As Wesleyan-Holiness pastors, each week we are charged with the task of belting out the scriptural message of Christian perfection to a roomful of broken and disillusioned people barely holding it together. It is a message that many misunderstand and one that too often sounds completely unattainable, even undesirable.
Early on in my 13 years of pastoral ministry, I realized that these are not easy times to be a Wesleyan-Holiness pastor. There are several reasons for this, which we share in common with all churches in the West: the increasing secularization of our culture, high-profile scandals in the Church, postmodernity and its distrust of institutions and truth claims, and globalization's resulting exposure to other religions, among others.
Our emphasis on the scriptural experience of Christian perfection stands out as particularly thorny for holiness people. Having shepherded primarily young adults, many of whom were raised in holiness homes, I know firsthand that the very mention of the word “perfection” often strikes fear and loathing into their hearts and minds. They often confuse real Christian perfection with the legalism foisted upon them as teenagers. Truth be told, we have not always had the doctrine explained in ways that were understandable or life-affirming. Even our own denominational history is potholed with debates and arguments over terminology and application. Consequently, we pastors often face the temptation to dance around the issue or to let it slide altogether. It doesn't have to be that way, not by a long shot.
A Spiritual Odyssey
I grew up in a Christian home and a Nazarene church where I heard the message of holiness preached. I know I heard it at camp meeting every year because at least once each week I found myself mysteriously drawn to an altar to seek “entire sanctifi-something.” Yet the experience never lasted, unlike the proscriptions against dancing, drinking, and movies. Later in college, I continued to seek after the second work of grace. In contrast to the debauched life of many college students, mine was one peppered with asceticism and devotion, nights up praying for this mysterious experience and mystification at its stubborn elusiveness. Seminary brought me closer in understanding— but not much closer in experience. It was not until I began doctoral studies in John Wesley's theology that the scales dropped from my eyes and my heart.
I know firsthand that the very mention of the word “perfection” often strikes fear and loathing into their hearts and minds.
Encountering John Wesley so closely, particularly the young Wesley, was like coming face-to-face with myself. That's not to say I was nearly as disciplined or regimented (or tormented) as he, but it is to say that in his struggle to discover the fullness of salvation, I saw my own halting quest. As I began to read deeply the writings of a young man plagued by disillusionment and doubt, I sensed that the resolution of his conflict was also the resolution of mine.
Wesley to the Rescue
John Wesley's early years resounded with the tones of a young man earnestly seeking God's favor and the inward peace that accompanies it. From the time he was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1725 until his Aldersgate experience in 1738, Wesley wrestled with what it meant to be “all-devoted” to God. Early on, it had more to do with earnest moral effort and the use of all available means of grace, reflecting closely the practices and teachings of his own Church of England. After 1738, Wesley’s views changed remarkably in favor of seeing God’s grace in Christ through the Holy Spirit as the only sufficient means of entering into salvation.
This salvation, which Wesley came to a sure experience of in 1738, was more than just a salvation from sin. In his own words Wesley stated, “This 'salvation from sin' . . . is another description of perfection, though indeed it expresses only the least, the lowest branch of it, only the negative part of the great salvation.”2 We may be saved from sin, but we are saved to God as we grow more and more into God's likeness through the process of sanctification. The pinnacle, the highest branch of that great salvation is love, which is the “sum of Christian sanctification.”3 Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection as Wesley often called it, is “full salvation”; it is “love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.”4 In other places, Wesley describes it as one having a “pure intention of heart,”5 having a “single eye” fixed on God.6 Christian perfection, according to Wesley, was an existence marked by a single and complete devotion to God and characterized by a fullness of love for God as well as one's neighbor.
It Finally Makes Sense
As I studied John Wesley's description of the scriptural teaching of Christian perfection, I began to see clearly that which I had so long misunderstood. Whereas before I struggled to grasp concepts like the eradication of sin, the crisis moment of entire sanctification, the second filling with the Holy Spirit, now I thrilled at the simplicity and beauty of it all. Whereas previously I sought terminology, a doctrine, or even someone else's experience, now I pursued God, his love, and that more and more. Whereas once I had felt fear and shame at my own confusion and lack of a “calendar moment,” now I realized the work had already been done and continued to this day. What Wesley showed me was that Christian perfection was not complex, out of reach, or undesirable; it was simple and straightforward. It was single-minded devotion toward God, and it was God's love flooding the heart. Nothing more, nothing less.
A Message for Our Time
A couple of months ago, I was having coffee with a fellow church planter in Toledo. Jeff is from the Reformed tradition and his journey of faith, from a life-of-the-party frat boy in college to the on-fire-for-Jesus man that he has become, is inspiring. As we talked shop and shared our theological traditions with each other, Jeff confided in me that he had an aversion to all holiness people because of an experience with one in particular.. I felt angry and saddened as he described how an encounter with a legalistic, fundamentalist, holy-roller years ago had confused his understanding of what holiness people stood for. And unfortunately, I had to lament that at times his characterization fit the bill.
How many other people have you and I pastored who have been hurt, confused, or disillusioned by just such a warped picture of perfection? How many times has the baggage of confusing language and legalism been the straw that broke another precious person's back? How often have we in the Wesleyan-holiness household failed to examine and embrace the beautiful language of Christian perfection of our theological forefather and shared it with spiritually thirsty people like a cold glass of iced tea on a parched July day?
Today, the pastor in me no longer recoils at the idea of sharing the reality of Christian perfection with those I shepherd. The message of single-minded devotion to God and all-consuming love that is Christian perfection rolls easily off the tongue, and there is very little to misunderstand. The words of another hero of our tradition, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, capture it well for me:
Love takes the Harshness out of Holiness.
Love takes the Incredibility out of Perfection.
Love takes the Antinomianism out of Faith.
Love takes the Moralism out of Obedience.
Love takes the Gnosticism out of Cleansing.
Love takes the Abstraction out of Truth.
Love puts the Personal into Truth.
Love puts the Ethical into Holiness.
Love puts the Process into Life.
Love puts the Urgency into Crisis.
Love puts the Seriousness into Sin.
Love puts the Fellowship into Perfection.
ANDREW J. LAUER is lead pastor at Emmaus Road Church of the Nazarene in Toledo, Ohio
1. Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), p. 92.
2. “On Perfection” Works [BE] 3:76.
3. “On Patience” Works [BE] 3:175.
4. “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in Works [BE] 2:160.
5. “The Circumcision of the Heart” in Works [BE] 1:414.
6. “The Character of a Methodist” in Works [BE] 9:38.
7. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, A Theology of Love (Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, 1972) p. 13.