Last session we studied the broad scope of the Wesleyan-Arminian theology of salvation. That included the mention of the experience of sanctification. Now, a careful study of the scriptures shows a strong basis for the doctrine of sanctification; and I believe it is worth our while to look at some of the key passages.

It is the will of God that his people shall be sanctified or made holy. 1 Thess. 4:3 puts it in almost that precise language. It says, quote, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (See also Eph. 5:17-18; Heb. 10:10)

Not only has God declared that it is his will that his people be sanctified, he also has promised to sanctify his people. That is, he doesn’t expect us to do the impossible; he himself provides the way. “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). (See also Eze. 36:25; Matt. 3:11.

Sanctification also is a command of God. I Peter 1:15-16 reads, quote, “As he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct since it is written, ‘you shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Furthermore, Jesus made a similar point, “You therefore must be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Thus there is no doubt that we are commanded to be holy, and this holiness includes some sort of perfection that human beings can attain (See also Mk. 12:30).

Finally, passages can be offered to denote the ethical quality of sanctification. By “ethical quality” I refer to the moral demands of the sanctified life. We not only are we to be pardoned for our past sins, we are to be delivered from all sin. For instance, Acts 15:8-9, which is part of Peter’s testimony at the great Jerusalem Conference concerning his experience with the household of Cornelius, reads: “And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.” Thus we see that when the Holy Spirit fell on true Gentiles for the first time, the distinctive thing that happened, in Peter’s view, was ethical. Their hearts were cleansed from sin by faith.

John, in 1 John 1:7, 9 makes the same kind of assertion, quote, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”


In order to get into a complete discussion of full sanctification, we must first return to the subject of sin. For as we have just seen, sanctification, in part, has to do with delivering us from sin.

The first matter we want to deal with is a definition of sin. That isn’t as easy as it might seem on the surface, because although we all assume that we know what sin is, when it comes time to define it, complications arise.

For example, The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly (17th Century) defined sin in a way that is typical of the Calvinistic tradition. It says that sin is any “want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

The problem with such a definition of sin is that no human being is capable of avoiding sin under that definition, not even a Christian. And it puts an impossible strain upon one who is seeking to interpret a scripture like I John 3:9, which says: “No one born of God commits sin.”

John Wesley sought to remedy this problem by defining sin as, “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God.” Wesley thus excluded from his definition of sin such things as mistakes, involuntary shortcomings and unconscious lapses. Under this definition of sin, one has to make a conscious decision to transgress the law of God in order to sin.

Now Wesley understood perfectly well that all of us transgress the law of God occasionally, by mistake, or because of some shortcoming in our personality and the like. And that kind of transgression must be dealt with. Such transgressions are not simply overlooked. They are covered by the blood of Jesus as a universal benefit of the atonement. Thus the forgiveness is an aspect of prevenient, or common, grace.

I like to define sin by combining ideas from the two definitions already before you, and by changing the emphasis of the definition from law to will. That is, I like to have the emphasis on the will, instead of on the law. To put it another way, I like to move the emphasis from the impersonal relationship of the Christian to God’s law to the personal relationship of the Christian to God himself.

I define sin as, “a voluntary lack of conformity to, or transgression of, the known will of God.” With this definition, Wesley’s focus on voluntary sins is preserved, but the emphasis is shifted from law to will, from the impersonal to the personal.

Now then, we can conform to the will of God only if our motives are pure. And the only way we can have pure motives is by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And even then, it is only possible when we are fully yielded to the will of the Spirit who dwells within. I trust you realize that this discussion of motives and will, of relationship with the Holy Spirit, is a discussion of sanctification. And the kind of definition of sin that Wesley advanced makes a biblical doctrine of complete sanctification possible.

Now I want to compare and contrast the Calvinistic and Wesleyan views of entire sanctification. In the Calvinistic view, sanctification (like justification) is imputed to the Christian when converted. Now imputation is an important concept in theology, so let’s look at it for a few moments. The word “imputation” comes from a Greek word that means “to reckon,” or “to account.” In the English dictionary, “to impute” is defined, “to charge to,” and “to ascribe to.”

In Rom. 4:3, Paul says that Abraham’s faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” The Greek word translated “reckoned” is the same word that we said a moment ago means “to impute.” Thus it could have been translated that Abraham’s faith was “imputed” to him as righteousness or justification.

Now the concept itself is not in question. Rather the interpretation of it is. The basic concept is that when a person believes, righteousness (or justification) is imputed to that person. It’s another way of saying one is saved by faith. That is, when we stand before God as a saved person, we do not stand there in our own righteousness. Rather we have the righteousness of Christ ascribed or imputed to us. And we are pardoned not because of our righteousness, but because of his imputed righteousness.

Calvinists and Arminians are agreed about imputation and justification. Both groups agree that justification is by imputation. The problem comes at the point of sanctification. Calvinists say that sanctification is imputed just like justification. Not only is an individual Christian justified because God made the person elect. That individual also is sanctified because of God’s election. And this imputed sanctification is entire sanctification. It has nothing to do with how successfully one actually lives out the holy life.

Now this Calvinist theology can lead to a very serious problem. There always have been people who have taken the idea of imputed sanctification to its logical conclusion. They reason that if all their sins, past, present and future are forgiven; and God always perceives them to be holy with Christ’s imputed righteousness, it doesn’t matter if they sin, or how much they sin. Obviously, all good Calvinists would condemn that kind of thinking. They believe that out of gratitude to God they must seek to be as holy in actuality as the imputation of sanctification makes them in theory.

Ironically, the practical day to day living of sincere Calvinists and Arminians does not differ a great deal. Individuals in both groups strive to do the will of God and to be holy. However, the theological difference is significant. Since sanctification is imputed in the Calvinist view, they do not believe that they can overcome sin in this life. Thus their lives tend to become in practical terms a human effort to be as good and holy as possible in order to honor God, but without any hope of deliverance from the power of sin before death.

Arminians, on the other hand, strongly believe that the power to actually be holy in this life is imparted to the Christian via the Holy Spirit rather than imputed. That’s quite a difference!
Instead of a constant struggle to try to be good, but being powerless to accomplish it, Christians have the power available in the indwelling Holy Spirit to be set free from sin. In other words, not only is there available deliverance from the consequences and penalty of sin. That is Justification. But there also is available deliverance from the dominion and power of sin. That is entire sanctification.

Now this deliverance from the dominion and power of sin expresses itself in two ways: one, by inward purity of heart (Acts 15:9; Matt. 5:8), and two, by actual ethical holiness.


Now then, having seen that sanctification is primarily concerned with our deliverance from sin, we are ready to make a transition to the nature of sanctification. The term sanctification comes from the Latin sanctus, which means “saint,” or “holy one.” Sanctification primarily has to do with holiness, and that is why it has the name that it has. If one is free from sin and devoted to God, then that person is completely holy, or sanctified.

Now both places and things are said, in the scriptures, to be holy because of their relationship to God. For example, when Moses saw the burning bush and went to investigate, he was told by God: “put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

Likewise, later in the Old Testament, the tabernacle was considered to be particularly holy, because that was the place where God chose to dwell in a special way. And the things used in the tabernacle also are described as holy. Such items as these can be called holy because they are closely associated with God, or they have been “set apart” for holy purposes. This kind of holiness is called “ceremonial” holiness.

Persons also can have this “ceremonial” or “cultic” sanctification (holiness). The Old Testament priests are examples. But, persons can be holy in another, more important way, which we have called “ethical” sanctification. Ethical sanctification is the idea of the purification of the heart, the idea of holiness of the individual’s will and motivations.

It involves not simply the forgiveness of one’s past sins, which really is justification. Rather it involves the restoration of the individual in the moral image of God; it involves the fact that “the blood of Jesus his [meaning God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John. 1:7).

George Ladd, author of Theology of the N.T., writes from a Calvinist perspective. If you read his section on sanctification, you will find him stressing the “cultic” aspect of sanctification rather than the ethical, though he mentions both. He writes, “holiness is first of all cultic and secondarily moral,” (p. 519). And he stresses the cultic aspect over against the ethical in a way an Arminian cannot do.