The Cleansing of Initial Sanctification

Joseph D. McPherson

While the holiness movement has placed much emphasis on the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit in entire sanctification, little is heard of the initial cleansing that takes place in salvation's first work of grace. Mr. Wesley and early Methodist theologians taught that sanctification or cleansing begins when a true penitent is justified and regenerated. To them this was not a new doctrine, for they saw it taught in both the New Testament and early church. A reasonable question then arises. In what sense is one sanctified in regeneration? To what extent is he or she cleansed in the first work of grace?

While the term justification refers to our legal standing before God, regeneration is that internal work of the Holy Spirit by which we are raised from spiritual death to new life and are given a change of heart. Both regeneration and entire sanctification are wrought by powerful effusions of the Holy Spirit within the hearts of those who seek aright. All who have been justified and regenerated in this Holy Ghost dispensation find that "old things have passed away and behold all things are become new" (2 Cor 5:17).

In various passages of the New Testament we notice that believers are said to be "sanctified" when it is obvious by the descriptions given of them that they were not yet entirely sanctified. Mr. Wesley is careful to remind us that the "term sanctified was continually applied by St. Paul to all that were justified." Moreover, he observes that "by this term alone, [the Apostle Paul] rarely, if ever, means 'saved from all sin' [or entirely sanctified]. Mr. Wesley therefore concludes that "it is not [scripturally] proper to use [the term sanctified] in that sense, without adding the word wholly, entirely, or the like" [Works, 11:388].

Richard Watson, who wrote the first systematic theology of early Methodism, arrives at the same conclusion. He informs the reader that, "The regenerate state is, also, called in Scripture sanctification; though a distinction is made by the Apostle Paul between that and being 'sanctified wholly'" [Theological Institutes, 2:269].

The term sanctification means both to set apart and to cleanse. This is illustrated by the historical account of New Testament believers, such as the Corinthians and Thessalonians who, though not yet entirely sanctified when Paul wrote to them were, nevertheless, separated from a former lifestyle of sin and partially cleansed in their hearts. They were, in truth, sanctified in part. This is that aspect of regeneration which is termed, "initial sanctification" by theologians.

In Titus 3:5 we read that "He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost." Washing has always carried the meaning of cleansing, while "renewing of the Holy Ghost" has more particular reference to being made spiritually alive and altogether changed in heart. It is evident that while such New Testament believers as those in Corinth and Thessalonica were not yet entirely sanctified, they were partially sanctified and cleansed in three following ways:

First, they were cleansed from the guilt of sins. They had received remission or forgiveness of sins that are past so that they were now able to richly enjoy the favor and goodness of God.

Secondly, these same New Testament believers were cleansed from the habits and power of sin. For as the Apostle John assures us, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin" (John 3:9).

Thirdly, these New Testament believers who were not yet entirely sanctified were cleansed from the acquired defilement of committed sins. Jesus taught that "evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness" are some of the committed evils that "defile the man" (Mark 7:20-23).

This initial sanctification which accompanies regeneration cleanses from all the heart stains and defilement brought about by acts of past sins. Such cleansing is not to be confused with entire sanctification, which is a farther work in the cleansing process-- a work that fully cleanses from the root of sin, inbred sin or the principle of sin with which we were all born. H. Orton Wiley writes of initial sanctification as follows:

Defilement attaches to sinful acts, and so also does guilt, which is the consciousness of sin as our own. There must be, therefore, this initial cleansing, concomitant 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 [appropriately identified as] "partial" sanctification . . . limited strictly to that guilt and acquired depravity [or defilement] attaching to actual sins, for which the sinner is himself responsible. It does not refer to the cleansing from original sin or inherited depravity, for which the sinner is not responsible. . . . Since sin is twofold--an act, and a state or condition, sanctification must be twofold. There is 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" [Christian Theology, 2:480-481].

While Mr. Wesley strongly embraced this doctrine of initial cleansing, believing that those justified were also sanctified in an initial sense, he fervently encouraged justified believers to use all the means of grace for their spiritual growth and thus push forward to a completion of this cleansing process. In the following statement he describes the believer who had been regenerated and initially sanctified and yet found in a state that was short of entire sanctification or Christian perfection because of the remains of sin within.

He [the justified man] was humble, but not entirely; his humility was mixed with pride: he was meek; but his meekness was frequently interrupted by anger, or some uneasy or turbulent passion. His love of God was frequently damped, by the love of some creature; the love of his neighbor, by evil surmising, or some thought, if not temper, contrary to love. His will was not wholly melted into the will of God: But although in general he could say, "I come 'not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me;'" yet now and then nature rebelled, and he could not clearly say, "Lord, not as I will, but as thou wilt" [Works, 6:489].

So it is that although sin is given a deadening blow by an effusion of the Spirit in initial sanctification, it is not entirely destroyed. It is perfection begun because the believer is able to live without committing sin. As Mr. Wesley explains it, this initial work makes "even babes in Christ so far perfect as not to commit sin" [Works, 11:375].

Samuel Chadwick once wrote that "There is a perfection that is initial, a perfection that is progressive, and a perfection that is final" [The Call to Christian Perfection, p. 28]. This initial stage is, according to Asbury Lowry, "holiness in embryo and infancy" [Possibilities of Grace, p. 204].

Dr. Leo Cox shows the close connection existing between God's work of regeneration and initial sanctification.

The dead soul of a sinner is brought to life; the graces or qualities of this new life are all planted in the believer. This new life is in infancy, as a newborn babe, and is capable of growth. . . . This new creation is perfect in its kind but capable of growth. At the same time that the new life is planted in the soul, 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 [John Wesley's Concept of Perfection, p. 81].

Those who are newly born of the Spirit have in their hearts a measure of love, patience and other graces of the Spirit. Herein they are to grow while seeking a total cleansing of the evil dispositions which yet remain. In the meantime we may be sure that insofar as they have "the love of God shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto them," they are clean and therefore have attained to a degree of perfection, even though much yet lies ahead for their advancement. Divine love, a fruit of the Spirit, has the power to expel that which is contrary to it.

In his sermon entitled, On Sin in Believers, Mr. Wesley assures us that "There are in every person, even after he is justified, two contrary principles, nature and grace, termed by St. Paul, the flesh and the Spirit. Hence, although even babes in Christ are sanctified, yet it is only in part. In a degree, according to the measure of their faith, they are spiritual; yet, in a degree they are carnal. Accordingly, believers are continually exhorted to watch against the flesh, as well, as the world and the devil."

Once again he assures his readers, "That, although we are renewed, cleansed, purified, sanctified, the moment we truly believe in Christ, yet we are not then renewed, cleansed, purified altogether; but the flesh, the evil nature, still remains, (although subdued,) and wars against the Spirit."

In the same sermon, Mr. Wesley raises an interesting and oft heard question. "But can Christ be in the same heart where sin is? Undoubtedly he can;" answers Mr. Wesley, "otherwise it never could be saved therefrom. Where the sickness is, there is the Physician,

Carrying on his work within,
Striving till he cast out sin.

The Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthian believers does not give evidence of any in that church who had yet been entirely sanctified or perfected in love. Rather, we understand they were yet "babes in Christ," and still "carnal." Nevertheless, he assures them that "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body . . . and have been all made to drink into one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). They had been "washed . . . [initially] sanctified . . . justified in the name of the Lord Jesus . . . by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor 6:11).