Toward the end of his life, John Wesley believed there was one key reason God had raised up Methodism. And this was a pretty big deal for Wesley because he could remember when Methodism started.
I want to tell you about the one reason John Wesley believed God raised up the people called Methodists because I believe it still encapsulates the best news that we have to offer.
John Wesley died on March 2, 1791, at the age of 87. Less than six months before his death, on September 15, 1790, he wrote a letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury. Wesley identified a particular doctrine as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”
The founder of the particular part of the body of Christ that we inhabit said at the end of his life that he believed that there was one “grand depositum” or great treasure that God had given to Methodists and that we were raised up by God in order to preach, teach, and spread this doctrine.
Before we go farther, I want to be clear that the goal here is not for us to become followers of John Wesley. I want us to see what kind of life is possible by the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I want us to take far more seriously the victory over sin that we see in Jesus Christ and the way opened up for us if we put our full trust and confidence in Jesus Christ and him alone.
The Christian life can be divided into two key works God does. The first is justification. This is when we are forgiven and pardoned of all past sin through faith in Jesus Christ, by putting our full trust and confidence in the work that Jesus has done for us to be able to be forgiven and made right with God. Forgiveness and pardon are a relative change. When someone is forgiven, they are still the same person that they were before they were forgiven.
At the same time that one is forgiven, they experience the new birth. They are born again. The new birth is a real change. The gift of forgiveness itself brings forth gratitude, thanksgiving, joy, new freedom, and peace. We are changed. And this is the first step in sanctification. Sanctification is the process of growing in holiness, of becoming more like Jesus. It is being changed from the inside so that we come to genuinely love what God loves and love like God loves. Sanctification can be both gradual and instantaneous. It is gradual in that there is always room for us to learn more about God and learn more about ourselves and give ourselves more fully and completely to loving God and others.
The grand depositum of Methodism, according to John Wesley, was the doctrine of entire sanctification or Christian perfection.
Entire sanctification or Christian perfection is when we have grown in holiness to the point that the love of God excludes inward and outward sin from our lives.
The language of perfection causes problems and confusion for some. Wesley himself addressed this head-on. He said in his sermon “Christian Perfection” that entire sanctification is not:
- perfection in knowledge
- freedom from mistakes
- free from infirmities
- freedom from temptations
Entire sanctification is:
- Love excluding sin. We “are made free from outward sin.”
- Freedom from evil thoughts
- Freedom from evil tempers
To summarize: John Wesley was convinced that God had given Methodism this particular teaching to steward for the sake of the world. Wesley believed that we exist so that this doctrine could get a hearing.
Wesley was passionate about entire sanctification because it is biblical. First Thessalonians 4:3 says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” And 5:23–24 reads, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (NRSV).
This is the heart of the great treasure God has entrusted to us.
God’s will is that we be sanctified. And he is faithful. He will do this. Entirely.
The greatest commandment in the Gospel of Matthew 22:37–39 is another key passage. Jesus answers the question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The greatest commandment, love God and neighbor, is one of the ways that Wesley would often define entire sanctification.
Let’s return to 1 Thessalonians. Don’t miss the way Paul’s closing prayer for the Christians in Thessalonica ends: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
The one who calls you is faithful—that is, God—and he will do this.
God is faithful. God will sanctify us.
Sanctification, like justification, is by faith. We ought not to be surprised that Wesley is also adamant that entire sanctification is by faith.
In his sermon “Scripture Way of Salvation,” Wesley identifies how to tell whether the pursuit of entire sanctification is by faith or by works: “If by works, you want something to be done first, before you are sanctified. You think, ‘I must first be or do thus or thus.’ Then you are seeking it by works unto this day. If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are: and if as you are, then expect it now. It is of importance to observe that there is an inseparable connection between these three points – expect it by faith, expect it as you are, and expect it now!” (III.18).
The doctrine of entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is not only an old teaching from the beginnings of Methodism. Every ordained United Methodist pastor has professed belief in and expectation of experiencing in this life. Before ordination, every candidate answers several questions as a part of the “Historic Examination for Admission into Full Connection.” Here are the first four:
- Have you faith in Christ?
- Are you going on to perfection?
- Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
- Are you earnestly striving after it?
The anticipated response to each of these questions is, “Yes, by the grace of God.”
When talking about the treasure that God has entrusted to Methodism, there are two mistakes that we can make. On the one hand, this can seem like putting a heavy and impossible burden on people. I have to make myself perfect? Impossible! I may as well give up. If that is what you are thinking, I have failed to communicate well. Entire sanctification is by faith in Jesus, not faith in yourself.
You cannot make yourself perfect in love in this life. Neither can I. No one can make themselves holy. But there is one who is able: Jesus Christ the risen one! Entire sanctification is about learning to put our full trust and confidence in Jesus, keeping our eyes fixed on him, and depending on him moment by moment to enable our faith and obedience.
On the other hand, we can decide that it is all about Jesus and not about our response, and turn a blind eye to our ongoing sin. We can begin to fake it. This can and has led to legalism in some parts of our tradition, where people come up with lists of specific sins; as long as we avoid those, we are good to go. It is, of course, not hard to see that this does not encapsulate the beautiful and radical vision of holiness that is offered to us in Christ.
We live in a world that is broken and hurting. People come to church looking for hope and healing. Increasingly, they are unwilling to give us much time to convince them that we actually have answers. If it appears that all we have to offer are some self-help strategies to tweak our lives and make them slightly better through the sheer force of our will, they will not stick around because they are smart enough to know that they don’t have to come to church to get that.
Here is what I am staking my life on: I believe that Jesus is real. I believe that he really lived, died on the cross, was raised from the dead on the third day, and has ascended to the right hand of God the Father. I believe that the Holy Spirit is with us now. I am staking my life on the truth of the gospel as it has been received by the church over centuries.
Entire sanctification is about the radical optimism that the grace of God is sufficient for every need. Entire sanctification makes us bold to look the world full in the face with eyes wide open to suffering and needs we know we cannot meet in our strength and have the faith to say “Jesus!” in complete trust and confidence that he is the answer.
Following Jesus will not always be easy. It may even lead to suffering. Jesus embodies perfect love and it led him to the cross for our sakes. The servant is no better than the master.
But on this side of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I do not believe I am entitled to say that sin is more powerful than the grace of God. If God steadfastly opposes sin, and if sin is fundamentally at odds with God’s purposes, I do not believe I am entitled to say that sin must be a part of the lives of those who are in Christ. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! Jesus not only cancels sin, as Charles Wesley, the writer of the soundtrack for our movement, has said: He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free! Amen. Thanks be to God.