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What Did John Wesley Mean by “Holiness of Heart and Life?”


What Did John Wesley Mean by “Holiness of Heart and Life?”

A Sermon Preached at the Annual Service Honouring
Hay Bay Church ,
The Cradle of Methodism in
Upper Canada


I: — 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.


II: — 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 forgiveness.

“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 hopeless despair.

III: — 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 scripture.

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…( Corinth , Philippi , wherever.) To be holy, a saint, is simply to be different. Different from what? Different for what? Different from “this present evil age”; different from that “darkness” which is “passing away” (to quote the apostle John); different from “the form of this world” which is “passing away” (to quote the apostle Paul). If Christians are different from this, what are we different for? We are different for the kingdom of God ; different for that “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells”; different for intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ and conformity to him.

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 Corinth , “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God ? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God . And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” “Such were some of you.” The congregation in Corinth had among its members men and women who had spent years in notorious sin — undisguisable, undeniable, thoroughly degrading, habitual sin. And then they had known release. Now they continued to rejoice in a deliverance for which they would thank the deliverer eternally.


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 Spirit-generated conduct.

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 that.”)

The man who always knew resentment at an affront to be sin was slandered by Bishop Lavington, an Anglican Church dignitary from Exeter . Lavington poured contempt on the Methodist people many times over, falsely accusing them unconscionably. He maintained that Methodists were stupid, irrational, hysterical, treacherous and politically treasonous. Yet the vilification Lavington heaped on the Methodist people was moderate compared to the vilification he poured on Wesley himself. Years later Wesley found himself at worship in an Anglican church whose communion service that Sunday was administered by none other than Bishop Lavington. Later the same day Wesley wrote in his Journal, “I was well-pleased to partake of the Lord’s Supper with my old opponent, Bishop Lavington. O may we sit down together in the Kingdom of our Father .” When he wrote, “I was well-pleased” he was transparently sincere. “Resentment at an affront is sin” — and having been “guilty of this a thousand times”, Wesley found himself resentment-free; resentment-free before the man who had slandered him and his people repeatedly; resentment-free before the man who, two weeks later, would be found dead.


III: — 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 self-congratulation.

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 into himself:

Plunged in the Godhead’s deepest sea,

And lost in Thine immensity.


The 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.


And elsewhere,

Let all I am in Thee be lost;

Let all be lost in God.


We 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 love’s longing.

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 Victor Shepherd
Hay Bay Church                         24th August 2003