Scriptural Holiness in History

Joseph D. McPherson

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1-2. Spring & Fall 2015. Volume 33. Posted Sept., 07, 2015  

While in the midst of delivering his message on a certain occasion, a former missionary was extolling the teachings of Mr. Wesley and the positive results he himself had witnessed by the teaching and preaching of the same Scriptural truth. A certain minister interrupted by standing and audibly making claim that we, in our present day, had made improvements on Wesley's teachings. The missionary responded by asking, “Have you, sir, caught the fish that Mr. Wesley caught?” The minister immediately sat down, ending the unexpected confrontation. “Mr. Wesley’s theology must not have been all that inferior to yours,” replied the missionary, “if he caught the fish you haven’t.”

It has, indeed, been supposed by some that Scriptural holiness as generally taught within the present holiness movement is a marked improvement over all teaching of this subject in former times. For these it is believed that none since the time of the apostles has provided a full and adequate teaching of entire sanctification until the time of modern holiness writings. Put another way, leaders of the modern holiness movement are seen as having a more accurate and scriptural view of entire sanctification than any theologian or Christian movement throughout church history, including the Church Fathers. They would leave us with the conviction that only in modern times has a more perfect understanding of entire sanctification been rendered, almost as if by special revelation in what they consider to be this more enlightened dispensation.

To such Mr. Wesley has an answer. “Can we,” says he, “believe that God left his whole church so ignorant of the Scriptures till yesterday? And if He was pleased to reveal the [true] sense of it now, to whom may we suppose He would reveal it?” He then quotes Kempis who stated that “All Scripture must be understood by the same Spirit whereby it was written.” He then quotes Christ Jesus who said, “Them that are meek will he guide in judgment, and them that are gentle will He learn his way.”[Works, 12:464]

Unlike leaders and founders of the modern holiness movement, Wesley did not sever his teachings from historic Christianity. In one of his letters he wrote, “My father did not die unacquainted with the faith of the Gospel, of the primitive Christians, or of our first Reformers; the same which, by the grace of God, I preach, and which is just as new as Christianity” [Works 12:100]. Those who are familiar with Wesley’s background know him to have been well schooled in the Scriptures, soundly acquainted with diverse theological persuasions, conversant with the writings of the Church Fathers and preeminent divines of Christian history. His teachings on subjects of holiness, entire sanctification and perfect love were, according to him, far from new. Rather, they were a reemphasis of true and lasting Christian themes found in the old religion of the Bible with witnesses throughout church history.

True it is that some of his detractors sought occasion against him. They thought they had found what they sought in his teaching of Christian perfection. “This is Mr. Wesley’s doctrine!” they cried. “He preaches perfection!” He readily admitted that he did, yet he contended that it was not his doctrine any more than it was the doctrine of Jesus Christ, St. Paul, St. James, St. Peter, and St. John, and “everyone who preaches the pure and the whole gospel. I tell you, as plain as I can speak, where and when I found this. I found it in the oracles of God, in the Old and New Testament” [Works, 11:444].

Wesley, as previously mentioned, had not only a command of Scriptural understanding, but was also well acquainted with the writings of the Church Fathers. Of those Fathers who lived and wrote in the first three centuries, he unapologetically claimed that they were “the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given” [Works, 10:484

Observers on all hands do not deny the significant differences in the teachings of second blessing holiness arising from within the modern holiness movement since the days of early Methodism. What is most alarming, however, is the fact that these “differences,” by and large, are found to be new. “But,” writes Wesley, “whatever doctrine is new must be wrong; for the old religion is the only true one; and no doctrine can be right, unless it is the very same ‘which was from the beginning’” [“On Sin in Believers,” 3.9]. Mr. Wesley is not alone in this assertion. Theologians have long adhered to the rule that anything new in doctrinal teaching is to be discarded.

In summary we must be mindful of the fact that the doctrine of Scriptural holiness as taught and preached by Mr. Wesley and other early Methodist leaders is fully reliable and in perfect accord with the New Testament, the earliest of Church Fathers and historical divines of reliable orthodoxy up and through the eighteenth century. Again, Wesley did not cut himself off from history. He was able to effectively synthesize all that had been taught in the Scriptures and church history concerning the subject of holiness. Sadly, with the adding of new teachings to this subject, the modern holiness movement cannot claim such scriptural and historical authority. There are aspects of their teaching that were never known before the nineteenth century.

The Wesleyan revival has long been considered exceptional for its length of endurance, its bringing about a moral revolution in society and the gathering of a host of followers effectively and safely swept into the Kingdom. Much of this success can be attributed to the scriptural truth as it was preached and taught by early Wesleyan Methodism. The New Testament underscores the importance of teachers in the Church. All who are in earnest to save their souls must choose their teachers. Let us choose wisely.

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