July 12, 2013

Entire Sanctification in the Early Church (#AndCanItBe)

I've often heard that John Wesley's emphasis on Entire Sanctification (or Christian Perfection) was not only the result of his reading of scripture (it was!) but of his reading of the early Church fathers also. I've not had opportunity to research that claim in detail, but I was reminded of it yesterday when I was reading Polycarp's letter to the Philippians and discovered a quote that sounded like it was straight of a sermon by John Wesley. Here's what the second century Bishop of Smyrna wrote: "For if one be in this company he has fulfilled all righteousness, for he who has love is far from all sin" (III:3, emphasis added). The company of which he speaks are those who have faith and love for God, Christ, and neighbor, and this folks, says Polycarp, are far from all sin, not most, all.

There are any number of passages by Wesley in which we could find similar themes; this quote from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection sums it up nicely: "Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin" (18). There are at least three observations to be made as we compare Polycarp and Wesley.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is that both Polycarp and Wesley are happy to describe the believer's deliverance from sin in terms of "all sin". They both, of course, get this from 1 John 1:7, "the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

Second, both Polycarp and Wesley understand love and sin as mutually exclusive. A heart full of love for God and neighbor cannot also be a heart in sin against God or neighbor. If we are actively loving and pursuing Christ, then we will not, at the same time, be sinning against him. For both men distance from sin must begins with love for God. This is why true holiness is never simply a matter of behavior modification. We could presumably go through the motions and do the right sorts of things and still not have a heart of love for God and others. Love is the both the foundation and the fount of authentic holiness, the beginning and the cause. Holiness is not mere obedience; the life of holiness must issue forth from love. 

Third, lest we think such holy love means anything goes, Polycarp and Wesley would agree that holy love produces a life that honors God. We've already seen that for Polycarp the love that is far from all sin is also love that fulfills all righteousness. Likewise, Wesley insists that, "Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.' It is not only `the first and great' command, but all the commandments in one" (Plain Account, 6). For neither of these men does love mean lawlessness. To the contrary, love means holiness. Those who love God will love God's law and keep his commands. So, holiness is not primarily about what we do; it is about who we love. But if we love God, we will do what pleases him. Holiness does not consist in obedience, but obedience always accompanies holiness.

I'll conclude by saying that while Entire Sanctification is often treated as distinctive to Wesley, it should be plain that this is not the case. The core themes of Wesley's doctrine of sanctification were present in early church, and Wesley saw his emphasis on the doctrine of Christian Perfection as a recovery of that biblical truth taught by the apostles and the fathers. This brief comparison of his views with those of Polycarp expressed in his letter to the Philippians is part, though certainly not all, of the evidence that Wesley was right to see his work as standing in continuity with the ancient Church.
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N.B. Thomas A Noble's recent book, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfection, devotes a chapter to the topic of Christian Perfection as taught by the Greek and Latin fathers (chapter 3).

11 comments:

drwayman said...

Matt - Excellent! Some get this concept of deliverance of "all sin" incorrect. They look at it as a behavioral perfection, rather than the real emphasis, which is perfect intent. The will of the heart is changed so that the sanctified Christian's first impulse is to please our Savior rather than ourselves. This takes time, just as all the fruit on a tree does not ripen at the same rate, so the Fruit of the Spirit takes tending, watering and intentionality to ripen.

Thank you so much for writing this, I appreciate the connection with Polycarp. Wesley certainly was a scholar, he just didn't pull ideas out of his own head.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

Good thoughts here. It's interesting to me that the theme of perfection is much more nearly associated with the eastern fathers--from Polycarp to Gregory of Nyssa. Wesley states at one point that it is Clement of Alexandria who influenced him the most greatly. The relevant text is Book VII from Clement's Stromateis, which is his exposition on the character of the true gnostic.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Andrew, thanks very much for your comment. I'm increasingly interested in how Wesley was influenced by the early church. Where does he write about his theological influences?

Also, it occurred to me that I could have been more clear in the post. I wasn't suggesting that Wesley was drawing on this specific passage from Polycarp. I was simply attempting to highlight the parallel language/ideas between the two as evidence that Wesley's interest in entire sanctification was not novel.

Michael said...

Great piece!

I had the pleasure of having Dr. Noble at Nazarene Seminary! I very much appreciated seeing your hat tip to him.

Unknown said...

Matt --

The letter I have in mind is the one Wesley sent to Lloyd's Evening Post on March 5, 1767.

You can find it by scrolling down on this page at the NNU collection:

http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1767/

It would also be available in print in the Telford edition of the Letters. I don't think the two volumes of the letters in the Bicentennial edition published thus far go that late, although I'm not in my office at the seminary and so cannot check right now.

- Andrew

pastormack said...

This piece by Maddox seems like a good resource as well:
http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/faculty-maddox/05_John_Wesley_Eastern_Orthodoxy.pdf


Thanks for this reflection. Methodists rarely account for how much Wesley is in debt to the early Fathers.

Steve Finnell said...

CALLED AND CHOSEN

Matthew 22:14 For many are called , but few are chosen."

Definition of called: Invited or summoned.

Definition of chosen: Those who are eligible or suited for election. Elected and chosen are synonymous.

WHO ARE THE CALLED?

Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Every person who has heard the gospel has been called. The call is not limited to a select few who have been predestined for salvation.

WHO ARE THE CHOSEN (THE ELECTED)?

The chosen are the ones who are obedient to the call of the gospel.
The chosen are those who have 1. Faith: John 3:16

The chosen are those who 2. Repent: Acts 3:19 (Repent means to make the commitment to turn from sin and turn toward God).

The chosen are those who 3. Confess: Roman 10:9-10

The chosen are those who are 4. Baptized in water: Acts 2:38

The chosen are not those who were supposedly, unconditionally selected, for salvation. The chosen have to be suited for election.

THE CALLED WHO ARE NOT CHOSEN.

Matthew 22:2-3 "the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. 3 And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come.

Many have had the gospel preached to them, but of their own free-will have rejected the call. If men reject the gift of eternal life by rejecting Jesus as Lord and Savior; then they have been called, but not chosen.

Matthew 22:11-14 "But when the king came to look over the dinner quests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, 12 and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?" 13 Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' 14 For many are called but few are chosen."

This wedding quest was disinvited. He was called but not chosen ; because he was not suitable to be chosen. Improper clothing was a big deal.

Galatalians 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

DO YOU HAVE THE PROPER WEDDING CLOTHES TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF GOD.

When you stand before the KING OF KINGS are you going to be speechless when He asks; where are your wedding clothes? WHAT WILL YOU SAY WHEN HE ASKS YOU WHY YOU REJECTED IMMERSION IN WATER FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF YOUR SINS. WHAT WILL YOU ANSWER BE, WHEN JESUS ASKS YOU WHY YOU THOUGHT YOU COULD ENTER THE KINGDOM OF GOD WITH BEING CLOTHED IN CHRIST?

MANY ARE CALLED BUT FEW ARE CHOSEN!


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ἐκκλησία said...

Who are called?

Wasn't this answered clearly in [Isa 42:6] or [Isa 43:1] (or was that [Isa 48:1] which specifically mentions the name God called them)? [Jer 7:10-11,14] also mentions it ..)

With respect to being chosen, doesn't [Isa 41:9] answer that?

Perhaps this: " But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off’.

It's still fashion in Christian circles to believe the bible isn't it?

ἐκκλησία said...

That last quote was from [Isa 41:8-9].

Travis Johnson said...

I would encourage you to check out this paper written by Dr. Chris Bounds of Indiana Wesleyan University. It's a great study on Christian perfection as taught by the apostolic Fathers. https://71528a0d-a-62cb3a1a-s-sites.googlegroups.com/site/thealdersgateforum/archives/files/ChrisBounds_Paper1_TheAldersgateForum.pdf?attachauth=ANoY7cqdSRFqsvzDLTg6YoEupSDtetvw64d-NxKEzqhZt-LyYjpoq8mfv5azUlUlBeuwfD_BVE_kGEwpd-ha-hRkintZXbfeZc8zzoZIU4p4v8rWEQHaykEKwwI7KwTqVENeoAz4Se1zd7jYiYu-gCqzJsnQ_HgsiQxIlaEeMAm7Rbae33UdKcuvOn5mtfzOV5lHU81IKIBD0G6d56zXTZIqcuHTjFWB_3G1Nd5MtTGrzP384zgb93aTYkBcgUQCGDylPiCWsgLb5joh8CleWVUJeStWQeH5Yw%3D%3D&attredirects=0

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Travis, thanks for sharing the link.

Matt