Bishop Linda J. Adams
by Bishop Linda J. Adams
After a communion service at New Hope Church in Rochester, New York, a spunky 6-year-old girl made a beeline for the kitchen. As the leftover communion cups were being emptied, she asked to drink some of the juice. Given the go-ahead, she exclaimed, “I need all the holiness I can get!”
Her novel idea that a few ounces of grape juice would boost her holiness may not be much more of a misunderstanding than some adults’ ideas. Expressing her need in the language of holiness makes her seem like an old-fashioned Free Methodist, since we don’t often use the term anymore.
The doctrine of entire sanctification was a hill the first Free Methodists were willing to die on. Benjamin Titus (B.T.) Roberts, our principal founder, embodied John Wesley’s desire to recover New Testament Christianity, summarized by the mandate to “raise up a holy people.” Free Methodists determined to be holy. Like John and Charles Wesley, from whose theology and hymns they gained much of their inspiration, early Free Methodists were sometimes misunderstood, mocked and maligned for their insistence that God both expects and empowers an all-encompassing holiness in the life of the believer.
The Free Methodist Way begins with Life-Giving Holiness because to our forebears, a radical transformation of heart and mind resulting in fully loving God and neighbor was considered the birthright of the child of God. For us as a movement to abandon holiness as a defining value would be as foolish as Esau throwing away his birthright for a bowl of stew (see Genesis 25:19–34). God wants 21st century Free Methodists to believe in and experience the Holy Spirit’s presence that makes us more like Jesus from the inside out. To be made holy brings freedom and life. This is our message!
The Letter Kills
At the outset, we need to admit that those of us who have been in this denominational family for many years have at times seen a pursuit of holiness that was not life-giving. If we picture the Highway of Holiness winding through varied terrain with generations of Free Methodists traveling along it, describing it and teaching others about it, we’ll notice some veering off into the Ditch of Legalism. (Other movements have steered off-course into the opposite ditch of either License or Liberalism, but that hasn’t been our error.)
Following John Wesley’s “General Rules for Christian Conduct” and adding a rule against buying, selling or holding of a human being as a slave, the first Free Methodists adopted rules for holy living. Definition brings clarity and objectivity, they reasoned, so sinful actions and attitudes were forbidden, and behaviors of holy living were defined and required. For instance, the rules forbade the use of tobacco, opiates and alcohol, worldly amusements, membership in oath-bound lodges, and profane language and evil speaking. They required plain dress, business integrity, and careful observance of the Lord’s Day in addition to classical expressions of Christian devotion such as attendance at worship, prayer, Scripture reading and tithing. Relational accountability structures were created to aid new believers and seasoned saints alike in living the life of holiness as defined in these terms.
One of the problems with a rules-based approach is that rules and prohibitions multiply. As with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, principled motivations get lost in the proliferation of laws. As an example from our past, I enjoy reading historical accounts of 19th century female preachers. One pioneering evangelist’s personal account told tales of courageous witness in taverns and brothels resulting in dramatic conversions, but then delved into her agony over the rule against decorative collars and buttons on women’s blouses. She so longed to be holy, to surrender fully to the Lord, to consecrate her whole self to God’s work — but she struggled mightily with guilt over wishing she didn’t have to alter her blouses to make them plain!
Eventually, we incorporated a balancing scriptural truth. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection brought salvation by grace through faith, as Paul proclaimed in Ephesians 2:8–9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” And, from his letter to the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2b-3). Over the course of several decades, we have tried to reorient our path out of the ditch of Legalism to aim for the gracious center of the Highway of Holiness.
The Spirit Gives Life
The Constitution in our 2019 Book of Discipline declares this Article of Religion:
¶119 Sanctification is that saving work of God beginning with new life in Christ whereby the Holy Spirit renews His people after the likeness of God, changing them through crisis and process, from one degree of glory to another, and conforming them to the image of Christ.
As believers surrender to God in faith and die to self through full consecration, the Holy Spirit fills them with love and purifies them from sin. This sanctifying relationship with God remedies the divided mind, redirects the heart to God, and empowers believers to please and serve God in their daily lives.
Thus, God sets His people free to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves.
Notice that sanctification — that is, being made holy — is part of the saving work of God. This gracious action of God begins with new life in Christ, as the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer to make us more like God through both crisis and process. In other words, Free Methodists have officially stopped fighting the either/or battle between instantaneous or gradual transformation into the image of Christ. We affirm the both/and of a life surrendered to God, dead to self through full consecration, and filled with the Holy Spirit — a lifelong relationship that normally involves crisis opportunities for accelerated growth along the way.
Saints (the Bible’s term for all who are made holy in Christ) can attest to moments of conviction of sin, repentance, and surrender to God’s refining work. Some can testify to dramatic and instantaneous deliverance from harmful addictions, sinful attitudes, or a self-centered orientation. In a moment, they sensed the power of God cleansing and filling them, and they were forever changed. For some, crisis experiences are like the starter’s gun in the marathon of life in the Holy Spirit. For others, the journey of faith may be less punctuated with highs and lows, but it is marked by steady progress and growth in grace.
Notice the fruit of the life of holiness described in this Article of Religion: We are filled with love and purified from sin. God remedies the divided mind, redirects the heart, and empowers believers to please and serve God in their daily lives. Sanctified people are set free to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. How life-giving!
The New Testament expresses the evidence of the Spirit’s presence both in terms of fruit (Galatians 5:22–23) and gifts (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:7–11). We affirm the reality and necessity of both, and long for our churches to be alive to the Spirit so that both are clearly evident. As experienced in the book of Acts and taught throughout the New Testament, God’s Spirit has been poured out so that believers can experience His supernatural presence. Spirit-filled believers receive power for worship, witness, proclamation, prayer and service, sometimes accompanied by miracles. Both the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit are given to manifest the glory of God.
Grace for the Whole Journey
Wesleyan theology has been called an optimistic theology. Why? Because we believe in the possibilities of grace to radically change human hearts and lives this side of the grave. God has designed and provided for every step of the transforming journey, as the Holy Spirit interacts with people of free will, graciously leading us along the path until we see God face to face.
We affirm John Wesley’s Ordo Salutis, or Way of Salvation. Wesley taught that God first works in all people through Prevenient Grace, preparing hearts to open to God. God’s Convicting Grace makes us aware of our sin and willing to accept God’s remedy. Justifying Grace puts us into saving relationship with God through faith in the finished work of Christ; we are converted and assured that we are God’s beloved child. John Wesley said of the next phase in the outworking of God’s grace, Sanctifying Grace, “It is perhaps for this reason that God has raised up the Methodists.” God not only desires to make us holy but accomplishes holiness in us as we respond; the evidence of this holiness is pervasive love. Finally, through Glorifying Grace, at the moment of death God transforms us into immortality, and we are taken up into the life of God.
One night many years ago, I sat on a rooftop with a Calvinist friend and tussled over theology until the sun came up. I’ll never forget his astonishment that I do not share his conviction that we “sin every day in thought, word and deed” and are condemned to repeat that until the day we die. He couldn’t fathom the depths of grace that we Wesleyans experience and proclaim. The term “entire sanctification” particularly tripped him up. Many others have stumbled over that phrase, a bedrock of Wesleyan and Free Methodist theology. My friend and I paged through our Bibles and painted contrasting pictures of the possibilities of holiness in the life of the believer.
Here are a few of the many Scriptures on which our beliefs are based (see Chapter 3, “The Christian Journey,” in the Book of Discipline, particularly ¶3108, Sanctification, for more of our biblical foundation):
“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16, quoting three occurrences in Leviticus).
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 NRSV).
“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
“Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Words like “entire” and “perfecting” may sound like a claim of immunity from sin or flaws. Wesley and Roberts often clarified that the reality to be experienced is pure motives from a loving heart. Human beings never outgrow the possibility of giving in to temptation or exercising errors in judgment, but a life centered in the God who is Love can radiate love, which is the essence of holiness.
No Holiness but Social Holiness
The horizontal dimension of this love extends not only to family and friends, people we often refer to as “loved ones,” but to all. Jesus explained: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43–48).
The Greek word used for “perfect” in this passage carries the meaning of “complete” and “mature.” Our love should not be exclusive, lacking completeness. God invites us into His own limitless love. This is the “perfect love” that “casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
John Wesley famously wrote in his 1739 preface to “Hymns and Sacred Poems,” “‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. ‘Faith working by love’ is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” Our love is meaningless if not expressed in kindness, mutual care for one another’s souls and bodies, and acts of compassion for the poor, the suffering, the marginalized and others for whom Christ died. The context of Wesley’s statement here primarily refers to the fact that the spiritual journey is a communal path; our growth in grace is greatly enhanced by social dimensions. As we worship together, pray with one another, confess to each other and forgive one another, we experience “faith working by love.” The witness of his life, however, shows his commitment extending to societal issues such as abolitionism and community transformation as the outworking of holiness.
A Theology to Sing About
Charles Wesley’s hymns have been used throughout our history to help us not only understand but deepen our experience of the life-giving holiness of God. I will close with one of those hymns; some truths go beyond expression in words alone; the words need to soar with beautiful music. Excellent love like this captures us up in “wonder, love and praise.”
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down,
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love Thou art.
Visit us with Thy salvation
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe, Thy loving spirit
Into every troubled breast.
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find that second rest.
Take away the love of sinning,
Alpha and Omega be,
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty to deliver.
Let us all Thy life receive,
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.
Finish then Thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be,
Let us see Thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in Thee.
Changed from glory into glory
Till in Heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.
Very well articulated.
Your treatment embodies living it and not brandishing any holier-than-thou tomfoolery.
I also liked your take on entire sanctification and prevenient grace. The holiness movement is hitched in history to temperance. Isn’t it still encouraged rather than some legalistic edict?
Very well done.
“No Holiness but Social Holiness” is an eye-opener to me. I have always been receiving teachings that holiness could only be achieved through meditation, fasting and retreat from crowd…………….
I love these words of Wesley: “‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. ‘Faith working by love’ is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.”
There truly is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Nowhere – from Genesis to Revelation – does the Word ever encourage us to live out our faith alone. It’s all about community.
But “Social” in a Bible context implies not only awareness or tokenism; it includes personal presence, transparency, heart engagement, and box-breaking salvage efforts.
Jesus didn’t just do the usual things; in each case, he did the single transformative thing no one else but God could do.
If someone performs a kindness but omits God, prayer, or a plan, even by allusion — is a deed “Holy” if it left out attention to His Holiness (Jesus)? That is where an Acts-style miracle is so useful; it establishes up front that one’s Love isn’t about Self, but about the One far beyond us.
Amen. I deeply appreciate this formative article, Bishop Linda. Thanks for these historical and scriptural underpinnings for why we are called to be a holy people (personally and socially) today.
The bit about the 19th century pioneer evangelist and her testimony/struggle reminds me that the refining/clarifying of our doctrine happens best while we are actively on mission to fulfill the Great Commission.
Thanks and Blessings!
Thanks for referring to Wesley’s songs. As a retired Elder, I am afraid most of our people know none of Wesley’s songs–sad!!!
Absolutely phenomenal, thank you Bishop Linda. My heart is deeply comforted by this reminder of our tradition and theology.
Bishop Linda, thank you for covering so much so well in these relatively few paragraphs. Our focus on the Triune God and others, rather than ourselves and our progress, keeps on the way of holiness and life.
Thank you for a good article; I found it instructive. Yes, that is one amazing song.
Love your story examples, especially of the embroidered / fancy collar! We all have our temptations, don’t we?! (That “sin” seems so innocent! smile)
This is a very difficult topic to address well, and with credibility. I know I could not have done it one-fifth as well. The enormous, tectonic-plate cultural shifts going on in our new Millennium make it a deeply relevant issue. Having now witnessed various alternatives Stateside, in Media and in Life, the older I get, the more I have come to value the concept of learning how to reflect God’s glory with less personal interference.
I do have a couple of questions to hopefully spur future debate and discussion. (The Early Church had these; why shouldn’t we?)
The first is a topic I am still wrestling with, buried in this sentence, and I quote: “We affirm the both/and of a life surrendered to God, dead to self through full consecration, and filled with the Holy Spirit…”
It is that phrase “dead to self.”
I know the Scriptures that give rise to this expectation — or perhaps they say, “dead to sin.” Yet I am wondering whether this phrase, perhaps misunderstood or overkilled on (by me), in younger years, hurt more than it helped my ability to serve God.
For a long time, in crisis, I think I sank into passivity, which is depressive, based on ideas like this (or my conception of them) — a fear or concern of “moving beyond” God. These days I see all kinds of proactivity in Scripture which requires more than a dead person to accomplish. (Smile.)
Maybe, like the decorative collar, an oversensitive conscience can be unduly influenced by the idea of eliminating or abolishing self (which in my case involves a creative / artistic self): a conundrum in part illustrated in a movie like “Chocolat.” I agree holiness (I like the terms “purity” or “godliness,” and especially “blamelessness,” as synonyms. To my imagination God uniquely deserves the word “Holy,” especially in the sense of “completeness” — but I may be wrong!)
The problem with DENYING oneself in the sense of invalidating (or watering down) one’s own gifting is that, in the end, it doesn’t work. Who you are — who God made you to be — will out. I am not speaking of sin, but those areas that may not appear to “fit in” or whose use may be misunderstood by others. I know now that I can suppress myself as a writer: the writing will still OUT! (Because it was His gift.) To deny it is to be unhappy.
Further, so much critical evaluation appears to be human-based, or self-based, not really about what God has said. My concern is of bumping off, canceling or erasing the most distinctive elements of one’s community, whether actually condemned as sin or not. When Culture, even Church Culture, becomes the instrument of assessment, many factors besides the Bible or the Holy Spirit can affect one’s gift. Appearance can be all.
Second, and I write in general, not about anything in particular:
I am fascinated by the social aspects of Sanctification. Reading the excerpt you included from FM’s 2019 Book of
Discipline, I observe that what is envisioned in print seems to be highly individualistic in nature. It does!
Our application of this “crisis” and “process” (spiritually) seems in the United States to be primarily lived out as distinct, separate individuals. So I am interested in the ways Holiness touches on our identity as lived in Group.
I understand the value of examples such as Abolition and Serving Food (which actually are quite public).
Perhaps equally urgent are the relationships, Divine Appointments, etc., that make up our regular world (friends, family, those we see every day) — our typical, unprogrammed lives.
I know from personal experience it’s easier to “do a Christian deed” than to be present and proactive in the unexpected Daily-ness of life. Our closest contacts likely constitute our most accurate witness, yet this is the category America’s Church often seems to sail over in pursuit of more abstract, grandiose goals (evangelism, missions). Of course these are worthy, important, even the most important, yet Christ conveyed his Gospel in relationships, and he used mentoring as his method.
When shaped by culture, churchmen may see through a polarized filter (High-Low, Black-White, Good-Evil) that over-values its “successful” holiness and under-values its attempted (yet less attractive) holiness. This is a tragedy, for it sees in a way Jesus never saw. The longer I struggled with Poverty, the more the tiny acts of kindness by Jesus Christ leapt out to me — the “invisible” things, insignificant to most, valuable only to one soul. Worldly success caters to human observation and opinion. It just seems the Church should be about more.
The value of crisis is that it requires us to rethink (and perhaps) redefine what Holiness looks like. I grew up Free Methodist, concerned about what was visible and obvious. These bases (such as, never abuse a substance) were, with good parenting, fairly easy to do. It has taken decades to both see and have the will to address “less obvious” sins in my own life — certainly compounded by health issues, but ignored for years.
If we believe, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart,” this establishes a whole new paradigm for behavior: not just what man sees, or man thinks, but pleasing the heart of Jesus himself.
And that is a construct that challenges each one of us!!
That phrase “dead to self” seems to be one that, taken in isolation, can do as much harm as good, like its close relatives “more of Jesus, less of me”, and “He must increase, I must decrease”.
They can do their damage, feeding off the impression many of us hold, that I am still the sinner that Christ called, defined by my sins and the areas where I still fall short, a disappointment to God with my slow progress.
In this state of mind, the word “self” calls to mind this image of who we were, while obscuring the weightier and much more pertinent reality, that is, who God declares us now to be in Christ, in the new creation. This is also “self”, as made clear in Ephesians 4:22-24.
This real “self”, which includes our giftings, is never to be “died to” or “less of” or “decreased”, but rather “lived out”, so fully as to “edge out” all other self. It occurs to me, this is the self we should strive to bring to every prayer time, worship time, meditation time, every time we show up.
Thank you for this truth. Wish I could have heard you sing that hymn. I had to sing it myself, but you would have sounded much better. I am glad I get to see you online, since you don’t live here any more. Thanks for your ministry.
Thanks to all of you for your words of appreciation and also your interaction with the article. Maybe it would be better to use the phrase “dead to sin” than “dead to self.” The Apostle Paul said things like “I die daily,” so I think both phrases have warrant in the Scriptures. But I do appreciate the concept that the new self is being made in the likeness of Christ and can therefore “bring itself” to participate fully in works of mercy and works of piety (John Wesley’s categories). We are indeed a new creation in Christ. Praise God!