We’ve all noticed that children typically bear a family resemblance. That’s true in the family of God, too. It’s called Christlikeness.
Being more like Christ is the goal of every Christian, but what does that look like and how is it even possible? Think about the nature of God. Can we be like him? He’s all-powerful, and we’re not. He’s all-knowing, and we’re not. He’s everywhere at once … well, you get the idea. No, of course God isn’t sharing those qualities with us, and with good reason! But God is also holy, and he does choose to share that quality with us. In fact, he commands it. His call is for us to be holy like him (1 Peter 1:15-16). It’s a call to Christlikeness.
Holiness is a major theme of the Bible. The people of God in the Old Testament had holy days like the Sabbath and religious festivals, and they had holy spaces, like the tabernacle and the temple. They even lived in the Holy Land. That makes sense, because to be holy means to be set apart for God’s use. (The biblical word for that is sanctification.) God also told them that they themselves were to be holy, a holy people set apart for him.
In the New Testament, we learn more about this amazing privilege. Sanctification is the work of God’s Holy Spirit within us, a work that begins at our spiritual conversion. When we repent of our sins and place our faith in Jesus Christ, we are saved. This salvation not only provides forgiveness for our sins, but the Holy Spirit also begins to change our hearts. In what is called “initial sanctification,” the setting-apart process begins.
But despite the joy of being forgiven, what we usually experience is an up-and-down spiritual life, isn’t it? It’s easy to fall back into old habits, old behaviors, and old attitudes. Christ may be Lord of some aspects of our lives but not Lord of all. We may be growing spiritually … a process called “progressive sanctification” … but not as much as we’d like or we need.
Many accept this as the normal Christian life, but John Wesley (1703-1791) disagreed. A minister in the Church of England, a former teaching fellow at Oxford University, and the founder of the Methodist movement, Wesley was convinced that God can do more with our sin than just keep forgiving it. His study of the Bible and of the writings of great Christians throughout history, along with his observation of the way the Spirit worked in his life and the lives of those around him, convinced him that God not only calls sinners to repentance but also calls believers to a deeper life of faith, a life that looks more like Jesus.
In conversion, God forgives our willful acts of sin. In “entire sanctification,” he deals with the problem behind the problem — the sinful nature in us that produces those acts of sin — and he cleanses what sin had contaminated within us. We’re finally free to be in right relationship with God and with others. That’s why entire sanctification has been called “the second half of the gospel.”
Wesley’s bishop called him on the carpet and demanded that he stop preaching something which the bishop believed to be true only for elite Christians. Surely such a level of spiritual power and purity was out of the reach of ordinary believers, he declared! But Wesley insisted that the Bible calls every believer to this level of living. Despite the bishop’s objections, he continued to preach it not only in churches and chapels but anywhere he could find an audience. The message of holiness of heart and life produced major spiritual revivals in both England and America and today is the experience of countless people in many different denominations including The Wesleyan Church.
When Wesley was asked to unpack this message and explain what he meant, he quoted what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment: loving God and loving others. Christian holiness, Wesley said, was simply love — a new level of love made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
In answer to those who said such an experience was available to us only in heaven, Wesley pointed out that God’s call to live that kind of Christ-centered life was given to his people here and now. Heaven holds infinite blessings, of course, but this work of God’s grace in us is a sneak preview of heaven that blesses us (and others through us) on our way there.
God’s cleansing of sin’s rebellious spirit in our hearts, God’s love unleashed in our lives and God’s power for effective service in the church and the world — that’s what Paul had in mind when he prayed that the first-century Christians to whom he was writing would be sanctified “through and through” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). It doesn’t mean we’ll be free from temptation, mistakes, human weakness and other shortcomings; that level of freedom does wait for us in heaven. It certainly doesn’t mean that we’ve “arrived” and need no further growth. But it does mean that we’ll be able to serve him without the divided heart that hindered us before, and that will lead to greater growth than ever.
To settle for less than the best God has for us would be like the fellow who saved up for a Mediterranean cruise. It took every dollar he had, so instead of paying for meals on board ship, he ate sandwiches in his cabin every day. Too late he discovered that meals were included in his ticket. He could have been dining at the captain’s table! He was living beneath his privileges.
So are we, if we settle for an up-and-down Christian walk when we could be living in spiritual victory.
Dr. Bob Black is a third-generation Wesleyan minister and professor emeritus of Religion at Southern Wesleyan University, Central, South Carolina.
Questions for reflection and conversation
- “Initial sanctification” begins to set us apart by changing our hearts. Think back to your first days as a believer in Jesus Christ. What are some ways you realized the Holy Spirit was changing your heart?
- Entire sanctification has been called “the second half of the gospel.” Why is this term used? What occurs during the process of entire sanctification?
- What simple term did John Wesley use to describe Christian holiness? How do you display that in your daily walk?
- The apostle Paul spurs us on to be sanctified “through and through” in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. What does this look like in the life of a Christian today?
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.