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Christian holiness isn’t a popular topic in many evangelical circles today; even in denominations that typically promoted holiness in the past. Some of this is due to misunderstandings of what it means to be “holy” and “sanctified” and what it means to enter the “deeper life.” Some of this is due to distortions of the concept of holiness promoted by some Christians who, although eager to promote holiness of life, fail to understand the richness of the Scripture’s teachings in this area.
The teaching of “entire sanctification” or “perfect love” was carefully presented by John and Charles Wesley and other early Methodists because it was recognized that it is so easily prone to misunderstanding. No one term captures every aspect of it and every manner in which it is presented is subject to distortion. Nevertheless, as they taught, there is a “deeper walk” described in Scripture that is available to those who wish to serve the Lord.
In this article we consider some of the objections to the teaching of “entire sanctification” as “Christian perfection,” the “deeper life;” or, as some have termed it, a “second work of grace.”
The call to a deeper life is a call to a closer walk with God, not a call to religious fanaticism. It is a call to personal fulfillment through joyful service to God and a life of moral purity in the sight of God. Such a life calls for sacrifice when necessary to serve the Lord, but not asceticism (1 Timothy 4:1-5; Romans 14:13-21).
The New Testament calls upon Christians to be “sober” and “sound minded.” We understand this to mean that Christians are to look at the world realistically at all times — with respect both to how the world is and to the spiritual realities we enjoy through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:1-39).
We can consider this, for example, with respect to prayer. When we look at Jesus’ prayer in John 17, we see no mindlessness, silliness, or frivolity. Likewise when Jesus taught us to pray, He taught us to pray in such a way that both our physical needs and spiritual realities are recognized (Matthew 6:5-13; Luke 11:1-4). While many of Paul’s prayers center upon spiritual concerns, his prayers also concern practical matters (1 Timothy 2:1-8; Philippians 4:6; cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). James encouraged prayer for the sick (James 5:13-18). Peter exhorted his readers to, “be of sound judgement and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Peter 4:7; cf. 1:14, 5:8). If there is no fanaticism in this purely spiritual activity, then, surely, there isn’t a call for fanaticism in any other part of the Christian life.
The call to a deeper life, therefore, is not a call to religious fanaticism nor an excuse to manifest “quirks” that simply draw the attention to ourselves. It is a call to sound-minded, purposeful service by those who have learned that the deepest satisfaction in this life is the service of God (Romans 12:1, 2). This will make us different from many others, but in ways that help others to understand God and His love for them expressed through Jesus Christ.
The teaching that Jesus is accepted as Savior when a person is born-again but does not become Lord unless a person chooses to enter the deeper life is clearly wrong. It is a misunderstanding that, unfortunately, is strongly promoted by some Christians — perhaps because it seems to make entire sanctification easier to explain. However, Scripture does not support the teaching of those who say that Jesus can be “resident but not president.” One of the marks of a Christian is the determination to serve the living Christ (Hebrews 9:13, 14; John 14:21; 1 John 2:4, 5; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-15). There can be no entrance into a deeper life for those who do not have the life of Christ in them; and those who have the life of Christ in them seek to serve God as Jesus did (1 John 2:4-6; John 13:1-17). The basic confession of all Christians — by words and life — is that Jesus is Lord (Matthew 16:13-18, 28:18-20; Romans 10:6-13).
This objection is put into perspective by recognizing that liberal (or as they prefer to call themselves, “progressive”) Christians raise the very same objection against Christians who call themselves “born again.” Yet, given the teaching of the New Testament, no Christian in the evangelical tradition believes that this objection is reason to stop preaching the Gospel (John 3:1-21; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3-5).
There is no reason to believe that God’s work is limited after we become “new creatures in Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:17, 18; Hebrews 5:11-6:3). Also, there is no true experience of God’s grace that leads to arrogance or personal boastfulness. This is made very clear in Scriptures such as Mark 10:17; Luke 17:7-10; 1 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Corinthians 3:5, 6, 10:17, 18; Ephesians 2:8-10; 2 Timothy 1:8-10; Titus 3:4-6; 1 John 1:6-10; and Revelation 5:8-14. It is well captured in Isaiah 57:15, “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit.’”
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul makes clear that whatever gifts, spiritual understanding, or devotional activities a person may claim, all is worthless without love. No one who is without love can be considered anything but childish (1 Corinthians 13:11-13). Paul makes clear here that arrogant pride is completely incompatible with love. Wesley called entire sanctification “perfect love.” Love and arrogance are completely incompatible.
The temptation to become proud must be kept firmly in mind, and those who warn us about this are doing us a service. Indeed, some Christians have claimed entire sanctification in a very proud and boastful manner. These Christians are in need of the same corrective as the Christians in Corinth who became proud on the basis of their spiritual gifts. However, the arrogance of some is no more reason to discard the deeper life than it was reason for Paul to deny the reality of spiritual gifts; gifts that Paul affirmed in I Corinthians 12 and 14.
Here again, some Christians must be held responsible for this objection because some have given the impression that they have arrived at a point where further improvement is impossible. This leads people who know them to be reminded of all of their obvious shortcomings, and, as a result, to deny that entire sanctification is possible in this life. Others have mistakenly given the impression that God is calling us to a total perfection that is impossible to attain; thereby denying Christian perfection in this life.
The nature of God’s grace is such that those who draw closer to the Lord become more and more aware of their shortcomings and their dependence upon His grace. One of the wonderful things about God’s grace is that it gives us the courage to face our weaknesses and to overcome them with the help of God’s Word and God’s indwelling Spirit. This blessing is only available to those who recognize their need and walk in faith that God will help them to meet their need (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38; Habakkuk 2:4).
Paul speaks of this in his second letter to the Corinthians. “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). The knowledge of one’s faults and failings leads to self-condemnation and discouragement apart from Jesus Christ. The grace of God gives us confidence to face our failings and enables us to work to overcome them; convinced of our eventual victory because of God’s work in our lives through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:25-27, Philippians 2:12, 13).
In earlier correspondence, Paul wrote, “I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:4). It is obvious that Paul did not envision a point in his life where he could claim that he had no faults or failings that required the grace and forgiveness of God. Peter claimed to have a purified heart (Acts 15:8, 9), yet Peter was publicly corrected by the apostle Paul for inappropriate behavior (Acts 2:11-14). Such a person may sin, but when this becomes evident, there is immediate repentance (1 John 1:9).
Entire sanctification is not a state in which there is no need for further spiritual growth, but the state in which a person is able to grow spiritually at the greatest possible rate because a Christian has cast off all known hindrances to this growth and incorporated spiritual disciplines as a regular part of his or her life. A greater and greater awareness of our faults and past sins is part of this, and thus a great appreciation for and dependence upon the forgiveness and grace of God.1 John Wesley taught that a Christian may be entirely sanctified and yet still have faults and nervous problems.2 Correctly understood, the Scriptural call to “perfection” is a call to spiritual maturity; and like a growing child, we can be as mature as we should be at any one point, yet continue to mature over time. The issue is not absolute perfection, but whether a person is maturing spiritually as rapidly as is humanly possible for that person in this age.
What has been said to the previous objection may be said concerning “entire sanctification.” This sanctification is “entire” in the sense that it touches every part of that person’s life and being; not in the sense that it makes an individual entirely perfect.
Some people believe that contemporary psychology, with its recognition of the unconscious mind, rules out the teaching of a deeper life with roots in the New Testament and the 18th century teachings of the Wesley brothers. However, double mindedness was certainly recognized by James (James 1:7, 8). And those who lived from the first century through the 18th century were no strangers to unruly emotions and stray thoughts. Any view of the deeper life as “repressed thoughts or emotions” assumes that this is what earlier Christians taught. No doubt, many well-intentioned people have taught just that way. But that does not mean that there isn’t a genuine experience of God’s deeper work in the lives of Christians through the centuries; taught in Scripture and lived out by many.
Admittedly, many who seek a deeper life today are indulging a desire for escapism. This is unfortunate because this is not the kind of life the New Testament teaches us to expect.
Jesus washed the feet of His disciples and then told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master . . .” (John 13:16). Rather, Jesus said that His disciples should be willing to serve others as He had just served them. Jesus also told His followers that, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Jesus’ words teach us that entering the deeper life removes none of the responsibilities or challenges of the Christian life. Philippians 1:27-2:16 and Hebrews 13:8-16, 20, 21 challenge Christians to serve Jesus Christ in the same manner He served us.
With this in mind, we can understand that since Jesus was tempted by Satan, we, too, must also be prepared to face a life in which temptation comes. In this sense, too, we are not greater than our Master. Some temptations and challenges may be even stronger for the person who is living closer to God. We have already acknowledged that a temptation to pride can accompany any search for a deeper walk with God. However, if we surrender none of the obligations of Christian discipleship and service in a deeper life, we also lose none of the advantages. Jesus is, for all of us, “the Author and Perfector” of our faith, who shows us how to be victorious and to “overcome” (Hebrews 12:1, 2; cf. Revelation 1-3). As John assures us concerning the indwelling Christ, “greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Meanwhile, if we stumble, the route to forgivenesss, cleansing, and renewed righteousness is open to us (1 John 1:9).
Christianity is a faith that embraces the challenge of living in the world because we have the victory of the living Christ indwelling us and the promise of full victory awaiting before us (cf. Hebrews 12:1, 2). A deeper walk is, in no way, a life of escape from the challenges of life.
Our Lord sometimes referred to plants and trees to help us understand His teaching, as do other portions of Scripture, such as the first Psalm. The analogy of a tree seems helpful here.
Every fruit bearing tree is expected to bear fruit in its time and season. The Christian life is not a life of failure, but a life of fruitfulness.
Nevertheless, a tree planted in a place where there is little water or too much water will not be as fruitful as a tree that has just the right amount of water. Similarly, the degree of a person’s success or failure in living the Christian life will depend upon when and where a person lives.
Thus, while every Christian can experience “the fruit of the Spirit,” which is, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” even the Lord Himself was less successful in His ministry among people who refused to place faith in Him (Mark 6:4-6; cf. Matthew 9:35-38). Paul encouraged Timothy to minister, “in season and out of season;” doubtless recognizing that there would be time when his ministry had more visible results than at other times. So, while Paul could write to the Colossians of the Gospel that, “in all the world it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing . . . ,” visible results were not expected to the same extent in every place.
Likewise, with health. Paul could write to the Philippians that God had restored Epaphroditus to health, but later wrote to Timothy, “Trophimus I left sick at Miletus” (Philippians 2:25-27; 2 Timothy 4:20). Paul’s letters, the Gospels, and Acts all testify to the poverty of Christians in Palestine relative to other Christians.
The Scriptures in no way condemn Christians to a life of failure, povery, or ill health. At the same time, they in no way exempt Christians from the troubles of this world. There is a reason for the list of dangers and threats Paul lists in Romans 8:31-39. There is a reason that Peter exhorted Christians to, “fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation (bodily return) of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
Jesus told His disciples, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). That message was very much needed, for in the first few hundred years of Christianity, Christians witnessed by their faithfulness to Christ in the midst of harsh persecution; many killed publicly for the entertainment of the masses. In such extreme circumstances, those who succeed as Christians are those who overcome, “because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death” (Revelation 12:11).
In our time, some Christians prosper, while others suffer persecution as harsh as anytime in the past. Because of this, we can know that there is no unique, supernatural “sign” that accompanies and validates the deeper life. The apostle Paul said of his ministry of presenting the Gospel, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves“ (2 Corinthians 4:7).
It may seem natural that those closest to God have obvious approval from God. But, as Paul told the Christians in Corinth, Christians are “earthen vessels” (cf. Psalm 103:13, 14). Nevertheless, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let our light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16; cf. Philippians 2:12-16). All of Scripture shows that public miracles do not necessarily bring a response of faith. But those who go forth in humble service to God with faith, Truth, and love, show the world the true face of Christ (2 Corinthians 6; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:20-2:13).
The bottom line is: If you want to amaze people, develop an act and join the circus. If you want to serve God and glorify Christ, go out into the world with the love of Christ. - SMD
1 “The best of men still need Christ in His priestly office, to atone for their omissions, their short-comings (as some not improperly speak), their mistakes in judgment and practice, and their defects of various kinds. For all these are all deviations from the perfect law, and consequently need an atonement.” John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Pefection: as believed and taught by the Reverend John Wesley from the year 1725 to the year 1777, Reprinted from the original text as authorized by the Wesleyan Conference Office in London, England, in 1872 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1971), 53, 54.
2 “We cannot find any ground in Scripture to suppose, that any inhabitant of a house of clay is wholly exempt either from bodily infirmities, or from ignorance of many things; or to imagine any is incapable of mistake, or falling into diverse temptations.” Ibid., 36.
The American Night Watch Mid-Watch Report is an occasional publication of The American Night Watch Christian ministry in support of Scriptural Christianity and Scriptural holiness.
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This page was last updated January 6, 2006.