Did John Wesley Mean by "Holiness of Heart and Life?"
Sermon Preached at the Annual Service Honouring
-- We can be
admitted to the concert hall, any concert hall, only if we have a ticket.
The ticket of admission gives us the right to hear the symphony concert.
Let us suppose we possess such a ticket.
We sit down to listen to the glorious music of the masters -- only to
discover that we are bored out of our minds, since the music seems much ado
about nothing; or worse than being bored, we are jarred, upset, since the
concert strikes us as grating, pointless, seemingly endless, an utter waste of
an evening we could have spent at something fruitful -- and all of this just
because we are tone-deaf. The
ticket of admission gives us the right to be present; but as long as we
are tone-deaf we aren't fit to be present.
Regardless of our right to be at the concert, it is only our
musicality that fits us for the concert.
Without that musicality which fits us for the concert, the concert is
merely a huge frustration.
John Wesley insisted that forgiveness of sins gives believing people the
right to heaven; but only holiness renders us fit for heaven.
Justification (pardon, forgiveness) admits us; sanctification (holiness,
new birth) fits us. Justification
means that in Christ believers have a new standing with God; sanctification
(holiness) means that in Christ believers have a new nature from God.
Just as Martin Luther emphasized massively the believer's new standing
with God, so John Wesley emphasized massively the believer's new nature from
God. In fact, said Wesley, it was
for the sake of restoring sanctification or holiness to the church catholic that
God had raised up Methodism.
Wesley was born an Anglican and died an Anglican.
He never wanted to be anything other than an Anglican (and had difficulty
understanding why anyone else would want to be).
He looked upon his people, the Methodists, as having been raised up by
God as a renewal movement to restore to Anglicanism specifically, and to the
church catholic generally, what had lain dormant for too long.
He believed himself commissioned to remind Christians everywhere of God's
insistence on holiness of heart and life.
-- Let's approach
the matter from a different angle. Wesley,
together with his early-day followers (we are speaking now of the 1740s)
joyfully held out a grand truth to any and all: "God can do something with
sin beyond forgiving it." He
can? What can God do with sin
beyond forgiving it? He can unlock
its grip upon us; he can get its "hooks" out of us.
Never shall I forget one of my greater blunders with respect to spiritual
counsel. A man had come to see me
for help with his besetting sin (note: besetting sin, not besetting temptation).
I listened to him carefully, empathetically (I thought) and then
attempted to impart reassurance concerning the forgiveness of God, the mercy of
God, the patience of God, the kindness of God.
As I spoke I could tell from the expression on the man's face that he
regarded my counsel as entirely off-target.
Politely he waited until I was finished.
Then he said to me plaintively, pleadingly, almost desperately,
"Victor, I don't want forgiveness; I want deliverance."
Let us make no mistake. If
the church has lost sight of the fact that God can do something with sin beyond
forgiving it, then parachurch groups have not.
Virtually all parachurch groups have one purpose: the deliverance of
those who are in chains at present. Alcoholics
Anonymous exists only to facilitate the deliverance of the alcohol-enslaved.
So do the other organizations, whether they address wife-battering or
drug-addiction or gambling.
Wesley had more to say on this matter.
When he looked out over the church-scene of his day he saw a great many
church-folk (and a great many more clergy, proportionately) who cavalierly
reassured themselves that "of course" their sin was forgiven, even as
they were held fast in its grip. Wesley's
comment was, "Did you say, 'Of course'?
Never say 'Of course'. Don't
presume upon forgiveness. After
all," he continued, "deliverance from the power of sin is
confirmation of our having been forgiven the guilt of sin.
Where there is no deliverance, don't be in any hurry to assume
"Then did he mean" (someone wants to object) "that unless
we have been delivered from every last manifestation of sin, every last vestige
of it, we haven't been forgiven any of it?"
We shouldn't push Wesley to such an extreme.
He wanted only to startle cavalier, complacent folk who were shallow and
presumptuous. Deliverance from sin's
grip confirms forgiveness of sin's guilt.
Myself, I am convinced we need to hear and heed Wesley on this matter,
for otherwise we shall come to think, whether consciously or unconsciously, that
God cannot do anything with sin beyond forgiving it.
And what would this be except a licence to sin for the cavalier and
despair over sin for the serious? Wesley
wanted to move all believers past two pitfalls: cavalier indifference and
-- Wesley knew
much that the contemporary church has largely forgotten.
He knew that the command of God, beating like a big bass drum over and
over in scripture -- "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am
holy" -- he knew this to be the root command in scripture.
He also knew that what God commands his people God gives his people.
Therefore "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy"
was not only the root command in scripture; it was also the crowning promise in
Because of his knowledge of Hebrew Wesley knew something more: he knew
that the root meaning of the word "holy" is "different".
In Hebrew the word-group around KADOSH has to do with difference.
God is holy, elementally, in that God is different.
God is different from his creation in general, different from any one
creature in particular. God is
profoundly KADOSH, different.
The New Testament Greek word that translates KADOSH is HAGIOS.
In the New Testament it is everywhere used of Christians.
Christians are said to be HAGIOI (plural.)
All the English translations here read "saints".
Paul writes letters to congregations in a dozen different cities, always
beginning his letter, "To the saints in...(
Wesley always insisted that if Jesus Christ does not or cannot
make the profoundest difference to us and within us, then the entire
Christian enterprise is pointless. But
it isn't pointless! Our Lord can
do within us all that he has promised to us.
Wesley's conviction here was one with the conviction (and experience) of
the earliest Christians. Paul wrote
to the congregation in
When Wesley spoke of holiness he characteristically spoke of
"holiness of heart and life." By
"heart" Wesley meant our inner intent, attitude, disposition; by
"life" he meant our behaviour, conduct, visibility.
He insisted that an inner intent that wasn't matched by outer
manifestation was useless posturing, while an attempt at outer manifestation not
rooted in inner transformation was crass self-righteousness.
Supposed holiness of heart alone dishonoured God in that it was
feeble. Supposed holiness of life alone
dishonoured God in that it was arrogant. Holiness
of heart and life are one as Spirit-quickened intention is fulfilled in
We could illustrate this endlessly from the triumphs of grace that
early-day Methodists spoke of when they commended their Lord for their
deliverance. Yet I think it better
to illustrate Wesley's conviction from the little man's own life.
Early in his ministry Wesley wrote, "Resentment at an affront is
sin, and I have been guilty of this a thousand times."
(In our spiritual benightedness today we should likely say,
"Resentment at an affront is entirely natural and perfectly
understandable." Wesley would
reply, "Entirely natural in fallen human nature; perfectly
understandable according to fallen human reason -- and no less sin for
The man who always knew resentment at an affront to be sin was slandered
by Bishop Lavington, an Anglican Church dignitary from
-- How did Wesley
think we were to get to the point of "holiness of heart and life"?
He always maintained that when the Holy Spirit acquaints us initially
with our sinnership we do see it, and rightly view it with horror.
In fact we see our sinnership with such starkness as to know that the
Saviour is our only hope and help. Having
grasped this much of our depravity, and having abandoned ourselves to our
Saviour, however, we still haven't grasped the enormity of our depravity.
We still haven't comprehended either the scope or the depth of sin in us.
Its scope is vast, for it leaves no area of life unaffected.
Its depth is unfathomable, for it goes deeper than we can see at present.
Then another work of grace is needed, a subsequent work of grace.
At this point we can only cry out to God and plead with him to remedy
what he has newly acquainted us with about ourselves.
A second work of grace is needed? Also
a third, a fourth, a fortieth. This
ongoing exposure to the roots of our sin, this ongoing awareness of the twists
in our twisted heart, this ongoing self-abandonment to God lest our
newly-exposed depravity warp us and horrify us one minute longer -- this ongoing
development is our ever-increasing holiness of heart and life.
The key to it all, said Wesley, is singlemindedness.
Do we want this more than we want anything else?
Is it our one focus, aspiration, craving, preoccupation?
Human depravity is ever so varied. Yet
there are three instances that Wesley mentions so very often as to seem like a
refrain: pride, anger and self-will. God
wrestles down our pride by working humility in us (even if it takes more than a
little pain for us to become humble); he dispels our anger (here Wesley meant
ill-temper, petulance, irrational rage) by working patience in us; he denatures
our self-will by having us hunger to do his will.
Wesley gathers all of this up by saying that as God's Spirit discloses
new depths and layers and extensions of sin in us, God also works in us a new
desire for and a new capacity for self-forgetful love of God and neighbour, for
"holiness of heart and life" is finally going to be self-forgetful
love of God and neighbour.
Love of God has to be self-forgetful, or else what we call "love for
God" is nothing more than a tool for using God, exploiting him.
Love of neighbour has to be self-forgetful, or else what we call
"love of neighbour" is nothing more than a pretext for
Needless to say, we cannot will ourselves to be self-forgetful,
for the very attempt at willing this fixes us in our self-concern, this time a
self-concern with a false religious-legitimisation (a kind of hypocrisy that
Wesley abhorred). We become truly
self-forgetful and profoundly self-forgetful only as we unselfconsciously
"lose" ourselves in God.
Here we come to what I call the mystical aspect of Wesley's
"holiness of heart and life". When
Wesley speaks of holiness he isn't thinking first of morality; he is thinking
first of God's Godness, and our inclusion in that.
For this reason when Wesley speaks most deliberately of "holiness of
heart and life" he quotes hymn-lines penned by brother Charles, hymn-lines
that speak, as the mystics speak, of immersion in God, submersion in God,
engulfment in God. Listen to him
speaking of ordinary believers like you and me whom God has taken ever so deep
Plunged in the Godhead's deepest sea,
And lost in Thine immensity.
vocabulary here -- "plunged", "deepest", "sea",
"lost", "immensity" -- it is oceanic imagery that Wesley has
to use just because God himself is oceanic, vast, uncontainable -- even as
Wesley knows that not even oceanic imagery is oceanic enough.
No vocabulary can finally do justice to having our petty self-concerns drowned
in God's drenching depths. No
vocabulary can do justice to a vision of God that is so bright and an experience
of God so compelling that words are forever inadequate.
Listen to Wesley himself crying out,
Fulfil, fulfil my large desires,
Large as infinity,
Give, give me all my soul requires,
All, all that is in Thee.
Let all I am in Thee be lost;
Let all be lost in God.
shall never understand Wesley until we understand his all-consuming
preoccupation with GOD. God
is the environment of his people as surely as water is the environment of fish.
It wasn't so much that Wesley was aware of living in God as that he
couldn't understand not living in God.
With his last breath he held out to the simplest believer a
heart-drenching, self-oblivious, horizon-filling love.
He knew what it is to be drawn so close to the fire of God's love that
the flames simultaneously consumed sin, cauterized sin's wounds and consummated
Was all of this nothing more than an idiosyncratic, psycho-spiritual
quirk in Wesley? On the contrary, he
insisted that scripture speaks over and over of the many who have heard and seen
what cannot be uttered. Then whether
ancient or modern, whether enjoyed by many or few, is it all nothing more than a
privatised religious "trip" utterly devoid of sacrificial service to
the neighbour? On the contrary, it
will always bear fruit in love of the neighbour.
See Wesley himself, eighty years old, trudging with numb feet through icy
slush on four successive bitter winter mornings as he goes from house to house.
He is soliciting money for his beloved poor. He keeps begging until a
"violent flux" (as he spoke of it in Eighteenth Century English; today
we'd say, "uncontrollable diarrhoea") forces him to stop.
By now he has garnered 200 pounds. Why
does he freeze himself half to death, at age eighty, sick as well, on four
successive winter mornings? Because
his heart's been broken at the predicament of people who are colder, hungrier,
sicker than he is.
Wesley's conviction that the deeper layers of our heart-condition must be
dealt with as we are made aware of them; his familiarity with the scorching fire
of God's love that sears and saves in the same instant; his self-forgetful
immersion in the miseries of others as he brought them a joy they were going to
find nowhere else: it's all gathered up in his oft-repeated expression,
"holiness of heart and life".
In 1784, at eighty-one years of age, he was still saying, " Can you
find... anything more desirable than this?"
And when William Losee came from upstate New York in 1790 to establish
Methodist societies in Ontario he came because he knew -- as his spiritual
descendants came to know -- that there wasn't, there isn't, and there never will
be "anything more desirable than this."
The Reverend Dr