Holiness is not a state

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.

13 thoughts on “Holiness is not a state

  1. Hi Rob,

    It is definitely a later development, although it has its roots in some of Wesley’s teaching, taken out of context. I think there are times when Wesley says things that seem to imply a “second-blessing” theology, if you read him through that lens, but his greater emphasis was on the dynamic constant growth aspect of holiness. He refused to exclude the possibility of an instantaneous transition to Christian perfection, and that’s where he left the door open to this second-blessing idea. In the nineteenth century, a version of Wesley’s emphasis on entire sanctification was joined with teaching on baptism in the Spirit, and this led to a strong emphasis on the instantaneous experience of entire sanctification (and strong emphasis on the idea of holiness as a state we enter into).

    So, do I believe in “the second blessing”? Not in the sense that there is an instantaneous transition to a “state” called “holiness” that every Christian ought to experience.

    I would affirm that lots of people have such experiences of crisis and blessing, which propel them to dramatic growth in sanctification. But is this what “holiness” is, by definition? Is there one defining moment of transition to holiness which we all must experience? I can’t believe that, for many reasons. Partly for the reasons I’ve stated above. Also because only a very small proportion of Christians in the history of the Church have ever heard of this “second blessing” idea. That makes me wonder, would God withhold his truth about sanctification from 95% of his children? Isn’t sanctification “the privilege of all believers?” If so, we should probably test our understandings against a broad spectrum of positions, both contemporary and historical. How have other people interpreted the scriptures on this point? It’s worth considering. From this perspective, “second-blessing” teaching is questionable from the start, because of its obscurity.

    Victor Shepherd, a Wesley scholar I studied with, says he’s happy to talk about a second blessing, so long as we’re willing to talk about a third, a fourth, a fifth, and so on. I think this gets at my point. Holiness is a relative characteristic, it’s not a black and white status. There are likely to be major crisis points in the life of someone who is growing in holiness, and these crises can turn into blessings. But the idea that there is one definitive crisis point which serves as the gateway to “holiness” is off the mark.

  2. In relation to your discussion with Rob:

    Does anyone use the “second blessing” notion in a conceptual rather than a chronological sense?

    It does seem to me to be helpful to distinguish “justification” from “sanctification” as concepts. Why not call “justification” a first blessing and “sanctification” a second blessing, even if the blessings are granted at the same time?

    Given that some of this Wesleyan thinking orginally emerged in the context of a “Lutheran” teaching that emphasized justification by faith alone to the exclusion of teaching about transformation, it occurs to me that some may have meant to say God has more blessings, and not been worried about the temporal relationship at all.

    But then again, I know very little history.


  3. Thanks for the quotes from Wesley’s “repentance of the believer” and “sin in the believer.” I’ll try to read them. In the meantime, if you were to give a definition to “sin” as he uses the word in these contexts, what does he mean?

    The forensic terminology (“disobedience to a known law of God”) is not original with Wesley, is it? Wasn’t this already a pretty well established C of E definition of “(actual) sin”?


  4. Hi Jim

    Thanks for your questions!

    Regarding “actual” sin, the reason Wesley’s definition is a bit novel is that he adds the qualifiers “voluntary” and “known.” I don’t believe these were part of Anglican theology on sin, though I’d have to look into that. Most protestants would think of actual sin as simply any act contrary to the will of God, whether voluntary or not (and whether we can even make that distinction is argued by some – do we do anything against our will?), known or not. Roman Catholics come closer to Wesley’s definition, in that they would identify actual sin as a voluntary transgression of a law of God – leaving off “known” but bringing it back in as a subcategory with their distinction between sins of omission (not known) and sins of commission.

    So Wesley’s focus is really on the intention of the human being; he wants to treat unknowing and involuntary sins as in a different class as known voluntary ones. So Christian perfection is being so filled with God’s love that we don’t ever intend to sin (though we still do).

    I would say that what Wesley is talking about in the sermons I quoted is original sin, a term he used, though he didn’t really like it. Randy Maddox suggests that Wesley preferred “inbeing sin” as a term, because he wanted to focus on the corruption of our nature, rather than questions of “origin” and “guilt.” So the “sin in believers” is that corruption which affects us in ways we don’t fully understand. But he wanted to uphold the idea that God deals with each of us fairly and responsibly, and so we can be considered “perfect” in this life because we are not “guilty” for the things we are not aware of or do not intend (even while he maintains that the blood of Christ covers this sinfulness as well).

    I like what Wesley is trying to do here, and I think there is good biblical warrant for focusing on the heart/intention. But I think he left some loose ends with these various definitions of sin. That is, I think we should just call a sin a sin, whether intention/known or not. Sometimes I think he does this, but other times he chooses to call such acts “mistakes” and “infirmities” instead.

    As for your comment on sanctification as a “second blessing,” yes I agree that it is important to make a distinction between justification and sanctification. Theoretically, we could call sanctification a “second blessing” in a non-temporal way, but I would prefer another term, because “second” implies temporality. And the history of the term’s use was very much based on a temporal framework, so that idea still lingers.

    You’re also right that the intent was to move people beyond simply “getting saved” and leaning exclusively on justification as the full meaning of salvation. I think this message is still needed! I really think the “therapeutic” aspect of Wesley’s understanding of salvation is important, and we should keep building on that. Really, when we talk about salvation we should think in terms of regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Salvation shouldn’t be identified with any one of those things exclusively, as it sometimes is.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  5. Thank you for your definition on Christian Perfection; it’s probably the most concise and clear one I’ve heard.

    Besides your own excellent treatment of it James, who are the holiness theologians within the Army today? Has there been any since Commissioner Read? Who have you come across in your readings?

  6. Good question, Rob. I’m sure there are good holiness teachers out there, but I can’t say I have any recommendations to pass along. Phil Needham is my favourite SA thinker, and I know he has a book on holiness (He Who Laughed First), but unfortunately I haven’t read it. I’ve heard of some recent publications on this topic from around the Army world, but again I haven’t looked at them myself. I heard some great papers at a recent SA theology conference, including one from Comm. Francis which I thought was very good, but they haven’t been published yet. When they are I’ll try to remember to send you the info.

    Maybe you’ll have to step up and fill in the gap!

  7. I think you’re right that Wesley connects (actual) sin with guilt/cupability, and not with the broader sense of corruption/defect. In this, he is doubtless more closely in step with Catholics of the time (and Anglicans, I still think) than with Lutheran and Calvinist branches of protestant theology. I think Wesley (and some others of us) have trouble thinking of God as holding anyone guilty or at fault unless that individual has intentionally done something they knew they shouldn’t have done (or intentionally failed to do something they knew they should have done). [By the by–I think you made a little slip in your notion of sins of omission–the distinction would not be on the grounds of intentionality or voluntariness, but on the grounds of its being an intentional action or an intentional failure to act.]

    Sin in this sense is close to what we use as a legal standard. We would think it morally wrong for the state to punish someone who did not act voluntarily or who did not know that what they were doing was wrong. (There is a place for culpable ignorance, etc., but these are still understood within the general framework of intentional wrongdoing.) I think Wesley saw God as a just judge and therefore not one who would condemn those whose failings would not stand up in a court of (English) law.

    This, I believe, is one reason for subsequent Wesleyans to fix on the KJV rendering of 1 Thess 5:23, in their discussion of “entire sanctification,” since that rendering talks about being kept “blameless,” not “errorless.”

    Rob–I am honored by your respect for my father as a teacher of holiness. I would add to that that he was a man of integrity–he practiced what he preached. I am a blessed man to have had such a parent. (My Mom was a fine woman too, sometimes underappreciated. She knew my father, properly admired as he was, was not without flaws.)

  8. Jim – thanks for the note on omission; I was a bit too keen to identify a similarity there, but it’s not about knowledge, as you say, but rather about *not* doing what ought to be done.

    I fully agree with your exposition of JW’s view on guilt / actual sin, though I’m not sure if I expressed it well in my post and comments! He did feel that it offended the justice of God for people to be held “guilty” for unintentional / unknowing sins. He draws on this same principle when answering questions about the possibility of salvation for the unevangelized – he can’t imagine that God would unilaterally condemn all those who’ve never heard the gospel.

    There are also some interesting parallels here with Eastern Orthodox thinking on this question – they too prefer to think in terms of the diseased state of our fallen nature, and are uncomfortable with the idea of “inherited guilt.” Thanks for drawing the connection also to the language of “blamelessness” from 1 Thes. 5:23.

    What I would like to suggest is that the mature Wesley still believed we needed the atoning blood of Christ for our unintentional sins / mistakes / infirmities (though he didn’t want to say we were “guilty”). These are connected to “total depravity” and they have sinful consequences, intended or not. I’ve found a better quote, which expresses this point exactly, from “On Perfection” I.3:

    “The highest perfection which man can attain, while the soul dwells in the body, does not exclude ignorance, and error, and a thousand other infirmities. Now, from wrong judgments, wrong words and actions will often necessarily flow: And, in some cases, wrong affections also may spring from the same source. I may judge wrong of you: I may think more or less highly of you than I ought to think; and this mistake in my judgment may not only occasion something wrong in my behaviour, but it may have a still deeper effect; it may occasion something wrong in my affection. From a wrong apprehension, I may love and esteem you either more or less than I ought. Nor can I be freed from a likableness to such a mistake while I remain in a corruptible body. A thousand infirmities, in consequence of this, will attend my spirit, till it returns to God who gave it. And, in numberless instances, it comes short of doing the will of God, as Adam did in paradise. Hence the best of men may say from the heart,

    “Every moment, Lord, I need The merit of thy death,”

    for innumerable violations of the Adamic as well as the angelic law. It is well, therefore, for us, that we are not now under these, but under the law of love. “Love is” now “the fulfilling of the law,” which is given to fallen man. This is now, with respect to us, “the perfect law.” But even against this, through the present weakness of our understanding, we are continually liable to transgress. Therefore every man living needs the blood of atonement, or he could not stand before God.”

    Maybe there is no issue here, and I’m mis-reading things, but I think this constant need of the atonement is underplayed in our tradition. And I’m not sure it helpful to say that an unintentional transgression is “not a sin” (which W sometimes explicitly states), but that we still need the blood of Christ to atone for it.

  9. Pingback: John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 4: Christian Perfection « James Pedlar

  10. Hi James,
    I have only started started reading your blog. I’m FM, ex-pentecostal. I have been reading through your posts and the comments
    I’m interested in “holiness movement” history . Without being a scholar, I’m more interested in how the various groups put into practice ” a second blessing”. My impression is that most of their teachers were just trying to justify what they were already experiencing.

    How strong/widespread was the “second blessing” experience in the Salvation Army. I know only basic SA history
    Any recommended readings?

    Dave Clements

    • Hi Dave – thanks for stopping by. There is certainly a sense that second blessing teaching was, in part, an attempt to explain what people were experiencing, and the danger in doing that is that you can make one type of experience of sanctification the pattern for all people. I wouldn’t completely dismiss Holiness Movement theology on that basis, but there is definitely an element of that.

      Second blessing teaching was very prominent in the early Salvation Army. The Booths were Wesleyans, and were influenced by Phoebe Palmer’s altar theology. Roger Green has good biographies on both William and Catherine Booth, which would be a good window into the SA story. If you look on my “Salvation Army History and Theology” page and scroll down you’ll find links to early SA literature available online, including books by William and Catherine Booth. There is also an early S.A. doctrine book there, which would give you a summary of their holiness teaching. The person who is usually regarded as the leading holiness teacher from the early Salvation Army is Samuel Logan Brengle – and he was very strong on second blessing teaching.

      Hope that helps!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s