Many of the problems with Wesleyan/Holiness understandings of sanctification come from the drive to define a “low water mark” of holiness, by which I mean, a line in the sand – a threshold which we can identify as the indication that someone has experienced holiness or been made holy. This whole idea is built upon the presupposition that “holiness” is a state, a status, or a place where one can somehow arrive. Some of the “second blessing” holiness teachers (such as Samuel Logan Brengle) explicitly define holiness as a “state,” and then go about the process of trying to identify the ways that one can arrive at this state, by God’s help.
If we look back further, John Wesley’s famous “redefinition” of “sin properly so-called” as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God” was part of his attempt to define the “low water mark” of Christian perfection. Wesley would never say that anyone could reach a point in their Christian life where they did not constantly need the atoning blood of Christ. While, in certain contexts, he used the above “redefinition”, he also believed in total depravity, which means that he believed that, as one journeys deeper into holiness of heart and life, one continues to find that sin “cleaves to all our words, and actions.” (The Repentance of Believers, §I.11) Indeed, Wesley says of the children of God,
They are daily sensible of sin remaining in their heart, — pride, self-will, unbelief; and of sin cleaving to all they speak and do, even their best actions and holiest duties. [On Sin in Believers, §III.7, emphasis mine]
This is classic protestant teaching on total depravity, though I think later Wesleyans have, at least on a popular level, not always followed Wesley in maintaining this point. The point is that even our “holiest” actions as Christians remain tainted by sin, possibly in ways we are not conscious of and don’t even understand. However, Wesley felt that one could reach a point of not voluntarily sinning, by becoming so overwhelmed by the perfect love of God that the intentions of one’s heart is made pure. This was his “low water mark” of Christian perfection, though he never claimed it for himself.
It seems to me that this “low water mark” issue could be avoided if we simply made clear that holines is not a state. There is no line in the sand of the Christian life which marks off “the holy” from the rest of us. Holiness is a relative characteristic which all believers possess, to a greater or lesser degree. From the moment of conversion we are being transformed, made responsive to the grace of God in our lives, and conformed to Christ’s likeness. That is why Paul can address the Corinthians as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be holy.”
From a Wesleyan perspective, we can still maintain that it is not right for us to put a priori limits on the sanctifying grace of God. That is, we cannot, in advance, say that any aspect of our lives will surely remain corrupted by sin. What we can say, however, is that, as a relative characteristic, our transformation will always remain relative. Only God is absolutely holy.
Perhaps part of the problem is that later Wesleyans conflated Wesley’s category of “Christian perfection” with “holiness.” While Wesley seems to fall into this “low water mark” trap I’m speaking of in relation to his discussions of Christian perfection, he nevertheless recognizes the fact that “holiness” is a relative characteristic shared by all believers.
Every babe in Christ is holy, and yet not altogether so. He is saved from sin; yet not entirely: It remains, though it does not reign. [On Sin in Believers, §IV.3]
Therefore, the answer to the question, “are you holy?” will always be “Yes” and “No.” There ought always to be ways in which our lives reflect the holiness of God; and yet there will always be ways in which they do not.