Tea and Pages is an occasional exploration of theological, social and Biblical topics from Marilyn A. Hudson.
In the 1960 Discipline of The Methodist Church was a section found in each of the disciplines through the life of this evolving denomination. "The Articles of Religion" presents the theological and Biblical basis for the beliefs of the church. At this time the Discipline reflected the combined beliefs of three groups that merged in 1939 (The Methodist Episcopal South, The M.E. and the Methodist Protestant). One is titled "Sanctification" and his prefaced by this statement: "The following Article from the Methodist Protestant Discipline is placed here by the Uniting Conference. It was not one of the Articles of Religion voted by the three churches."
Sanctification was defined as "that renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Ghost, received through faith in Jesus Christ, whose blood of atonement cleanseth from all sin; whereby we are not only delivered from guilt of sin, but are washed from its pollution, saved from its power, and are enabled, through grace, to love God, with all our hearts and to walk in his holy commandments blameless." (Paragraph 86 on pg. 37).
In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, written by John Wesley in the 1700's he addresses this concept of what he defined as "inward sanctification" (pg. 33, point #17).
Over time theologians would argue as to the role, stage, and purpose of this process. In the 1800's and early 1900's there were denominations that emerged predicated on the process of sanctification being a crisis point subsequent to salvation (a second definite work of grace), others followed in Wesley's steps of seeing it as a benchmark experience but also as an ongoing process, and still others firmly held to salvation and sanctification being a single action of grace. Numerous nuances of theology swirled around these key points.
Some groups became too focused on expressions of holiness in observable and measurable ways. Dancing, elaborate dress, extravagant spending, lewdness, secret societies, fairs, frivolity, and other actions clearly seen in a life were frowned upon and, as denominations emerged from these groups, formulated into rules of conduct for membership.
Wesley focused rightly on the work of the Holy Spirit in shaping the inner person. He knew from his own experience of being a unawakened Christian that one can go to church, read the scriptures, pray and give to the poor but remain polluted by fears and sin.
That word, however, is a key issue. Sin. As the 20th century progressed the term fell from theological fashion to be replaced by psychological and sociological ideas that basically presented sin as a quaint superstition. Sin was an aged term that should be replaced by better education, economic equity, self-actualization, and similar ideas. So, the term flowed between two extreme views. One end of that spectrum was a belief that humanity needed no spiritual salvation because sin was a myth to the other extreme that humanity needed, not only spiritual salvation, but also confining rules to ensure they reflected their state through both belief and behaviors.
The Wesleyan view of sanctification was often termed "scriptural holiness" and that is a good way to discuss the subject. The scriptural stance argues that the human being can do nothing 'to be' holy or sanctified. That is an action and result of the will and grace of God. It is always a gift of God.
In the 1988 Discipline of the UMC in "Our Doctrinal Standards" this process is clarified as being "the work of God's grace through the Word and the Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God's will, and to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (page. 72, paragraph Article XI).
For Wesley, this process of becoming perfected in Christian love, thought and action did not remove human will but outlined the need for self-discipline, supportive mutual accountability, and a constant hunger for God in the Christ follower. All of his thoughts were reflections of scriptural principles.
Today, we see and bemoan the crumbling of social morality and personal integrity. The once strong walls upholding the concept of civilization are battered. We gasp at the cruel dimensions of human behavior but suggest its solutions can be found in education, economic status and better self-esteem. All that is needed are judicial applications of social programs and political action and the problems can be solved.
For Wesley, as expressed in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, the person who has committed themselves to Christ has shifted their thinking in response to the work of the Holy Spirit in them. They are not forced to be a certain way; they willingly wish to become clearer reflections of Christ in their world. "He cannot utter an unkind word of anyone; for love keeps the door of his lips. He cannot speak idle words; no corrupt conversation ever comes out of his mouth; as is all that is not good to the use of edifying, not fit to minister grace to the hearers. But "whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely...justly...of good report."
The effective thrust of this 18th century renewal movement was to energize generations in the need for 1) a passionate and personal spiritual relationship with God, 2) an active and intentional personification of that faith through good works, and 3) a clear sense of the purpose of the Church as a vehicle to share the Gospel and help others develop a passionate and personal spiritual relationship with God.
Perhaps current declines noted in some denominations can be attributed to a loss of the role of sanctification - of scriptural holiness - in modern life. Maybe the question churches should be asked is not how to grow numbers but to look inside and ask, where did the hunger for holiness go?