Holiness: Different Views of Christian Ethics (Part 2) – John Boruff

3. Lutheranism: Growing in Holiness by the Spirit and the Bible – In the 16th century, many of the doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church were questioned by the Protestants. The first of these were the followers of Martin Luther (d. 1546), or the Lutherans. I’m not saying that I disagree with the Catholic views of sanctification in opposition to the Lutheran view, or vice versa. I rather like to mix them all together. However, when it comes to the topic of “entire sanctification,” I do differ from the Catholics. Both the Catholics, and later the Methodists, believed that it is possible during a Christian’s life on Earth to achieve a state of sinlessness or moral perfection. This was called “Christian perfection” or “entire sanctification.” While there may be theological quibbles over the terms and vocabulary of what it means to be “perfect,” and while many Catholic and Methodist theologians would reject using the word “sinlessness,” it is still, in effect, what they teach is possible to experience in this life. However, I do not believe this is what the Bible teaches–and neither did the Lutherans.

In light of his resurrection from the dead, and his subsequent perfection in righteousness in Heaven, Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Php. 3:12). Paul admitted that he wasn’t perfect, but he continued to press on towards perfection. He was in a state of progressive sanctification–growing in holiness. While Christian perfectionists will argue that Paul apparently never reached perfection, they say that other saints might have (or definitely did). Martin Luther, in proposing a progressive view of sanctification, said: “Until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing it [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces” (The Large Catechism, 53). Thus, the general view of the Lutherans, Protestants, and Evangelicals following after Luther, was that sanctification is: (1) Caused by the Holy Spirit, (2) grows by hearing Bible teaching, and (3) has a progressive nature of growing and increasing, but never reaches a state of sinless perfection during one’s life on Earth.

4. Calvinism: Growing in Holiness by Faith and Repentance – Unlike the Lutheran view, (which teaches that the Holy Spirit and the Bible are both necessary for growing in holiness)–Calvinism and the subsequent Evangelicalism that follows suit with John Calvin (d. 1564), teaches that it is only through faith in the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the inner working of the Holy Spirit. As the Christian life goes on, in faith in Christ, the sinner continues to live a repentant life when made conscious by sins. Therefore, reading the Bible is not necessary for growing in holiness; neither is intercessory prayer, ministry, or doing any good works. Although many Reformed and Calvinistic Christians have an extremely high view of the Bible, and its role in the Christian life, the official Calvinist position is that sanctification grows through faith alone met with repentance. It is simply faith alone in Christ’s death and resurrection, the regeneration of the Holy Spirit within, and the passing of time. However, like the Lutherans, this view is also one of progressive sanctification.

5. Anglicanism (Church of England; Episcopal): Growing in Holiness by Practicing God’s Law, Although Imperfectly – Richard Hooker, one of the founding theologians of Anglicanism, argued that while justification is based on faith alone, sanctification grows by doing the good works of God’s law. Thus, it holds to a view of progressive sanctification. In his book, A Learned Discourse of Justification (1585), and in his chapter on “Sanctification,” Hooker explains that growing in holiness of life and character is brought about by doing the good works of God’s law. In other words, practicing the moral or ethical commandments of God. This is, of course, in the sad light of Romans 7, which explains that even a Christian’s purest attempt at keeping God’s law will be mixed with corrupt motives. Nevertheless, the Christian should strive to obey God’s law, with the help of the Holy Spirit–not for his salvation, but for developing purity in his life. This sanctifies him, and makes him holier in heart and thought as the years progress. But Hooker emphasizes that this is not a legalistic view of salvation. This is not works-justification or trying to earn one’s way to Heaven through God’s law (as Paul explicitly condemns in Galatians 3).

No, Hooker well maintains that salvation or justification is by faith alone in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross and the inner working of the Holy Spirit. But sanctification, or growing in purity and developing personal righteousness, comes by practicing the good laws of God in one’s life. Even Paul said, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim. 1:8). However, in light of Romans 7, all attempts at practicing the law of God will be frustrating and mixed with evil coming from within the Christian. But practicing the law of God in one’s life, with God’s help, to the best of one’s ability, still helps the Christian to grow in moral character somewhat. The sanctification process is imperfect and filled with many flaws and sins, but there is still some moral growth that comes out of it. Entire sanctification is never an option until after death. All attempts at growing in holiness in this life will be imperfect. The state of sinlessness will never be attained in this life.

6. Methodism: Willful Sins Can Be Annihilated in Rare Cases – John Wesley (d. 1791), the founder of Methodism, came out of the Church of England, and actually had no plans of disbanding himself from it. But eventually he did, and became the founder of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In his book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766), Wesley taught that sanctification is for the most part a progressive or growing experience. Coming out of his Anglican background, he had a high view of obeying God’s commandments, and the role it played in the Christian’s growth in holiness. Wesley eventually accepted the Catholic teaching of “Christian perfection,” which is the idea that it is possible for a Christian to experience, in effect, a state of sinlessness in this life on Earth. He said that this usually only happens with very elderly Christians committed to growing in holiness. Although Wesley denied advocating “sinless perfection,” he still maintained that “sins” or voluntary acts of disobedience to God can be completely annihilated. This happens through a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s love into the Christian’s heart. Although Wesley still held that “mistakes” could be made (sins of ignorance), he refused to call them “sins” terminologically.

Where We Stand on Sanctification. I think that all of the different views of sanctification have something good to offer. However, we side with the Anglican view of sanctification more than anything else. (1) The Orthodox view is okay, but its focus is too much on our life after death in our glorified state. It is too easy to be mistaken as New Agers if we talk about sanctification as a means of attaining divinity. (2) The Roman Catholic view is good too, and I actually like it better than the Orthodox view, but I think it puts too much of a focus on virginity and suffering. (3) The Lutheran view approaches a clearer idea of sanctification, but doesn’t go all the way. It is with the Lutherans that the doctrine of progressive sanctification was restored: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Php. 3:12). (4) The Calvinist view is incomplete I think, because it holds that only through faith in the Holy Spirit’s work within, and repenting of sin, is sanctification grown. But I think that can simply turn into being led by one’s conscience, and “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). Only by hearing God’s Word can one be led by the Holy Spirit, rather than the heart: “The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

We like the Anglican view, because it took the Lutheran view to a clearer focus. (By the way, Richard Hooker’s A Learned Discourse of Justification can be found in The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, Volume 3 [Regent College Publishing, edited by John Keble].) Rather than simply saying anything in the Bible sanctifies the soul, the Anglicans specified it, and said that it is really the moral law of God within the Scriptures that sanctify man–in cooperation with the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is a progressive view of sanctification, going no further than that. And like Romans 7, which says that human nature is sinful, any attempt at obeying God’s moral laws will be imperfect at best. This is not legalism, or being “under law”, because it’s all within the context of faith in the substitutionary atonement of Christ. For if it were not for His blood, all of our strivings for moral purity would be unpleasing to God. But now that we are under His blood, and know that we cannot be justified or saved by the law (Gal. 3), we can still use the law to help us know God’s will with regards to Christian ethics. And this is with the help of the Holy Spirit in us. In light of the New Covenant, God said of His people: “I will put My laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10). 1 Timothy 1:8 says, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” In commenting on this verse, Matthew Henry said, “The law is still very useful as a rule of life; though we are not under it as under a covenant of works, yet it is good to teach us what is sin and what is duty. It is not made for a righteous man, that is, it is not made for those who observe it; for, if we could keep the law, righteousness would be by the law (Galatians 3:21): but it is made for wicked persons, to restrain them, to check them, and to put a stop to vice and profaneness. It is the grace of God that changes men’s hearts; but the terrors of the law may be of use to tie their hands and restrain their tongues.”

The Methodists perverted the Anglican view of sanctification, as far as we can see. They honored the law of God and the Holy Spirit as the means of growing in sanctification, but like the Catholics, they believed that moral perfection could be attained in this life. We do not believe this–either in Scripture or in our experience. The Holiness movement took the Methodist holiness teaching to perfectionistic extremes. Even the revivalist Charles Finney fell into Pelagianism, denying the existence of original sin! We consider these to be very great theological and spiritual errors. For it is only by the grace and help of the Holy Spirit that we can grow in grace, not by our own human strength.

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About John Boruff

John Boruff is the founder of WesleyGospel.com, a husband, father, and sometimes an open air preacher. He graduated from UNC Pembroke in 2008 with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion and views himself as a Baptistic Pentecostal. As a Christian, he feels connected with all members of the body of Christ, but can identify the most with churches like the Assemblies of God and the Vineyard. In 2015, he released "The Gospel of Jesus Christ," which is meant to be a Bible study for open air preaching. For his other writings, search articles on this site or see the E-Books section.
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