Books That Have Shaped Me – Part Eleven
Robert V. Rakestraw
June 2, 2012
“The Benediction Project”
13b. The Works of John Wesley, edited by Thomas Jackson, 14 vols. 3rd ed. (Reprint of 1829-31 edition), Baker, 1979. [All of Wesley’s writings, esp. “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in vol. 6, pp. 43-54.]
This posting is the second of a two-part discussion on “The Second Greatest Truth.” If you read the preceding posting (part one), this piece will be more clear and helpful.
In part one I began to write about the issue of sin in my life after I experienced the new birth at the age of 19. Before that life-changing conversion I thought of sin only as something that would send me to hell. Since I became a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ, I thought quite differently. While I still saw sin, and sins, as leading to eternal separation from God if not forgiven, I came to see it not only as a damning power but also as something that grieved and dishonored God, hurt other people, broke my communion with God and hindered my spiritual growth and usefulness in this world.
As a new believer and follower of Jesus, I didn’t want sin in my life and I desired to live consistently above it. In part one I related my frustration as I tried to find some truth or “key” that would unlock the (to me) tightly barred gate to God’s victory garden.
A major breakthrough for me came when I was reading one of John Wesley’s sermons, “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” For the previous year or so I had been reading Wesley’s numerous writings: his letters, journals, essays, sermons and edited works by others that he highly valued. I had come to appreciate Wesley greatly, and now I was reading some of his sermons for a course on Wesley I was taking from Dr. Thomas Oden at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where I was a doctoral student. (I later did my Ph.D. dissertation on Wesley.)
Concerning “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” Albert Outler, one of the premier Wesley scholars of the last century, said, “If the Wesleyan Theology had to be judged by a single essay, this one would do as well as any and better than most” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 271).
Wesley’s sermon is based—very appropriately—on “You are saved through faith.” By the words “saved” and “salvation” he includes not only our initial coming to Christ for forgiveness and pardon (justification) but also our being set apart to be conformed to the image of Christ (sanctification). Both are accomplished by God’s free grace (his favor and power) as we receive them by faith (God’s work of opening our eyes and enlightening us to the truth, and giving us the trust, belief, conviction and assurance that he will do what he has promised in his word as we call upon him like little children).
John Wesley thought much and wrote much about the issue of sin in those who are justified. Even though new followers of Christ are regenerated and inwardly renewed by the power of God, they come, before long, to realize that not all sin is gone from their lives. They now feel two principles in themselves, plainly contrary to each other: “the flesh lusting against the Spirit”—nature opposing the grace of God. If they are true Christians, however, they seek to overcome sin in their lives by worshipping God in spirit and in truth, taking up their cross daily, and denying themselves every pleasure that does not lead them to God.
Wesley’s following remarks are pivotal. “It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins—from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, ‘go on to perfection’. But what is perfection? The word has various senses: Here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love ‘rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks’.”
John Wesley never used the term “sinless perfection.” He did use “Christian perfection” at times, but even more used such terms as full salvation, circumcision of the heart, entire sanctification and—his favorite—perfect love. While God’s people wait for full salvation by serving him with works of piety and works of mercy, they also need to receive from him “a conviction of our helplessness, of our utter inability to think one good thought, or to form one good desire; and much more to speak one word aright, or to perform one good action, but through his free almighty grace, first preventing (preceding) us, and then accompanying us every moment.”
Wesley then explains the faith that is necessary for receiving the gift of perfect love. “It is a divine evidence and conviction, First, that God hath promised it in the Holy Scripture. Till we are thoroughly satisfied of this, there is no moving one step further…. It is a divine evidence and conviction, Secondly, that what God hath promised he is able to perform…. It is, Thirdly, a divine evidence and conviction that he is able and willing to do it now. And why not?... He cannot want more time to accomplish whatever is his will.”
Wesley continues: “To this confidence … there needs to be added one more thing—a divine evidence and conviction that he doeth it. In that hour it is done: God says to the inmost soul, ‘According to thy faith be it unto thee!’ Then the soul is pure from every spot of sin; it is clean ‘from all unrighteousness.’ The believer then experiences the deep meaning of those solemn words, ‘If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin’.”
Wesley then urges his listeners and his readers to ask God for this gift. “You shall not be disappointed of your hope: It will come, and will not tarry. Look for it then every day, every hour, every moment! Why not this hour, this moment? … If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are; and if as you are, then expect it now. It is of importance to observe, that there is an inseparable connexion between these three points—expect it by faith, expect it as you are, and expect it now! … Stay (hold back) for nothing: Why should you? Christ is ready; and He is all you want. He is waiting for you: He is at the door!”
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As I read these words, I realized that this was the truth I had been missing for my twenty years as a child of God. I knew God commanded his children to be filled with his perfect love (Matt. 5:48; 22:37-40; 1 Cor.10:13; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 3:12-13; 5:16-24; 1 Jn. 3:3-6; 4:16-18; 5:18), but I had never heard that this full salvation was actually possible in my life right then, by faith, apart from works and self-effort. In fact, I had been taught (directly or indirectly) that these scriptures referred to an ideal toward which we should strive but never expect to live completely. This teaching discouraged me, and even, at times, gave me license to sin. I wondered: why would God command us to live a certain way yet not enable us to live that way?
As I pondered these solemn yet exciting and liberating words of John Wesley, I knew I was at a crisis point in my life, just as I was when I was born into God’s family 20 years earlier. God was stirring me deeply, and I received Wesley’s words as though God were speaking them to me. I knew the time had come. I cried out to God silently and asked him for the full salvation I had come to see as God’s will for his children in this life. I came poor and needy, thirsty and desperate, expecting his blessing by faith (trust) alone, just as I was and at that moment.
Just as when God brought me to initial salvation many years ago, I believed at that moment that the work had been done. I felt no tingling, heard no bells nor angels singing, but simply rested and rejoiced with gratitude and astonishment that God had begun a new work in me. I knew I had much to learn (and still do) about this new understanding of the spiritual life. But I also knew that God had graciously worked in me—in my head and in my heart—The Second Greatest Truth.
I am aware how sensitive—and perhaps confusing, and even boastful—my words may seem. I know how Wesley’s view is not only greatly misunderstood but sometimes ridiculed. I will therefore close with three thoughts that may be helpful.
First, I have not lived a sinless life since that momentous day in 1982. I sometimes violate God’s word, and when I do, I repent by confessing the sin to God and anyone I may have hurt. God graciously forgives me and I move on, trusting God’s perfect love to flow through me again. Wesley never taught that a believer who has had an experience (or crisis) of entire sanctification (or “second blessing”) is thereafter guaranteed never to fall. Furthermore, any sin in such a believer of which he or she is unaware (since no one is perfected in love in an absolute sense) is continually being washed away by the blood of Christ (I John 1:5-2:6).
Second, I have never been the same since that wonderful experience. Before, when I arose in the morning I never expected to live that day fully pleasing to God. Now I start the day with (among other important thoughts) the very encouraging awareness that, unless I am convicted otherwise, I am living for the glory of God. Holiness and happiness are blended closely together as I “pray without ceasing” throughout the day, and as I look to (and expect) God’s Spirit to produce his delightful fruit in and through me (Gal. 5:22-23). To God alone be the glory!
Third, my purpose in these two postings is not to advocate for Wesley’s views or anyone else’s views. I am simply telling my story. It is one among millions of stories that could be told by God’s people, many of them probably quite different from mine. One common denominator in all of them, however, is that our growth in holiness is a process—a lifelong process. If there are crisis experiences after the new birth for some Christians, they are never once-for-all. We must continue, until the day we see Christ, living closely to God and making progress continually in love for our God and our neighbors.
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I recognize that this is a long piece, and if you are still with me I rejoice in your seriousness about holy living and serving. Of the 100 or so postings I have published during the five-year span of this blog, the previous article and this one are, in my view, the two most important I have sent out. And the most difficult to write. I’d love to read and publish your comments!