Theology Corner

Addressing commonly asked questions about Christianity from the perspective of a non-theologian

Theology Corner

WAS PAUL ENTIRELY SANCTIFIED?

My personal journey along the path of Holiness begins when God convicts me that my heart is as black as a lump of coal and when that realization causes me to feel great remorse.  I then request an audience with God and say something like: “Almighty God, I come into Your presence confessing my sin nature and behavior, having remorse in my heart, wanting to repent, asking your forgiveness, forgiving those who have sinned against me, asking for Your mercy, receiving from You the far greater gift of salvation, believing I am saved by faith, the grace of God and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ and striving to be obedient.”  God responds by giving me the great gift of salvation.  Part of this gift is the regeneration or initial sanctification of my soul.  By this gift, the Holy Spirit begins to reveal the will of God and helps me discern truth from lie.  He occupies and purifies all the rooms of my heart into which He is invited.  For the first time in my life I am not a prisoner of sin.  I am free to pursue the path of righteousness.  This is the first day of my Christian life.  This new life is a daily dying to sin and living to pursue righteousness; it constitutes a life of repentance, faith and obedience continually reaffirmed and renewed.  It means allowing my will and intellect to become increasingly aligned with the will and intellect of God.  It means letting the Holy Spirit occupy and purify an increasing number of rooms in my heart.  It means works of Christian love flow increasingly from a heart that loves God and loves my neighbor. 

Sanctification is a journey along the road to holiness.  The journey begins with regeneration or initial sanctification which is the change God works in the soul when He brings it to life, when He raises it from the death of sin to a life of pursuing righteousness.  The journey ends, for the vast majority of us, at death when we enter into the presence of God and our souls are, at long last, glorified; we are set free from the influence of sin and enveloped by the holiness of God. 

But a question arises.  Is it possible, in this life, for a human being to enter into the earthly analog of glorification sometimes called entire sanctification?  How far can I travel along the road to holiness during my life on earth?  Can I achieve, at least for some interval of time:

 

  • Holiness in being and holiness in action
  • Purity of heart, will, intellect and action
  • Perfect love, integrity, righteousness, morality, ethics, and character

 

Can I at least allow the Holy Spirit to occupy and purify nearly every room of my heart?  Can my human will become at least somewhat aligned with the will of God?  Can my feeble intellect discern at least many important truths?  Will the Holy Spirit give me a boost toward the top?  Will He occasionally push me up so I can hang from the edge of the precipice?  Can I be holy, for a while, until I am, once again, weighed down by my own

 

  • Concupiscence
  • Bad judgment
  • Inconsistent will
  • Weariness caused by the constant struggle against temptation

 

causing me to lose my grip and fall from the heights?  Scripture suggests the possibility of, at least, hanging from the edge of the precipice for a time.

 

  • God would not command the impossible.  A mature, complete, continuing response to grace is enjoined repeatedly in Scripture (Ex 19:6; John 5:14; 2 Cor 7:1, 13:1; Heb 6:1, 12:14; 1 Pet 1:15-16).  God would not require holiness in this life (Deut 6:5; Luke 10:27; Rom 6:11) if it were intrinsically impossible.

 

  • God would not promise complete responsiveness to grace if it were intrinsically unattainable.  A complete and mature life of loving holiness is clearly promised in scripture (Deut 30:6; Psalm 119:1-3; Isa 1:18; Jer 33:8; Ezek 36:25; Mat 5:6; 1 Thes 5:23, 24; Heb 7:25; 1 John 1:7-9).

 

  • The apostles repeatedly prayed for the full and complete life of holiness and perfect love (John 17:20-23; 2 Cor 13:9-11; Eph 3:14-21; Col 4:12; Heb 13:20-21; 1 Pet 5:10).  Were they deluded?

 

  • Scripture identifies a few entirely sanctified persons (Gen 5:18-24; Gen 6:9; Job 1:8; Acts 11:24).  A single instance establishes attainability.

 

  • Certain texts that appear to argue for un-attainability can be explained on different grounds (Eccles 7:20; 2 Chron 6:36; Job 25:4; 1 John 1:8-10).

 

Holiness Denominations encourage their members to seek entire sanctification.  Wesleyan candidates for ministerial ordination are required to seek the gift of entire sanctification; Nazarene candidates are required to prove receipt of entire sanctification to an examining board prior to ordination. 

Was the apostle Paul entirely sanctified before he began his ministry, perhaps during his experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-7), perhaps during his experience of baptism (Acts 9:18) or perhaps during his three year sojourn in and around Damascus (Gal 1:17-18)?  If Paul was not entirely sanctified before the end of his three years in Damascus and Arabia, then the likelihood that you and I will become entirely sanctified seems small. 

Consider what Paul said about himself in Rom: 7:14-25:

 

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.  I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

 

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!

 

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.  (Rom 7:14-25)

 

In this passage, written long after his sojourn in Damascus, Paul is using the present tense throughout, Paul has a very condemning opinion of himself and this passage appears in the section of Romans where Paul is dealing with the growth of a Christian in holiness.  This passage is not describing Paul’s pre-salvation life when he was an accessory to the murder of Christians and carried out his mission with great personal satisfaction (Acts 8:1, 9:1-2) and no remorse.  Paul was writing about his post-salvation experience and he was not claiming entire sanctification.

Given all the snares and pitfalls of life, the power of Satan and the weakness of the human soul, the best path for a Christian is one of daily confession and renewal. Even the full reception of sanctifying grace does not imply that one needs no longer to ask forgiveness or seek the intercession of Christ. The Christian life is precisely the daily dying to sin and living to pursue righteousness that constitutes a life of repentance, faith and obedience continually reaffirmed and renewed. Who can say, "I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin." especially in connection with human infirmities, sins of surprise, errors of judgment and moral misperceptions? There are no liturgies of classical Christianity that fail to offer confession of sin. This does not place the way of holiness out of reach for believers, but puts believers constantly on the path of daily confession and renewal.