Vic Reasoner, “Interpreting the Word Accurately: Wrestling with Jacob’s Experience (2 Timothy 2:15)”

, posted by Jon Gossman

In Richard S. Taylor’s book Preaching Holiness Today he discusses three classes of holiness texts. A Class A text is a passage where entire sanctification is the main thrust of the passage. John Wesley built his case for entire sanctification upon scriptural promises of deliverance from all sin, prayers for entire sanctification, commands to live holy, and examples from the Bible of persons who had attained relationship. In The Path to Perfection W. E. Sangster identified thirty primary texts which John Wesley used for his doctrine of Christian perfection.

According to Richard S. Taylor a Class B text is a passage in which the emphasis on holiness is implicit rather than explicit. The subject of sanctification might be inferred from such texts.

Class C texts are passages which illustrate the doctrine, but are not properly “proof texts” in support of entire sanctification. These texts would not establish the doctrine in the minds of those outside the subculture who have not already accepted the premise. Unfortunately the modern presentation of the doctrine of entire sanctification has, all too often, relied upon scriptural passages that do not bear the doctrinal weight placed upon them. Any doctrine which is supported from secondary texts will eventually become fuzzy.

My 1994 doctoral dissertation surveyed conservative holiness preachers and identified their favorite texts for preaching entire sanctification. Of the four texts most frequently cited, only one was on Wesley’s list. At best, the other three texts might be considered Class B texts, which do not explicitly teach the doctrine. Those who hold to a high view of biblical inspiration cannot accept the flippant reply of the holiness evangelist who is reported to have said, “If I can find holiness where it ain’t, you ought to be able to find it where it is.”

However, the most popular presentations of entire sanctification are often from Class C texts. These colorful presentations have tended to make the teaching of holiness part of a folk religion, instead of the result of scriptural exegesis. And at times they raise more questions than they answer.

One such passage is Genesis 32:22-32. Early Methodist commentators interpreted Jacob’s experience here as an illustration of the new birth. Adam Clarke wrote that, “From this time Jacob became a new man; but it was not till after a severe struggle that he got his name, his heart, and his character changed.” Clarke closed the chapter with this observation, “Though salvation be the free gift of God, yet he gives it not to any who do not earnestly seek it.”

John Fletcher preached from Matthew 11:12, “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” He used Jacob’s wrestling as an example of entering the kingdom. Referring to God’s question, “What is thy name?”, Fletcher said, “He will have the sinner know himself, and confess what he is; then he gives the new name.”

Charles Wesley used this account as a type of the new birth in his famous hymn, “Wrestling Jacob.” It is significant that this hymn was placed in the Methodist hymnal under the heading, “For Mourners brought to the Birth.”

However, a later generation of holiness evangelists used this account to teach entire sanctification. The location “Peniel” became a name used among holiness churches and was even incorporated in the name of a holiness periodical, The Peniel Herald.

G. D. Watson claimed there were 12-14 statements in Scripture, “any of which is sufficient to prove Jacob was a child of God twenty years before the blessing at Peniel” [Love Abounding (1891); see also God’s First Words (1919)]. After he asserted that Jacob was born again at Bethel, Watson could claim that Jacob’s experience at Peniel was a second blessing.

John Paul’s sermon “Wrestling Jacob: The Route to the Blessing,” reprinted in Great Holiness Classics, referred to Jacob’s vision at Bethel. Paul claimed, “From that day forward Jacob was a man of God.” And The Wesley Bible contains the annotation on Genesis 32:29, “Insofar as this even represents complete surrender to God with a consequent new nature, it is analogous to the Christian’s experience of entire sanctification.”

But L. Milton Williams did not accept the Bethel-Peniel, two-blessing paradigm. Although he heard sermons that made Jacob’s experience at Bethel in Genesis 28 his conversion, Williams wrote that none of those sermons seemed right.

Because we believe this whole transaction has been strained, and made to be a type of the great work of the conversion of a soul to God when there has been no sorrow shown, nor the slightest sign of repentance for the great wrongs done, thus lowering the standard, and belittling that all important work.

We believe that the actions of Jacob, and his life, as we shall discover are not the actions of a man of God, but that of a scheming, selfish man, willing to stoop to any trickery to further his own ends. We repeat this has been held up as Jacob’s conversion, and as such, a type of regeneration; but what a standard it is. Read again his words as he awoke frightened in his dream, “Surely the Lord was in the place and I knew it not.” To those who would contend that this was a type of conversion we would reply, yes, it is a good type of a great many of the so-called conversions of today. Truly like Jacob, they can honestly say, I knew it not, and they don’t know it now either. They have such vague dreamy experiences that their testimonies are anything but positive. They have nothing distinct to testify to. . . . Consequently they do not know when the burden rolled away or when God came and spoke peace tot heir troubled breast. . . . That he dreamed, and that he saw in his dream all that he said he did, we do not question for one moment, but that he was here converted or that his life afterwards so proved, or that the whole transaction is a true type of Bible regeneration, or what we understand as the conversion of a soul to God we do not believe [Jacob, the Heel-Grasper (1907)].

A. J. Smith wrote that the new birth produces a change of character. He observed that Jacob was the same after his dream at Bethel as before. He said Jacob was deceitful and dishonest until his real conversion in Genesis 32.

Old Testament history does not necessarily teach New Testament doctrine nor did Old Testament characters necessarily experience New Testament religion. However, if Class C passages from the Old Testament are going to be properly utilized to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the interpreter had better have a proper grasp of the New Testament doctrine of the new birth or the standard will be lowered. L. Milton Williams correctly concluded, “No soul can find God in his pardoning power until it is willing to and does forsake all its sins, make amends for its past wrong-doing the best it can, and empty handed throws itself on God’s mercy. This Jacob never did until he came to Peniel.”


Reasoner, Vic. “Interpreting the Word Accurately: Wrestling with Jacob’s Experience (2 Timothy 2:15).” The Arminian: A Publication of the Fundamental Wesleyan Society, vol. 17, no. 1, 1999. Print.