Entire Sanctification in the Early Church (#AndCanItBe)
I’ve often heard that John Wesley’s emphasis on Entire Sanctification (or Christian Perfection) was not only the result of his reading of scripture (it was!) but of his reading of the early Church fathers also. I’ve not had opportunity to research that claim in detail, but I was reminded of it yesterday when I was reading Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians and discovered a quote that sounded like it was straight of a sermon by John Wesley. Here’s what the second century Bishop of Smyrna wrote: “For if one be in this company he has fulfilled all righteousness, for he who has love is far from all sin” (III:3, emphasis added). The company of which he speaks are those who have faith and love for God, Christ, and neighbor, and this folks, says Polycarp, are far from all sin, not most, all.
There are any number of passages by Wesley in which we could find similar themes; this quote from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection sums it up nicely: “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin” (18). There are at least three observations to be made as we compare Polycarp and Wesley.
First, and perhaps most obvious, is that both Polycarp and Wesley are happy to describe the believer’s deliverance from sin in terms of “all sin”. They both, of course, get this from 1 John 1:7, “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Second, both Polycarp and Wesley understand love and sin as mutually exclusive. A heart full of love for God and neighbor cannot also be a heart in sin against God or neighbor. If we are actively loving and pursuing Christ, then we will not, at the same time, be sinning against him. For both men distance from sin must begins with love for God. This is why true holiness is never simply a matter of behavior modification. We could presumably go through the motions and do the right sorts of things and still not have a heart of love for God and others. Love is the both the foundation and the fount of authentic holiness, the beginning and the cause. Holiness is not mere obedience; the life of holiness must issue forth from love.
Third, lest we think such holy love means anything goes, Polycarp and Wesley would agree that holy love produces a life that honors God. We’ve already seen that for Polycarp the love that is far from all sin is also love that fulfills all righteousness. Likewise, Wesley insists that, “Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.’ It is not only `the first and great’ command, but all the commandments in one” (Plain Account, 6). For neither of these men does love mean lawlessness. To the contrary, love means holiness. Those who love God will love God’s law and keep his commands. So, holiness is not primarily about what we do; it is about who we love. But if we love God, we will do what pleases him. Holiness does not consist in obedience, but obedience always accompanies holiness.
I’ll conclude by saying that while Entire Sanctification is often treated as distinctive to Wesley, it should be plain that this is not the case. The core themes of Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification were present in early church, and Wesley saw his emphasis on the doctrine of Christian Perfection as a recovery of that biblical truth taught by the apostles and the fathers. This brief comparison of his views with those of Polycarp expressed in his letter to the Philippians is part, though certainly not all, of the evidence that Wesley was right to see his work as standing in continuity with the ancient Church.
N.B. Thomas A Noble’s recent book, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfection, devotes a chapter to the topic of Christian Perfection as taught by the Greek and Latin fathers (chapter 3).