Can Love Fill the Whole Capacity of the Soul?

My responses to the variety of Christian traditions present in this Respectful Conversation have personal as well as theological roots. In the case of the Wesleyan tradition, that’s about as personal as it gets, beginning with my first name. I previously mentioned that my evangelical parents named me with John Wesley in mind. But Dr. Sarah Lancaster’s fine piece, “Holiness of Heart and Life,” helps me understand more.

The evangelical stream of John Wesley and Wesleyanism was appealing to my parents. As Dr. Lancaster explains, this also “encouraged lifestyles that avoid common cultural behaviors that are either considered sinful or could lead to sin (for instance smoking, drinking, some forms of dancing). My father and mother, as well as my brother, sister, and most of my aunts and uncles, attended Wheaton College, shaped by the broader evangelical tradition, but with its well-known “Pledge” made by students promising, at the time, not to drink, smoke, dance, play cards, or attend movies.

In my early years I never heard about how my namesake opposed slavery, nor about how changed hearts had a social expression, including attention to society’s injustices. And until reading Dr. Lancaster’s essay, I had no idea that Wesley’s opposition to “spirituous liquor” was connected to the grain it used in a time of shortage, depriving the poor of bread. I certainly knew a part of the Wesleyan tradition—a part I valued—but not the whole of it.

My later ecumenical experience revealed other parts of the Wesleyan tradition. In leaders like Bishop Mel Talbert and Jan Love, I discovered Methodists whose tradition compelled them to work and witness for racial justice, to name and resist violence against women, and to be deeply engaged in the call to Christian unity. Becoming familiar in the NCC and WCC with the life and witness of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, I learned, as Dr. Lancaster notes, of the persistent witness for justice and liberation from these expressions of the historic Black Church, shaped by the Wesleyan tradition.

When I joined the staff of the WCC, one of my most important mentors and friends was another Wesley—Wesley Ariarajah, from Sri Lanka, inheriting this tradition through the stream of British Methodist missionaries identified by Dr. Lancaster. Wesley Ariarajah served, and remains, as one of the leading experts on dialogue with those of other living faiths. And his preaching, teaching, and personal style is marked by the qualities of an inviting, warm faith exemplified by our namesake.

Therefore, I’m grateful for how Dr. Lancaster has painted a wholistic picture of the Wesleyan tradition, demonstrating how its various streams are inter-related, and continue to impact the broader church. However, this makes me wonder why the Reformed tradition has seemed to have relatively modest and sparse engagement with the Wesleyan tradition. The Reformed Church in America, and its Reformed partners in the U.S. have had a robust dialogue with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, leading to the Formula of Agreement. For 25 years Reformed denominations have had a serious dialogue with the Catholic Church through the U.S. Catholic Conference.

At a global level, the World Communion of Reformed Churches have had ongoing ecumenical dialogue with Anglicans, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics. Its predecessor body, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, had an official dialogue with the African Instituted Churches. But I can find no official ecumenical engagement and dialogue between the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions. Maybe that’s because we assume, mutually, that today our differences are not divisive enough to require concerted engagement. But I would disagree and believe that assumption is mistaken.

Historically, John Wesley raised vigorous disagreements with Calvinists. These centered around the question of predestination which troubled Wesley enough to preach against it, leading to some famous controversies. Wesley’s concern had to do with the exercise of free will in the process of working out one’s salvation in holy living.

In my view, the key difference between our two traditions of relevance today centers around holiness, sanctification, and perfectionism. Reformed and Methodist folks generally get along, and we don’t seem to want to confront each other around such issues. Maybe some Reformed folks quietly assume (wrongly) that there’s not enough of a systematic theological tradition from Wesleyans to have an in-depth dialogue. Dr. Lancaster wisely refutes any such assumption. So, let’s talk.

How do we understand salvation? How is sanctification related to justification? What is possible in the life a follower of Christ when one has been saved by grace? What is the ongoing impact of sin? What did Jesus mean when he ended the Sermon on the Mount, with all its transforming instructions about how to live, with these words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”? (Matthew 5:48). These are the questions that can frame our conversation.

Dr. Lancaster describes in a clear and moving way how the Wesleyan tradition comes at these questions: …we may begin to model our lives after the one we follow, learning from Jesus how to love properly. Sanctification consists of growing in holiness–understood as perfect love, namely “love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.”

It’s words like these quoted from John Wesley’s sermon that provoke Reformed nervousness. Can any form of holiness and love ever hope to exclude sin? Can we ever expect such love to completely absorb us, filling the whole capacity of our soul? Can we ever expect, in this life, such “perfection?” Stalwart Reformed voices would say “No.”

All this goes back to the understanding of sin and the “fall” on human nature, and the degree to which God’s grace can change not only one’s “status,” but effect a real change in one’s whole being. As Dr. Lancaster writes, “John Wesley was so confident in God’s ability to heal us that he taught a doctrine of “perfection” or entire sanctification (perfect love in this life).”
John Calvin, on the other hand, writes this in the Institutes of Christian Religion:
Now God’s image is the perfect excellence of human nature which shone in Adam before his defection but was subsequently so vitiated and almost blotted out that nothing remains after the ruin except what is confused, mutilated, and disease-ridden”. (I.15.4)

Some Reformed theologians, including good friends of mine, struggle hard to show how Calvin tries to make room for the effects of grace to produce real change in one’s nature, and not just one’s status, in the process of sanctification. They want to rehabilitate Calvin from popular and prejudicial stereotypes. After all, they point out, Calvin wrote: “Take courage, my friends; even if we are nothing in our own hearts, perchance something of us is safely hidden in the heart of God” (III. 2. 25). But it’s a faint hope, and a far cry from Wesley’s conviction that “the whole soul” can be taken up in perfect love in this life. For Calvinists, holiness is expressed more through the thoroughness of confession than through the practice of perfection.

Perchance, a fresh dialogue between the Wesleyan and Reformed traditions would serve us both well. It need not begin by retrieving the old Arminian controversy and the doctrine of predestination. Rather, it might look at the practices of Christian spirituality and the forms of their contemporary revival in Protestantism, drawing often from Catholic and Orthodox roots. We might ask what it means for a follower of Christ to be “perfected in love.” We could explore whether psychology, human anthropology, and discoveries of neuroscience have fresh, relevant insights about how human behavior can be changed. Such a dialogue might allow each of our traditions to understand anew what it means for a follower of Jesus to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” And even if not agreeing on underlying doctrine, perhaps we could find common ground around practices which allow all of us, in Dr. Lancaster’s words, to “learn from Jesus how to love properly.

I think my namesake has something to teach my tradition. That exchange can be mutually enriching. We can be grateful the Dr. Sarah Lancaster has explained well how the Wesleyan tradition has evolved, what it believes, and how it practices our common faith.