“Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace” (Ps. 37:37).
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8).
Dr. Kevin Watson’s blog post “Sin and the Christian Life: A Response to Rachel Held Evans” is a well thought-out articulation of the Christian’s relationship to sin. The conversation that has followed is well worth reading, but I want to narrow in on one particular concern I see expressed in opposition to the doctrine variously called Christian perfection, entire sanctification or perfection in love. Several posters have commented that they see people who claim to be entirely sanctified but they have never met anyone who was.
Disregarding how we can know another person’s motives and inmost thoughts (and perfection in love is largely a matter of purity of motive–it is not freedom from ignorance or mistake), it has rightly been pointed out as well that John Wesley always pointed toward Methodists in his care who had claimed to be entirely sanctified as further evidence of the truth of this long-neglected doctrine, men like John Fletcher of Madeley and Thomas Walsh, and women like Eliza Bennis. We could even look farther into the future and find many figures within the Holiness and Pentecostal movements claiming to be entirely sanctified. Few seemed to live the truth of the claims more than Catherine Booth, the mother of the Salvation Army.
And then there are people, like George Muller of Bristol, less associated with Methodism and more with the similar “Higher Life,” “Deeper Life” and “Keswick” movements.
One might look at church history and see a great many examples of holy living, but not all used the language of perfection in love. William Sangster’s The Pure In Heart is an excellent introduction to a number of Christians of heroic virtue (his definition of a saint) throughout all branches of the Holy Universal Church (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox). Similarly, Warren Wiersbe’s 50 People Every Christian Should Know provides a number of character sketches of various Christians (Dr. Sangster himself is one of the characters so sketched). But neither is a character study exclusively of people who used Wesleyan language to describe their encounters with the Divine.
The question then becomes, does the means of expression and articulation of experience matter? “Higher Life” articulations do not use quite the same language as Wesleyan articulations, but they both speak to a deeper change wrought in the heart.
Within Wesleyan Christianity, can we expect to see many with a testimony that they are entirely sanctified? Dr. Sangster notes that many saints do not seem aware of their sanctity–can we expect that they would claim to be entirely sanctified if their vision is so God-filled that they hardly see themselves at all?
The fact, and the permanence, and the importance of this, it would be impossible to exaggerate. This, more than anything else, makes him a saint. The fruit of the spirit only appears in him in perfection because the whole centre of his life has shifted from self to Christ. He might hesitate to say with Paul: ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’, but others would say it of him. His old self has been crucified. For him to live is Christ.
Occasionally the saint will speak of this secret death. Normally, he does not speak much of himself, but, under the pressure of the Holy Spirit, and to aid a seeking soul, he will tell of it. George Muller did. As Dr. A.T. Pierson remarked of that God-engrossed man, his own Autobiography gives little idea of the power and, indeed, the charm of the man to whom God gave thousands of orphans and more than a million pounds. But, hard-pressed on one occasion to tell his secret, George Muller said: ‘There was a day when I died, utterly died,’ and, as he spoke, he bent lower until he almost touched the floor. Continuing, he added: ‘Died to George Muller, his opinions, his preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends and, since then, I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.’ (The Pure In Heart, p. 141)
And yet, there are those who claimed the experience of entire sanctification, using Wesleyan language, and whose lives evidenced it; men like Thomas Walsh and Fletcher of Madeley. Sangster writes,
In the mixed character of Voltaire–nobility and cynicism strangely blended–there was much mockery of religion. But a contented atheist he could not be. Asked by a sceptical friend one day if he had ever met anyone like Jesus Christ, he lapsed into silence and then answered with awe-ful seriousness: ‘I once met Fletcher of Madeley.’ (p. 60)
The God-enraptured are not normally prone to speak of themselves; but perhaps it is as Sangster suggests and God prompts a few to do so, to encourage those who long to know the extent of what God can do with fallen man. Perhaps there need to be more contemporary accounts of perfection in love publicized from within Wesleyan Christianity, but even so, we should not dismiss the accounts of those who have come before us.
Let us take the examples we have, whether they speak of it in a Wesleyan fashion or otherwise, and remember that every one of their lives points toward one goal. As Sangster concludes The Pure In Heart, “Far above us, we see the saints moving on the snowy whiteness…and we follow after. Any man may climb.”