“I didn’t Mean to do it”
Reflections on a Wesleyan view of sin
As a young minister in my 20’s I was privileged to travel with various denominational officials as part of my work as their go-fer. On one occasion I was riding shotgun with a Wesleyan official when he got nabbed by a policeman for going 20 MPH over the speed limit. The summons stated the violation as “speeding” which sent him up in smoke. He refused to sign the summons (at first) telling the policeman “I was not speeding, I was merely exceeding the speed limit.” The policeman seemed confused by this differentiation. The cop shrugged and replied, “Whatever, you owe $90 either way.”
The Wesleyan official wouldn’t give in so easily. He signed the ticket under protest then went about writing a multi-page letter of protest to the out-of-state judge admitting he was guilty of “exceeding the speed limit” but he was innocent of “speeding.”
Wesleyans reading this column understand why a Wesleyan (or a Nazarene or Methodist) might make this distinction even though we still chuckle at the story. In a Wesleyan view of sin, intentions matter. The Wesleyan denominational official would readily admit that the law was broken (i.e. “exceeding the speed limit”) but he refused to admit that it was intentional (e.g. “speeding.”). He had been so schooled in the importance of the difference that he was quite happy to pay the ticket but only if his infraction could be considered accidental. That’s the Wesleyan way of viewing law-breaking.
To Wesleyans motive matters. For Wesleyans it is possible to actually do a thing that is sin but not be held accountable for it “if I didn’t mean to.” Wesleyans admit that they sin regularly in the technical sense—that is, they say, think or do things that “fall short” of the perfect law of Christ-likeness. These are technically sins, but not “sin strictly speaking” (Wesley). To Wesley and Wesleyans sin strictly speaking is “a voluntary transgression against a known law ” of God. He knew the speed limit but he did not mean to speed, in his mind. To Wesleyans, sin is knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway on purpose. Sin is knowing a thing is disobedience beforehand and still doing it anyway with full intention of disobeying. To a Wesleyan, sin (strictly speaking) is purposely and with full intention willfully sinning with an attitude of giving God the finger. Sin of this kind is thought of as purposeful rebellion. Thus when Wesleyans talk about the possibility of living a sinless life they are claiming that it is conceivable that a Christian could live for months and even years without open purposeful defiance of God’s clear will.
This sort of definition of sin (sin, strictly speaking) has gotten our doctrine of sinless perfection broadly misunderstood. Since the commonplace definition of sin on the evangelical street is “anything that falls short of Christ’s perfection” when we speak of living above sin it sounds like we are claiming to be equal to Jesus Christ (using the common definition of sin) when we are only claiming that it is possible to live without purposeful rebellion to God’s will. Obviously when we are talking about living above sin the definition of “sin” is important to the conversation.
But the Wesleyan definition of sin sometimes gets us in trouble with ourselves too. If you come from outside the movement and this idea of sin sounds odd to you I bet you’ve already imagined the abuses such a definition can lead to. You are right. It can sometimes give Wesleyans a giant loophole for sinning—sometimes every day in thought, word and deed. All we have to do is sin accidentally, without knowing the wrongness (ignorance is a great advantage for the sanctified in this way of thinking). Or we can fire hurtful words into the hearts of others by claiming “That’s just how I am—I don’t mean to hurt anyone.”
Of course serious writers on holiness have addressed these abuses, often with their greatest condemnation. But the abusers no longer read holiness writers—they just float around the church sinlessly sinning all the time giving holiness a bad name. These holiness oldtimers need to fast the Wesleyan definition of sin for forty days and live under the more commonplace definition. Maybe after 40 days of prayer and fasting they’ll be a bit more sensitive to sin and holiness.
I admit that the Wesleyan definition is sin is troublesome yet I am not ready to abandon it altogether. The distinction between willful and unintentional sin is useful I think. While both offenses require the atoning blood of Jesus certainly a Christian should at least believe in the possibility of living a life where he or she does not rebel against Christ willfully and with premeditation. I may never reach the standard of a being a perfect husband, yet I do hope I can reach the level of husbandry where I do not on purpose and in full defiance say or do a thing that will hurt my wife. Likewise with my God. I want to believe that any child of God can reach a level of living where they do not intentionally disobey the known will of God.
Of course, the Wesleyan notion of intention has won the day in our secular world. The youth pastor who recklessly drives their youth group on an all-nighter back from spring break and winds up falling asleep with a teen dead might be charged with manslaughter but probably not with murder. In the courts premeditated murder is even treated differently from a barroom fight where one person got killed, let alone manslaughter resulting from the all-nighter trip. In all cases the victim is dead, but in some cases the person is considered less culpable. Because of this cultural legal differentiation Wesleyans can often explain their definition of sin more easily. Yet it is risky business—especially when I am pleading my own case and I am serving as my own judge and jury.
So my question is this: Are there better ways for Wesleyans to explain the optimistic possibility of living above premeditated intentional sin? Or is it time to abandon this two-tiered approach to holiness?
So what do you think?
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DISCLAIMER: This article has hardly anything to do with the fact that I have driven home today from New Jersey across Ohio.