–November of 1998
Defining the Doctrine of Entire Sanctification
Definitions have become very important in American politics lately. The American public has learned that even a simple word, like “alone,” can have a totally different meaning than its normal connotation when taken upon the tongue of one who is affluent in legalese.
Definitions have always been important to people who want to communicate with precision, as well as those who want to understand with accuracy. We have all had the experience of listening to a speaker who used words that meant one thing to us and another thing to him.
Holiness teachers and preachers must be at the top of the list of those who strive for clarity and consistency when taking up the terms we use to communicate our Wesleyan beliefs. In my last article I sounded a note of concern about the lack of clarity that so often surrounds the doctrine of entire sanctification. I’m convinced that some of the confusion has its root in the failure to define accurately and adequately what entire sanctification is.
In preparing my mind for this article, I read from over twenty different Wesleyan theologians who wrote over a period of about two hundred years. I wanted to see how each age and culture expressed this fundamental Wesleyan teaching. It is true that each writer defined the doctrine through the language and lens of his day. Nevertheless, all agreed on the essential elements and presented those elements with the greatest of care for his readers. Each chosen concise and clear statements that were biblically accurate and theologically sound.
The question that naturally surfaces here is, “How did our leading Wesleyan thinkers define entire sanctification?” It must be noted they never defined it in a detached or isolated way. It was always placed within the over-arching goal of holy living. Each would place it within the context of the following guidelines:
First, they defined it in the context of the holiness that God requires and enables man, by grace, to know in this life. Holiness was generally defined as the renewal of fallen man into the image of Christ.
Secondly, they defined it in the context of man’s need, carefully defining the two-fold nature of sin. The nature of sin was best defined as self-centeredness, selfishness or an orientation toward self.
Third, they defined it in its proper context of the over-arching doctrine of sanctification. Generally speaking, sanctification was defined as the gracious work of God in us, through the Holy Spirit, by which He transforms us into the full image of Jesus Christ. It involved the three aspects of initial, entire and progressive sanctification.
In finally defining entire sanctification, it needs to be noted that the term itself is very important. It is a model term that contributes to our understanding of what does indeed happen in our heart. Dr. Richard Taylor says, “The term entire sanctification implies a previous state of partial sanctification, while suggesting that there is a side of sanctification that can be completed just as there is a side that remains progressive.” Each of these distinctions is important. It must also be noted that in defining the term, it is somewhat like trying to define your hand. It is impossible to talk about your hand without talking about your finger, your palm or your knuckle. The finger is not the hand, nor is the palm the hand, nor is the knuckle the hand. But, the hand must have each of these parts to be a hand. Entire sanctification is much the same way. There are several aspects that happen simultaneously, making up the whole of what it means to be entirely sanctified. Taking into account the various aspects of the doctrine and striving for scriptural language, I would define entire sanctification as follows: Entire sanctification is the gracious work of god in cleansing our heart from all self-centeredness (inherited depravity) through the infilling of the Holy Spirit, whereby we are enabled to love God with our entire being and our neighbor as ourselves.
The whole point of this article is to stress the need for clarity. But, I must also point out that the reality of a holy heart and life can only be experienced. It cannot be known by verbal dissection alone. It may be that time or eternity will reveal flaws in our expression and definitions. But let it be said that we gave our best to understanding this doctrine fully and communicating it effectively.