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 intending 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
- 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).
Wesleyan/Arminians in various denominations -- Methodists, Nazarenes, Wesleyans, etc. -- view the possibility of entire sanctification, during earthly life, as a goal within our grasp. Entire sanctification, like assurance of salvation (See Section 3.14 of Theology Corner), is a tenet which was incorporated into Arminian theology by John Wesley. But many denominations reject the concept of entire sanctification as theologically untenable. It is a hard concept and Wesleyan/Arminians have struggled with it (See Sections 3.6, 4.6 and 13.13 of Theology Corner). Some of these struggles have been documented by John Miley in the following bullet items:
- If direct proof of an incompleteness of regeneration, such as constitutes a necessity for the distinct work of sanctification, be demanded, what shall we offer? We can hardly pretend to any direct or formal Scripture statement of such a fact. There are very definite statements respecting both the necessity and nature of justification, also respecting the necessity and nature of regeneration. On the latter question we may instance the words of our Lord (John 3:6-8). Here the necessity for regeneration is definitely stated as lying in an inherited depravity of nature; but not in all the Scriptures is there any such statement respecting a necessity for sanctification as lying in an incompleteness of regeneration...The assumption of a definiteness which cannot be shown, and which does not exist, must be a weakness in any teaching. There is such a weakness of more or less teaching on this question. The failure to show the assumed definiteness in the Scripture ground of the doctrine is, in the view of many, the disproof of the doctrine. Here is the point where many halt.
- But, while the Scriptures are without any explicit or formal utterance of an incompleteness of regeneration, yet the idea is clearly present in many forms of words respecting the new regenerate life, or even the regenerate life generally; so that the doctrine of such incompleteness may fairly claim for itself a sure basis in the Scriptures.
- Underlying the definite second-blessing view is the doctrine of a common incompleteness of the work of regeneration. Herein the soul is renewed, but not wholly; purified, but not thoroughly. Somewhat of depravity remains which wars against the new spiritual life; not strong enough to bring that life into bondage to itself, yet strong enough to impose a burden upon the work of its maintenance. Such is the first part. The doctrine in the second part is that the regenerate shall come to the consciousness of this incompleteness, and to a deep sense of the need of a fullness of the spiritual life; that these experiences shall be analogous to those which preceded the attainment of regeneration and be just as deep and thorough. The fullness of sanctification shall be instantly attained on the condition of faith, just as justification is attained; and there shall be a new experience of a great and gracious change, and just as consciously such as the experience in regeneration. That Mr. Wesley held and taught such views there can be no doubt…We admit an instant partial sanctification in regeneration, and therefore may admit the possibility of an instant entire sanctification.
- Every effort I have made to define clearly to my own mind precisely what is meant by sin in believers has deepened the conviction that the subject is one of manifold difficulty, and about which there is great confusedness of thought. I find evidences of obscurity in all the writings about it. The most eminent divines are not clear. They all agree in the fact; but when they attempt to explain they become confused. The difficulty is to make plain what that sin is from which Christian men are not free, which remains in, or is found still cleaving to, believers; how to discriminate between the some sin that is removed in regeneration and the some sin that remains. And it is just around this point that revolves the whole question of entire sanctification, both as to what it is and its possibility. (Foster, Christian Purity)
- If regeneration were so thorough as to complete the subjective purification there could be no place for the special work of sanctification…That somewhat of depravity remains in the regenerate, or that regeneration does not bring to completeness the inner spiritual life, is a widely accepted doctrine.
- The one distinction of entire sanctification, as compared with regeneration, lies in its completeness. The work of the Holy Spirit, as graciously wrought in the soul, is the same in kind in both.
- In the doctrine of sanctification, in its truest Wesleyan form, there is conceded to the regenerate a power of repression or subjugation over the remnants of depravity. No other position is more fully maintained by Mr. Wesley himself…Further, the repression or subjugation may be so thorough in sanctification that the disorderly affections shall become orderly, or passively yield to the dominance of the higher spiritual life. The theory of repression certainly does not mean the freedom and full vigor of evil forces which constantly war against the soul.
- Wesley held strongly the view of an instant subjective sanctification; and we fully agree with him, not only in its possibility, but also in its frequent actuality; but his own illustration of his doctrine points to a possible attainment in a gradual mode…’A man may be dying for some time, yet he does not, properly speaking, die till the instant the soul is separated from the body, and in that instant he lives the life of eternity. In like manner, he may be dying to sin for some time; yet he is not dead to sin till sin is separated from the soul; and in that instant he lives the full life of love.’
- The doctrine of sanctification must not be so interpreted as to be made a doctrine of despair to all Christians who have not consciously attained to such an experience, particularly in the definite manner of the second-blessing theory. No such interpretation can be true because it must deny the salvation of the truly regenerate. The truly regenerate are saved, and in the maintenance of a truly regenerate life must be finally saved. If there is any clear truth of soteriology in the Scriptures this truth is there. Through faith in Christ they have received the double blessing of justification and regeneration. By the one they are freed from the guilt of sin, and by the other they are born into the kingdom of God and become his children…That sonship is surely attained through regeneration… Wesley taught this doctrine, and so did Fletcher and Watson; and so has every truly Wesleyan representative who has ever written upon the subject.
John Miley’s chapter on Sanctification (Systematic Theology, Vol 2) is among the best expositions of the strengths and weaknesses of Wesleyan/Arminian theology on the issue of entire sanctification.
The substitutionary atonement marked the instant when God the Son offered redemption from the bondage of sin to all mankind and began the process of setting redeemed souls free from the influence of sin itself. In other words, by the substitutionary atonement, Jesus Christ offered salvation to all mankind and began the process of entirely sanctifying the souls of the saved. Entire sanctification, in this life, is neither impossible nor intrinsically unattainable. But it is sufficiently elusive to usually remain just beyond our grasp…somewhat like the Golden Snitch in Quidditch.