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.