Mark K. Olson, “John Wesley on Sin and Holiness”

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Cowman Lectures, 2021. Seoul Theological University.

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In the study of Christian holiness, no matter which tradition is being examined, the definition of sin becomes central. For the Wesleyan tradition, the issue becomes even more crucial because we teach the possibility of entire sanctification — a full salvation from sin in this life. To explore the relationship between our doctrines of sin and holiness, I propose we take a closer look at the founder of our tradition, John Wesley, and his doctrines of sin and holiness. As we will see, the entire edifice of his doctrine of Christian perfection hinges on how he structurally organized his doctrine of sin. The plan is to first detail chronological developments in his doctrine of sin and then diagram its basic parameters. In this way we can show how his doctrine of sin contributed to his understanding of Christian holiness.

Chronological Developments

With the decision to enter holy orders in 1725, along with the spiritual awakening that accompanied it, Wesley’s interest in the subject of sin intensified.[1] This was a corollary to his single intention to attain Christian perfection, a synonym he used for holiness. As he stated in his sermon The Circumcision of the Heart, if the goal is to be “perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect,” then the seeker must be “cleansed from sin, ‘from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit.’”[2]

When we move to the Aldersgate era in 1738, sin becomes more carefully defined. In the sermon Salvation by Faith, Wesley divides sin into two main categories: guilt and power.[3] He then divides sin’s power into four sub-categories: habit, willful, desire, and infirmity (II.6). Wesley explains that those born of God do not sin habitually since to do so means that sin still reigns, which is a mark of an unbeliever. Neither does the Christian sin willfully since the believer’s will is now set on living for Christ. He further claims that believers do not sin by desire because the heart has been thoroughly transformed to desire only God’s perfect will. Wesley then addresses “sin by infirmities.” Since infirmities involve no “concurrence of (the) will,” such deviations, whether in thought, word, or deed, are not “properly” sin. He therefore concludes that those born of God do not commit sin, having been saved from “all their sins” (II.2, 7).

Though still rudimentary in organization, Wesley’s doctrine of sin is set on a clear trajectory in relation to holiness. Central to his doctrine of sin is the plumbline of human volition and the core conviction that our innate perversity is due to original sin. The theological premises of Salvation by Faith are two-fold: first, Adam’s sin entails on his posterity both sinful desire and human infirmity. Second, our personal sinfulness leads to bondage by choice and habit. The fact that Wesley links original sin to both sinful desire and (sinful) infirmities will influence the development of his doctrine of holiness.

By the end of 1738 Wesley began to use the terms inward and outward to define the degree of deliverance from sin in the gifts of justification and sanctification.[4] These categories inform his landmark sermon Christian Perfection three years later. Outward sin refers to deliberate decisions and serves as a synonym for willful sin.[5] Inward sin stands for sinful desire that lies deeper in human nature and is expressed through sinful attitudes and dispositions, like pride, self-will, and anger.[6] Wesley utilizes the language of 1 John 2:12-14 to teach that “children” in the faith (i.e. immature Christians) are saved from outward sin and are enabled by grace to suppress inward sin, but only “fathers” (i.e. adult Christians) are delivered from inward sin and attain Christian perfection (perfect love to God).

Five years later Wesley categorized sin under five headings in the sermon “The First-fruits of the Spirit.” There is past sin (guilt), present sin (outward sin), inward sin (corruption of nature), infirmity (involuntary failings), and sins of surprise (impulsive or reactive responses).[7] Essential to his doctrine of sin is the concurrence of the will:

Wesley wrote, “We cannot say, either that men are, or that they are not, condemned for sins of surprise in general: But it seems, whenever a believer is by surprise overtaken in a fault, there is more or less condemnation, as there is more or less concurrence of his will. In proportion as a sinful desire, or word, or action, is more or less voluntary, so we may conceive God is more or less displeased, and there is more or less guilt upon the soul.”[8]

So central is the concurrence of the will to the commission of sin that in 1748 Wesley repeated his now famous definition of sin as an “actual, voluntary transgression of the law… acknowledged to be such at the time that it is transgressed.”[9]

More needs to be said about the relationship between outward and inward sin. In The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God (1748) Wesley explains through a nine-step process how sin can once again gain dominion over a Christian. Sin begins with temptation; the Spirit warns, but the believer succumbs to the sinful desire. If the choice to sin persists, then the Spirit is grieved, and the believer’s faith is weakened. Love for God then grows cold. The Holy Spirit convicts and draws the wayward believer to repentance. A critical decision is made at this point. If the Christian rejects the inner voice of the Spirit, then “evil desire begins and spreads” until the light of divine faith and love flickers out. At this point God’s power departs and the person becomes “capable of committing outward sin.”[10] By outward sin Wesley here means habitual sin—the mark of a non-Christian.[11] To restate Wesley’s progression, the loss of saving faith begins with outward sin, which involves a deliberate choice; yet the backsliding continues because of inward sin, which finally leads to habitual sin. To use the language from Salvation by Faith: sin as willful leads to sin as desire resulting in sin as habitual. The consequence is that salvation is lost.

For the most part, Wesley’s vocabulary on sin is now set in place. His common adjectives for sin are outward, inward, habitual, commission (committing), infirmity, voluntary, involuntary, and willful.[12] In relation to personal guilt, the plumb-line is the engagement of the human will. While the Early Wesley (1725-1738) worked with two basic categories of sin (original and actual), the Middle Wesley (1738-1765) diversified and expanded his doctrine of actual sin. Actual sin is now viewed as more complex and requiring more nuance, thus reflecting development in Wesley’s diagnosis of the human condition. Of course, the bedrock of his diagnosis is his doctrine of original sin, inherited from his Anglican tradition that followed Augustine in its reading of scripture, and was central to the revival’s message of salvation by grace alone. On this point, Wesley stood firm: in Adam “we are all born with a sinful, devilish nature,” therefore we all need new birth in Christ.[13]

The final steps in the maturation of Wesley’s doctrine of sin came in the 1760s. The perfection revival and its schism led Wesley to structurally organize his doctrine of sin. We see this in the tracts Thoughts on Christian Perfection (1759) and Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection (1763). By 1758 several young preachers were telling people they must be entirely sanctified to be eternally saved. This called for correction at the annual conference, with Wesley reminding everyone that all believers, even the “most perfect,” need daily forgiveness.[14] The next year Wesley published Thoughts and formally categorized his doctrine of sin under the headings voluntary and involuntary to guard against revival excesses that were erupting in the societies. Four years later Wesley published the sequel Farther Thoughts in which he grounds his doctrine of sin on the Reformed concept of two covenants.[15]The concept of covenants gave Wesley two distinguishable standards by which to define sin in his doctrine of holiness: the law of works and the law of faith. Farther Thoughts was in response to the enthusiasm of George Bell and Thomas Maxfield. Their wild claims of angelic perfection compelled Wesley to underscore the limitations of attainable perfection. This required Wesley to qualify the degree of deliverance from sin experienced in the gift of perfect love.

Structural Organization

Now that we have chronicled the development of Wesley’s doctrine of sin, we can take a closer look at how its structural organization influenced his understanding of holiness and his philosophy of discipleship. For starters, we turn to Thoughts on Christian Perfection and note how Wesley categorized his doctrine of sin under six points:

“1. and 2. Not only sin, properly so called (that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law,) but sin, improperly so called (that is, an involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown) needs the atoning blood, and without this would expose to eternal damnation.

3.  I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality.

4.  Therefore “sinless perfection” is a phrase I never use lest I should seem to contradict myself.

5.         I believe a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions.

6.         Such transgressions you may call sins, if you please. I do not for the reason above mentioned.”[16]

According to Wesley, voluntary sin is intentional; involuntary sin is not. His reason for this distinction is that these latter transgressions are “inseparable from mortality;” that is, they are part of fallen human nature in this present age. Even though Wesley refers to such transgressions as “sin, improperly so called,” he maintains these transgressions violate the divine standard and require atonement by Christ’s sacrifice. As a result, Wesley teaches that even the “most perfect” are “still liable to these involuntary transgressions” and need daily forgiveness. This will be explained in further detail below. We can begin to diagram Wesley’s doctrine of actual sin as follows:

Two Categories of Actual Sin:

  • Voluntary sin – sin properly so-called – intentional sin
  • Involuntary sin – sin improperly so-called – unintentional sin

One of the differences between these two categories is their standard. Scott Jones explains, “Wesley’s dispensational view is in keeping with traditional Reformed interpretation . . . the Puritan divines distinguish between two covenants, a covenant of works which applies to before the Fall and one of grace which applied after Adam’s sin.”[17] In Farther Thoughts, Wesley states that the law of works was “given to Adam in (his) innocence.” Having been “created free from any defect,” Adam’s “body was then no clog to the mind; it did not hinder his apprehending all things clearly, judging truly . . . reasoning justly.” Adam was expected to “always think, always speak, and always act precisely right, in every point whatever.”[18] This view of humanity’s original perfection remained a constant in Wesley’s theology.[19]

With the coming of Christ, another law replaced the law given to Adam. The law of faith says, “not everyone that doeth, but everyone that believeth, now receiveth righteousness . . . he is justified, sanctified, and glorified.”[20] Instead of being fulfilled by perfect performance, the law of faith is fulfilled by love: “Faith working or animated by love is all that God now requires of man. He has substituted love . . . in the room of angelic perfection.”[21] Of special interest is how Wesley integrates these two standards in his doctrine of holiness:

“Q. 13.  But if Christ has put an end to that law, what need of any atonement for their transgressing it?

A.  Observe in what sense he has put an end to it, and the difficulty vanishes. Were it not for the abiding merit of his death, and his continual intercession for us, that law would condemn us still. These, therefore, we still need for every transgression of it.”[22]

As Wesley sees it, the Adamic law, the law of works, is still in full force. The coming of Christ did not abolish the law of works. Instead, by his death Christ covers the believer’s transgressions so that this law no longer condemns. The Christian, including the “most perfect,” lives on the basis of God’s forgiveness imparted daily through the perpetual intercession of our high priest Jesus Christ.[23] Before the divine tribunal, every person is accountable to both laws, the law of works and the law of faith. Voluntary sin pertains to the law of faith, involuntary sin to the law of works:

Standards of Voluntary & Involuntary Sin:

  • Voluntary sin – Law of faith
  • Involuntary sin – Law of works

Let’s look at the category of voluntary sin. In the sermon On Sin in Believers (1763), Wesley defines intentional sin as “the guilt is one thing, the power another, and the being yet another.”[24] These three subcategories match up to his earlier groupings of the guilt of sin, outward sin, and inward sin.For the immature Christian, sin no longer reigns but it does remain.Only for spiritual adults is the being of sin (inward sin) removed and full salvation is attained. The time of deliverance for each subcategory becomes clear: justification removes sin’s guilt; the new birth breaks sin’s power; perfect love vanquishes sin’s being:

Deliverance from voluntary sin:

  • Justification pardons the guilt of sin
  • New Birth overcomes the power (rule) of sin
  • Christian Perfection removes being (inclination) of sin

We turn now to the category of involuntary sin. Wesley consistently referred to these transgressions as weakness, folly, and mistake, often due to ignorance.[25] To explain himself more fully, “By ‘sin’s of infirmity’ I would mean such involuntary failings as saying a thing we believe true, though in fact it prove to be false; or hurting our neighbor without knowing or designing it, perhaps when we designed to do him good.”[26] This gives insight into Wesley’s meaning, for even the “most perfect” believer falls short of this absolute standard of God’s holiness when they inadvertently hurt another person. These “mistakes in practice” bring legal guilt and expose to divine judgment, requiring Christ’s atonement and intercession. All believers, says Wesley, even the entirely sanctified, need to pray for daily forgiveness in regard to these transgressions.[27]

What is the source, the root cause, of these involuntary transgressions? Once again, in Farther Thoughts Wesley explains, “But Adam fell; and his incorruptible body became corruptible; and ever since, it is a clog to the soul, and hinders its operations. Hence, at present, no child of man can at all times apprehend clearly, or judge truly . . . Therefore, it is as natural for a man to mistake as to breathe . . . Consequently, no man is able to perform the service which the Adamic law requires.”[28] In other words, Adam’s sin brought about a fallen nature, and this fallen nature is the root cause of these transgressions. Culpable mistake is now “natural” and only expires when this mortal body is laid aside at death.[29] Yet, Wesley made important qualifications concerning involuntary sin. Though these mistakes are “deviations from the holy and acceptable and perfect will of God; they are not properly sin” for three reasons: (1) these sins are done inadvertently and do not defile the conscience when committed in ignorance; (2) these sins do not break conscious fellowship with God; and (3) such sins are consistent with living under the Spirit’s control.[30] We can diagram involuntary sin as follows:

Deliverance from Involuntary sin:

  • Daily Forgiveness for legal guilt – transgressions of perfect law
  • Death removes possibility of sinful mistakes/errors

Wesley’s philosophy of discipleship comes into play at this point. For a correlation exists between the subcategories of voluntary and involuntary sin and the stages of renewal in the Christian life. We already saw that Wesley identified two stages of renewal from 1 John 2:12-14: children and fathers.[31] From this passage he also identified a third stage of growth: young men.[32] The stages of childhood and adulthood represent the new birth and full salvation while young men refers to established Christians who experience the abiding witness of the Spirit. Beginning in the mid-1760s, Wesley began to stress another stage of growth that precedes the new birth. Drawing on Acts 10:35, Wesley argued that God-fearing believers who lack the direct witness of the Spirit in the new birth are still accepted and justified by God.[33] Wesley called this stage the faith of a servant and contrasted it to the faith of a son (i.e. born again Christians).[34] For contemporary Wesleyans, an important insight on discipleship emerges at this point: Wesley joined specific thresholds or attainments of spiritual growth to definite God-moments of deliverance from sin — sin’s guilt at justification, sin’s power in the new birth, sin’s being at Christian perfection, and sin’s eschatological presence at physical death and the future resurrection.[35]

I should add that in regard to sin’s eschatological presence in this age, Wesley teaches that involuntary sin never fully expires until physical death. Even the most sanctified and holy Christian continues to commit involuntary transgressions in this life. Since this dimension of sin persists throughout this present life, Wesley counseled all believers to pray daily for forgiveness, appealing to the Lord’s Prayer for support.

What, then, should we conclude about Wesley’s theology of perfect love, especially in relation to his mature doctrine of sin? It is evident that he believed in two kinds of perfection. When asked if the fully sanctified are still sinners, Wesley answered, “Explain the term one way, and I say, Yes; another, and I say, No.”[36] In regard to voluntary sin, Wesley believed and taught that Christian perfection is attainable. But in regard to human infirmity and involuntary sin, he denied any possibility of attaining perfection in this life. This becomes evident when we compare the structural organization of Wesley’s doctrine of sin in its entirety:

Stages of spiritual development:

sinner… seeker… faith of servant… child of God… mature believer… glorified saint

Stages of deliverance for voluntary sin:

  • Justification -sin’s guilt – faith of a servant
  • New Birth – sin’s power – faith of a child of God
  • Christian Perfection – sin’s being – adult believers

Conclusion: perfection as holy living is attainable in this life

Stages of deliverance for Involuntary sin:

  • Daily Forgiveness – all believers
  • Death/Glorification – freedom from culpable mistakes/errors

Conclusion: perfection as sinless living is not attainable in this life

Final Thoughts

In the Wesleyan tradition the definition of sin is central to the doctrine of holiness. For only by drawing a sharp line between voluntary (intentional) and involuntary (unintentional) sin can Wesleyans proclaim a message of entire sanctification with scriptural and theological coherence and consistency. Adam’s sin brought many consequences into human experience, some of which are overcome in this life while others await the future resurrection. This eschatological tension calls for careful biblical exegesis and theological reflection. Therefore, our message of full salvation in Christ requires our ministers and teachers to have a firm grasp of our doctrine of sin. For the gospel covenant promises full salvation from voluntary sin, but not from involuntary sin. This latter kind of sin remains in some degree until we leave this mortal life. This means that all believers, even the most holy, will need to pray the Lord’s Prayer and its petition for forgiveness throughout their natural lives in this present age.

Even more pertinent, our doctrine of sin clarifies our message of holiness. We proclaim that Christ came to save us from our sins (Matt. 1:24) so that we can love God and our neighbor according to the two Great Commandments (Matt. 23:38). But this is only accomplished when we are freed from sin’s guilt at justification, redeemed from sin’s enslaving power in the new birth, and delivered sin’s inner proclivity at entire sanctification. For it is impossible to freely love anyone with Christ-like love when we are weighted down with condemnation and sinful passions. It is through the peace of forgiveness, the release of new life in Christ, and the fullness of God’s love beating in our hearts that enable us to truly give ourselves as living sacrifices to God and to serve one another with Christ-like attitudes and gifts (Rom. 12:1, 1 Cor. 13). It all adds up to perfect love, the kind of love that our Lord Jesus displayed in his life and at the cross. As Wesley declared in Farther Thoughts:

The heaven of heavens is love,

There is nothing higher in religion,

There is, in effect, nothing else.[37]

One final thought. As Wesleyans we cannot expect other Christian traditions that do not acknowledge our distinction between voluntary and involuntary sin to agree with our message of holiness. Traditions that hold a unitary definition of sin will reject our message of full salvation because of their broad definition. An example is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” The “law of God” is usually understood as the law of works given to Adam in his innocence and thereby condemns any imperfection in a person’s life. Such a broad unitary definition of sin precludes any possibility of affirming the Wesleyan message of entire sanctification. Our response should be to explain our doctrines of sin and holiness with patience and love and according to the scriptures; and leave it to the Spirit to work his perfect will in their lives.

[1] In his Aldersgate Memorandum (§§1-3) Wesley acknowledged that before 1725 he only had a casual concern with sin. Cf. The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984-Present, 18:242-43 (hereafter Works).

[2] “The Circumcision of the Heart” I.1 (Works 1:402-03); cf. Matt. 5:48; 2 Cor. 7:1.

[3] Salvation by Faith II.3, 5 (Works 1:122, 123). JW also addresses the subject of fear due to sin’s guilt.

[4] Apparently, Wesley was exposed to these terms by the Moravians. When Wesley was in Germany (summer 1738) he recorded several testimonies, two of which used the terminology of inward and outward to describe their deliverance from sin (e.g. David Schneider and Arvid Gradin). This same language was used next by Wesley in his “Rules of the Band Societies” (Works 9:77). The terminology seems to have been next used in his letter to Dr. Henry Stebbing in mid-summer 1739. Wesley describes the new birth by contrasting outward change to inward transformation (Wesley, Journal 1739/07/31). Such language is next put to use in early October (Journal 1739/10/09). Wesley’s first use of the categories inward and outward in relation to sin was in January 1740 (Wesley, Journal 1740/01/25).

[5] Cf. II.4, 7, 20 (Works 2:106, 107, 116). By 1741 Wesley used 1 John 3:9 to refer to the level of deliverance from sin found at justification (i.e., the power of outward sin).

[6] Cf. II.1-26 (Works 2:117-19).

[7] “The First-fruits of the Spirit” II. 1-13 (Works 1:237-43). Wesley probably first learned about “sins of surprise” from Richard Kidder, whom he first read in 1733.

[8] “The First-fruits of the Spirit” II.11 (Works 1:242).

[9] “The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God” II.2 (Works 1:436).

[10] “The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God” II.9 (Works 1:440).

[11] Or the nominal Christian; cf. “Salvation by Faith” II.6 (Works 1:124); Letter to Samuel Wesley, 10/30/1738 (Works 25:575).

[12] This list does not include his terms and language for original sin.

[13] Conference Minutes 1744, Q.15 (Thomas Jackson, ed. The Works of John Wesley 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980, 8:277. Hereafter: Works, Jackson,); “The New Birth” I.4 (Works, 2:190).

[14] Mark K. Olson, ed. John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’: The Annotated Edition (Fenwick: Alethea In Heart, 2005), 116. See also Albert Outler, John Wesley (New York: Oxford University Press. 1964), 177.

[15] Olson, Plain Account, 176-79. Cf. Scott J. Jones, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 58.

[16] Outler, John Wesley, 287.

[17] Scott Jones, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992, 58.

[18] Olson, Plain Account, 176-77.

[19] Cf. the sermons The Image of God (1731); Justification by Faith (1746); Original Sin (1759); and The Fall of Man (1782).

[20] Olson, Plain Account, 179.

[21] Olson, Plain Account, 181.

[22] Olson, Plain Account, 189.

[23] By stressing the importance of Christ’s continual intercession, Wesley links the resurrection of Christ to our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25b). In his death, Jesus Christ provides atonement, in his resurrection he forever lives to intercede for our voluntary and involuntary sin (Olson, Plain Account, 124-25, 189).

[24] “On Sin in Believers,” IV.4 (Works 1:328).

[25] “Preface to the Life and Death of Mr. Halyburton” §5 (Works, Jackson,14:212); “Christian Perfection” I.4, 7 (Works 2:101, 103).

[26] “The First-fruits of the Spirit,”II.8 (Works 1:241); cf. “The End of Christ’s Coming”III.3 (Works 2:482); “On the Fall of Man”II.2 (Works 2:406).

[27] Olson, Plain Account, 116; Wesley, Journal 7/24/1761 (Works 21:336-37).

[28] Olson, Plain Account, 178.

[29] Essentially, this is the same position the early Wesley held when he denied that Christian perfection was fully attainable in this life. Compare “The Trouble and Rest of Good Men,” II.4-6 (Works 3:539-40).

[30] “The First-fruits of the Spirit,”II.8 (Works 1:241).

[31] “Christian Perfection” II.1-2 (Works 2:105); NT Notes 1 Jn 2:12-14; Plain Account, 56, 61; “On Sin in Believers,” IV.2-3 (Works 1:326-27).

[32] “Christian Perfection” II.1 (Works 2:105); Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1 John 2:12-14; cf. “Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems II” §11 (Works, Jackson, 14:327) for an early description of the stage of full assurance. Wesley did not identify this stage with spiritual adolescence until May/June 1740 when he began to use 1 John 2:12-14 to categorize the stages of renewal in the Christian life (Wesley, Journal 1740/05/05, 1740/06/22, Works 19:148, 154).

[33] For a full discussion of this controversial point see Mark K. Olson, “Aldersgate II and the Birth of the Servant State,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 43:2 (2008): 154-76; Mark K. Olson, “The Roots of John Wesley’s Servant Theology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 44:2 (2009): 120-141. Cf. Wesley’s sermons “On Faith” I.10-11 (Works 3:497).

[34] Wesley, Letters to Ann Bolton, 1768/04/07, 1770/08/12, 1770/11/16 (John Telford, ed. The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. 8 Vol. London: Epworth Press, 1931, 5:86, 197, 207. Hereafter, Telford).

[35] The term “presence” comes from Randy Maddox in Responsible Grace, 143, but used here in a more specified sense (the effect of involuntary sin). In regard to full assurance and the stage of adolescence in Wesley’s ordo (i.e., “young man” in 1 Jn. 2:12-14), this quasi-stage answers sin’s fear.

[36] Wesley, Letter to Samuel Furly, 1762/09/15 (Telford 4:190).

[37] Olson, Plain Account, 217.

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]