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BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR THE “SECONDNESS” OF ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION  

 

by  

Frank G. Carver  

 

Source: Wesleyan Theological Journal

Wesley Center Online

Wesley.nnu.edu  

 

Introduction  

 

This seminar focuses on the issue of preaching and teaching two works of grace in a Biblically authentic way. My concern is anchored in my own history.

My background is old-fashioned Methodist. I was nurtured on the knees of a praying mother, my spiritual sensibilities were impacted by the presence of a Methodist preacher grandfather, and I was early exposed to the interdenominational holiness camp meeting. My undergraduate years were spent at Taylor University with its holiness heritage, and my call to the ministry led me eventually into the Church of the Nazarene and to Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Sometime during those years of transition from adolescence to adulthood an awareness was creeping over me that, although I was fully convinced of the truth of my evangelical and Wesleyan heritage, I was becoming more and more uneasy about the manner in which I heard Scripture used to support and proclaim the holiness message. This was so even though I possessed no criteria at that time by which to judge adequately. I was left with a haunting sense of incredibility about the state of what I now label “holiness hermeneutics.” This feeling was not dissipated by my training at Nazarene Theological Seminary where my knowledge of the Bible was greatly enhanced, but somehow very little of interpretive method penetrated my approach to Scripture.

After two years of pastoring a home mission church in western Nebraska I felt called in 1956 to begin graduate studies leading toward a Ph.D. in New Testament studies and to prepare for a teaching career in the Church. As I did so, an inner driving motivation was to grasp the tools and methods necessary for the task of finding out for myself the “how” of the Scriptural legitimacy for the distinctives of the Wesleyan message. All of my academic life I have been at this task of discovering the Biblical foundations of the holiness message for the needs of my own heart and ministry. This quest has permeated my research, my teaching, my writing, and my proclamation.

Out of my studies in the Wesleyan heritage[1] and in the whole of Scripture has come a foundational presupposition. It has become unquestionably evident that in terms of our Protestant commitment to the primacy of Scripture in religious authority, the Biblical use of the word “Holiness” can function as a synonym for integrity. There is a profound sense in which holiness is to God what integrity is to man. Old Testament theologians tell us that the holiness of God in its first definition refers to the inner secret of His being, and then second to the revelation in history of His moral character or ethical attributes. We are holy first as brought by redemptive action into the sphere of God’s life and we are holy second as our lives in response take on the moral character of the God who has revealed Himself in redemptive history.[2] So God’s holiness is “his utter self consistency,”[3] as Wilbur T. Dayton puts it, and when we become involved in the communication of holiness to man, integrity is a necessary characterization of the hermeneutical process that is appropriate to its object. Holiness as integrity demands that we let the Biblical text speak for itself and on its own terms, and that we are compelled to handle the text with all the honesty, objectivity, and openness of which we are capable. Manipulation, even of a Biblical text, does not become holiness!

Holiness proclamation is by definition Biblical proclamation. To proclaim the Biblical message is to proclaim the holiness message! Wesley appears to agree: “I found it in the oracles of God, in the Old and New Testament when I read them with no other view or desire, but to save my own soul.”[4] His own definition of what he was teaching was more often than not expressed in the language of Scripture itself as in his tract, “The Character of a Methodist.”[5]

The true Wesleyan is not afraid of the Biblical text. By definition as Wesleyans we are “Biblical” first and “Wesleyans” second; to proceed any differently borders on ideological idolatry. For us as convinced Wesleyans Biblical preaching is holiness preaching! If we do not believe that to proclaim the Scriptures with contextual integrity is to do justice to the message of holiness, then we have no right to the phrase, “Scriptural holiness,” and further we have no authority for that message apart from the subjectivity of a religious experience and the peculiarities of a scholastically transformed tradition.

A second basic presupposition from which we work is the general or comprehensive use of the language of the holy in the Old and New Testaments. Holiness in the Old Testament is first of all a religious concept. It involves a relation of exclusive allegiance to the God who alone is holy per se. In the Old Testament holiness is secondly a developing ethical concept. It involves a response in life to God that is exclusive of all that is contrary to the above allegiance to Him, exclusive of all that is contrary to the revealed moral character of the Holy One to whom we exclusively belong. As W. T. Purkiser observes, in the Old Testament “references to the holiness of persons fall into two major classes.” One “is basically cultic or ceremonial: the priestly concept of holiness,” and the other “involves ideas of moral goodness or righteousness: the prophetic concept of holiness.”[6] In these two complementary streams the sanctification language flows out of the Old Testament into the New. The priestly or cultic stream appears primarily in the Epistle to the Hebrews and infrequently in the Johannine writings. At times it characterizes Paul’s usage as well as some of the other occurrences in the New Testament. The first thrust of this priestly stream is relational, to be authentically related to the Holy God present in Jesus. The prophetic stream appears primarily in Paul, particularly in Romans where he seeks to prevent his teaching on justification by faith from being perverted in such a way as to license sin.[7] Paul’s concept of sanctification serves primarily to keep his concept of justification in balance. The first thrust of this prophetic stream is thus ethical, a life consistent with the character of the Holy One revealed in Jesus.

From this perspective it is obvious that sanctification as a “second” work of grace cannot neatly and uncritically be identified with every use of the “sanctification” or “holy” language in either the Old or New Testaments. It is interesting that Wesley noted this explicitly in relation to Paul’s use of the sanctification language:

 (2) That the term sanctified, is continually applied by St. Paul , to all that were justified. (3) That by this term alone, he rarely, if ever, means, “saved from all sin.” (4) That, consequently, it is not proper to use it in that sense, without adding the word wholly, entirely, or the like.[8]

Our present attempt, therefore, is not one of the detailed exegesis of the classic passages that use the sanctification language, as productive and enjoyable as that might be. Instead we will suggest, in a “sharing” rather than a “proving” mode, some approaches and Biblical theological perspectives that I have found helpful and illuminating in my own personal quest.

  The first is the primary principle of my own working “holiness hermeneutic,”[9] which I like to describe as  

 

I.  

From the Privilege of Grace to the Crisis of Faith  

 

The Biblical presentation of holiness as applied to persons is first of all a quality of life flowing from the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Within this as we begin to develop a “Biblical theology of holiness” a hierarchy of concern emerges from the reading of the literature. As I read my Bible I find it concerned first with holiness as a grace relationship to God in Jesus Christ, secondly with holiness as an ethic or response in life enabled by the Holy Spirit consistent with the nature of that relationship, and only thirdly with a chronology of faith-experience through which one enters into a perfected, or thorough-going grace relationship to the Christ of the cross and the resurrection. The nature of the Biblical materials demands that we work both in interpretation and in application primarily from the nature and privilege of the life in grace to the experiential need of some kind of “faith-crisis” for its full realization in day-to-day discipleship. The primary necessity for the “crisis” flows from the gospel’s presentation of and call to the life of grace, the holy life.

As I read his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, this, I am convinced, was the way of Wesley. His “front line” presentation of “scriptural holiness” was to stress the standard and privilege of the holy life and that often in the language of Scripture itself. In a summary definition in the final pages of the Plain Account he writes:

 

In one view, it is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving God all our heart; it is one desire and design ruling all our tempers. It is the devoting, not a part, but all, our soul, body, and substance to God. In another view, it is all the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked. It is the circumcision of the heart from all filthiness, all inward as well as outward pollution. It is a renewal of the heart in the whole image of God, the full likeness of Him that created it. In yet another, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves.[10]

 

From this understanding of what was possible by the grace of God in the life and heart of the believer Wesley would proclaim its availability, but his understanding of “how” it took place came more from the observation of experience than from Scripture.[11] In his scriptural hermeneutic, then, Wesley worked primarily from the privilege to the crisis, and not from the crisis to the privilege! He writes, for example, in the Plain Account, that we do not know a single instance, in any place, of a person’s receiving, in one and the same moment, remission of sins, the abiding witness of the Spirit, and a new, a clean heart. Indeed, how God may work, we cannot tell; but the general manner in which he does work, is this.[12]

Then follows a full page presenting what I call a “psychology of Christian experience.” Again in a sermon “On Patience” (James 1:4), written probably after 1783, we get a glimpse of his hermeneutic: 

 

11. But it may be inquired, In what manner does God work this entire, this universal change in the soul of the believer? This strange work, which so many will not believe, though we declare it unto them? Does he work it gradually, by slow degrees? Or instantaneously, in a moment? How many are the disputes upon this head, even among the children of God! And so there will be after all that ever was or ever can be said upon it. . . . And they will be the more resolute herein because the Scriptures are silent upon the subject; because the point is not determined—at least in express terms—in any part of the oracles of God. Every man therefore may abound in his own sense, provided he will allow the same liberty to his neighbor; provided he will not be angry at those who differ from his opinion, nor entertain hard thoughts concerning them. Permit me likewise to add one thing more. Be the change instantaneous or gradual, see that you never rest till it is wrought in your own soul, if you desire to dwell with God in glory.[13]

 

Rob Staples states the point clearly: in Wesley’s thought “there is a clearly discernible distinction between the ‘substance’ of sanctification and the ‘structure’ of sanctification,”[14] that is, between the “what” holiness is in its essential content and the “how” and “when” of the process involved in attaining it. For “Wesley the structure was less important than the substance.”[15] His admonition was, “Let this love be attained, by whatever means, and I am content; I desire no more. All is well, if we love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves.”[16] Staples’ conclusion to his discussions of “Substance and Structure” and “Scripture and Experience” seems valid:

 

Wesley’s authority for the substance, “love excluding sin,” was scriptural, but his authority for the structure (a process comprising two instantaneous crises: “initial” and “entire” sanctification) was primarily experiential, i.e. psychological.[17]

 

So when we state our primary “holiness hermeneutic” as working from the privilege of grace to the crisis of faith, we appear at this point to be in tune with Wesley. There is no better place to illustrate this scripturally than to return for a moment to Wesley. The privilege of grace he could state succinctly and simply:

 

It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification, for a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief, or as the Apostle expresses it, “Go on to perfection.” But what is perfection? The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks.”[18]

 

For Wesley entire sanctification scripturally was first of all and most of all to be understood as love,[19] “love excluding sin; love filling the heart.” And his favorite and fundamental text for this was the Great Commandment:[20]

 

“What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL; THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other greater commandment than these” (Mark 12:28b–31).

 

Our attempt to distinguish between a “Biblical theology of Christian experience” and a “psychology of Christian experience” can best be seen here. The first part of the Great Commandment (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) is the covenant demand at the heart of a covenant renewal document. It is an interpretive summary of the initial Ten Words, the constitution of the covenant God made at Sinai with His people Israel . As such it is the fundamental confession of the Israelite faith from Moses’ day up to this very moment.

The second part of the Great Commandment (Leviticus 19:18) comes out of that part of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code (17:1–26:46), a section punctuated by the refrain, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2). As a people separated to God, rendered holy first by their deliverance out of Egypt (Exodus 19:4–6), Israel is to live out who they are as a holy people. They have been brought into the grace-circle of His holy life. The revealed character of God is the measure of the holiness expected, for the ritual and ethical instructions which are to guide their behavior are grounded in the nature of God Himself as holy: “I the LORD who sanctifies you, am holy” (Leviticus 21:8).

These two great, all-penetrating and summary Old Testament Scriptures Jesus, in prophetic fulfillment, put together as the “great” summary of all that His coming was to mean. For in His incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection He brought the Great Commandment into authentic reality in the midst of humankind, “Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world” (John 10:36). He lived it out to the full! And in that living and dying He made available the privilege of the life of the Great Commandment to all who live from His day until eternity: “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they may also be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). In the context of the Fourth Gospel Jesus’ sanctification was His utter submission to the cross as the will of the Father for Him. Therefore in this text our sanctification is our utter submission to His cross as the will of the Father for us. The touchstone criteria for defining our sanctification has become His sanctification!

Now back to the Great Commandment. The new covenant privilege, standard, and demand is clear. To witness in preaching to this in all of its beauty and promise in the total Biblical context with the help of the Holy Spirit will awaken in our hearers a hunger for a “Great Commandment” relationship and quality of life. We then invite them to a decisive faith-grasp of what is truly theirs “in Christ.” We confront our hearers in this great text with the privilege of grace that we might lead them into the crisis of faith!

I believe this to be the basic “holiness hermeneutic,” the hermeneutic most appropriate to the Old and New Testament witness to the redemptive work of God in Christ. The Biblical texts are in the main theologically wholistic rather than psychologically analytic, that is, they do not distinguish neatly between initial and partial stages of realization and the full faith-participation in the privilege afforded. I believe this is true of the great texts which use the “sanctification” language out of both the priestly[21] and prophetic streams.[22] Other areas which can be profitably approached in this manner are those texts which use the “cleansing” or “purification” language,[23] the “gift,” “baptism,” and other language used in relation to the reception of the Holy Spirit,[24] the “perfection” language,[25] and the “death” and “crucifixion” metaphors.[26] This list is by no means comprehensive, only an obvious beginning.

The Pauline use of the indicative and imperative moods has been seen by some interpreters to depict distinctly the two crises.[27] A careful study of the classic passage, Romans 6:1–14, convinces me that it too falls best under the above hermeneutic. First I judge the argument of the passage to be more expositional than situationally hortatory in its primary intention. Second the positive imperative in 6:13, “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead” (cf 12:1), appears to be essentially one of ethical response to a privilege of grace already experienced (vv. 3–11). So basic to the full working out of the imperative in life is the quality of relationship fully realized in the second crisis as we know it. I believe the experiential reality of the second crisis in potential is included in the call of verse 11 which summarizes the previous indicatives and brings them to a decisive conclusion: “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” A faith-identification with Christ in His death and resurrection (vv. 3–10) in the fullest sense is one Biblical way of defining the crisis of entire sanctification.

We have attempted to suggest “from the privilege of grace to the crisis of faith” as our fundamental “holiness hermeneutic.” Further suggestions include some areas that I find uniquely productive in my own witness, although they are not totally unrelated to the above stance. The first of these:  

 

II.  

 Sinai as a Theological Paradigm  

 

Coming out of my teaching an undergraduate course on Exodus in recent years this line of thought is still somewhat in embryo. For this reason and due to lack of space I will lay it out in a somewhat skeletal way. The Exodus passage which contains in essence the theological paradigm to which the whole of Exodus bears witness is 19:4–6a. Under Moses’ leadership the Israelites have been delivered from Egypt and have made their way to the foot of Sinai where they are encamped. In preparation for the Sinai theophany and the giving of the Ten Words Moses goes up to God where Yahweh calls to him from the mountain with the following proclamation for “the house of Jacob” and “the sons of Israel” (v. 3b):

 

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

 

God’s intention for the Israelites was not merely to bring them out of Egypt but in the words of the text to bring “you to Myself” which is further defined as “be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In view certainly is the nature of the encounter at Sinai.

A brief outline of Exodus with some significantly theological texts inserted and accompanied by occasional commentary should make our basic perspective clear. We are concerned primarily with the theological witness of the texts. Our attempt is to be sensitive to how the narrative presentation progressively reveals on the one hand the holy character of the God of grace and on the other the true nature of the people of God, and therefore their need of a radical grace. It is a story of sin, grace, and holiness.

 

I. Slavery: Israel in Egypt (1:1–11:10)

 

A. Oppression in Egypt (1:1–2:25)

 

But he said, “Who made you a prince or a judge over us?” (2:14a). Prefigured in this account (vv. 11–15) is not only the issue of spiritual leadership, but also the nature of the Israelites, for the rebellion motif first appears. The description of the oppression concludes with a summary indication of the disposition of God toward His people (2:24–25).

 

B. Moses’ call and commission (3:1–7:7)

 

1. The call of Moses (3:1–4:17) (See 3:10-12)

 

“You shall worship God at this mountain”: already in the call of Moses the arrival of the Israelites at the mountain of Sinai is seen to be significant in relation to God’s destined purpose for His people.

 

2. The return to Egypt (4:18–6:1) (See 5:21–23)

 

The issue was the command to gather their own straw (5:6–9). The Israelite nature is further revealed, only now Moses himself is also seen as truly Israelite in spiritual character. But most of all we observe that the deliverance of God’s people is grounded (1) not in the kindness of a benevolent Pharaoh, (2) nor in the willingness of the Israelites to be delivered, and (3) not even in the abilities of a charismatic deliverer, but alone in the utter grace of Yahweh, God of Israel!

 

3. The call renewed (6:2–7:7) (See 6:6–7)

 

The grace character of the deliverance out of Egypt continues to be stressed as indicated by the use of the recognition formula, “you shall know” (v. 7). The plague narratives which follow give the fullest expression possible to this motif.  

C. Confrontation with Pharaoh (7:8–11:10) (See 10:1–2)

 

The recognition formula, “that you may know,” punctuates significantly the plague narratives with its witness to the unique sovereignty of Yahweh, the God of grace.

 

II. Liberation: From Egypt to Sinai (12:1–18:27)

 

A. God’s deliverance (12:1–14:31) (See 14:11–14)

 

Again the twin themes of sinful unbelief and the sheer grace of Yahweh appear.

 

B. A song of thanksgiving (15:1–21) (See 15:11)

 

Grace is linked clearly and inherently with holiness in the Exodus context. Biblically grace and holiness go together more profoundly than we in holiness circles normally are able to articulate.

 

C. The wilderness journey (15:22–18:27) So the people grumbled. . . . There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them. And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer” (15:24, 25b–26).

 

In context the story appears designed to signify theologically the need for torah and to suggest its proper function. If so it can be said that the declaration, “I, the LORD, am your healer,” witnesses to God’s intention for the torah in the life of the people (see Psalms 1:2 –3; 119:9–11, 45, 92, 130, 147, 165). Is the grace of deliverance leading into a “second” grace, or into the “completion” of grace, a grace linked to the true function of torah?

 

In 17:2, 7 complaint has reached its inevitable result in naked unbelief: “Is the LORD among us, or not?” Or does complaint in fact arise out of unbelief? Rebellion is clearly the nature of this delivered people!

 

We can observe how the narrator has now set the stage for Sinai!

 

1:1–15:21 narrates a grace deliverance.

 

15:22–18:27 is a narration of the manifestation of unbelief and of the sufficiency of God—both a negative and a positive preparation for Sinai.

 

Posed is the grace and ethic problem: deliverance alone is not enough! God Himself must continually be relied upon! So God is about to bring them to Himself and impart to them in 19:1–40:38 instructions for worship and life. God in a manifestation of the holy reveals His character as it impacts their covenant relationship to Him, in the knowledge of which they are to commit themselves to the God of the Exodus on a new level—the level of the revealed PRESENCE of the “holy” God of Mount Sinai!

 

III. Revelation: Israel at Mount Sinai

 

A. Law and covenant (19:1–31:18)

 

1. Theophany and covenant (19:1–20:21)

 

“I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. . . . you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, . . . and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:4–6).

 

Then God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt , out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me . . .” (20:1–3).

 

As the Ten Words are spoken . . . (20:4–17), “all the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’ And Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.’ So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud [NIV, ‘darkness’] where God was” (20:18–21).

 

The only moral and spiritual safety is a radical faith-relationship to the holy God Himself! Inherently involved in this “holy security” is

 

(1) the “darkness” of faith (v. 21), and

 

(2) the true function of the torah: “God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin” (v. 20).

 

The Biblical-theological issue of holiness is the PRESENCE of the God of Mount Sinai, the ethical demands of One whose holiness has been clearly revealed—a clear vision of Mount Calvary to come!

 

Therefore the instructions and guidelines for life and worship follow, including an account of “sin after Sinai” in a highly illuminating narrative of sin, judgment, grace, and restoration, all in the context of the inescapable reality of the holy.

 

2. The Book of the Covenant (20:22–23:33)

 

3. The ratification of the covenant (24:1–18)

 

4. Instructions for covenant worship (25:1–31:18)

 

B. Rebellion and restoration (32:1–40:38)

 

1. Breach and renewal of the covenant (32:1–34:35)

 

2. The building of the tabernacle (35:1–40:38) (See 40:34–35)

 

Thus I find that a Sinai theological paradigm speaks more powerfully to me and shows more promise for relevant holiness preaching than does the more familiar “Red Sea to Jordan River and into Canaan” typology. For with the latter you can never escape from typology (leading often to fanciful allegory) even after one enters the promised land, but with Sinai in view one is always dealing with the theological issues of holiness, sin, and grace.  

 

III.  

Law and Flesh Versus Grace and Spirit  

 

Most definitive in my thinking for several years has been the Pauline theology of law and flesh in contrast to grace and Spirit. These four categories open up for me a way of understanding a second crisis theologically as well as some possibilities for articulating it psychologically.

The easiest way to share these perspectives is to go briefly to a text in Acts that is informed by the law and grace struggles of the early church and also directly relates to the disciples’ experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. I refer to Acts 15:8 –9 in the context of the Jerusalem council and Peter’s speech on that occasion where the reference is to the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Roman centurion Cornelius (10:34–48):

 

And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.

 

The context is familiar. There were those in the Church who wanted to compromise the freedom of the gospel of grace by a return to circumcision and the Law of Moses (15:1, 5). The Church met at Jerusalem to solve the issue and Peter brings the experience of his ministry to Cornelius to bear on the problem. As reported by Luke Peter’s speech functions as a miracle-authenticated call to discipleship in terms of the understanding of the gospel as experienced and understood in the Gentile mission.[28] Peter saw in the miracle of the gift of the Holy Spirit to his Gentile friends the evidence that the nature of everyone’s relationship to God is one of unadulterated grace: “We believe that we [Jews] are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they [Gentiles] also are” (15:11).

As we have concluded on this passage elsewhere,

 

From this perspective the cleansing of the heart by faith is understood as that operation of the Holy Spirit in our Christian existence that allows grace to be truly grace. It is the cleansing of our hearts all the way to grace, a cleansing of the will from all trust in the flesh before God. It is therefore a cleansing to faith alone in our relation to God.[29]

 

Although a more detailed study would be in order, how we arrive at the above interpretation can perhaps be illuminated adequately by another quotation from previous work:

 

“Cleansing” in this total context [of the Acts narrative] has [in Lukan theology] a twofold dimension.

 

First, the very opening of Cornelius’ heart to the gospel is the work of the Holy Spirit. God has erased the distinction that made him as a Gentile unclean in contrast to the “clean” Jew (11:9). Faith itself is here a gift of the Spirit. In Cornelius’ case the cleansing work of the Spirit began long before Peter invaded his horizons. His prayers, alms, and fear of God as a devout man (10:1–3) were not “works” which were rendering him acceptable to God, but evidence of the faith-stance that the Spirit was bringing to birth in his heart.

Second, the cleansing action of the Holy Spirit in the heart has primary reference here to the issues of law and grace in salvation (cf. vv. 1, 5, 11). The “cleansing” of the heart is from all reliance on human legalism to an utter dependence upon divine grace in salvation, from any confidence in the power of the flesh to a single trust in the presence of the Spirit for spiritual adequacy. To be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4) can thus be understood as having been brought by the cleansing presence of the Spirit all the way to grace in one’s relation to God and fellow-persons as a Christian.[30]

The above is meant as primarily a “theology of Christian experience” rather than as an attempt to develop “a psychology of Christian experience.” Described is what the full faith-apprehension of the privilege entails rather than the chronological process that leads into it. But to speak psychologically out of this theologically defined context, entire sanctification can be defined as that moment in one’s Christian pilgrimage when the Holy Spirit brings one all the way to grace, when in a moment of conscious faith-commitment one decisively and once for all shifts from all reliance on human strength and wisdom in “Christian” living to a sole dependence on the Spirit of Christ for a holy life, from a confused and partially flesh-based spiritual life to a full commitment to a Spirit-grounded existence.

Now back to Paul. His four categories of spiritual life—law, flesh, grace Spirit—which figure so prominently in the soteriological discussions of Galatians and Romans, are set forth theologically in the following chart on “Paul and Spiritual Existence.”

It would take another paper for a full exposition of the above chart, but a few comments relating it to the process of Christian experience will clarify our perspectives. The top half of the chart denotes a grace—Spirit existence and the bottom half a law—flesh existence. The left half of the chart raises the issue of freedom in spiritual life and the right half the concern of ethical responsibility. Often when the new-born Christian in his/her quest for a holy life, having begun in the upper left-hand corner with the freedom of justification by faith, seeks to fulfill the ethical responsibilities of the Christian calling by moving at least in part to the lower right-hand corner: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). The hard fact is, as most of us have proven in our own attempts at spiritual responsibility, that somewhere in the early stages of our Christian lives we have sought, usually somewhat unaware of what we are doing, to please God partly in reliance on our own strength and wisdom—the flesh. Then on down the road after few or many embarrassing failures and the resulting struggles, the Holy Spirit begins to open our eyes to the nature of the problem, and invites us to “give up” on ourselves and make Him our sole source of spiritual power. This moment of repentance, acceptance, commitment, surrender, consecration (use your own term), is the faith-crisis of entire sanctification. It takes place when we finally move in faith-commitment to the cross of Christ cleanly from a flesh-dependent existence with its “license-legalism” pendulum to a Spirit-dependent existence into that true realm of “liberty” where sanctification of life can become a way of life!

This does not mean that there will not be moments of “sin improperly so-called” or perhaps even of “sin properly so-called,” when in a moment of physical and psychical weakness, carelessness, anxiety, ego-threat or spiritual leanness, that we will not fail of the Christ-likeness of attitude and behavior that we so much desire. But it does mean that when those moments do occur we are fully aware of the issue at stake, that in that moment we relied on ourselves—the flesh in its strength and wisdom, and not on the presence of Another—the Spirit of Christ in our lives.

So I find these four categories, as elucidated by Paul, implicit in the Acts account, illustrated in the history of the Church, and experienced in my own walk with the Lord theologically satisfying as I attempt to do Biblical justice to my own heritage.  

 

IV.  

Love in the Johannine Witness  

 

During the years of teaching a course on the Biblical theology of holiness I developed a simplistic outline which I share with students very early in the course. It is an attempt to use the witness of 1 John to illuminate Wesley’s phrase, “love excluding sin.” I share that outline as a suggested programmatic door to the possibilities of the “Johannine witness to love” for holiness proclamation. So with some modification the outline is as follows:

Sanctification and holiness are key words in the Wesleyan heritage which at times become very confusing for some to handle. 1 John in the years after graduation from seminary enabled me to come to terms with my own Methodist heritage and that of my adopted family, the Church of the Nazarene.

1 John and the Fourth Gospel fill for me with meaningful and livable content a significant phrase from John Wesley, “love excluding sin.”[31] The full quote from Wesley’s sermon on “The Scripture Way of Salvation” reads as follows:

 

It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification, for a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief, or as the Apostle expresses it, ‘Go on to perfection.’ But what is perfection? The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. . . . For as long as love takes up the whole heart, what room is there for sin therein?[32]

 

Albert C. Outler sums up Wesley’s understanding of sanctification in a penetrating, and for me, very helpful way:

 

There is impressive testimony to the fact that he came finally to understand that Christian maturity is chiefly faith’s freedom to respond to God’s grace without fear of rejection or pride of possession.[33]

 

 John can help us to grasp in mind and heart this “faith’s freedom to respond to God’s grace without fear of rejection or pride of possession”,[34] a truly Wesleyan definition of holiness. Grace and freedom are big words in a fully Biblical definition of holiness!

1 John sums up its witness in two simple yet profound theological statements which comprehend God’s relationship to the Christian’s existence:

 

   1:5 “God is light”

   4:8 “God is love”

 

Both affirmations are realized in life by “love excluding sin.” For “love excluding sin” is revealed in 1 John as

 

   a life in grace—“God is light” and

   a life of grace—“God is love,”

 

which together add up to the life of salvation in relation to God: “whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected” (1:5).

Therefore in the language of 1 John the holy life is first simply and continually letting God in Christ love us to the depth of our need, be it sins or sin, and in turn sharing that love with others.

Or to put it in another way: all that God asks of us is that we receive His love, and pass it on to those around us: “if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us” (4:12).

So LOVE EXCLUDING SIN IS FIRST our total need before God given always and unhesitatingly to His love. This means that everything the Holy Spirit calls sin in our lives, that is, makes us uneasy in our conscience before Him about it, we surrender to the grace of God in Jesus Christ (1:5–7; see 1:8–2:2; 3:1–3; 4:9–10).

LOVE EXCLUDING SIN IS SECOND this love received governing all of life’s relationships. Any lack or omission of that love in expression by word and deed, as we are made aware of it, we give back to His love in confession for His forgiveness and cleansing (1:9; 4:17–19; see 1:3–2:11; 4:7–21).  

 

Conclusion  

 

“God is love” (4:16) (See 3:16-24)

Because of the grace that “God is light” and “God is love” the two situations in which we can be assured are “when our heart condemns us” (3:20) and when “our heart does not condemn us” (3:21)!

The last time I shared this outline with a group of undergraduates other than religion majors in a class entitled “The Life of Holiness,” their question was, If holiness is as simple as 1 John appears to make it, why do the theologians make it so complex for us?  

 

V.  

Conclusion  

 

The above is one Wesleyan’s attempt to illustrate a “holiness hermeneutic” that can deal openly with Scripture in the context of contemporary Biblical studies and at the same time do justice to the essential motifs of the Wesleyan heritage. As a Wesleyan I want my heritage to flow authentically out of Scripture, and I want to allow Scripture its full freedom to judge, correct, and enrich my heritage and my own spiritual journey.      

I have long worked with the general hermeneutical principle in relation to the authority of Scripture question: Until one has a hermeneutic that will allow every passage in the Bible to function as the Word of God, one does not have a hermeneutic adequate for any passage. Could it not be reworded in this present context to read: Until one has a hermeneutic that will allow one to preach holiness from every book of the Bible, one does not have a hermeneutic adequate to proclaim holiness from any book of the Bible?

 



[1] It has been necessary for me to teach the graduate seminar on Wesley several times over the years as well as incorporate him in my undergraduate class dealing with the Biblical theology of holiness. But I make no claim to be a Wesley “scholar.”

[2] See David L. Thompson, “Old Testament Bases of the Wesleyan Message,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Volume 10 (Spring, 1975), pp. 38–47.

[3] Wilbur T. Dayton, “Entire Sanctification as taught in the Book of Romans,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Volume 1 (Spring 1966 ), p. 2.

[4] John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City 1966), p. 117. Reprinted from the complete original text as authorized by the Wesleyan Conference Office in London , England , in 1872.

[5] Ibid, pp. 17–21.

[6] W. T. Purkiser, Exploring Christian Holiness, Volume 1: The Biblical Foundations (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1983), p. 30.

[7] Romans 5:1–8:39, particularly the argument in 6:1–7:6.

[8] Wesley, p. 43. It can be said in the same vein that simplistic or uncritical use of some second-sounding phrases in the New Testament without careful qualification has problems as well. E.g., Romans 1:11, 2 Corinthians 1:14; 1 Thessalonians 3:10 , etc.

[9] “Hermeneutics,” “a theory of interpretation,” traditionally seeks “to establish the principles, methods, and rules needed in the interpretation of written texts.” Richard N. Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 2nd ed., 1981), p. 81. I am using the word “hermeneutic” in the sense of “hermeneutical principle” or principle of interpretation which “may be loosely defined as the key by which the interpreter gets into the circle of understanding.” Soulen, p. 85.

[10] Wesley, p. 117.

[11] See the brief discussion of this point in Rob L. Staples, “Sanctification and Selfhood: A Phenomenological Analysis of the Wesleyan Message,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Volume 7, (Spring, 1972), pp. 6–8.

[12] Wesley, p. 31.

[13] Albert C. Outler, ed., The Works of John Wesley, Volume 3: Sermons III, 71–114 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), pp. 176–177. This sermon first appeared in the Arminian Magazine for 1784 (March and April, VII.121–27, 178–82). See Outler’s comments, p. 169, for the reason for the dating after 1783. See further on Wesley’s psychology of Christian experience in his sermon “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” Outler, pp. 203–204, which appeared in the Arminian Magazine in 1785.

[14] Staples, p.4.

[15] Staples, p. 6. From his discussion on pages 4–8 he states later in the article (p.11) that “we have shown that Wesley found no scriptural support for the instantaneousness of entire sanctification. This does not mean that Wesley was right, or that his is the final word.” He did note however (p. 7) that Wesley did find Scriptural authority for certain aspects of the structure: Wesley “was certain that Scripture, as well as experience, taught that sin remains in believers after the new birth. Secondly, he found support in Scripture, as well as in experience, for the possibility of entire sanctification in this present life.” See Staples’ article for his documentation in Wesley’s writings.

[16] The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. John Telford (London: The Epworth Press, 1921), II, 75.

[17] Staples, p. 8. His use of the term “psychological” here I find confirming for my use of the distinction in “holiness hermeneutics” between “a Biblical theology of Christian experience” and “a psychology of Christian experience.”

[18] Albert E. Outler, ed., The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2: Sermons II, 3470 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), p. 160. This sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” was written in 1765. Outler, p. 155, writes that “of all the written sermons, this one had the most extensive history of oral preaching behind it: forty instances of his using Eph. 2:8 before 1765, nine in 1737. . . . The text continued to be a favorite: twenty recorded instances in the quarter century following 1765.”

[19] Staples, pp. 6f., has a paragraph documenting this in Wesley. Indicative of course is Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s interpretation of Wesley under the title, A Theology of Love (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1972).

[20] “How clearly does this express the being perfected in love!” Outler, Sermons II, p. 167. See also “The Character of a Methodist,” in Wesley, Plain Account, p. 17. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated are taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1975.

[21] E.g., John 17:17–19; Hebrews 10:10, 14; 12:14; 13:12 .

[22] E.g., Romans 6:22; 1 Thessalonians 5:23f.

[23] E.g., John 15:3 ; Acts 15:8–9; Hebrew 9:13–14; 1 John 1:7, 9 .

[24] E.g., Mark 1:8 ; Luke 11: 13 ; the Paraclete passages in John 14, 15, and 16; Acts 1:5; 2:4; 2:38; 15:8 .

[25] E.g., Matthew 5:48 . Philippians 3:12–15; 1 John 4:7–21.

[26] E.g., Mark 8:34 ; Romans 6:6 ; Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 5:14–15; Colossians 3:3 . An issue to be determined in each instance here is whether the metaphor refers subjectively to Christian experience or objectively to the death of Christ with whom the believer died (Romans 5:12–21) and with which death s/he identifies in the moment of faith.

[27] Staples, pp. 12–12a, in dependence on the work of Richard E. Howard, “The Epistle to the Galatians,” Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press,1965), pp. 23, 90, 93, 111. But see Howard’s “Some Modern Interpretations of the Pauline Indicative and Imperative,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Volume 11 (Spring 1976), pp.38–48, where he interprets Paul’s indicative and imperative as best as I can read him in a way that appears consistent with the approach taken here.

[28] I am dependent here on my exegetical study of this text which has been published as “Preparing to Preach from Acts 15:6–11,” The Preacher’s Magazine (September, October, November, 1978), pp. 30ff.

[29] Frank G. Carver, The Cross and the Spirit: Peter and the Way of the Holy (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1987), p. 81.

[30] Carver, “Preparing to Preach from Acts 15:6–11,” p. 32. See the sermon outline developed on the passage, p. 53.

[31] Along with 1 John one could explore with great profit the Johannine theology of love in the Farewell Discourse (cc. 13–17) in relation to Wesley’s phrase.

[32] Outler, Sermons II, pp. 160, 167.

[33] Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 29.

[34] Ibid.