Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wesleyan Sanctification: Weaknesses

Despite several strengths, the Wesleyan view of sanctification has weaknesses that outweigh the strengths. First, there is a high focus on an “experience,” or an instance in which the Christian would be perfectly sanctified. As noted earlier, this perfection is in terms of loving God, rather than absolute perfection in all things. For this position, Wesleyans argue that, “there is in the life of the believer an experiential distinction between receiving the Son and receiving the fullness of the Pentecostal Spirit” (100). Granted, there are passages that show the giving of the Holy Spirit coming after conversion, but if these passages are the exception rather than the rule, then the Wesleyan argument is greatly weakened.[1]  Sinclair Ferguson writes:
What took place in Samaria, in the house of Cornelius, and in Ephesus must be interpreted in terms of the unique historical setting of the early church. Pentecost is not ‘repeated’ any more than the death or resurrection of Christ is a repeatable event….It is an event in redemptive history (historia salutis), and should not be squeezed into the grid of the application of redemption (ordo salutis)….This is not to say that Pentecost has no existential dimension or contemporary relevance. But it does mean that we should no more anticipate a ‘personal Pentecost’ than we will experience a personal Jordan, wilderness, Gethsemane or Golgotha.[2]

The Wesleyan argument thus fails to show that Scripture speaks of two experiences of the Holy Spirit, one at conversion and another at an instant perfection of sanctification. The coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts should be best understood as a transitioning from the old covenant to the new covenant, or a “catching up” with Pentecost.[3] If it were the case that there were two different experiences of the Holy Spirit (including an instantaneous sanctification), one would expect that the Epistles would be filled with instructions to be seeking this “second blessing.” Passages that do refer to “being filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), or that speak of being sanctified completely (1 Thess. 5:23) are not in reference to second experience of the Holy Spirit in instantaneous sanctification. Rather, being filled with the Spirit in Eph. 5:18 is in contrast to being filled and controlled with wine (drunkenness). Peter O’Brien notes that, to be admonished, ‘Be filled with the Spirit,’ then, means that Paul’s readers are urged to let the Spirit change them more into the image of God and Christ, a notion which is consistent with Pauline theology elsewhere…Furthermore, although there is a strong emphasis on God’s activity in bringing his people to fullness, this transforming work is not done apart from their personal involvement.”[4] As O’Brien observes, this change is not instantaneous and will not be fully completed until “the final day when the readers are filled with all his fullness.”[5] To use this passage in a way that would suggest Christians should be seeking and expecting any sort of a “second blessing” is a misuse of the passage. Lastly, how do Christians know that they have experienced or reached this “perfection?” Experiences are subjective, and Christians could be waiting and hoping for a feeling that never comes.
A second weakness of the Wesleyan view of sanctification is the distinction that it makes between sin and mistakes. By viewing sin as only a voluntary transgression of a known law, the totality of the biblical view of sin is lost. Wayne Grudem defines sin as “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.”[6] Hodge adds, “All sin, therefore, is not an agency, activity, or act; it may be and is also a condition or state of the mind.”[7] Sin is more than a voluntary transgression of a known law, for as Grudem’s definition explains, it includes thoughts and inner motives, and not just behavior. All Christians would agree that people make mistakes. The carpenter who cuts a board at the wrong angle has not (necessarily) sinned by doing so; he simple made a mistake. Mistakes do not call for repentance and the blood of Jesus to forgive. They are part of human life in a fallen world. On the other hand, to call what is sin a mistake is a huge error. Sin does need to be repented of and the blood of Christ to cover in forgiveness. Wesleyans err by limiting sin in such a narrow fashion, and by so doing, they elevate the status of man and weaken the holiness of God. 
A third weakness of Wesleyan sanctification is the view of perfect Christians in the Bible, and the location from which sin arises. Wesley believed that the “fathers” in 1 John 2:12-14 were perfect, and that the new covenant allowed Christians be go without sinning, at least in the outward sense.[8] Wesley states, “A Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin….But elsewhere Solomon says, ‘There is no man that sinneth not.’ Doubtless thus it was in the days of Solomon; yea, and from Solomon to Christ there was then no man that sinned not. But whatever was the case of those under the law, we may safely affirm, with St. John, that since the Gospel was given, ‘he that is born of God sinneth not.’”[9] Wesleyans also believe the heart to be changed so that it is no longer evil, and no longer brings forth evil thoughts and desires. This would raise the question of where sin comes from, should a Christian commit it. As with the previous discussions, these views are only possible when the definition of sin is changed and holiness is misunderstood.

[1]See Acts 2 for the account of Pentecost, Acts 8 for the account of the Samarian believers who
received the Holy Spirit after conversion, and Acts 19 where those who were baptized into John’s baptism received the Holy Spirit.

[2]Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers’ Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 86-7.

[3]See Darrell L. Block, A Theology of Luke and Acts, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, ed.
Andreas J. Kostenberger (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 144.

[4]Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 392-3.

[5]Ibid., 393.

[6]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 490.

[7]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (London: Offset Litho, 1960), 187.

[8]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 538.

[9]Wesley, Christian Perfection, 17.

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