5 Keys to Fill the "Sanctification Gap" (#UMC, @IVPacademic, @OfficialSeedbed)

Is holiness a missing element in evangelical theology? That’s what Gordon T. Smith says in the opening chapter of his recent book, Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Smith points to an observation made by Richard Lovelace in the late 1970s “that evangelical theology and spirituality were marked by a ‘sanctification gap'” (14). Lovelace traced this to evangelicalism’s emphasis on revivalism where the focus was on conversion leaving Christian maturity and holiness to be treated as secondary matters. Smith suggests that the gap remains and substantiates the case in part by pointing to the fact that theology texts in evangelical seminaries tend to give holiness superficial attention. When sanctification is in view, Smith observes, the interest is in how not when. That is to say, attention is given to the process of sanctification, not the goal or end of sanctification (14-15). He believes we need more than that.
The sanctification gap and Wesleyan identity
Reading Smith as a pastor steeped in Wesleyan theology, I cannot help but think of John Wesley’s conviction, articulated in a letter near the end of his life, that the doctrine of entire sanctification “is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up” (Works, XIII, 9). You might say that Wesley perceived a sanctification gap in 18th century English Christianity, and he was persuaded that God had specifically called and equipped the people of the Methodist movement to fill the gap. To that end, he rode countless miles on horseback to preach thousands of sermons and organize communities of worship and accountability committed to growing in grace and maturity that intentionally pursued, not just sanctification, but entire sanctification. For Wesley, that’s what it meant to be Methodist.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you’ll find a Methodist family tree with no few branches. The denominations that trace their heritage to Wesley are many and varied. Some embrace robust teachings on holiness. Others don’t emphasize it quite as much. Within my own branch of the Wesleyan family tree – The United Methodist Church – we have a number of tribes with distinct subgroup identities, but we are largely without a widely held sense of identity on the denominational level. The theorists would say that we have a number of competing subgroup identities but lack a superordinate social identity that cultivates and maintains a sense of coherence between the subgroups. We’ve got high church folks, low church folks, mainliners, progressives, and evangelicals. The point there is to illustrate the range of groups, not provide an exhaustive list of UMC subgroups. All that to say, the UMC is a denomination without an identity, and we are feeling the anxiety and the pain that comes with that. 
My hope is that we will be able to recover the identity that Wesley left us: we are the people called by God “to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” The reason there are Methodist churches all over the world with so many branches on the Wesleyan tree is because John Wesley believed with all his heart that God raised up the people called Methodist to revitalize the Church with the message of holiness for the life of the world. That is who we are. That is our identity. That should be our mission. Because that is what it means to be Methodist. It’s our vocation to fill the sanctification gap.
Can we fill the gap?
But how do we do it? What disciplines and practices and strategies have to be in play to pull this off? There are several key pieces. And at this point, I’m moving beyond the UMC to think in terms of the wider Wesleyan world. It’s not clear that the UMC will ever succeed in forming a unifying identity. I should add that I’m not suggesting any of this is new information. Lot’s of folks are thinking about this. I’ve been involved in dialogue about this sort of thing for years. Here are a few things that keep coming up.
  1. Preaching – Wesley believed that every Methodist preacher should preach the doctrine of holiness. I’ve heard the observation made many times that the doctrine of entire sanctification is seldom preached these days. This could be for a variety of reasons. Maybe we are unfamiliar with it. Maybe we don’t understand it well enough to preach it confidently. Maybe we are afraid of being misunderstood. Maybe we don’t believe it. Whatever the reason for the lack of homiletic attention to the doctrine of holiness, if we are going to forge and maintain an authentic Wesleyan identity, then we must have clear and robust preaching on holiness. 
  2. Singing – The observation has been made that the Methodist movement would never have made it with John’s preaching alone. Charles Wesley’s hymns were essential for planting the seeds of holiness in the hearts of the early Methodists. Not only do we need to be singing our own Wesleyan hymns about holiness, we need a new generation of songwriters who can ably transmit holiness theology melodically and lyrically. 
  3. Small groups – Wesleyans did small groups before small groups were cool. The movement happened because the people involved were involved with each other at deep levels. They didn’t just worship together; they got deeply entrenched in one another’s lives. They cared for each other. They got in each other’s business, and they did it for love of Christ and love for one another. And if someone didn’t show up a couple of times, they went looking for that person. This is essential. We can’t be Wesleyan without deeply committed small groups explicitly focused on growing in holiness and entire sanctification. 
  4. Theologians – We also need theologians who can write the books and give the talks that lead the Church in thinking about entire sanctification. Some of these folks might be academic theologians; others might be pastor theologians. We’ve got some good folks out there doing this kind of work, but this is one of those things where there’s never enough. And there’s the question of who will receive the baton from the current generation of theological leaders in the Wesleyan tradition. Who will embody this key vocation as we move into the future? 
  5. Conferences and publishers – I am encouraged by the birth and growth of Seedbed and the New Room Conference. This sort of thing is going to be essential for connecting people of like heart and like mind around the topic of holiness. It’s also essential for helping us discover new resources and develop a sense of group identity. Let’s keep it growing.
All five of these center around our ability to speak and write about holiness with care, wisdom, clarity, and faithfulness. At the end of the day, we’ve got to be talking about holiness…a lot. So much that when people see us coming, they think “here come the people who talk about holiness.” And our speaking must be filled with passion that is compelling and contagious. If we can do this, then we will be well on our way to filling the sanctification gap and recovering our God-given vocation to bless the Church and the world with the good news that God’s grace is more powerful than the sin that besets us.

Your turn: Do you perceive a sanctification gap? What evidence do you see for a sanctification gap? What must we do beyond the 5 keys mentioned here? Is holiness essential to Wesleyan identity? Leave a comment with your input. 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

New Post: Resurrection Makes Us Holy (@OfficialSeedbed)

During my recent trip to Wilmore, Kentucky, I had the opportunity to film another episode for Seedbed‘s growing Seven Minute Seminary series. This one explores the relationship between future bodily resurrection, Christian identity, and holiness. These three themes were at the heart of my PhD research, and I’m grateful to Seedbed for making some of that available more broadly. If you receive this via an email subscription, click here to watch the video. And be sure to check out my other contributions to Seven Minute Seminary over on the video page.


Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect on Facebook or follow @mporeilly.

Preaching Holiness #UMC

I recently posted a few reflections on John Wesley’s instruction that Methodist preachers ought to preach the doctrine of holiness (or Christian perfection) “constantly, strongly, and explicitly.” Following Wesley’s advice, my January sermons were focused on the topic of Becoming Holy. Take a listen, if interested, and let me know what you think. If you are a preacher, how do you work the call to holiness into your sermons? How much homiletic time do you give to the topic? What strategies have you found helpful in introducing the concept to your congregation? What do you think are the challenges to preaching holiness? If you are a member of the laity, how often do you hear sermons on holiness? How do you respond to holiness preaching when you hear it? If you are not a preacher or part of a congregation, what do you think of the call to holiness? What are your impressions? Do you normally associate holiness with Christianity? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment with your thoughts.

http://www.podbean.com/media/player/7c4rx-5c2f9bhttp://www.podbean.com/media/player/ysdkc-5c2fa3http://www.podbean.com/media/player/7ir9j-5c2fadhttp://www.podbean.com/media/player/hwpqg-5c74fa

John Wesley On What Every Methodist Preacher Should Preach #UMC

What did John Wesley expect his preachers to preach about? What should be the heart of their message? Near the end of his short book, A Plain Account of  Christian Perfection, the father of the Methodist movement said this:
Therefore, all our preachers should make a point of preaching perfection to believers constantly, strongly, and explicitly; and all believers should mind this one thing, and continually agonize for it (Seedbed, 2014, p. 109).
Wesley’s desire was to be “a man of one book” – the Bible – and he neither apologized for nor shied away from the language in the Bible, including the language of “perfection” and “entire sanctification.” If you are wondering how that language is used in scripture, take a look at Matthew 5:48, where Jesus issues the command: “Be perfect.” Then flip over to Philippians 3:15, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:23, and 1 Peter 1:15-16. You’ll also want to reflect on Romans 6:1-2 where Paul asks: “Shall we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” He quickly answers his own question with an emphatic: “No!” That’s right; Paul said believers should not continue in sin. Wesley read these and many other passages and realized that the call to holiness pervades scripture. It’s everywhere.
God’s Purpose for Methodists
Wesley also believed with his whole being that God had called him and the Methodists to be a reviving and revitalizing presence in the Church of England in the 18th century. At the heart of that call was the proclamation of the biblical doctrine of holiness (or entire sanctification or Christian perfection). And he insisted that every Methodist preacher preach this doctrine. That’s what it meant to be Methodist. Wesley identity was so shaped by this call that he persevered through suffering and persecution. His preaching of holiness was strongly opposed, and sometimes he was in physical danger only because he insisted on a commitment to the language of scripture. Nevertheless, Wesley was called by God to this vocation. No opposition would make him waver.
What is Christian Perfection

Given the importance of the doctrine of Christian perfection to Methodist identity, it is exceedingly important to understand Wesley’s definition of Christian perfection. All too often people hear the word “perfection” and reject the doctrine outright never taking the time to get clear on what it means. If you asked Mr. Wesley what he meant by entire sanctification or Christian perfection, he would tell you that he simply means a heart filled to overflowing with love of God and love of neighbor. Holiness is what happens when you love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is being happy in God and having the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the joy of one’s heart. When you are filled with God’s perfect love, Wesley would suggest, you cannot at the same time be sinning against God. We have to resist the love of God to start sinning against God. If we are loving Christ with all our energy, then we won’t be stealing, lying coveting, deceiving, etc. We have to stop loving Jesus to start sinning against him.
Wesley was also insistent on what Christian perfection is not. In his sermon on “Christian Perfection” he said that it is not freedom from (1) mistake, (2) infirmity, (3) ignorance, or (4) temptation. Scripture is not calling for the absolute and unqualified perfection that belongs to God alone. Instead, the call to holiness is the call to keep the two greatest commandments: love God and neighbor with everything you’ve got. You may make a mistake, call someone by the wrong name, for example But that’s not outright rebellion, and that’s not the sort of thing we’re talking about when it comes to Christian perfection. You may have some handicap that’s not moral in nature; that’s what Wesley meant by infirmity. You can love God and not have perfect knowledge of all things. You can even be tempted and not sin (see Hebrews 4:15). So, when Wesley talks about Christian perfection, he is not offering an unqualified expectation for absolute perfection in every possible way. Don’t think that he is. He is calling for passionate giving of the self to Jesus with nothing held back. Wesley was convinced from scripture that when we release ourselves to Christ in that way the Holy Spirit is able to set us free from inward and outward sin. 
The Heart of a New Revival
The heart of the Wesleyan revival was the preaching of Christian perfection. Sadly, however, this doctrine no longer appears to characterize the landscape of Methodist preaching. I am encouraged, however, that there is renewed interest and attention in some corners of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement to preaching the gospel with a Wesleyan accent; that is, preaching the cross and resurrection of Christ as the means of grace not only to forgive sin but to bear the fruit of holiness in the people of God. More and more of our clergy and laity are rediscovering Wesley and following his example with regard to taking the words of Jesus seriously, the language of perfection and holiness not least. More and more are catching Wesley’s vision and following his instruction to preach entire sanctification “constantly, strongly, and explicitly.” Perhaps God is not yet finished with the people called Methodist.
What do you think of Wesley’s instructions? Have you ever preached or heard a sermon on Christian perfection? When was the last time you heard a sermon on holiness? 

Four Thoughts on the Four Virtues

Upon the recommendation of a very good friend, I began reading through Joseph Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections of chapters dealing with each of the four virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I found the opening pages to be quite thought provoking and offer here four reflections that came to mind as I worked through the first chapter:

  1. We don’t speak this way anymore. Until, I think, fairly recently, the language of virtue was part and parcel to (at least) Western civilization. Pieper’s discussion begins with prudence, the first virtue, and he argues that contemporary minds are uncomfortable with the notion that prudence is preeminent among the virtues. It ranks the highest, and all others depend on it. Beyond that, I would suggest that, as a society, we not only resist the idea of a hierarchy of virtues, we have come to the point where we don’t really see virtue as essential or even important. The cultivation of virtue is no longer a value common to Western civilization. Rather, we have elevated the pleasure of personal preference to the place of highest value. And when preference replaces virtue, the result is hedonism. 
  2. Right worship cultivates virtue. To become virtuous is to become good. But a person cannot live into the fullness of their potential to be good apart from a life of discipleship following Christ our Lord. And one of the ways – indeed, the primary way! – that Christ forms us into good people is through worship. To pray the liturgy is to develop habits of worship that cannot be attained anywhere else, habits that lead to consistent goodness, or (as it is called in our Wesleyan tradition) holiness, which brings me to the next point. 
  3. Virtue is essential to holiness. As Pieper’s discussion unfolded, I couldn’t help but conclude that virtue and holiness are intimately connected, though I’m not altogether settled on how to talk about the connection. For now, suffice it to say that holiness may be more than virtue, but it is not less. Pieper puts it this way: “All Ten Commandments of God pertain to…the realization of prudence…every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent.” To be free from sin is to be both virtuous and holy. And I am inclined to say that the highest virtue is actually holiness. One benefit of including the cultivation of virtue in our talk of holiness is that it defines holiness in positive terms. All too often, we think of holiness negatively as avoiding sin. And it is that. But it is also the positive cultivation of consistently godly character, and godly character is nothing if not virtuous. Pieper calls it, “impulses and instincts for right acting.”
  4. The Greeks and Romans went far with what they had. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as “the true myth.” He deployed this term against those who suggested that the presence of parallel stories to scripture among pagan religions suggest that the Bible is simply one myth amongst many. Lewis rejected this line of thinking and argued instead that the presence of similar themes in pagan mythology and Christianity simply indicated that the pagans had picked up on some truth, even if they didn’t get it all right. The presence of similar themes in varied traditions meant that there was some common reality or revelation that all observed. Christianity is the true myth that gets the story right. Likewise, I suggest, the Greco-Roman writers who saw the cultivation of virtue as an end of society were working in the right direction. Even if, apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit, they were unable to achieve what they were after, namely the fullest and best expression of human life, they got a long way in the cultivation of virtue, though they could not reach the pinnacle. The stunning thing about it is that the Greeks and Romans at least knew they should be virtuous, which is perhaps more than can be said of us. 

New Podcast: Fully Focused on the Finish #ChristianPerfection #UMC

When I read the letters of Paul, I often wonder whether he was a fan of athletic games – foot racing, at least. On several occasions Paul draws on the language of the races to illumine the nature of the Christian life. For instance, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it” (1 Cor 9:24). Similarly in Philippians 3 Paul describes the Christian life in terms of straining forward towards the goal to win the prize. It’s hard not to imagine an Olympic runner putting all of his energy into crossing the finish line to win the gold. For Paul, the gospel worthy life is fully focused on the finish, and that means knowing what the finish line is, namely resurrection union with Christ, and it means leaving the past in the past – all of it. On top of that, Paul’s racing imagery helps us get a better sense of what we mean when we talk about Christian perfection. Take a listen to find out what Paul means when he counts himself among the “perfect” in Philippians 3:15. If you receive this post as an email, click here to listen on the podcast page. Previous sermons can be found here