Renovating Holiness: Reclaiming Entire Sanctification (Tim Crutcher)

     Tim Crutcher is a theology professor at Southern Nazarene University.  This is his contribution to the Renovating Holiness Project.

Photo Credit: Jaroslaw Filiochowski
     Just how “entire” is “entire sanctification”?  That’s always been a difficult question for me. On the one hand, I read in Scripture the call to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48, NIV).  I have also inherited a tradition that tells me that God can completely and decisively “fix” the problem of sin, either by eradicating the root from which it springs (an American Holiness emphasis) or by filling the heart so full with love that there is simply no room for sin anymore (John Wesley’s emphasis).
     On the other hand, my own experience—indeed, the experience of all the people I know—tells me that the battle against sin isn’t something that just “goes away.”  Furthermore, it just doesn’t make sense to think that, in this world filled with distractions and pleasures, we could ever rise above the level of temptation and reach some state where sin is no longer an option.  After all, look at Jesus.  Surely he had no “root of sin” in him, and surely his heart was completely filled with love, and yet he was tempted. 
     And so I’m still left with my question: Just how “entire” is “entire sanctification” anyway?

     To begin with, let’s think about how we think about sin.  Given the biblical affirmation of the goodness of God’s original creation, it is hard to imagine that sin was a part of that.  The story of Adam and Eve seems to indicate that sin gets introduced into the world by human action.  Sin is not there in the beginning, so in some sense it’s a foreigner to God’s good creation.  On the other hand, sin is not some new “thing” that invades God’s good creation from the outside—because there is no such place outside God’s creation.  Nor do Adam and Eve create this new “thing” called sin when they eat the fruit of that forbidden tree.  Nowhere in their story—nor in our own—do we find them (or us) invaded by some outside “thing” that, like a bad seed, gets introduced into our lives, takes root there, and now makes us constantly mess up our relationship with God and with other people.  Adam and Even sinned because they choose to prioritize themselves over God, and when we sin, we do the exact same thing.  The “root” of sin, in that case, is nothing more than our “self,” the center of our desires and identity, which—simply by existing—is always pulling for our best attentions.
     Now, if that’s the case, it sounds like we could only get rid of sin “entirely” by getting rid of our “selves” entirely, and that solution seems to be a bit too radical.  Additionally, we have to affirm, with the Scripture, that Jesus was tempted in all the ways that we are tempted, and he did not sin (Heb 4:15).  Jesus seemed to have clear desires and a sense of identity, so it must be possible to be a “self” and never to prioritize one’s “self” over others.  But the fact that we never get rid of our “selves” would also mean that the possibility, the opportunity, the temptation to focus on that “self” will always be there.  Jesus’s own temptations demonstrate that whatever “entire sanctification” Jesus had - and I doubt we could hope for any better - did not release him from all temptation, though it did empower him to always overcome it.  So, it would seem, then, that “entire sanctification” cannot mean “entirely free from the possibility of sin,” at least if we take Jesus’s experience and the reality of his temptations seriously.
     Now, if the possibility of sin stays around as long as we do, does that not imply that actual sins are probably going to happen eventually?  Can we reasonably expect that broken human beings who are deeply conditioned to focus on themselves can ever get to the point that they just don’t focus on themselves any longer and so never sin?  Would it not be better if we just started being honest and talk about being “mostly” sanctified instead of “entirely” sanctified, since we all know that we are all going to mess up anyway? 
     No, actually, I don’t think it would.  Not if we really understand what sanctification means.
We usually think about sanctification as the avoidance of sin, but the idea actually has different orientation.  The word “sanctification,” in both English and in the original language of the New Testament, means “the process of being sanctified.”  “To sanctify” something is to make something “holy,” that is, to make it more like God or to use it to point toward God or to set it apart for God’s use (all of which are important).  And God - at least if the Scripture is to be believed - is not a big fan of divided loyalties.  When something or someone is set apart for God’s use, it is not to be used for anything else.  As we have often said in our tradition, when it comes to a person’s life, God will be God “of all” or God won’t be God “at all.”  There does not appear to be any middle ground.
     In this light, the idea of being “mostly sanctified” sounds a lot like the idea of being “mostly faithful” to one’s spouse, and that doesn’t make any sense.  To be faithful at all is to be faithful entirely; anything less doesn’t count.  Of course, failures in fidelity can be forgiven and overcome, but one cannot justify them by saying, “But I was faithful all the rest of the time; doesn’t that count?”  No, frankly, it doesn’t.  No one is going to marry someone who simply commits to loving them 99.99% of the time; even one breach in fidelity every 28 years is one breach too many.
     If sanctification is much more about our relationship to God than it is about our relationship to sin, we cannot talk about sanctification at all unless we are willing to talk about “entire sanctification.”  In fact, it strikes me that we cannot really even call ourselves “Christian” unless we intend by that label a life completely oriented toward God.  The idea of a “part-time Christian” makes as much sense as a “part-time pregnancy.”  If God expects and empowers undivided loyalty, then the orientation toward some kind of “entire sanctification” is entailed by our acceptance of Christ’s offer of salvation-and-radical-transformation (which is really just one idea in Scripture).
     Now, this does not mean our sinning has nothing to do with it.  Of course it does.  As we allow God to make us more and more like God and to make us more useful for God’s redemptive project in the world, this will entail an avoidance of sin.  We cannot claim Jesus as our Lord and tell him, “No.”  Willful and knowing violations of our relationships to God and others—marked out by those boundary lines we know as God’s laws—have no place among Jesus’s followers. 
     And yet such violations occur anyway; we all know that.  They shouldn’t, though, and that’s the point.  Keeping the idea of “entire sanctification” before us helps us to keep that in mind.  If we thought sin was inevitable, we would, indeed, just give in to it.  However, we believe that God empowers our complete devotion.  We affirm that, at every given moment, God always provides enough grace and strength to avoid the temptation to prioritize our “selves” over God and God’s will.  That’s what it means to believe in “entire sanctification.”
     Fortunately, we know that if we mess up our relationship with God, God wants to fix it even more than we do.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, NIV).  So the fact that we don’t always live up to our entire sanctification does not sink our ship, thanks be to God!  But we should never get comfortable with the fact of those failures; if they happen—and since they are unnecessary, they don’t have to happen—if they happen, they are always tragedies and should be dealt with as such.
     So, then, perhaps sanctification is best thought of as that which orients us away from sin and toward God, allowing us to become more like God so that we can be a more effective part of God’s work in the world.  And if that orientation is an all-or-nothing proposition, then we must think of it as an “entire sanctification” if it is going to be any sanctification at all.  This is the life that God empowers, and so it is entirely appropriate for us to pray for the grace to live it out for this next minute, this next hour, this next day, and then hopefully the one after that and the one after that as well, and so on for as long as God lends us breath.