By Dr. Steven Lennox | Apr 8, 2016

“A Sanctifying Context: The Purpose for Wesleyan Higher Education”

Denominational Symposium

May 26, 2014


It is no secret that higher education is facing significant challenges such as economic pressures, changing demographics, and heightened scrutiny by the federal government. The silver lining is how these challenges have prompted reflection on the purpose for education in general and Christian higher education in particular.

A Sanctifying Context

A further question asks about the purpose for schools in the Wesleyan tradition. If our colleges and universities took seriously their Wesleyan theology, what would that look like? I propose such a school would operate as a sanctifying context, seeking to influence students, faculty and staff toward full salvation for themselves and the world.

Sanctification: Becoming Reconciled

We have generally employed sanctification to describe the gracious work of God by which He purifies from sin and empowers for service. While not wrong, this definition is too limited since the understanding of redemption it assumes is too limited. A better understanding begins in the Garden of Eden. Prior to eating the forbidden fruit, humanity enjoyed unimpeded fellowship with God. They existed harmoniously with each other, living as “one flesh.” Though naked, they were unashamed, at peace within themselves. They lived in harmony with the natural world, able to understand and order it. Wesley described the first man prior to the fall as “unspeakably happy, dwelling in God and God in him, having an uninterrupted fellowship with the Father and the Son through the eternal Spirit; and the continual testimony of his conscience that all his ways were good and acceptable to God.” [1]

After eating the fruit, humanity’s relationship to God, self, others and nature was broken. They hid at the sound of God’s approach. They experienced interpersonal conflict and intrapersonal shame. When sin moved in, nature ceased to be a hospitable home. Wrote Wesley, “The life of God was extinguished in [Adam’s] soul. . . . He was unholy; he was unhappy; he was full of sin, full of guilt and tormenting fears. . . . Thus was his soul utterly dead to God!” [2]

From the Garden forward we see God working to restore these four broken relationships. This was why He called Abram, elected Israel, and from Israel brought the Messiah who became the mediator between God and men through the cross (1Tim 2:5). The story of the Bible is the story of reconciliation. This principally concerns the reconciliation of humans to God—

how we customarily speak of sanctification—but includes healing in the other three. “Be not content with any religion,” said Wesley, “which does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil, that is, of all sin.” [3]

Harmony with God fosters harmony with oneself, others, and with the natural world. God promised the Israelites that if they were rightly related to Him, each would sit quietly “under his own vine and fig tree” (cf. Deut 28:66; 32:5; Mic 4:4), untroubled within oneself, unmolested by others, and enjoying the fertility of the Promised Land. According to Paul, j ustification by faith brings us not only peace with God (Rom 5:1), but also peace within ourselves, for The mind of sinful man is death, . . . the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace (Rom 8:6). Peace with God also brings interpersonal peace as we make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19). Complete reconciliation between humanity and nature awaits Christ’s return, when creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:21).

The Bible describes salvation using a variety of metaphors, but Wesley would agree that one of the most important is full-orbed reconciliation. He compared sin to disease and alienation, and salvation to healing and reconciliation, [4] that is, to love. Love, says Donald Dayton, was the “organizing motif” of Wesley’s thought. “The image of God in Eden was the ability to love, and it was this ability to love that was lost in the fall. Justification brings forgiveness for Wesley, but the real point is the therapeutic work of grace in restoring the ability to love in regeneration and sanctification.”[5]

If salvation means full-orbed reconciliation, and if sanctification is the process whereby these reconciling effects are progressively incorporated in the life of the believer, then sanctification should be defined broadly as reconciliation with God, self, others, and creation.

According to Randy Maddox, this was how Wesley understood holiness. Maddox writes that for Wesley,

The proper relationship to God is knowing, loving, obeying, and enjoying God eternally (i.e. participation). The proper relationship to other humans is loving service. The proper relationship to all other animals is loving protection. When each of these relationships is properly expressed, we will also have a proper relationship to ourselves of self-acceptance. [6]

Sanctification: The Restoration of the Image of God

For Wesley, the metaphor that best expressed the sanctified life was restoration in the image of God. “‘Real Religion,'” said Wesley, “is ‘a restoration, not only to the favour, but likewise to the image of God, implying not barely deliverance from sin, but the being filled with the fullness of God’.” [7] Gospel holiness, said Wesley, is “no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart.”[8] Full-orbed reconciliation provides a new identity; the reconciled is one in whom the image of God is being increasingly restored.

One’s sense of identity is instrumental in moving a person from moral understanding to action. Colby, Ehrlich, Beumont, and Stephens contend that “moral understanding acquires a motivational power through its integration into the structures of the self.” [9] According to Charles Taylor, “To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.”[10] One may have many identities—male, middle-aged, white—there is a “meta-identity” which, in the words of Glanzer and Ream, “takes priority over one’s other identities. These identities usually link to larger metanarratives.”[11]

Wesleyan theology, operating with the metanarrative of full-orbed reconciliation, identifies the meta-identity for each believer as one in whom the image of God is being finally and fully restored, “being filled with the fullness of God.” The restoration of the divine image, for Wesley, meant that “seeds of spiritual death” will gradually be expelled in this life, “before this earthly tabernacle is dissolved.” [12] With the resurrection of the moral image, I can once again experience fellowship with God. The restoration of the natural image allows me to exercise my liberty, will, and understanding in ways increasingly disencumbered by sin. Creation in the divine image included the capacity to exist in relationship with others and with myself, as known within the Triune God. Salvation restores the relational nature of the divine image as well. The restoration of the divine image means a renewed capacity to experience inter- and intra-personal harmony, even as the Triune God exists, to quote Daniel Migliore, “incomparably hospitable to each other.”[13]

The restoration of the divine image also speaks to a renewed stewardship of creation. This explains why Wesley spoke often and insistently about being good stewards of our money, [14] why he devoted himself to understanding medicine and other apparently non-religious subjects, and why he insisted on meeting the physical as well as the spiritual needs of people.

Sanctification: Reconciliation through Community

While God is the One who accomplishes this sanctification, He graciously chooses to do so employing human participation. In the natural state, no one is capable of responding to God, [15] but through prevenient grace, said Wesley, “every man has a measure of free-will restored to him by grace.”[16] Humans are now responsible to respond to that grace, what Maddox calls “responsible grace.”

We are also responsible to assist others in responding to the grace they have been shown. The Bible offers many illustrations of how God uses people to assist other people toward full-orbed reconciliation. The work of the priests and Levites allowed Israel to become reconciled to God, but also to themselves, each other and nature. The church not only functions as a cosmic demonstration of a people reconciled to God, but also to each other (cf. Eph 2:11-22; 3:10). We have been called to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9; James 3:18), given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-19), and entrusted with keys that can loose those bound by sin (Matt 16:19).

God designed this work of sanctification to be done within communities. Israel was not only declared a holy nation, but was designed to become increasingly holy as a nation. God gave the keys to the church; He did not create a set for each of us. Communities produce sanctification, in part, because they provide a common metanarrative, a story which interprets all other stories. They also provide a meta-identity which supersedes all other identities and examples and mentors to guide us toward this new identity.

Sanctification occurs in community, in part, through practices within that community. According to Craig Dykstra, practices are more than “something we do. Instead they become arenas in which something is done to us, in us, and through us that we could not of ourselves do, that is beyond what we do.” [17] Christian practices are what Christian people “do together over time in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.”[18]

Wesley understood the importance of sanctifying contexts. He knew people grew best when surrounded by others who embraced the same Story and sought the same goal; “There is no holiness, but social holiness.” “‘[H]oly solitaries,'” said Wesley, “is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers.” [19] He structured the Methodist movement around a series of groups, each serving a different function beneath the one main purpose, restoration in the image of God. Wesley also recognized that sanctification was accomplished in part through “means of grace,” certain indispensable practices such as the Eucharist, prayer, Scripture reading, and Christian conference.[20]

Sanctifying contexts are those communities with a shared Story of full-orbed reconciliation and shared practices, means whereby God’s grace is communicated to us. These communities seek to foster within its members a new identity, one which supersedes all others: those in whom the image of God is being restored.

Wesleyan colleges and universities should intentionally operate as sanctifying contexts. Here students would not only receive quality instruction from faculty who care deeply for their subject and their students, but more significantly, would receive this instruction in the context of an all-encompassing story, allowing students to understand not only the “what” of their instruction, but the “eternal why.” Through the entire experience, particularly through shared practices, students can discover their true Identity. As image bearers, they will also recognize the importance of being fully reconciled with God, themselves, and others. Their moral formation will occur wholistically, spiritual and emotional development occurring in sync with their intellectual development. This experience of formation will reinforce a true understanding of personhood and reduce impediments to learning. This new identity will provide a clear vocation as stewards, allowing a greater understanding of and appreciation for their education and enabling graduates to take their place as change agents in the world and for eternity. Wesleyan higher education should aim for nothing less.

Possible Objections

Making sanctification the goal of higher education sends a shudder up the spine of many academics, even Christians. Some object to emphasizing sanctification because it puts too much emphasis on doctrine, thought to be counter-productive when recruiting students. Making our schools into sanctifying contexts is not about becoming sectarian, but about living out our heritage and purpose. It involves incorporating the gifts God has entrusted to the Wesleyan tradition: responsible grace, an emphasis on love for God and neighbor, and the optimism of grace. In my experience, these appeal to Wesleyans and non-Wesleyans alike. As one student told me recently, she came to IWU knowing nothing of sanctification but has tried to learn what it means. “[N]ow that I have a grasp on it,” she said, “I completely agree … that should be our main focus here at the University.”

Others prefer a more generic Christian environment, believing that doctrine stifles inclusivity. My impression is that schools which move from a doctrinal position toward generic evangelicalism keep moving until they arrive at another doctrinal position. Generic evangelicalism is a vacuum waiting for something to fill it, it is a transfer station between destinations. “All institutions,” write Glanzer and Ream, “share in some tradition regardless of whether such a relationship is conscious or not.” These authors recommend schools embrace their tradition, creating “a hospitable climate in which students come to appreciate the particulars of a given place.” [21]

Far from putting a school at a disadvantage, celebrating one’s tradition can be very beneficial. Robert Benne contends such an emphasis helps schools resist secularization. When dealing with outside groups, denominational affiliation should be helpful in matters related to behavioral standards. As to inclusivity, the heart of the objection, this should not be a problem at a Wesleyan college or university. Our theology is irenic, predisposed toward bridge-building. We follow in the footsteps of Wesley who wrote, “as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” [22]

Another objection concerns the compatibility of academic freedom in a creedal institution. [23] Aside from the fact that the American Association of University Professors finds no inconsistency between academic freedom and confessional requirements, so long as the latter are clear at the point of hiring, this objection misunderstands academic freedom. Although now understood to refer only to freedom for the individual professor, the term originally meant freedom for the academic community.[24] This means freedom for the faculty, but also for the student to seek truth without restraint. Freedom for the academic community means the institution operates unhindered from outside intervention, but also from internal erosion brought about by neglecting the tradition and sacrifice that preserved the institution until the present.

Many naively define academic freedom to include only freedom from limitations. The scholarly community in general and each discipline in particular works with very clear limitations, such as academic honesty and the scientific method. [25] All faculty members work out of prior commitments. The same is true for colleges and universities. “All social institutions,” writes Christian Smith, “are embedded within and give expression to moral orders that generate, define and govern them.”[26] Glanzer and Ream are more succinct: “secularity does not equal neutrality. In essence, no morally neutral universities exist.”[27]

Far from restricting freedom, prior commitments permit it by providing a basis for agreement and a perspective from which to see connections across disciplines. [28] One scholar compares doctrinal commitments to an ecosystem, “where new relationships take form, an important place of exchange and growth as an individual chooses to respond to another.”[29] Another compares doctrinal boundaries to human skin, which not only protects the body but also facilitates sensitive exchange with the outside world.[30] “The ecclesially based university,” says Cavanaugh, “is better equipped to promote freedom precisely because it has a fuller understanding of the quest for truth. Freedom and truth are the true colors under which the ecclesially based university sails.”[31]

Some object to this project because they see sanctification as the work of the Church. I agree that the local church is the ultimate sanctifying context, which is why I am calling for our schools to become “a,” not “the” sanctifying context. The Wesleyan and Pietistic traditions saw God at work through ecclesiolae in ecclesiae—little “churches” within the larger church. While not suggesting our colleges and universities replace the local church, I believe they can be “little churches,” supplementing the work of the church by shaping a specific demographic of current and future leaders.

Some may object that this approach diverts higher education from its true purpose, the intellectual formation of students. This objection misses the fact that thinking occurs in conjunction with our affect. [32] It also ignores the formation already taking place, intentionally or otherwise, in classrooms, residence halls, fraternities and sororities, and advising sessions. All education, writes Parker Palmer, “not just religious education, or education that has some kind of formal theological content, but all education,” is either producing spiritual formation or deformation.[33]

Some are willing to encourage moral formation, but would prefer something less religious. They would rather we create students who are good citizens or liberally educated. These are good goals, but they aim too low. Our students were not created to be just liberated learners or good citizens of a liberal democracy. They were created to love God eternally. We betray our heritage and our students if we suggest anything less.

Thankfully, our theology does not require a choice between fitting our students for earth or heaven. No theological tradition is more optimistic about the capacity for God’s grace to transform us and society through us. By giving us a meta-identity beyond earth, we can do the greatest good on earth.

Will making our schools sanctifying contexts sideline the significant minority of students who profess faith in another religion or in no religion? Since we believe spiritual formation begins prior to conversion through prevenient grace, even non-Christian students can benefit from a sanctifying context. Some of Wesley’s societies only required that participants needed to “(1) avoid evil, (2) do good, and (3) employ the means of grace.” [34] These requirements sound like the code of conduct at our schools. By submitting themselves to the disciplines and practices of a sanctifying context, non-Christian students can still benefit.

Some might be concerned that an emphasis on sanctification puts us on a collision course with our accrediting bodies. No doubt, expressing theological truths in language acceptable to our liberal democratic climate [35] and assessing spirituality do present challenges, but they are challenges that can be overcome. We can demonstrate that we are providing (humanly speaking) the necessary inputs to help students experience full-orbed reconciliation. We can also demonstrate outputs. Christian character, while difficult to quantify, is easy to recognize. Jesus said His disciples would be known by their fruit, chiefly love (Matt 7:16). We can measure how well our students increasingly possess the virtues which flow out of love for God and others.

That this call to turn the university into a sanctifying context is coming from Wesleyans may be too much for some. “This is just what we’d expect from you holiness people. You never did like higher education. Your religion has always been more about the heart than the head.” Admittedly, the holiness movement has not always been supportive of a college education. Back in the 90’s, I received a letter from the eminent church historian, Mark Noll, asking for a copy of my dissertation on biblical interpretation in the American holiness movement of the late nineteenth and early 20th century. I was flattered until I realized this was for his work on anti-intellectualism among Evangelicals. For a long time our tradition has agreed with the late 19th century holiness preacher who criticized exegesis as “exit-Jesus.” When we did start schools, they were unaccredited Bible institutes to train preachers.

The long view, however, tells a fuller story. Certainly Wesley, and for the most part, Wesley’s heirs, valued higher education. [36] An increasing number of denominations in the Wesleyan tradition now require or recommend graduate theological education. Yesterday’s Bible Institutes have become accredited colleges and universities. The anti-intellectual rhetoric was a rejection, not of education per se, but of education focused on the head which neglected the heart.

As to the criticism that our tradition has emphasized the heart: guilty as charged. Wesleyans insist it is not enough to love the Lord with our minds; we must love Him with our heart, soul, and strength as well. One of Charles Wesley’s hymns expressed it well:

Unite the pair so long disjoined,

Knowledge and vital piety

Learning and holiness combined,

And truth and love let all men see.

Maintaining this combination of “knowledge and vital piety” is one of the chief distinctions of Wesleyan higher education and what a sanctifying context seeks to perpetuate.

If we are right that college is necessarily a time of formation and that all formation has spiritual implications, Christian higher education provides an optimal context for true spiritual formation. Truth can be made explicit, with faculty and staff available to help students navigate the process. Critical thinking can be developed in our students but to a more eternal end, in Richard Mouw’s words: “to equip persons who are faithful to the truth of the gospel.” [37]

All students are confronted with the big questions, but those at Christian colleges can also discover the time-honored answers provided by their faith. At Christian colleges they can be called to dream dreams more worthy than economic success or personal fulfillment. Instead of taking up their career, Christian higher education will call them to take up their cross. Christian colleges and universities, writes Michael Budde, should “make participants more fully into disciples shaped by the priorities and practices of Jesus Christ; to help them discern their vocation as members of the transnational body of Christ; and to contribute to the mission of the church—to help the church serve more fully and faithfully as a foretaste of the promised kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.” [38] Glanzer and Ream express it well: students at Christian colleges and universities will be challenged to place their vocation “within the larger purpose of the Church which involves the redemptive development of humans and human creations.”[39]

As much as I appreciate the potential of Christian higher education as expressed in these sentiments, something is missing. Students do need to find their vocation and become instruments of justice and redemption, but they were made for something more: to be “filled with the fullness of God.” [40] With our theological resources, Wesleyan colleges and universities are ideally place to help our students experience the answer to Wesley’s prayer:

Heavenly Adam, life Divine,

Change my nature into Thine;

Move and spread throughout my soul,

Actuate and fill the whole.

The Student Becoming Sanctified

What will happen to a student if he or she were educated in a sanctifying context? Perhaps nothing. We cannot guarantee spiritual formation any more than we can guarantee emotional or intellectual formation. But what might happen if we operate our schools on this model and if a student fully exercises responsible grace in the power of the Holy Spirit? Essentially, that student would discover a meta-identity of one in whom the divine image is being increasingly realized. Immersed in a context where all their activities—curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular—were undertaken with the primary goal of reinforcing this meta-identity should yield significant benefits:

  • This student would be able to identify and critically assess the other identities laying claim to her and place them where they belong, beneath the meta-identity of the divine image.
  • The student’s actions would be increasingly characterized by love for God and others, these being the clearest marks of what it means to be created in God’s image.
  • Loving God would allow this student to more fully experience and more properly respond to God, living in light of ever deepening reconciliation.
  • Loving God would allow this student to experience the restoration of other aspects of the divine image, such as reason, will, and liberty. A sanctifying context may not increase our student’s test scores, but it will certainly increase his humility and self-knowledge and help remove obstacles erected and bolstered by intra- and interpersonal alienation. Faith can purify his motives for learning, making it less about his glory and more an act of love to God. If Mark Tennant is right that “Learning requires an act of faith in the future,”[41] then faith in our ultimate future—complete and full-orbed reconciliation—should profoundly impact the student’s potential for learning.
  • This student will experience greater love for others. Because her central identity is that of a person made in God’s image, she will be more inclined to welcome all others, since all share that image. Even if their identities may differ from hers—culturally, ethnically, religiously, sexually—she will know that when it comes to the identity that matters most, we are all children of our heavenly father. It was to this common reality that Wesley appealed in his arguments against slavery: “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature,”[42] which for Wesley, was inseparable with the moral law established at creation.[43] To those who share with her the common convictions that unite Christians, she will say with Wesley, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”[44] Not content with being reconciled, our student will be better able to hear and respond to the cries of the world and will be at heart a peacemaker.
  • This student will experience increasing reconciliation with himself. Students arrive on campus out of sync with themselves. Beside the developmental challenges of early young adulthood, they also face the discomfort of leaving home, the cognitive dissonance inherent in education, the pressure of deciding what to believe, and anxiety over what to do with one’s life. The student educated in a sanctifying context would understand he was created in God’s image, with great worth. This self-awareness will help him love himself for God’s sake, and accept the love God makes available. This sanctifying context will liberate him to experience what it means to live at peace with oneself, free of shame, full of joy.
  • This student will take his rightful place in the created order, claiming his vocation as a steward of creation. His identity clear, he will embrace his studies as preparation for stewardship. In his general education classes he would seek to learn how the world works and how to move with the grain of the universe toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. Whatever his profession, he will pursue it as an expression of his vocation to foster full-orbed reconciliation in the world, to play God on God’s behalf. Even as he changes jobs ten plus times through his working life,[45] he will be equipped to increasingly discover how God might use him to foster blessing and undo the curse. He would understand how his God-given vocation helps him live out the divine image.
  • This student will maintain a life-long loyalty to the community of faith and to the community’s practices in the local church, having discovered how essential they were in her spiritual formation. She will also be instrumental in helping others to experience the grace of God in the church and its practices.
  • In a sanctifying context, this student will learn to live so he knows how to die. This, says Monika Hellwig, should be the goal of higher education, not to prepare students to graduate, but to die.[46] The meta-identity that results from education in a sanctifying context not only allows this student to live his life well, but prepares him for his real purpose: to eternally love with perfect love the God whose image he now fully shares.

A Whole-Campus Approach

For Wesleyan colleges and universities to be sanctifying contexts, the whole campus must be involved, reinforcing our common Story and Identity through faithful practices both inside and outside the classroom. Faculty, staff, curriculum, policies, chapel, residence life, sports, administration, trustees—all aspects of Wesleyan higher education must aim toward this goal. [47] So too must all external constituencies, such as denominational officials, local church pastors, and congregations.


Essential in the process of cultivating this sanctifying context is a fully supportive and engaged faculty. They do not need to do all the heavy lifting to maintain such a context, but it will not happen without their support. Finding and developing this kind of faculty is one of the most important jobs at an institution, “the one responsibility that should elicit our greatest creativity,” [48] says Nathan Hatch. What an institution and its students become largely depends on the faculty it hires and promotes. Schools need to resist the temptation to make such decisions based primarily on publishing records, teaching skills, or academic pedigree. Instead, the top criteria for hiring and promoting faculty should be clear evidence that this candidate’s calling and passion is to help students experience the restoration of the divine image. Such faculty members:

  • Are fully engaged in their own sanctification;
  • Understand their own vocation as teacher and scholar as entirely consistent with the sanctification of their students;
  • Cultivate an atmosphere of hospitality in the classroom, particularly through the null-curriculum, making all students feel welcome;
  • Demonstrate how the curriculum intersects with the Story of reconciliation and with our Identity as God’s image-bearers;
  • Engage in practices which are both spiritually formative and pedagogically effective;
  • Wisely guide students in mentoring relationships, knowing when to be a supportive challenger and when to be a challenging supporter;[49]
  • Practice collegiality;
  • Support activities, curriculum, and policies which foster the sanctifying work of the institution;
  • Encourage the hiring and promotion/tenure of other faculty based on their potential to strengthen the sanctifying context;

Student Development

Student development staff and programming also play a strategic role in fostering a sanctifying context. Although students attend college primarily for the classroom education, at residential colleges they spend nearly ten hours in the care of student development for every hour they spend in direct contact with faculty. With the right staff guided by the right philosophy and employing the right practices, these hours can be highly effective in promoting the sanctification of students. Specifically:

  • Residence life programming, tutoring, counseling, disability accommodations, and health care should be intentionally designed to help students experience full-orbed reconciliation.
  • Student development should operate with the philosophy of in loco parentis, or some updated version, perhaps cum in parentes (agreement with parents). Otherwise students receive the message that their moral formation is largely a do-it-yourself project, one disconnected from their intellectual formation.
  • Required chapel attendance should be maintained. In Benne’s survey of schools which resisted secularizing influences and retained their religious mission, strong support for chapel was an important factor. Strong support means providing a high profile as well as allocating the necessary time, space and resources.
  • Peer-to-peer spiritual formation should be strongly encouraged. Research confirms that students find interaction with peers, whether formally or informally, among the most spiritually formative aspects on our campus.
  • Encourage short-term mission trips. While some debate the missiological benefits of such trips, they are unquestionably important to the spiritual formation of those who participate.
  • Spiritual formation activities should be oriented to meet the full range of spiritual needs on campus. Those who matriculate with a strong and growing relationship with Christ should find that relationship nourished by a vision of God’s grace that is life-giving and life-long. Those who arrive on campus as Christians with all the trappings of the faith but without having been fully weaned to a faith of their own should be encouraged to take this important step. A significant minority of students come without a commitment to Christ. A sanctifying context would provide ample opportunities to understand and respond to God’s invitation, whether at a chapel or spiritual emphasis service, a team or unit devotional, or in conversation with a faculty member or peer. [50]

Sanctification of Adult Learners

The college or university experience of an adult learner is very different from that of a traditional student. Residence life is circumscribed; “on campus” time might only be on-line. Compared to traditional students, a higher percentage of non-traditional learners are nominally religious or even irreligious, and are on average considerably older.

Notwithstanding these differences, Wesleyan adult education programs can also become sanctifying contexts. Because we understand that spiritual formation both precedes and follows conversion, even the older or irreligious non-traditional students can experience God’s grace through their education. To say that spiritual formation can only occur in traditional students denies our claims of God’s optimistic grace. Producing sanctifying contexts in adult education will require Wesleyan institutions to attend carefully to the following areas:

  • Hire the right faculty. Faculty are the principal contact for non-traditional students, but such contacts are less frequent and possibly only virtual. This makes it more important, not less, that schools hire the right faculty and adjuncts. Once hired, they should be trained to make the most of every interaction. Classrooms should regularly allow adult students to analyze the spiritual implications of their own experiences and should employ pedagogically and spiritually formative practices.[51]
  • Attend to the curriculum being used. All curricula has a theological basis, particularly in its assumptions about who we are as persons, our purpose, our work, and our destiny. Those who write our curricula should be theologically astute and committed to fostering a common metanarrative and meta-identity through what is taught.
  • Attend to the interactions between student and institution. A sanctifying context, whether in a traditional or non-traditional setting, needs to be student-centered. Residential communities have the luxury of redundancy, multiple ways of insuring a sanctifying experience. Since non-traditional programs provide fewer opportunities, each opportunity must focus on what is best for the student’s sanctification. From the recruiters, to faculty, to academic advisors, to business and student affairs, to pastoral care, to those who plan for the student’s graduation, a sanctifying non-traditional context is a student-centered context.

Administrators and Trustees

Administrators and trustees may have less contact with students but they nevertheless play a strategic role in cultivating a sanctifying context. They must:

  • Be careful which schools they use as benchmarks and why. Such comparisons can have unintended consequences, such as the marginalizing of those distinctions that are part of our DNA and distorting our true mission.
  • Courageously allow Wesleyan beliefs to permeate the institution. Doing so strengthens the institution and, more importantly, provides an education that is transformative in the deepest sense.
  • Insist on hiring the right people, especially when hiring faculty and those influential in the hiring of others.
  • For traditional programs, strongly support student development in their work to serve in loco parentis or cum in parentes.
  • Cultivate a loving campus ethos through hiring and policies. All should be treated with grace, but also held responsible for allowing God’s grace to reshape them in the divine image. This ethos needs to be maintained even in off-campus programs.
  • Develop public rituals which inculcate while celebrating our common Story and desired Identity.
  • Attend carefully to campus design. A sanctifying context can be fostered or hindered by what is built, where, and for how much. The design of residence halls can foster spiritual formation by including multiple common spaces, religious symbols, and a place for prayer. The importance and practice of corporate worship is influenced by the size, design, and location of the space for chapel. Do classroom designs foster hospitable learning environments? Is there sufficient space for students to interact informally with faculty and one another? Buildings may rise and fall but their influence on a sanctifying context will have eternal implications.
  • The most important decision for trustees is the selection of a president. This is the key individual for cultivating a sanctifying context. More than just a member of the right denomination, he or she must be committed to the full work of sanctification in themselves, their administrative team, the faculty and staff, and especially the students.

External Constituencies

Those outside the institution, such as denominational officials, district superintendents, local church pastors, local congregations, and financial supporters, have an important role in shaping what occurs inside. For example:

  • Financial support, crucial now, will become all the more essential if schools decide to forego federal and state funding to remain faithful. Wesleyan higher education must be recognized across denominations as an essential investment in the Church and Kingdom.
  • Congregations must encourage parents to be willing to make the additional sacrifices necessary to send their student to a Wesleyan school. Pastors (especially youth pastors) and church leaders should make clear that education in a sanctifying context is well-worth any sacrifice. Church matching programs are a tangible way of demonstrating the church’s commitment.
  • Hold Wesleyan colleges and universities accountable to provide this context. Ask the hard questions, but be sure they are the right questions. The facts to which students are exposed are important, but much more important are the people those students are becoming.
  • Pastors need to courageously promote the Wesleyan theological heritage in their churches. Without sectarianism, pastors can celebrate the great truths God has entrusted to our tradition, truths offering great promise for transformation of people and culture.


In their study of Christian colleges and universities intentionally engaged in moral education, Glanzer and Ream found many schools contributing to the moral formation of their students. They found none, however, who actually talked of “forming saints.” [52] Wesleyan schools have the theological resources to form saints. We have the metanarrative of full-orbed reconciliation and the meta-identity of the restoration of the divine image. We believe in the importance of providing the community and practices where saints are formed. We value both heart and head. We want to change the world and reach heaven. We have all the theological resources to form saints. Do we have the courage?


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[1] Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds., “The End of Christ’s Coming,” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 445 (hereafter Anthology).

[2] Outler, Sermons 2:508, quoted in Kenneth Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 63.

[3] Outler, “The End of Christ’s Coming,” Anthology, 449.

[4] Collins, Theology of John Wesley, 65.

[5] Donald W. Dayton, “The Use of Scripture in the Wesleyan Tradition,” in The Use of the Bible in Theology, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 127.

[6] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books/Abingdon Press, 1994), 68.

[7] John Wesley, “The End of Christ’s Coming,” iii.5-6, in Anthology 449; quoted in Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 212.

[8] John Wesley, “The New Birth” iii.1, in Anthology, 340.

[9] Quoted in Perry L. Glanzer and Todd C. Ream, Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) ,18.

[10] Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 27.

[11] Glanzer and Ream, Christianity, 25.

[12] Wesley, “The Image of God,” Anthology, 19.

[13] Quoted in William C. Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 155.

[14] Outler and Heitzenrater point out how insistent and consistent Wesley was on the subject of money (Outler, Anthology, 347).

[15] John 1:9, quoted in John Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” sec. 45, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers 1984), 10: 229-230 (hereafter Works).

[16] John Wesley, “Some Remarks on Mr. Hill’s ‘Review of the all the Doctrines Taught by Mr. John Wesley,'” Works 10:392.

[17] Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), as quoted in David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith, eds., Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 15.

[18] Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, “Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith” in Practicing Our Faith, ed. Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), as quoted in Smith and Smith, Teaching, 16.

[19] John Wesley and Charles Wesley, “Preface,” in Hymns and Sacred Poems (London: W. Strahan, 1739), v–vi.

[20] Wesley spoke of instituted, prudential, and general means of grace. In the first category we would find prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, “Christian conference.” The second category includes those “wise and beneficial to do,” namely obedience, small groups, special prayer meetings, visiting the sick, doing good, reading devotional classics. General means are watchfulness, self-denial, exercising God’s presence (Diane Leclerc, “Finding the Means to the End: Christian Discipleship and Formation Practices,” in Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm, eds. Diane Leclerc and Mark A. Maddix [Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2011], 75).

[21] Glanzer and Ream, Christianity, 157.

[22] John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” Works, 8:340.

[23] Hughes addresses this objection, but offers a view of doctrinal distinctions likely too thin to appeal to many from a confessional perspective (Richard T. Hughes, Vocation of a Christian Scholar [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005], 21-41).

[24] William T. Cavanaugh, “Sailing Under True Colors: Academic Freedom and the Ecclesially Based University,” in Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society, eds. Michael L. Budde and John Wright (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 39.

[25] Cavanaugh, “Sailing,” 44.

[26] Moral, Believing Animals, quoted in Glanzer and Ream, Christianity, 17.

[27] Glanzer and Ream, Christianity, 161.

[28] Cavanaugh, “Sailing,” 47.

[29] Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, “The Promise and Paradox of Community,” in The Community of the Future (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), accessed April 1, 2014,

[30] Wallace Thornton, Jr., “It’s Not Just Wrapping—It’s Skin: A Reflection on the Work of Keith Drury and the Relevance of Faith to Lifestyle,” in Call Me Coach: A Festschrift in Honor of Keith W. Drury, eds. Stephen J. Lennox and Kenneth L. Schenck (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).

[31] Cavanaugh, “Sailing,” 50.

[32] Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, Jennifer A. Lindholm, Cultivating the Spirit: How College can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 7.

[33] Parker J. Palmer, “Toward a Spirituality of Higher Education,” in Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation, ed. Douglas V. Henry and Bob R. Agee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 75.

[34] Collins, Theology of John Wesley, 250.

[35] John H. Wright, “How Many Masters? From the Church-Related to an Ecclesially Based University,” in Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society, eds. Michael L. Budde and John Wright (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 23.

[36] Cf. Shirley Mullen, “The ‘Strangely Warmed’ Mind: John Wesley, Piety, and Higher Education,” (paper presented at a Regional Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program—The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, Bethel University, March 20, 2009).

[37] Richard Mouw, “Critical Thinking,” Fuller Theological Seminary President’s Blog, June 18, 2007, quoted in Philip W. Eaton, Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 148.

[38] Michael L. Budde, “Assessing What Doesn’t Exist: Reflections on the Impact of an Ecclesially Based University,” in Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society, eds. Michael L. Budde and John Wright (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 256.

[39] Glanzer and Ream, Christianity, 183.

[40] Wesley, “The End of Christ’s Coming,” Anthology, 449.

[41] Mark Tennant, The Learning Self: Understanding the Potential for Transformation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 125.

[42] Wesley, “Thoughts upon Slavery,” Works, 11:79.

[43] Collins, Theology of John Wesley, 269.

[44] Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” Anthology, 300-309.

[45] Marci Alboher, “When It Comes to Careers, Change Is a Constant,” New York Times, May 1, 2007,

[46] Kaplan, Stacey, “Hellwig: Education Should Be ‘for Practice,'” The Observer, February 5, 2000, University of Notre Dame, accessed March 31, 2011,, quoted in Kim Phipps, “The Role of Hospitality in the Cultivation of a Christian Community of Scholars,” (paper presented at Indiana Wesleyan University Faith and Learning Luncheon, Marion, Indiana, April 1, 2001).

[47] Budde, “Assessing What Doesn’t Exist,” in Conflicting Allegiances, 256.

[48] Nathan Hatch, “Christian Thinking in a Time of Academic Turmoil,” in Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation, eds. Douglas V. Henry and Bob R. Agee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 97.

[49] Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith revised edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 168.

[50] Gene Schandorff, “Integrating Christlike Character: Spiritually Forming College Students,” in Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm, eds. Diane Leclerc and Mark A. Maddix, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2011), 203-204.

[51] Transformational Learning Theory appears to offer helpful insights in this regard. Jack Mezirow and Associates, Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[52] Glanzer and Ream, Christianity, 222.