Are we supposed to holy or perfect? How do we get there?
 Christian perfection? Entire Sanctification?

Part I - Biblical Sanctification

The Bible presents the one true God alone as being the Holy One. He is removed from us, different from all people, in that we are fallen and sinful and not holy. At the same time God makes it clear that the only way any person will get to be in His presence, indeed to have salvation, is that they must be holy. This requirement is seen from the very beginning and appears numerous times throughout the Old Testament

Genesis 17:1 Then Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. (NIV)

Leviticus 11:45 I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. (NIV)

Leviticus 19:1-2 The Lord said to Moses, 2 "Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: 'Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. (NIV)

Leviticus 20:7-8 "'Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. 8 Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy. (NIV)

Leviticus 20:7-8 'You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. 8 'You shall keep My statutes and practice them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you. (NASU)

Leviticus 20:26 You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (NIV)

Leviticus 20:26 'Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. (NASU)

This necessary attainment of holiness and righteousness, the idea of sanctification, was not fully developed in the Old Testament. The giving of the Mosaic Law showed how they should live to please God, but the reality of it was that it couldn't attain holiness and righteousness. Due to everyone's failure to uphold each and every aspect of it, it became a continual reminder of the sin that prevents personal holiness and righteousness. Paul, a Jew raised under the Law, said it well:

Romans 7:7-10 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet." 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. (NIV)

With the coming of Christ, the New Testament makes it completely clear that salvation, right standing before God, has only been through faith. By His grace, through the payment of our sins on the cross, it is God who justifies. Herein a believer is declared righteous and treated as righteous by God solely due to the merits of Jesus Christ. This new standing does not excuse or do away with the concept of sanctification; it provides a foundation for it. The unchanging requirement of God is that we still must be holy and righteous in our thoughts and deeds.

Whether a Jew in the Old Testament or a Gentile in the present, anyone who believes that merely attempting to do the right things will save them - whether the acts of the law, or a host of good works by any definition - they have missed the point. It is God who saves and justifies solely by faith, it is only then that God truly begins the work of actually changing us. As such, the substance of sanctification is God working to turn us into what He has already declared us to be - holy and righteous! God's original plan in saving us was with this in mind.

1 Corinthians 1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ - their Lord and ours: (NIV)

Ephesians 1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (NIV)

The command to be holy is repeated throughout the New Testament, in fact Jesus even used wording that shows the extent that true holiness encompasses - perfection.

Hebrews 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (NIV)

1 Peter 1:15-16 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy." (NIV)

Matthew 5:43-48 "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NIV) [Consider also the wording of Matthew 19:16-21]

This process of making us holy - sanctification - has two aspects in view. Firstly, there is a past tense, absolute, that God has sanctified everyone He has justified. In this, the word means that we are forever set apart for holiness. God has saved us, made us a new creation in Him, and irrevocably set us apart for all that it will take to see us saved completely - body, soul and spirit. We can legitimately speak of our sanctification as something that is accomplished, because God has guaranteed it in Jesus Christ.

2 Thessalonians 2:13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (NIV)

Two Greek words are primarily in view when considering the topic of sanctification. The NT number provided with each definition is the Strong's numbering that makes it easy to refer to a particular word in later citations.

hagiazo (hag-ee-ad'-zo), NT37: to make holy; to make clean; to purify; to set apart. Derived from the Greek word hagios (hag'-ee-os), NT40, meaning holy or holy one.

hagiasmos (hag-ee-as-mos'), NT38: sanctification; holiness; purification; set apart unto God. Derived from the Greek word hagiazo (hag-ee-ad'-zo), NT 37, see above.

As mentioned earlier, while it is legitimate to refer to sanctification as something accomplished, many additional references highlight it as something that is ongoing. This is not a contradiction; it merely shows that there is an aspect that is ongoing. Certainly, what God has decreed, planned and started, He will finish. While the ongoing aspect of sanctification requires our cooperation with God, the emphasis still remains that it is God who is at work in us to accomplish it.

1 Thessalonian 4:3-8 It is God's will that you should be sanctified [NT38]: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy [NT38] and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life [NT38]. 8 Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit. (NIV)

Notice that sanctification is spoken of as something requiring learning. We learn to conform our will to His, to surrender our desires to what God is teaching us. Because we are a new creation in Him, set free to do what is right and good, we are capable of learning to think right thoughts and do right actions.

Romans 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy [NT40] and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will. (NIV)

Renewing is a process, not an accomplished fact, though the fact is that it will be accomplished! God works in all His children, doing so in His timing and through whatever timeframe He desires. Paul had more to say on this subject:

Romans 6:19-23 I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. [NT38] 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness [NT38], and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NIV)

It is evident in Paul's analogy that the ongoing need to serve, to follow the commands and live out the desires of our Master, is a continual part of a believer's life. Some have tried to claim that entire sanctification is attainable in life, that somehow a believer can reach a point where they have arrived and are on a new plateau, no longer willfully sinning. Yet, over and over again, Scriptures refers to a struggle, to exerting effort, to trying, in regards to the process of becoming holy. Returning to a verse quoted earlier, in the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy [NT38]; without holiness [NT38] no one will see the Lord. (NIV) [Consider Jesus' similar words in Matthew 5:8-9].

We need to make an effort to both live in peace and to be holy. This command is given without time limit, a requirement that continues until death. Though it is we who do the learning and struggling, earlier in Hebrews it was made completely clear the source of our victory.

Hebrews 2:11-12 Both the one who makes men holy [NT37] and those who are made holy [NT37] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. (NIV)

By the time we appear before God, we are not only declared holy but we will be made holy. Along with having become a new creation in Christ, this spiritual transformation will be followed up by a mental and physical transformation until we are no longer tainted by sin - and indeed incapable of sinning again. This is not complete until the day we are resurrected, to stand fully made new, physically in the eternal presence of our Savior and Lord.

1 John 3:2-6 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. 4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. (NIV)

Notice the future tense of this passage in 1 John 3, "What we will be has not yet been made known". We wait for the time when we will be like Him - complete in our sanctification, made fully holy; pure in all aspects. In the interim we learn and struggle to not sin, indeed we no longer keep on sinning, for sin is not our identify any longer. Though we may fall into sin, God gets us up, and having forgiven our sin, keeps us going. In contrast, the unbeliever falls continually into sin, or more correctly stays continually in sin, shunning one for another sometimes due to consequences or desire for some type of reward. The unsaved continues to sin; the believer desires to stay free from sin. Praise God that our completed sanctification, our perfection in holiness, has been promised when we see Him!

Before considering a passage that speaks of our sanctification both as something accomplished and as something being accomplished by the result of a past action, another Greek word needs to be defined:

teleioo (tel-i-o'-o), NT5048: to complete; to finish; to accomplish; to make perfect by reaching the intended goal.

In reading the following passage from Hebrews, take note of not only the past and continuing aspect, but most of all that it is by God's will and by the accomplished work of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 10:10-14 And by that will, we have been made holy [NT37] through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect [NT5048] forever those who are being made holy [NT37]. (NIV)

Even as Jesus "waits for his enemies to be made his footstool", a future happening that is 100% guaranteed by His past actions, believers too wait for the completion of our sanctification which was also 100% guaranteed by Jesus' past actions. It is legitimate to speak of both as accomplished and still being accomplished (i.e. 1 Corinthians 15:25-27 in regards to Jesus' enemies).

Acts 20:32 "Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified [NT37]. (NIV)

Part II - Wesleyan Sanctification

John Wesley (1703-1791), father of Methodism and subsequently Holiness movement churches including The Church of the Nazarene, Salvation Army, and the Wesleyan Church, taught a doctrine of "Entire Sanctification" or "Christian Perfection". Wesley, while holding to a clear distinction between Justification and Sanctification as with all orthodox Protestantism, did not believe that a Christian needed to wait until death to attain full sanctification; he held that it could be found in this life.

...that habitual disposition of the soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies being cleansed from sin, 'from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit'; and, by consequence, being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus; being so 'renewed in the image of our mind,' as to be 'perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect' (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection).

"In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: the royal law of heaven and earth is this, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.' The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end" (ibid.)

As to practical application of this teaching, Wesley clearly held and taught that this Christian perfection included...

"deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin" (ibid.)

"a Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin" (ibid.).

Within the various Wesleyan denominations, there has been redefinition and differing views on Sanctification, typically all while still appealing to Wesley. My mail has included statements such as this...

I found your article on what Wesleyans believe and would like to offer a correction to your statement of belief on entire sanctification. Wesleyans, nor those within the Church of the Nazarene, do not believe entire sanctification (ES) to be "sinless perfection." To posit ES in this way corrupts it completely. ES is simply "love made perfect." ... This, however, doesn't mean that we are ever sinless. We can still falter. We can still stumble. Entire Sanctification is also the perfection of our intent--that we want to please God, we want to love him and others with all of who we are. Because we live in the body, we are still fallen. We will err by offending some one with our words (but not intentionally hurting them). We will still make mistakes. (Michael, via email 2009)

Like most, this writer keeps moving back to statements of perfection (i.e. intent) yet denying perfect means perfect, let alone that entire means fully. This inconsistency is exactly what has led to much variance and dispute within the Wesleyan traditions. A Wesleyan writer made this summary assessment back in 2006.

Recently, a group of Wesleyan holiness denominational leaders and scholars issued a Holiness Manifesto, contending for the necessity of a reminted statement and emphasis on sanctification in the twenty-first century. While they offered a helpful critique of contemporary evangelicalism and addressed the imperative of a socially driven, mission oriented expression of holiness, they were not able to offer any specifics as to what entire sanctification or holiness is, beyond the statement that "Holiness is Christ likeness."

The Manifesto is indicative of the contemporary Wesleyan-Holiness tradition's inability to articulate clearly, succinctly, and persuasively her understanding of holiness. One of the reasons behind her problem is that there are many different views of entire sanctification existing explicitly or implicitly in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, some legitimate and some illegitimate, making agreement on understanding difficult. Even in denominations that take their doctrine of entire sanctification seriously, like the Wesleyan and Nazarene Churches, both of which have clearly defined doctrinal articles on holiness, substantially different views exist among their "rank and file" adherents, laity and clergy, as well as members of their Boards of Ministerial Development. (Christopher Bounds, "What is Entire Sanctfication?", May 5, 2006)

Bounds goes on to list the five differing definitions of Sanctification that he has found within what he calls Wesleyan-Holiness. A quick summary of each, retaining his wording, are as follows

A. Entire Sanctification as Simple Consecration (Not Free from Willful Sin or Sin Nature)

The first and lowest view of entire sanctification equates holiness with simple consecration. When Christians sincerely give themselves "entirely and completely" to Christ, when they have surrendered every part of who they are and all they have, when they have offered themselves on "God's alter," they are said to be entirely sanctified. To be entirely sanctified means to be fully surrendered to Christ. Entirely sanctified Christians from this perspective earnestly desire to follow Christ, to love God and neighbor, but still may have strongholds or patterns of sin in their lives over which they have little or no control, may still succumb from time to time to ungodly manifestations of pride, anger, and selfishness, and may still "give in" to temptations in the moments, although this was not their intention.

B. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from Willful Sin (Not Free from Sin Nature)

The second view of entire sanctification equates holiness primarily with freedom from willful sin. When Christians have been set free from willful sin, when they have the power to refrain from deliberate sin, when they have been set free from all strongholds or patterns of sin, they are said to be entirely sanctified. To be entirely sanctified means empowerment to live a life of obedience to Christ. Entirely sanctified Christians from this perspective can be free from willful sin, living lives of obedience to God, but cannot be completely delivered from original sin in the present life. Christians will persistently struggle with an inner attitude of rebellion, selfishness and pride. This is more than external temptation, but an internal bent to sinning that persists throughout mortal life. The believer can live above the sin nature, but can not be free from it, be victorious over it in any given temptation, but will continue to live with an internal struggle until glorification in death.

C. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from Willful Sin and the Orientation to Sin (Not Free from Limitations in Love)

The third view of entire sanctification maintains that holiness entails not only liberation from willful sin, empowering Christians to live lives of obedience to Christ, but liberates Christians from the inner propensity to rebellion and disobedience as well, orienting their hearts in love for God and neighbor. To be entirely sanctified means to be set from willful sin and the sin nature, enabling believers to truly love God and neighbor. This perspective believes Christians are set from willful sin and an orientation to sin in order to be set free to love. However, love from this perspective is an orientation. The love of God and neighbor is the natural orientation of the heart. Loving God and neighbor, fulfilling the two great commandments, comes naturally to those entirely sanctified. However, loving God to the full extent to which Christians are capable of loving may not always be present.

D. Entire Sanctification as Perfection in Love (Not Free from Temptations)

The fourth view of entire sanctification, while equating holiness with freedom from willful sin and the sin nature, goes beyond the third view by defining holiness as perfection in love. Entire sanctification is more than an orientation in love, it is truly having the "mind of Christ," loving God and neighbor "fully and completely," without equivocation. This perfection in love is made manifest fully not only in attitude but in action as well. Christians who have been perfected in love continually love God and neighbor to the full extent to which they can be loved by Christians in the present life. The fruit of the Spirit is made manifest fully at all times in these Christian lives without diminution.

E. Entire Sanctification as Freedom from the Possibility of Sin

The fifth and highest view of entire sanctification surpasses all previous views by defining the state of entire sanctification as an immutable state. Entirely sanctified Christians are set free from all willful sin and the sin nature, set free to love God and neighbor perfectly, to the full extent to which God and neighbor can be humanly loved, and are set free from all possibility of willful sin. Love for God and neighbor is so complete or perfect, defection from this love is not possible, and at time this perspective has argued that even being tempted is impossible. The fruit of the Spirit is so perfected in the entirely sanctified, "works of the flesh" are no longer possible because of the perfection in love. (Ibid.)

Wesley's original teaching, as quoted earlier, leans far more toward the last of these definitions than to the first four. The first time I was exposed to this Wesleyan concept it was through one of my staff who actually believed he had not sinned in years having attained entire sanctification. While some Wesleyans, such as Michael (email quoted earlier) may hold to a lesser position, I would argue that they have adopted a position that is not fully in harmony with what Wesley himself taught. Much of these other positions end up redefining what "entire" means in the phrase "entire sanctification" or what "perfect" means or pertains to in regards to "Christian perfection". For those holding one of these lesser positions, they would do far better to use different terminology that would be less confusing versus grasping at retaining Wesley's labels for the sake of claiming continuity.

An excerpt from a Bible Encyclopedia provides additional understanding of what Wesley taught.

...[Wesley] did claim that sin can be so "suspended or extinguished" that the Christian will not act "contrary to pure love" (Works, XII, 257). This transformation can occur after justification and regeneration and is defined by "a gradual mortification of sin" and "an entire renewal in the image of God" (Works, XI, 402). Wesley did not intend to imply that human beings could become absolutely perfect in this life -but only to claim that a perfect love of God and neighbor is possible as a result of the sanctifying grace of God. This teaching needs to be understood, as Flew pointed out (pp. 326 f), in terms of a distinction between voluntary and involuntary transgressions. The perfect love of God and neighbor banishes only consciously willed sins -errors, mistakes, and tarnished actions arising out of human imperfection -involuntary sins will still occur. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition, Copyright © 1979)

Wesley understood the full implication of his teaching. He believed that Christian Perfection or Entire Sanctification was the fulfillment of the process of sanctification that began with salvation. As such, a person would/could no longer willfully sin. This culmination was an end in itself. The only thing a believer would wait for was to be freed from unintentional sin following death.

In fact, it appears that Wesley normally held Entire Sanctification to happen closer to a person's death, even admitting that the Apostle Paul did not appear to have attained it while writing his epistles! Yet this did not dissuade Wesley from teaching that a person could expect it earlier in life. This perfection is "spoken of as receivable by mere faith, and as hindered only by unbelief" (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection). Again quoting from Wesley's writings, this conversation was recorded - the answers being Wesley's direct responses.

Our Second Conference began August 1, 1745. The next morning we spoke of sanctification as follows: -

"Q. When does inward sanctification begin?

"A. In the moment a man is justified. (Yet sin remains in him, yea, the seed of all sin, till he is sanctified throughout.) From that time a believer gradually dies to sin, and grows in grace.

"Q. Is this ordinarily given till a little before death?

"A. It is not, to those who expect it no sooner.

"Q. But may we expect it sooner?

"A. Why not? For, although we grant, (1.) That the generality of believers, whom we have hitherto known, were not so sanctified till near death; (2.) That few of those to Whom St. Paul wrote his Epistles were so at that time; nor, (3.) He himself at the time of writing his former Epistles; yet all this does not prove, that we may not be so today. (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection)

I find it incredible that Entire Sanctification has been turned into something that people commonly expect to attain early in their Christian life - as such, by Wesley's admission, making them better believers than the Apostle Paul and most others in Bible times and Wesley's day for that matter. Because Wesley had been witness to those who, in his mind, had attainted perfection yet later entered into sin, he held that a person could fall from grace and perfection - indeed loose their salvation - needing to be saved again. Clearly Wesley allowed his experiences to shape his view and interpretation of Scriptures.

"Q. Can those who are perfect grow in grace?

"A. Undoubtedly they can; and that not only while they are in the body, but to all eternity.

"Q. Can they fall from it?

"A. I am well assured they can; matter of fact puts this beyond dispute. Formerly we thought, one saved from sin could not fall; now we know the contrary. We are surrounded with instances of those who lately experienced all that I mean by perfection. They had both the fruit of the Spirit, and the witness; but they have now lost both. Neither does any one stand by virtue of anything that is implied in the nature of the state. There is no such height or strength of holiness as it is impossible to fall from. If there be any that cannot fall, this wholly depends on the promise of God. (Ibid.)

As section I shows, the totality of the Bible's teaching on sanctification does not support Wesley's belief that entire sanctification comes about in an instantaneous transformative moment. Any teaching that claims a believer can love God and his neighbor in perfection, in this life, dangerously sets up those people as being absolute examples and also prevents the one so believing from striving to attain even a greater love. (And how did Paul dare to tell people to follow his example if, by Wesley's own admission he had not yet attained Entire Sanctification?).

Lastly, those who minimize the doctrine of Entire Sanctification by redefining perfection end up minimizing all of God's standards throughout Scriptures. How can we understand God telling us to be perfect and holy if it means something different for us, if it's all relative? One book in support of Entire Sanctification provides excellent illustration of this type of thought.

Question: How perfect is "Christian Perfection"?

Answer: Christian Perfection doesn't mean perfect in the sense that many think. The Biblical word for perfect means that a person is as complete as he or she was designed to be at that moment. A seven-year-old piano player might be able to perform a one-handed version of a song perfectly. When the child does so, his or her piano teacher might exclaim: "Perfect!" However, as that little musician grows up and matures, the same teacher will expect a great deal more. (I believe: Now tell me why? by Howard Culbertson, Roger Hahn, and Dean Nelson)

Contrary to this low view, God instructing us to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48) isn't just telling us to be the best we can be right now. This allows a believer to target mediocrity in the name of "just doing them best I can at the moment". God's standard is the perfect, absolute, unchangeable standard of holiness and perfection that is rooted in His very being - take a look through all the times God's actions, word, and ways are called perfect throughout the Bible, Old and New Testaments.

(c) 2009 Brent MacDonald/LTM. Non-profit duplication is permitted as long as the source is cited.