A Wesleyan Account of Sanctifying Grace

A Wesleyan Account of Sanctifying Grace

Join the Community!

The Wake-Up Call is a daily encouragement to shake off the slumber of our busy lives and turn our eyes toward Jesus.

Click here to get yours free in your inbox each morning!

What follows is an account of the biblical doctrine on sanctification, as taught by John Wesley and early Methodism. It is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024).

Initial Sanctifying Grace (The New Birth) and Assurance

Justification is the work that God does for us; the new birth or initial sanctification is the work that God does in us. The God of holy love who is merciful to forgive us our sins is also good and powerful enough to transform our natures, even the dispositions of the heart. The new birth, as Wesley expressed it, is the gateway to the life of holiness and the beginning of the restoration of the Image of God. It’s the beginning of sanctification. In the new birth, believers are transformed by God’s grace to become holy. Saint Paul spoke about this new life in terms of a new creation when he wrote that, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Those found in Christ begin to love God and their neighbors as they ought. The gift of the new birth is received by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Through the grace of the new birth, the Holy Spirit awakens the spiritual senses so that we discern the invisible, eternal world, and rejoice in the love of God that is now found in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit bears a direct witness to our forgiveness, the Holy Spirit bears a direct witness to believers that they are the very children of God. The work of restoration is made plain in this gift of assurance.

The Process of Sanctification

The Methodist tradition describes sanctification as three distinct movements of grace: (1) initial sanctification or the new birth, (2) the process of sanctification, and (3) entire sanctification. This process characterizes the life of serious Christian discipleship as believers grow in grace, with changes in degree along the way. In this process believers become more patient, more kind, more peaceful, more holy. In other words, believers become more and more like Jesus. Scripture speaks of this when it says that we are called to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). This process is energized by a rich divine and human cooperation. As Wesley put it: “God works; therefore you can work . . . God works; therefore you must work” (“On Working Out Our Own Salvation”).

The new birth and entire sanctification can be distinguished from the process of sanctification. They are not progressive changes, but something new. In the new birth, this qualitative change is the transition from a life of sin to initial holiness. In entire sanctification it is the transition from impurity of heart to perfect love.

The process of sanctification is an example of cooperant grace, of God and humanity working together with God by grace. However, both the new birth and entire sanctification are wonderful examples of free grace—God’s work—gifts to be received by grace through faith alone. Wesley expressed this basic truth in his pithy observation: “Exactly as we are justified by faith, so are we sanctified by faith. Faith is the condition, and the only condition of sanctification, exactly as it is of justification” (“The Scripture Way of Salvation”).

Entirely Sanctifying Grace

When Wesley wanted to clarify an important doctrine, he often stated what that doctrine is not. In his Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he argued that entire sanctification or Christian perfection does not mean freedom from: (a) ignorance, (b) mistaken judgment, (c) infirmities (bodily limitations that characterize the human condition), or (d) temptation. There is no state of grace in this life from which believers cannot fall. Beyond this, Wesley taught that there is always a need to grow in grace, in the knowledge and love of God, in particular, but that an entirely sanctified heart will continue to grow since the knowledge and the love of God are ever inexhaustible.

Wesley’s positive statements about entire sanctification can be seen in the freedoms discussed earlier: freedom from and freedom to. Perfect love is freedom from the being of sin. Justification is freedom from the guilt of sin, the new birth is freedom from the power or dominion of sin, and entire sanctification is nothing less than freedom from the being of sin. Entire sanctification is freedom to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29–31).

Entire sanctification is the restoration of the Image of God in us, in which our lives reflect the Image of the one who is love. The fullness of entire sanctification can be seen in Saint Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonian believers, including his understanding that this completed work is the act of God: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thess. 5:23–24).

In terms of how and when entire sanctification is received Wesley wrote:

And by this token may you surely know whether you seek it by faith or by works. If by works, you want something to be done first, before you are sanctified. You think, “I must first be or do thus or thus.” Then you are seeking it by works unto this day. If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are: and if as you are, then expect it now. (“The Scripture Way of Salvation”)

Perfect love is a gift of God. As a gift, it can be received now. Early Wesleyans knew, however, that this restoration of the moral Image of God is often found in “waiting” (i.e., using the means of grace and the works of piety and mercy).

This is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024). Included are 213 articles of faith centered around:

  1. Section I
    God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  2. Section II
    Creation—Image Given and Marred
  3. Section III
    Revelation—The Image Revealed
  4. Section IV
    Salvation—The Image Restored
  5. Section V
    The Church—Life in the Image
  6. Section VI
    The Fullness of Time—The Glorified Image

An appendix in the back offers discussion/reflection questions for each section. Get it from our store here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *