I was visiting a United Methodist Church and the pastor preached on the doctrine of sanctification. She referenced the affirmation within the Methodist church that Christians can receive perfection in this life.
I’ve been curious about this assertion for some time, and I decided to explore some more. On the United Methodist Church’s website, in the section entitled “Our Wesleyan Heritage,” sanctification is defined, in part:
We’re to press on, with God’s help, in the path of sanctification toward perfection. By perfection, Wesley did not mean that we would not make mistakes or have weaknesses. Rather, he understood it to be a continual process of being made perfect in our love of God and each other and of removing our desire to sin. (accessed here)
The embedded link sends readers to a sermon from John Wesley. In that sermon, he talks about what he means by being made perfect in this life. He distinguishes between what, in his view, is not attainable in this life regarding perfection, as well as what is attainable. Christians, he argues, are not made perfect in knowledge in this life, nor will they become free from making mistakes, nor from illness, nor from temptations. Instead, Christian perfection in this life will lead to various blessings:
First, not to commit sin… Secondly, to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers…
Wesley, of course, goes into much more detail than that, and defends his positions from various objections. The length of the sermon makes it prohibitive for a detailed interaction, so I just want to focus on these aspects of Wesleyan/Methodist sanctification.
Sanctification Over Time?
The notion of achieving perfection over time is something that causes difficulty because it makes sanctification a biographical account. To clarify, a quote from Oliver O’Donovan in his chapter in the book Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice entitled “Sanctification and Ethics,”- “Sanctification understood biographically [as occurring over the span of a life] has given encouragement to a belief in progressive and incremental moral improvement, to be attained with maturity and age” (155, cited below).
The implication of a view of continual sanctification that is progressive leads to the assumption that a more mature Christian ought to also be more sanctified. Yet this may lead to failed expectations related to the Christian life. If one is led to expect perfection in this life, and they continue to find themselves simul iustus et peccator (to borrow a very Lutheran phrase: simultaneously justified and a sinner [or a sinner and a saint, as it has come to be said]), they may lose their assurance of hope not just in sanctification but also in salvation. After all, their expectations of the Christian life are undercut.
It may be answered that the proper interpretation of Wesley is, rather, that he argued for instantaneous perfection. But this is a debate for a different time. (See the book Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice for chapters related to this topic.)
A Lutheran Interaction
The Lutheran Confessions make it clear that sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit (Formula of Concord, Article III, paragraph 41). In the Large Catechism, Luther refers to the basics of what could be considered a Lutheran view of sanctification:
…because holiness has begun and is growing daily, we await the time when our flesh will be put to death, will be buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously and arise to complete and perfect holiness in a new, eternal life. Now, however, we remain only halfway pure and holy. The Holy Spirit must always work in us through the Word, granting us daily forgiveness until we attain to that life where… there will be only perfectly pure and holy people… (The Large Catechism, Second Part, section 57-58)
Thus, a Lutheran perspective of sanctification sees humans as part holy and part sinful. But what are we to make of this? Here, perhaps, is where the Methodist and Lutheran view of sanctification may split most sharply, for the Lutheran will note that what makes us holy is the Spirit through Word and Sacrament. That is, through the taking of Holy Communion and the receiving of absolution, we are daily made holy by the Spirit of God. Thus, holiness is, yes, in part works driven and completed by the Spirit, but it is also and perhaps mostly that which we gain through participation in the community of Christ, the church. For Lutherans, Word and Sacrament stand paramount.
Some object to this Lutheran position, charging Lutherans with a kind of antinomianism. After all, it can’t be that easy, right? Yet on the Lutheran view, sanctification is ongoing, but not in the sense that we discussed above. Instead, it is something that the Spirit works continually for us. Moreover, though the topic is hotly debated in Lutheran circles, the notion of the “third use of the law”–as a guide for Christian life–helps curb antinomianism and turn the Christian back to Christ for forgiveness.
I believe I have more to learn in this area, and I am interested to read on the topic further. I have a book on the topic I’m currently reading, so I’m hoping this will give me some more insight into the fascinating topic. For now, it seems to me that the primary division between the Lutheran and Methodist view here is centered not so much on the concept of perfection now (though that is an intriguing topic to explore), but rather on a view of sanctification through the Sacraments.
Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000).
Oliver O’Donovan, “Sanctification and Ethics” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice edited by Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014).
Other sources are linked above.
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