Wesleyans are committed to entire sanctification as a work of grace subsequent to regeneration. Paul prayed for God to entirely sanctify the believers at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:23), and there are strong exegetical reasons to think that he anticipated for this to happen before the coming of the Lord.
In some Wesleyan circles, entire sanctification is referred to more frequently than what has come to be known as initial sanctification. Thus, when someone hears “sanctification,” his mind tends to go to entire sanctification. It’s easy enough, then, to drop the word “entire” altogether. (After all, “entire sanctification” is quite a mouthful.) In common speech, many say “sanctification” or “holiness” when they specifically mean “entire sanctification.” For example,
- “I’m saved and sanctified” — meaning, “I’m saved and entirely sanctified.”
- “He needs to be sanctified” — meaning, “He needs to be entirely sanctified.”
- “Holiness changed my spiritual life” — meaning, “Being entirely sanctified changed my spiritual life.”
It may seem harmless to someone who grew up in a Wesleyan-Holiness circle, but there are several reasons why I believe that it should be corrected.
1. The Bible does not say “sanctification” or “holiness” when it means “entire sanctification.” It is one thing to say that holiness (in general) includes entire sanctification (in light of 1 Thess. 5:23), but that is not the same as equating them. In the King James Version of the New Testament, the word “sanctification” occurs 5 times, and the word “sanctified” occurs 15 times. Consider a few typical examples:
- 1 Cor. 1:2, “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord….” The sanctified are all who call upon Christ. Clearly, the carnal and self-serving Corinthians were not entirely sanctified.
- 1 Cor. 6:11, “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” Regeneration (“washed”), sanctification, and justification are concomitants that occur when one is saved.
- Jude 1:1, “Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called….” All believers (the “called”) are “sanctified.” According to Paul, Jude, and others, every believer can say, “I’m saved and sanctified.”
- 2 Thess. 2:13, “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” We are saved through sanctification which occurs when one believes.
To use “sanctified” to specifically mean “entirely sanctified” is to use the word in a way that the Bible does not. Moreover, I rarely (if ever) hear new believers referred to as those who are sanctified—something that Scripture does often. It is fine to use extrabiblical terms (e.g., Trinity) to describe biblical truths, but it is potentially misleading to use biblical words in a way that is inconsistent with their biblical usage.
To use “sanctified” to specifically mean “entirely sanctified” is to use the word in a way that the Bible does not.
2. Wesley warned that it is improper to say “sanctified” when one means “entirely sanctified.” He writes:
The term sanctified is continually applied by St. Paul to all that were justified; by this term alone, he rarely, if ever, means “saved from all sin” [entirely sanctified]; consequently, it is not proper to use the term in that sense, without adding the word “wholly, entirely,” or the like.
When Paul means entire sanctification, he says it: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23). We should too.
3. It adds to the confusion that surrounds the doctrine and hinders the cause of true Scriptural holiness. If our disciples read Scripture and find that it uses words in a way that is different than what they hear from us, they are likely to interpret the Bible through a discolored lens. Consider how our confused terminology plays into the common misinterpretation of two texts.
Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 that “this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication.” Many read their definition of “sanctification” into this text and interpret or preach it as saying, “God’s will is for you to be entirely sanctified.” But “sanctification” in this text clearly means living a holy life: abstaining from sexual immorality and knowing “how to possess [moment-by-moment] his vessel in sanctification and honour” (v.4). The emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 4 is on consistent spiritual growth: “walk honestly” (v.12); “how ye ought to walk” (v.1); “abound more and more” (v.1); “increase more and more” (v.10); keep God’s commandments (vv. 2, 11); and so on. This is what is in view when Paul writes, “God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (v.7). Seeking to live a holy life will lead one to the entire sanctification of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (which is certainly God’s will), but it is a mistake to equate them or to imply that entire sanctification is the way to have victory over fornication. Moreover, every time we misinterpret a text, we miss out on what God wants to say to us. Whatever God means in 1 Thessalonians 4 is more important than any misinterpretation—even if it supports our theological commitments.
Hebrews 12:14 is another commonly misinterpreted text: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” Those who equate “holiness” with “entire sanctification” have sometimes read this as, “entire sanctification is necessary for heaven.” Those who preach “holiness or hell!” (meaning “entire sanctification or hell”) may draw a large crowd to an altar, but they encourage others to pray with the wrong motives. One should pray to be entirely sanctified from a position of security in Christ, an attitude of gratitude, and a desire to please God in everything. Some have told me their stories of going to an altar countless times because they were afraid of going to hell and determined to meet someone else’s unrealistic expectations; finally, they gave up on the doctrine of entire sanctification altogether. After speaking to many who were raised in the Holiness tradition, I’ve learned that this was a common occurrence in the past. However, it has not ruined my confidence in the real relationship of entire sanctification to which the NT authors repeatedly call believers. It has only strengthened my commitment to preach in a careful, clear, balanced, and truly Wesleyan way.
It is difficult for someone to pray to be entirely sanctified until he or she sees that Scripture teaches it. Thus, the cause of true Scriptural holiness is hindered by theological carelessness.
Thoughtful Bible readers recognize that Scripture does not support the way that “sanctified” is sometimes used. This creates confusion and causes some to assume that the doctrine is not taught in the Bible at all. It is difficult for someone to pray to be entirely sanctified until he or she sees that Scripture teaches it. Thus, the cause of true Scriptural holiness is hindered by theological carelessness.
4. It undermines our theological credibility. There are two equal but opposite errors into which we can fall: (1) never fully committing to our own tradition and thus being in bondage to the pressure of other traditions; (2) disregarding other traditions and taking no thought for our theological credibility. In both cases, the church suffers. Every tradition needs to put its best foot forward and listen carefully to the concerns of others in the body. The careless way that we use the word “sanctified” sounds strange and foolish to other traditions—as it should. It’s not biblically faithful, it disregards the concerns of our theological founder (Wesley), and it adds confusion to the biblical doctrine of entire sanctification. If we believe in entire sanctification and want every other Christian to do the same, why would we continue to speak carelessly about it?
No matter how entrenched this confused verbiage is in some Wesleyan circles, it needs to be rooted out. Here are a few simple steps that can help to correct this issue once and for all:
- Follow Wesley’s advice and always add “entirely” or “wholly” when referring to entire sanctification. Do not say, “God saved me and sanctified me”; say, “God saved me and entirely sanctified me”—or testify using other scriptural language.
- In general, do not endorse quotations that make this mistake—no matter how treasured the voices are in your tradition. If you cite someone who conflates sanctification and entire sanctification, add a qualification in the text or in a footnote. Quoting affirmatively from an old Holiness writer who was sincere but theologically careless is certain to perpetuate the same carelessness in the future. Don’t share quotes on social media that make this conflation.
- Address the issue in your circle of influence. If you are a pastor, mention it to your congregation; if you are a conference leader, address it at your next conference; if you are a teacher, take a few minutes in the classroom to clear up the issue. It takes courage, but it’s the right thing to do. Consider sharing the four reasons given above.
The cause of Scriptural holiness—holiness of heart and life—will be greatly strengthened when we are robust in our proclamation and careful in our formulation.