laywoman, Phoebe Palmer[1], began holding “Tuesday Meetings” in her home for serious seekers after God. Christians wanted more of God and were dissatisfied with the nominal state of conventional Christianity. They optimistically believed that God could work in their lives to enable them to fully obey God and fully love others—even love their enemies. At first only women attended Phoebe Palmer’s meetings but she soon was forced to open the meetings to men too—including some men who were Methodist Bishops. Women and men began seeking this “second work of grace.” Before too long there were thousands of Christians seeking entire sanctification hoping God would fill and cleanse them lifting them from their mediocre passionless Christian life. Thousands upon thousands claimed they had experienced this work and testified that they had entered a new level of living by God’s grace and a movement was born—the American “Holiness movement.”


With so many thousands experienced this work a new infrastructure grew up supporting this new “Holiness movement.” The camp meeting had been around since the beginning of the 1800’s but a group of Methodist pastors in Vineland, New Jersey organized the National Camp Meeting Association for the promotion of Christian Holiness[2] in 1867 and camp meetings rapidly adopted the idea all across America. Holiness evangelists crisscrossed the country proclaiming the possibility of a second work of grace and nominal Christians all over America became seekers and finders of this fresh work of God. Many of these Christians claimed they had experienced a work of grace that “totally changed everything” and they could not keep quiet—they wanted to give a testimony about what God had done. Other Christians who doubted the experience at first heard repeated testimonies and many began seeking something like this themselves. Magazines were founded, organizations sprung up, new camp meeting grounds were purchased, books were published, holiness revival meetings were held, and new denominations were organized.[3] Thousands—perhaps millions—of Christians claimed they had experienced a second work of grace that enabled them to love and obey Christ fully. Wives testified that their husband was a changed man. Children claimed they saw a major difference in their mother. Some even claimed their dog could tell the difference when they quit kicking the mutt on the way home from work!  These people believed nothing was impossible for God—He could even sanctify them “to the uttermost.”


So were these folk deceived? The story raises serious questions for all of us—both inside the remains of the “holiness movement” and outside. Did they really experience what they testified to, or were they only manipulated into thinking so?  To what extent was this movement merely a phenomenon of 19th century optimism? Was it of God or men? If it was truly of God, has God now “moved on” and no longer offers such a work of grace?  Did these Christians really experience the baptism of love they claimed? If what they experienced is still possible how come we hear so little about it today? Is God still able to sanctify Christians entirely so that they are inclined to love and obedience instead of sin and selfishness?


And perhaps the greatest question of all is, “Is something like this the answer to the prevailing observation we hear everywhere today among emerging leaders, old-timers and an increasing number of boomers: “There seems to be something wrong with the level of Christianity we now see.


So what do you think?

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Keith Drury   November 24, 2009









[1]  Tom Oden of Drew Seminary considers Phoebe Palmer the greatest lay theologian of the 19th century and perhaps even the greatest Methodist theologian of that century.

[2] This organization later became the National Holiness Association, and finally the Christian Holiness Partnership until it eventually became defunct in the early days of the 21st century.

[3] Some of these denominations were founded when Methodist bishops thought the movement was too extreme and tried to moderate the fire, pushing out the “holiness people” from their churches or districts. Some denominations already existed at this time and considered themselves “holiness churches” such as the Wesleyan Methodist and Free Methodist churches while other new denominations spouted up at the turn of the century including the Church of the Nazarene, and the Pilgrim Holiness Church.