Eighteenth-century Anglican priest John Wesley spoke of salvation as having two general parts—justification and sanctification (The Scripture Way of Salvation). When we first come to faith in Jesus Christ, we become justified, which is to say, saved from the guilt and condemnation of our sins. Simultaneously, the lifelong process of sanctification begins, which is the cleansing of our sinful nature—an internal propensity to commit sin. For the sanctified believer, the inward bent toward sinfulness is replaced with a desire to do the will of our Father in heaven. Without question, Scripture promises that God will sanctify us entirely, but what exactly does that mean and how does it happen?
The Apostle Paul wrote, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely, and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). As is implied in this verse, humans are made up of three elements: spirit, soul, and body. This is called the trichotomy of Man. There is another view that speaks of the spirit and soul synonymously as one part of a person and the body as another. Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4:16 is an example of that, where it says, “Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day.” This view is called a dichotomy and is relevant when speaking of the material being versus the immaterial being. But for our purpose, we are looking at the trichotomous view and how sanctification impacts the spirit, soul, and body of man.
From Sinner to Sanctified
The body is our physical being, which connects us with the material world, while our soul is the source of our thoughts and emotions; our passions and desires; our will and personality. The spirit is what gives believers the means to connect with God. But the unbeliever remains spiritually dead and utterly incapable of having any fellowship with God (Ephesians 2:1; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 1:6). Scripture teaches us that because of the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, all humans are born with a sinful nature (Romans 5:12; Genesis 5:3; Job 14:4; Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3). This is the doctrine of original sin. Our sinful nature compels us to commit sins of our own, of which the consequence is death. Our physical body dies gradually, while our spirit is stillborn, meaning we are dead from birth to the presence of God (Psalm 51:5; Psalm 58:3; Romans 5:12; 7:24; James 2:26; Ephesians 2:3). The spirit is still there and functional in the sense that it is the “breath of life” in us (Genesis 2:7; Isaiah 57:16; Job 34:14–15), but it is completely cut off from God, who is the source of life, and therefore is effectively dead (Isaiah 59:2; Ephesians 4:18). “Our lives are like water being spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” (2 Samuel 14:14). But when we finally come to have faith in Jesus Christ, our spirit is reborn and our connection to God is restored (1 Peter 1:3; Romans 8:16).
In this new spiritual life, our sins are forgiven, and we become justified by the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9). We are freed from the guilt and condemnation of personal sins, but that propensity toward sinfulness—a result of original sin inherited from Adam—remains in our flesh and continues to attempt to influence the soul. As believers in Christ, our reborn spirit, guided by the Holy Spirit who now dwells within us, is at war with our sinful flesh (Romans 8:16; Galatians 5:16–18). And while our new spirit is reborn entirely free of a sinful nature because it is born of the Spirit of God (John 3:6; Romans 8:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 John 3:9; 1 Peter 1:23; Psalm 51:10), the corruption caused by original sin is still present in our body. This is proven by the fact that we still physically die (Romans 8:10; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 4:16). Our human soul is the prize between these two warring factions within us. Which one we align ourselves with determines the fate of our souls. Will you surrender to the Spirit of God inside of you, or will you surrender to your sinful flesh (Galatians 5:19–25; Romans 6:12–14)?
The Biblical concept of ‘sinful flesh’ can be confusing in that it often does not necessarily refer to the physical body alone. The flesh is certainly and nearly always a reference to the body or members of the body, but in many Scriptural passages, it is more than that. The sinful flesh is the relationship or interaction between the body and the soul. Apart from God, the body, with its cravings and sensations, makes ruthless demands on our soul. It is what drives our internal desires that lead to sinfulness (Galatians 5:19). Watchman Nee, who was a mid-20th-century Christian teacher in China, wrote the following:
“Unlike many philosophers, we [Christians] do not think the flesh is intrinsically evil, but we admit that the body is the sphere where ‘sin’ rules. Therefore, we see in Romans 6:6 that the Holy Spirit calls our body ‘the body of sin,’ because before we experience the dealing of the cross, before we yield our members as weapons of righteousness to God, our body is simply ‘the body of sin’” (Nee, The Spiritual Man. 1968)
Our physical body has certain cravings that are not necessarily bad until those cravings become distorted by sin. The body hungers for food, but when unchecked, our need for nourishment can easily lead us to overindulge to the point of gluttony. We have sexual passions, but outside the context of marriage, this is very clearly and always a sin that causes harm to ourselves and others (1 Corinthians 6:18; Leviticus 18). We are instinctively driven to self-preservation, but when untempered, this can lead us to do terrible things for the sake of gaining the upper hand, such as maiming or murdering our fellow humans. But as Christians, God’s act of sanctification gives us the power to discipline our bodies and bring those fleshly desires into submission (Romans 6:13, 12:1; 1 Corinthians 9:27; 1 Thessalonians 4:4).
Three Phases of Sanctification
Sanctification is the means by which God makes us holy, and holiness is the state of having been perfected, purified, and set apart for the purpose of serving and worshiping God. There are three phases to sanctification: initial sanctification, gradual sanctification, and entire sanctification. One could say that we are sanctified, we are being sanctified, and we will become entirely sanctified. It is evident from Scripture that all three of these happen in the life of the believer. It cannot be disputed that the term “entire sanctification” is indeed biblical. We see this in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians as mentioned before. It starts out with, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely.” This suggests a work in progress, but with a clearly defined goal—entire sanctification. The verse continues, “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless.” The word “kept”, or as some translations say, “preserved”, infers the maintaining of something that has already happened. This is a reference to both justification and initial sanctification.
Our salvation begins when we are justified, meaning that we are declared righteous by the blood of Christ. This is the imputation of His righteousness, which means that it is attributed to us undeservedly by the eternal grace of God (Romans 3:24). And just as the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us in justification, it must also be imparted or established in us through sanctification, making our salvation complete. While we were declared blameless when our faith in Christ first sparked, we must also become sound in nature, which essentially means to be preserved in our newly restored state and capable of accomplishing that which our Lord set before us. God transforms us through sanctification to actually become righteous, holy, and blameless in our whole being—spirit, soul, and body. Paul wasn’t making an empty promise. He was assuring the Thessalonians that complete holiness will indeed happen because “He who calls you is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5:24). Paul was expressing his desire for the Thessalonians to experience entire sanctification in their own lives and that this life of holiness would be preserved until “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The first aspect of sanctification is our spiritual birth, that moment when we make the decision to commit ourselves to follow Christ. Paul writes, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). When we begin our Christian journey, we are “joined with Christ Jesus in baptism” (Romans 6:3). This is baptism with the Holy Spirit when we are initiated into the body of Christ, or as John Wesley puts it, “In baptism we, through faith, are ingrafted into Christ; and we draw new spiritual life from this new root, through his Spirit, who fashions us like unto him, and particularly with regard to his death and resurrection” (John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible). We become sanctified, which is to be set apart from sin and for citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Our old sinful selves are crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6), and our new sanctified selves are reborn as children of God (John 1:12-13), marked by the indwelling of the Spirit as belonging to Christ (Ephesians 1:13).
The second phase of sanctification is the gradual process of transformation over a lifetime, as described by Paul when he wrote, “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Paul is referencing Exodus 34, where Moses, after being in the presence of the Lord, covered his face with a veil to hide how the glory of God radiated from it because it was unbearable for the people. But for the believer, the glory of Christ has been unveiled and shines on us forever, transforming us into His likeness. The unregenerate sinner remains veiled by their unbelief, unable to see or experience the glory of God. Paul explains, “The people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:14). Jesus is the glory of God (Hebrews 1:3), and His Spirit lives in those who put their faith in Him. By the Spirit of Christ, we are being remade into His holy image “from one degree of glory to another.” This is gradual sanctification.
This brings us to the third phase of sanctification known as complete holiness, or entire sanctification. It is an apex moment in the sanctifying process, both preceded by and followed by gradual sanctification. The gradual work that precedes this instant is our transformation from being sinful in nature to becoming holy in nature (Hebrews 10:14; Colossians 3:10), while the gradual work after entire sanctification is God expanding our hearts so that we may express more and more of His perfect holiness (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13). The Apostle John described it in the following way: “As we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world (1 John 4:17 NLT). He describes how our love grows from perfect to “more perfect.” Christlikeness is not just something we look forward to in the afterlife but something we can experience and express here and now in this world.
The ultimate state of entire sanctification is complete holiness, and the ultimate expression of entire sanctification is perfect love. Yet, even in complete holiness, we continue to grow “more perfect.” Consider a student learning to play the piano; they will start with simple exercises and songs, practicing them until they are perfected. The student can then go on to learn more challenging songs until those are also mastered. This process continues on and on throughout the life of the musician, so long as they are pursuing musicianship. In a similar way, as our faith increases, our capacity to be perfected in Christ-like holiness also increases, as does our expression of God’s perfect love, so long as we are in pursuit of complete holiness.
Only through God’s work in us can we become entirely sanctified. Yet, we are not passive in the process. We are instructed by the Apostle Paul to pursue it: “Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). The way we pursue complete holiness is by consecrating ourselves completely to God, both inwardly and outwardly. This means setting ourselves apart from the things of this world that can defile us and instead surrendering to the Holy Spirit, who purges the sinful nature from our soul. Through entire sanctification, the Spirit transforms us into holy people who desire to become more like Christ and to do the will of our Father in heaven. So long as we are in submission to the Spirit, our physical impulses are kept in check and are not permitted to influence the soul into sinful desires. Our part in this process—the work God wants from us, as Jesus explains—is to “believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29 NLT). We contribute nothing else but our faith and our willingness to surrender to Him (Philippians 3:9). And by faith, we become empowered by the Spirit to remain obedient to Christ. This ability to entirely consecrate ourselves to God is only possible because of His empowering grace at work in us.
Not Sinless Perfectionism
Entire sanctification does not and has never meant sinless perfectionism. John Wesley denied this emphatically. In his treatise, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he wrote, “Indeed, I do not expect to be freed from actual mistakes till this mortal puts on immortality. I believe this to be a natural consequence of the soul’s dwelling in flesh and blood” (Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 54, Beacon Hill Press, 1966). Wesley made a distinction between voluntary and involuntary transgressions by calling the first “sin properly so-called” and the latter “sin improperly so-called.” He believed that while the perfected Christian was free from all voluntary transgressions, they were not necessarily free from committing involuntary transgressions, or “mistakes”, as he would sometimes call them. He confessed that these mistakes still “need the atoning blood” because they are in fact a violation of the Divine Law. He continues, “Therefore, sinless perfection is a phrase I never use, lest I should seem to contradict myself. I believe a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions. Such transgressions you may call sins if you please; I do not, for the reasons above-mentioned” (ibid.).
The entirely sanctified person no longer desires to commit sin so long as we “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16 NKJV). But whenever becoming distracted by fear or selfish impulses, we run the risk of falling into willful sin once again. Even thinking too highly of our own holiness can be a devious trap of the Enemy. In C.S. Lewis’s literary classic, The Screwtape Letters, The elder demon writes to his nephew Wormwood the following instruction:
“Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By Jove! I’m being humble,” and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.”
In order to maintain complete holiness, we must remain vigilant in our faith. Paul reminds us, “Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us” (Romans 12:3). Paul, being a man who lived by the words he spoke, confessed, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection” (Philippians 3:12a). We should consider that if Paul did not believe that he had reached perfection in his life by the time he wrote these words, we also should be very careful about making such claims for ourselves, if for no other reason than to avoid the trap of pride in our own humility. The moment we become focused on self rather than Christ, we once again become susceptible to the influence of sinful flesh. Rather than making proclamations of perfect holiness about ourselves, we should be joining Paul in saying that we “press on to possess the perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed in [us]” (3:12b).
John Wesley defined sin as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God” (Letter to Mrs. Bennis, June 16, 1772), but the Apostle John simply defined it as a “transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), or as it is stated in the modern translations, “sin is lawlessness.” He did not assert that lawlessness had to be willful in order to be sin. Wesley, on the other hand, does make that distinction and addresses this objection: “For St. John says, `All sin is a transgression of the law.’ True, but he does not say, All transgression of the law is sin” (Sermon 76: On Perfection). But does the Bible support this idea that ignorance of God’s law nullifies a transgression from being classified as sin?
Hebrews 9:7 explains how sins of ignorance require a “blood offering,” echoing the Old Testament Law recorded in Leviticus 5:17, which says that those who commit sins out of ignorance are still considered guilty and are to bear punishment. Jesus Himself spoke of this very law when He said, “But the one who did not know his master’s will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating” (Luke 12:48). We can see from these passages that, while ignorance can mitigate the degree of punishment, it does not excuse one from punishment altogether. Paul described his own pre-conversion actions as sins of ignorance in his first letter to Timothy. He explained how God had mercy on him because he “acted in ignorance and unbelief” in his persecution of Christians (1 Timothy 1:13), but then in verse fifteen, Paul does not hesitate to call himself the chief of all sinners in reference to those specific actions. It is clear that the Bible does indeed consider those who have committed transgressions in ignorance as sinners still deserving punishment.
A Sanctified Heart
And so the question arises: since Wesley had already acknowledged that entire sanctification does not guarantee perfect sinlessness, why then did he feel it necessary to insist that involuntary transgressions are not sin? I believe it is because, for Wesley, the defining characteristic of sin was not the outward act but rather the motive of the heart. The entirely sanctified Christian may at times find themselves acting contrary to the law of God, all the while believing that they are acting in good faith. But because there was no malicious intent, Wesley would not consider this involuntary transgression to be sin.
Wesley’s primary reason for making this distinction was because he was concerned about antinomianism, the notion that because all sin is the same and because we are saved by grace, there is no need to obey the moral law and we are free to continue in sin because all will be forgiven. But there is a similar problem with Wesley’s view if it is not understood correctly: that because an involuntary transgression is not actually sin in his view, there is no need to seek forgiveness or even reconciliation with those who may have been harmed by our actions. Wesley himself warned against this by insisting that atonement and forgiveness were necessary, even for involuntary transgressions. There is a distinction between willful and unintentional sin, to be sure, but we must also recognize that Scripture does indeed refer to both as sin.
Sanctified Moment To Moment
Wesley, furthermore, did not make the claim that the entirely sanctified believer could not fall back into even willful sin; quite the contrary. He wrote,
“The holiest of men still need Christ as their Prophet, as ‘the Light of the World.’ For He does not give them light, but from moment to moment; the instant He withdraws, all is darkness. They still need Christ as their King; for God does not give them a stock of holiness. But unless they receive a supply every moment, nothing but unholiness would remain. They still need Christ as their Priest, to make atonement for their holy things. Even perfect holiness is acceptable to God only through Jesus Christ… There is no such height or strength of holiness as it is impossible to fall from… If after having renounced all, we do not watch incessantly, and beseech God to accompany our vigilance with His, we shall be again entangled and overcome” (A Plain Account, pp. 82, 94, 110, Beacon Hill Press, 1966)
In order to remain in an entirely sanctified state, we must stay focused on Christ at all times and in all ways. Just like Peter, who ran out onto the water to meet Jesus but began to sink when he became terrified by the storm (Matthew 14:30), we also must not allow ourselves to become distracted with doubt and fear lest our faith in Christ waver and we find ourselves sinking into the old patterns of our sinful flesh. As followers of Christ, it is only when we keep our eyes on Jesus and trust Him fully that we maintain complete holiness.
Efficacy and Timing of Entire Sanctification
So at what point do we become entirely sanctified, and in what sense is our holiness complete? As we have established, sanctification begins the moment we are saved (1 John 1:9) and becomes fully realized when we rise from the grave to meet our Savior “on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6). Amidst that process, the believer experiences entire sanctification—a momentary second blessing, or filling of the Spirit. While this crisis event is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, we might deduce that perhaps it happens sometime after we—being empowered by the Holy Spirit—have fully consecrated ourselves to God and beaten our flesh into submission (Galatians 5:24; James 4:7).
John Wesley believed that for most, this happened much later in the Christian life. But for some, it could happen sooner. In a somewhat ambiguous fashion, he writes, “As to the time, I believe this instant generally is the instant of death, the moment before the soul leaves the body. But I believe it may be ten, twenty, or forty years before… I believe it is usually many years after justification, but that it may be within five years or five months after it” (Letter to Charles Wesley, January 27, 1767). The younger brother, Charles, appeared to diverge from his elder brother on the possibility of an earlier timing. He seemed to lean more heavily on the gradual experience of sanctification, with the apex moment of entire sanctification only happening at the time of passing from this life into the next. In the book, Charles Wesley: The Man with the Dancing Heart, the author T. Crichton Mitchell writes the following:
“From the late 1740s, Charles Wesley appears increasingly hesitant about regarding or at least asserting entire sanctification as a crisis experience in the life of the believer, that is, as a specific punctilio action of the Holy Spirit. He creates the impression that only in the very instant and article of death will God entirely sanctify the Christian soul” (p. 166, Beacon Hill Press 1994).
Despite their disagreement over the timing of entire sanctification, both brothers vehemently asserted that it is a biblical promise for all believers and that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 NIV). In any case, the words of Paul are relevant here: “Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you. But we must hold on to the progress we have already made” (Philippians 3:15–16). In other words, we can have differing views on the nuances of sanctification, so long as we agree on the overall premise that the pursuit of complete holiness is absolutely essential to the Christian life.
From Sanctified To Glorified
Entire sanctification is not only freedom from the guilt and power of sin but victory over our fallen nature. As believers, “The Holy Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16), and as children of God, the Spirit purifies our soul and empowers us to subdue the flesh. So, in full confidence of the promise of God,
“Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:21-24).
It is important to remember that apart from God, mankind is totally depraved of any goodness or righteousness (Romans 3:10–18). Only by God’s grace can we even recognize our own sinfulness and our need for Him. It is only by His grace that we are able to come to Christ in faith to seek salvation. Only by His grace and work in us may we become truly righteous and holy. “Even though the body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives [us] life because [we] have been made right with God” (Romans 8:10). In complete holiness, the soul of man is fully cleansed of its sinful nature. By consequence, we become entirely focused on loving God and loving our neighbor (Mark 12:30–31); we become “a living and holy sacrifice” (Romans 12:1); we become fully committed to the transforming power of God (12:2); the agape love of God is “made complete in us” (1 John 4:12); and we show how completely we love Him by obedience to His word (1 John 2:5). In essence, we come to a point where we surrender daily to God’s Spirit residing inside of us rather than submitting to the desires of our flesh, which is only gratification of self.
We must continue this practice of daily surrender in order to remain in the state of complete holiness. The moment we take our eyes off Jesus, we begin to sink back into the susceptibility of sinful desires once again. But if we do, “we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous” (1 John 2:1). When the body finally dies and we are resurrected, that last bit of corruption and decay of the physical body caused by original sin is finally and completely eradicated from us. Then our soul and spirit is clothed in spotless robes (2 Corinthians 5:2, Revelation 19:8), which is our glorified body that we receive on the day of the Lord’s return. We then “stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10), “sound and blameless,” fully justified by His blood, and fully sanctified in spirit, soul, and body into Christlike holiness. “God will make this happen, for He who calls you is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).