Joseph D. McPherson

"Do we ordinarily represent a justified state so great and happy as it is?" "Perhaps not," replies Mr. Wesley. "A believer, walking in the light, is inexpressibly great and happy."

The questioner again asks, "Should we not have care of depreciating justification, in order to exalt the state of full sanctification?" "Undoubtedly we should beware of this;" replies Mr. Wesley, "for one may insensibly slide into it."

"How," asks the questioner, "shall we effectually avoid it?" "When we are going to speak of entire sanctification," says Mr. Wesley, "let us first describe the blessings of the justified state, as strongly as possible."

This exchange of questions and answers was recorded in the Minutes of an early Methodist conference Mr. Wesley held with his preachers at Bristol, England in 1745. It illustrates the immense importance once placed upon the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit in the initial conversion of a penitent's heart and soul. Mr. Wesley and other early Methodist leaders never minimized nor diminished the great work of justification and regeneration in order to exalt entire sanctification, as too many are found to do in the modern holiness movement.

The Day of Pentecost ushered in the most glorious of dispensations -- the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. Since then, the third person of the Trinity has had a major role in the total process of man's salvation. In fact, the whole scheme of salvation has been greatly elevated and rendered more glorious than at any time during former dispensations.

Too often it is thought that the Holy Ghost is primarily, if not only, involved in a believer's entire sanctification. To be sure, He is involved in the process of sanctifying believers wholly. However, He is also involved in convicting sinners of sin, drawing them to the Savior with strong desires, assisting them in repentance toward God and the placing of their trust in the Lord Jesus. When the conditions of true repentance and vital faith are met, the Holy Spirit then gives new life and power over sin.

Since the rise of the modern holiness movement, the emphasis has been decidedly focused on the second work of grace. However, while exalting the work of entire sanctification there has, at the same time, been a shameful and unscriptural minimizing of that great work of the Spirit in the initial conversion process. To a growing number of serious students of the New Testament and early Wesleyan teachings, this has become a concern of major proportions. Such an imbalance must be checked if Scriptural holiness is to flourish again. It is a serious mistake to think of the first work of grace as consisting only of one blessing -- that of forgiveness of sins. There are, in fact, several blessings which are included in what we often call the first work of grace or conversion. Let us briefly review these blessings.

  1. Justification is the blessing most often mentioned as essential to conversion. It is an act by which forgiveness, or pardon of sins and acceptance with God is extended to the penitent. It is remission of sins that are past. Justification is said to be that which God does for us. It is based entirely upon what Christ has done and suffered for us. Upon condition of true repentance and faith, God for Christ's sake forgives and pardons all past sins so that one appears before Him as though he had never sinned.
  2. Regeneration is a second blessing experienced by converts in the first work of grace. Whereas justification is that which God does for us, regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit within us. At the same time the sinner is justified he is also made anew by regeneration. "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new" (2 Cor 5:17). The sinner is raised from spiritual death to spiritual life. The soul that was dead to God is now made newly alive. Although all were born in sin, those who experience the new birth are born anew from above; born of the Spirit. They have been quickened to spiritual life.

Writing to the Colossian church, the apostle Paul says, "And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all your trespasses" (Col 2:13). Reference to both justification and regeneration are found here -- the forgiveness of trespasses and the quickening to life of the believer's soul in regeneration. In Titus 3:5, the same apostle speaks of believers being "saved by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost."

Where justification takes away the guilt of sin, regeneration not only quickens the soul and imparts life, but takes away the power of sin. As long as the believer maintains a vital and obedience faith in Christ Jesus, there is no willful sinning. This can be supported by a number of New Testament references, particularly those found in 1 John, such as "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin" (1 John 3:9). Even though the remains of sin is yet in his heart, the believer has power over outward and inward sin together with a measure of peace and hope and love. Dr. Leo Cox writes, "Clearly this is a part of that perfection toward which every Christian moves when he shall be 'perfect,' even as his Father 'in heaven is perfect.'"

It is clear that this work of generation is an inward work of the Holy Ghost. As Vic Reasoner puts it, "Until the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost neither regeneration nor entire sanctification was possible." The truth is that Jesus never speaks of His disciples as being in possession of the Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost. In fact, He made it unquestionably clear that until He was glorified, the Holy Spirit would not be given (John 7:39). The timing and fulfillment of this was Pentecost.

Charles Carter declares that, "All of the promises concerning baptism in the Spirit fund their fulfillment in the Pentecostal effusion, but never before." Reasoner then observes, "He [Carter] is persuaded that when Jesus is recorded in John 20:22 to have breathed upon them, saying, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost," that He was acting symbolically and in anticipation of Pentecost." However, since Pentecost all who truly belong to Christ have received His Spirit. So it is that Paul assures the believers at Corinth that the Holy Ghost was dwelling within them (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19), even though it is evident from his description of their spiritual state that they were not as yet entirely sanctified nor perfected in love (1 Cor 3:1-3). We likewise find the Thessalonian believers enjoying the inward presence of the Holy Spirit at the very time that Paul was praying for their entire sanctification (1 Thess 1:6; 4:8; 5:23-4). Such inward enjoyment of the Holy Spirit's presence could not have been the experience of the disciples before Pentecost.

  1. Initial or Partial Sanctification is also an inward work of the Holy Spirit during conversion and is experienced together with justification and regeneration. H. Orton Wiley, author of Christian Theology, makes the point that when a soul commits willful sin, there is not only a consciousness of guilt present, but a defilement of the soul that comes about from that committed sin. In the following statement he explains further the basis for initial sanctification:

There must be this initial cleansing, concomitant [or at the same time] with the other blessings of the first work of grace, if this guilt and acquired depravity are to be removed from the sinner. Since that which removes pollution and makes holy is properly called "sanctification," this first or initial cleansing is [sometimes identified as] "partial" sanctification.... Initial cleansing or partial sanctification... is limited strictly to that guilt and acquired depravity attaching to actual sins, for which the sinner is responsible. It does not refer to the cleansing from original sin or inherited depravity, for which the sinner is not responsible. We may say then that initial or partial sanctification includes in its scope all that acquired pollution which attaches to the sinner's own acts; while entire sanctification includes the cleaning from original sin or inherited depravity. Since sin is two-fold-- an act, and a state or condition, sanctification must be twofold. There is an and can be but two stages in the process of sanctification -- initial and entire -- the full consummation of the process being rightly known as glorification.

Dr. Leo Cox in his book entitled John Wesley's Concept of Perfection, ably describes initial sanctification with a little different emphasis. He writes:

At the same time that the new life is planted in the soul [in regeneration], God begins the cleansing of sin. The power of sin is broken. Man is made holy, pure, clean, but not entirely so. This cleansing work is the beginning of sanctification. It is holiness begun. It can be called initial because it is just a beginning. This new life exists where some evil is still present.

Mr. Wesley, himself, had much to say about initial sanctification, assuring all that when one is justified, he or she is also regenerated and sanctified initially. He admonished new believers to push forward to the completion and perfection of this beginning.

This initial sanctification is what the Apostle Paul referred to when he described the Corinthian believers as being "sanctified." It should be clear to the Bible student that these Corinthian believers were not entirely sanctified at the time Paul was writing to them, for he plainly speaks of them as being "yet carnal" and "babes in Christ." Since this sanctification is found to be an inward work of initial cleansing in the convert's heart, it must be considered as involving more than that sanctification thought by some to have been only an outward separation from the world and its sinful lifestyle. No, we must conclude it to have been a deeper work than any mere outward cleansing and separation. Rather, it was an inward and supernatural work of the Holy Ghost unknown to the disciples before Pentecost.

  1. Adoption is a blessing also found to be included in the first work of grace. Richard Watson assures us that this is "a large and comprehensive blessing." He continues with an explanation:
  2. Our sins had deprived us of our sonship, the favor of God, and our right to the inheritance of eternal life. We had become strangers, and aliens, and enemies to God. However, upon our return to God, and reconciliation with him, our forfeited privileges were not only restored, but heightened through the paternal love of God.... Adoption then, is that act by which we who were enemies, and disinherited, are made the sons of God, and heirs of his eternal glory. "If children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ."

  3. The Witness of the Spirit is the final blessing we wish to highlight as a very important part of conversion or the first work of grace in the believer's heart. We are referring to what Watson identifies as "the inward witness or testimony of the Holy Spirit to the adoption or sonship of believers from which," says he, "flows a comfortable persuasion or conviction of our present acceptance with God and the hope of our future and eternal glory."

Mr. Wesley saw this inward witness as being such an important privilege of the children of God that he wrote at least three sermons directly pertaining to it. He defines this blessing as follows:

The testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.

Joseph Benson, an early Methodist leader, was likewise persuaded of the same truth. "All that receive the remission of sins, and are adopted into God's family, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, as a Spirit of adoption and regeneration: to assure them of their sonship, and renew them after God's image."

Since the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit alone enables believers to enjoy this blessing, the disciples again would not have experienced it before Pentecost. However, true believers of this Holy Ghost dispensation are more highly favored with this added blessing of the Spirit of adoption.

Dr. Kenneth Collins, Professor of Church History at Asbury Theological Seminary, supports Mr. Wesley's view concerning "the witness of the Spirit, which is the privilege -- though many are ignorant of it -- of all who believe." Among several passages of Scripture that teach and support this truth we mention but two.

Romans 8;15-16 states, "For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God." Likewise in Galatians 4:5-6 we read, "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons; and because ye are sons God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father."

"To these," writes Richard Watson, "are to be added all those passages, so numerous in the New Testament, which express the confidence and the joy of Christians." For illustration, he then mentions "their friendship with God; their confident access to him as their God; their entire union, and delightful [fellowship] with him in spirit."

After Peter finished his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, his listeners were "pricked in their hearts." In other words they were under conviction and full of fear. They asked, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Peter answered, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:37-8). We believe this passage, among others, demonstrates that all true penitents receive the Spirit when initially converted. Paul, writing under divine inspiration, adds authority to this truth when he assures the Roman church that "if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Romans 8:9).

Mr. Wesley boldly asserts that one was not yet a Christian if he had not received the Holy Ghost. He assures his readers that a Christian is one who is "anointed with the Holy Ghost and power." "I assert," said he, "That till a man 'receives the Holy Ghost,' he is without God in the world."

Commenting on Acts 1:5, "Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost," Wesley says, "And so are all true believers to the end of the world." This was the historical view, not only of early Methodists and early Wesleyan Methodists, but also the view of the Church Fathers and eminent saints throughout church history. It continues to be the view of those who closely adhere to the Wesleyan-Arminian persuasion.

In New Testament epistles we find believers being exhorted to go to perfection. We find the Apostle Paul praying that the Thessalonians might be sanctified wholly, but we never find believers being exhorted to receive or be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Rather they are commanded in Ephesians 5:18 to be continually filled with the Spirit. It is clear that having been powerfully raised from spiritual death to spiritual life by the miracle of the new birth, regenerated believers are in present possession of the Holy Spirit. By their continuing faithful to the grace given them, the same Holy Spirit who began His work within them will continue that work so as to faithfully lead them on to perfection. "Faithful is he that calleth you," writes the Apostle, "who also will do it" (1 Thess 5:24).

There are those who would contend that the experience of the original disciples before and after Pentecost provide the model or pattern for today. Robert Lyon, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, answers this by offering "two observations," that he says "make this impossible: 1. the model is not followed elsewhere in Acts or the early Church; 2. it fails to consider the ... significance of Pentecost as the once-for-all inaugurative event which establishes the Church."

In the final analysis we conclude that it is not scriptural to equate the experience of regenerated believers in this Holy Ghost dispensation with the experience of the disciples before Pentecost. The dispensation of the Father, or Jewish dispensation, afforded its blessings. The dispensation of the Son, enjoyed by the disciples while in the presence of Jesus, provided greater blessings. But the dispensation of the Holy Ghost outshines all former dispensations, showering even the new believer with blessings and privileges unavailable to those living in all former dispensations of inferior blessing.