The Quest for Holiness

 It seems that I have been fascinated with the concept of holiness for as long as I can remember. As a young person growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I discovered that one of my cousins and his family were active participants in what they referred to as a “Pentecostal Holiness” movement. Many years later in my doctoral studies I focused on Religion in America and learned of the roots of Methodism and of its founders, John and Charles Wesley. I also found that many of Charles Wesley’s great hymns and anthems are contained in the Latter-day Saint hymnal.

Brigham Young, the second President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a devoted and practicing Methodist before he was caught up in the spirit of Restorationism or Christian Primitivism in the northeastern United States. He once said of John Wesley: “I never passed John Wesley’s church in England without stopping to look at it. Was he a good man? Yes; I suppose him to have been, by all accounts, as good as ever walked on this earth. . . . Has he obtained a rest? Yes, and greater than ever entered his mind to expect.” Brigham added: “Did the Spirit of God rest upon him? Yes, and does, more or less, at times, upon all people.”

Six years ago I was approached by Mark Maddix, who is now the dean of Theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, near San Diego. He indicated that he was aware of a dialogue with Evangelical Christian scholars of which I had been a part for some fifteen years. He inquired whether some Latter-day Saint colleagues and I from Brigham Young University might be interested in beginning a similar academic dialogue with four professors of the Nazarene faith. At the time, I knew very little about the Nazarenes but, out of curiosity, I sensed that such could make for a worthwhile conversation. Before I could answer, however, Mark added: “I think you’ll discover that you have much more in common with Nazarenes than you do with Evangelicals.” The Nazarene-Latter-day Saint dialogue began six months later, and the group has met twice a year (when needed, by Zoom) for over five years.

In each gathering, we have read both Latter-day Saint and Nazarene perspectives on such topics as the Fall and the plight of fallen humanity, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, and Eschatology (which we just discussed four days ago). Quite frequently our Nazarene readings have consisted of sermons by John Wesley, their principal theologian. Very early on, I fell in love with Wesley. I have read several biographies and become absolutely taken with the man’s life. While I am not always in agreement with his doctrinal conclusions, his unmatched devotion to duty, as well as his teachings, speak to me (as do the hymns of his brother, Charles). Four years ago I was invited to spend a portion of the summer as a visiting scholar at Point Loma at the Wesley Center there on the university campus and to devote about five hours a day to Wesley’s teachings. Those were days never to be forgotten.

Dr. Lancaster’s comment that Wesley had chosen to “convey important theological ideas to ordinary people rather than to scholars” resonated with me. After about ten years of writing to academics in order to be promoted to Associate and then Full Professor and obtain continuing faculty status (BYU’s version of tenure), I found much greater satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment as I wrote, almost exclusively (with an academic article or book here and there) to what we often refer to as the informed non-specialist. And I for one am very grateful that John Wesley made that decision.

I was a bit confused about a matter in paragraph six. Sarah states that “In justification we truly and deeply learn through Jesus Christ that God loves us as dear children, we know we are forgiven, and we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness. Because new birth (used alongside the image of adoption, this metaphor stresses a real change in us and not just a change in status) accompanies justification, we may begin to model our lives after the one we follow, learning from Jesus how to love properly.” It is a beautiful expression, wonderfully stated. My question is this: Do Methodists believe in “imputed righteousness” (receiving the righteousness of Jesus), or do they believe that when we are changed by Christ and conformed to His image there is an actual spiritual change that takes place? I’m a little confused. In his 1765 sermon, “The Lord Our Righteousness,” he states: “I believe God implants righteousness in every one to whom he has imputed it. . . . They to whom the righteousness of Christ is imputed are made righteous by the spirit of Christ.” (Paragraph 12.) I suppose I am having trouble distinguishing between imputed righteousness and implanted righteousness.

In paragraph 11 Dr. Lancaster gets to the matter of “Christian perfection” or “entire sanctification,” meaning “perfect love in this life,” which John Wesley felt people should expect before their death. My questions are these: From Wesley’s perspective, when a person has perfect love or enjoys entire sanctification, is he or she completely free of sin? Will such a person, for the remainder of their life, never disobey God or be unkind or dishonest? Or is whatever they do that is wrong or inappropriate not counted or considered to be a sin? I ask that in light of my understanding that the Methodists, in contrast to the Reformed traditions, believe that one can fall from grace.

During the Second Great Awakening, an era when camp meetings and revivals were everywhere in the northeast, the Joseph Smith Sr. family was religiously mixed. Father Smith was a universalist, while Lucy Mack Smith (the mother) and three of the children joined the Presbyterian Church. Young Joseph Smith described his religious leanings as follows: “In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was. . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.” Interestingly, in 1831, twenty-five year old Joseph Smith stated that “until we have perfect love we are liable to fall, and, when we have a testimony that our names are sealed in the Lamb’s book of life, we have perfect love, and then it is impossible for false Christs to deceive us.” Perhaps some of the Methodist teachings were still a part of his religious thinking and understanding.


I particularly appreciate Sarah’s last paragraph about our efforts to be a true child of God and live “appropriately in that relationship.” It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s remarks in Mere Christianity. Lewis quotes Philippians 2:12, which seems to imply that the greater responsibility to become more Christlike rests with us (“work out your own salvation”). He then quotes verse 13 (“it is God which works in us”) and observes that such language seems to imply that the greater work toward our becoming more Christlike will be God’s. “You see, “he points out, “we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does, when God and man are working together.”