Holiness and Sin

The tradition that I represent in this dialogue had its beginning in the Evangelical Revival in England during the 18th century. The stream of Methodism that has survived and flourished since then was guided initially by John and Charles Wesley. As a relatively “new” tradition, it would not appear at first that Wesleyan Methodism would have much in common with the Orthodox. Although not much is known about how he encountered these ideas, John Wesley valued what he called the “primitive church,” and he refers to several early church fathers in his writing. Some have recognized similarities in theology and spirituality (see Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality, edited by S T Kimbrough Jr., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). I begin this response with appreciation for similarities that I see in David Ford’s description of following Jesus in the Orthodox Tradition and the Wesleys’ vision for Methodist followers of Jesus.

Although Wesleyan Methodists do not identify and canonize saints, the description of saints as “faithfully, fervently, and fully liv[ing] in vibrant communion with our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ” beautifully expresses the goal of Christian holiness that John Wesley had in mind. For him, every follower of Jesus should seek to have–expressed by Wesleyan Methodists in the language of Paul–“the mind of Christ.” As Ford observes, not every follower reaches the same degree of fervent faithfulness as the saints, but all may be inspired to live more faithfully. The Wesleyan Methodist movement was originally organized in groups (societies, classes, bands) where followers of Jesus were supported and accountable to others in this endeavor.

John Wesley’s understanding of holiness bears similarity to many elements named by Ford. Wesley called people to pursue holiness of heart and life. Holiness of heart refers to the inner effort to align one’s will with the mind of Christ so that sin does not rule our lives.  Holiness of life expresses the fruit of this alignment both in service to other human beings and in the proper use and enjoyment of God’s creation. Holiness in both these respects is formed and assisted by a disciplined use of the “means of grace.”

Wesley encouraged regular use of “means of grace” for spiritual growth. “Means of grace” (activities that help us experience the power and the presence of God) refers especially, but is not limited, to prayer, searching Scripture, and receiving the Lord’s Supper. As priests in the Church of England, the Wesley brothers valued, used, and recommended all the resources of their Church. After colonial North American Methodists were divided from the Church of England through the War of Independence against England, John Wesley abridged and edited the Book of Common Prayer for their use in the newly forming United States. The resources for Orthodox and Wesleyans are not identical (for instance Wesleyan Methodists do not typically use icons), but it is clear both traditions have riches to be employed for following Jesus.

Even as those historic resources have great importance, Wesleyan Methodist worship does make room for innovation. In the Wesleys’ time, Methodists used not only formal prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, but also extemporaneous prayer. Charles Wesley composed thousands of new hymns for the use of Methodists when they gathered for preaching services and for their own private devotion. In our time creativity is highly valued, so even though there are official worship resources, there is no fixed, shared form of worship that all Wesleyan Methodists use.  In fact, our worship practices are so varied that I would be hard pressed to quote, as Ford does, a prayer apart from the Lord’s Prayer that everyone would know and pray. The Orthodox posting indicates how important shared formation in worship can be for preparing people to follow Jesus. While I would not want to give up entirely freedom and variety, it may be that recovering more common elements might be helpful.

Although Wesleyan Methodists share with Orthodox a desire and effort to “live without sin in thought word and deed,” my own tradition has had to wrestle with the extent to which one could be “sinless.” John Wesley believed it was within God’s power to cleanse us from sin by perfecting us in love, but he was confronted with some in his time who claimed sinlessness to the point of infallibility. I would be very interested to know more about how completely the Orthodox think sin can be eliminated as we follow Jesus.

Today, many in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition are taking seriously the idea that sin may not be only a matter of the will in individuals, but may also be expressed in oppressive systems that need to be confronted and changed. This may be a point of disagreement unless there are ways of talking about sin in the Orthodox Tradition that were not able to be included in the posting.

Another more recent question about sin arises with regard to the way Ford expresses sexual purity, with a definition of marriage that rules out same sex relationship. Although the understanding Ford states would have been historically assumed, at this point in time the Wesleyan Methodist tradition is quite divided over how to think about the way LGBTQ+ persons may follow Jesus. On this point, some would agree with the Orthodox and others would not.

5 replies
  1. David Ford
    David Ford says:

    Ford, More on the possibility of sinlessness, and on social justice

    Dear Sarah,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to my posting – especially all the similarities and congruences you find between Methodism and Orthodoxy.  You referred to John Wesley’s appreciation for early church fathers; indeed, he especially valued the Greek Fathers, such as St. Macarius the Great, whose Fifty Spiritual Homilies he was reading on his way to ministry in the American colony of Georgia in 1736; and St. Gregory of Nyssa (also 4th century), whose dynamic understanding of growth in actual holiness most likely helped Wesley come to his dynamic view of sanctification.  And the very early writings known as the Apostolic Fathers comprise the first volume of Wesley’s great collection of Christian classics through the centuries.

    As I understand Wesley, he posits universal prevenient grace to, in effect, nullify mankind’s supposed total depravity as a result of the Fall, restoring the ability of human freewill to so consistently and strongly choose what’s good and right as to make at least some degree of sinlessness possible, granted that Wesley defined sin as (I think) intentional transgression of known laws.  This way of understanding the restoration of the capacity of humans to grow in actual holiness of thought and deed, and hence to grow in sinlessness, is, in my understanding, reflected in Wesley’s “squeezing” the Calvinism, with its starting point of total depravity, out of the 39 Articles of Anglicanism as he produced the 25 Articles of Methodism.

    Please see my reply to Mark Ellingsen’s response (representing Lutheranism) to my initial posting for my discussion there of the possibility of sinlessness.  I would add to that, in light of your comments, that indeed, any claim of having reached sinlessness to the point of infallibility would be rejected as prideful spiritual delusion not only by Wesley but also by the Orthodox.  With the humility that’s crucial for authentic spiritual life, we would always be keenly aware that no matter how far we may ever advance in holiness, there’s always the possibility of falling away – not only from holiness, but even from faith itself.  We always should be bearing in mind St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:12 – “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”  

    Also, I think the Orthodox would perhaps be more hesitant than Wesley was about the possibility of sinlessness, since the Orthodox understanding of sin is more profound than intentional transgression of a known law.  We understand the pervasiveness of sin, how we can be oblivious to its work in us; this is why our prayers of repentance consistently talk of the need to ask forgiveness for all of our sins, “whether committed knowingly or unknowingly, wittingly or unwittingly, in knowledge or in ignorance.”  And of course there are sins of omission as well as commission.  So while always maintaining that sinlessness – at least at any and every moment – is possible (if that’s said to be impossible, this would surely tempt some people not to try to always avoid sin), we would never presume to have attained it.  We feel it’s much safer spiritually to say with St. Paul, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

    Concerning the sinful dimensions of oppressive systems that you mention, I think the Orthodox can certainly relate to this understanding.  But we would want to also emphasize the personal dimension – that even within situations or structures whereby some are treated unfairly and unjustly by those over them, those in authority have the responsibility to treat those under them respectfully, with dignity, as fellow human beings.  As Christ counseled masters, “Treat your servants/slaves with justice and fairness” (Col. 4:1; also Eph. 6:9).  This was His primary focus, rather than becoming engaged in political efforts to eliminate slavery – or poverty, for that matter, as reflected by His statement, “The poor shall always be with you” (Matt. 26:11).  As my wife, Dr. Mary Ford, explains in her essay entitled “Hierarchy, Inequality, and the Mystery of Male and Female” (in Healing Humanity: Confronting Our Moral Crisis), hierarchies are absolutely inevitable in this world; the Christian responsibility of those in authority is to treat those under them with dignity and respect, and the Christian responsibility of those under authority is to serve those over them as faithfully as possible.

    And concerning the final issue you raised – that of the traditional understanding of marriage – I think I’ll save my comments on that for my reply to Dr. Terry  (representing Pentecostalism).

    Thanks again for your comments.  I hope my thoughts expressed here will be helpful.

    Yours, in Christ,


    • Sarah Lancaster
      Sarah Lancaster says:

      Thank you for your very thoughtful and informed reply to my response to your posting.

      I would say about Wesley’s idea of sin that it is richer than the single definition you mentioned. He does indeed say that sin “properly so called” is an actual, voluntary transgression of the law of God, but that refers to outward sin, and there may also be inward sin, which would be any disposition that is not according to the mind of Christ. The distinction between inward and outward sin became important and received more development as Wesley resisted Moravians who claimed sinlessness from the point of justification. He wrote sermons “On Sin in Believers” and “The Repentance of Believers” to talk about our need for ongoing repentance. There may well be a difference between Orthodox and Wesley on the possibility of sinlessness. Wesley had confidence that God could remove the root of sin even in this life, but this would be God’s work, not our own.

      With regard to oppressive systems, I think Methodist theologians would want to speak about how systems exert a kind of power, so the system itself in the words of United Methodist theologian Justo González is demonic. They cannot be dismantled simply by persons in authority treating people with respect. And people participate in those systems rather unintentionally (but sinfully?) because it is so hard to extricate themselves from them (for instance owning land that was once taken forcefully from others).

      This is all very thought-provoking, and I appreciate the way your contribution raises important questions to be pondered.


      • David C. Ford
        David C. Ford says:

        Ford, more on sinlessness, and social justice

        Dear Sarah,

        Thank you for extending the conversation. It’s helpful to me to learn that Wesley did have a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness and invasiveness of sin – perhaps very close to an Orthodox understanding. Though we would not endorse the view that “the root of sin” can ever be fully extracted from anyone – or correspondingly, that anyone can be instantaneously sanctified. Even very holy people had to constantly stay vigilant and watchful, lest they fall into sinful thoughts and actions (cf. St. Paul saying, as I mentioned above, “Let those who think they stand, beware lest they fall”).

        And I appreciate your comment about Wesley’s understanding of “our need for ongoing repentance.” There’s the story of the holy elder who, on his deathbed, lamented, “I have not yet begun to repent.” Of course, he had been repenting in an ongoing way for many years. But as he was near to appearing before the throne of God, His infinitely greater holiness made his own repentance seem that much more insignificant, I think we would say. I think something similar is at work in St. Paul’s statement, “I am the chief of sinners” – for the closer one comes to the truly sinless One, the more one’s even very small sins seem to loom larger.

        Along these lines, you might be interested to read my first published article, entitled “Saint Macarios and John Wesley: Variations on the Theme of Sanctification,” published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review (1988).

        Concerning oppressive systems, institutionalized sin, systemic injustice, demonic structures (however these things may be labeled), the Orthodox, I think, perhaps with our longer historical understanding and/or imagination and/or memory than most Protestants have, might be able to bring a certain perspective that might be helpful for those, especially Christians, who are passionately devoted to trying to “dismantle” such systems/structures/institutions.

        Of course, there is absolutely no question that it’s a central Christian duty/responsibility/calling to help those in economic need and those who are being unjustly discriminated against, to help to alleviate their burdens and increase their well-being materially as well as spiritually. At the same time, surely there’s a place for encouraging those in need to also take responsibility for their own situation – such as, for example, seeking employment, or better employment, if this is possible.

        The Orthodox would, I think, see a clear danger in getting overly fixated on trying to “fix the system,” or even further, to “dismantle” it. Granted that some economic, social, and political systems/structures are more likely to be oppressive to some, or many, in society, isn’t the ultimate blame to be placed on those in leadership in those systems? Will there ever be a perfectly fair and just economic, social, and/or political system, as long as fallen human nature is what it is? Are the systems in themselves sinful and/or demonic? Isn’t it really the case that those running them are often sinful, so that they treat those under them unjustly?

        And the history of Christianity would suggest, I think, that the Lord’s Church can thrive in the midst of any economic, social, or political system; surely She is called to be above them all, since Her Founder is the One Who said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

        When it’s the system that’s blamed, rather than those in it, we would see a clear danger of creating and/or intensifying a sense of victimization among those being adversely affected by the system, leading to their not taking responsibility for their own advancement, using “It’s the fault of the system” as an excuse not to do whatever they can do individually to help themselves materially and spiritually – especially spiritually, since not taking responsibility for our own attitudes and duties is a terribly debilitating and dysfunctional state of being. The whole life of ongoing repentance is based on the acceptance of one’s own responsibility for one’s sinfulness – and not blaming others, or the system.

        In addition, not blaming the system – not blaming our particular circumstances in general – is a great help for living by one of the key maxims of the spiritual life: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” We would wonder how it would really be possible for anyone to have inner peace and contentment if he or she is consumed with efforts to “dismantle” the system.

        This is not to say at all that the Lord would never call us Christians to some kind of political involvement. In doing so with an inner assurance of following His calling, that would presumably be the key to maintaining one’s inner peace in the midst of that kind of work.

        Sorry if I’ve been rambling here. I hope this may be helpful somehow!

        Yours, in Christ,

        From an Orthodox historical point of view, we can see that Martin Luther was really the first modern revolutionary, the first one perhaps to blame the system – in his day, the institution of the Roman Church. For in the end (though not at first) he blamed the penitential system of that Church for the angst that was torturing him, rather than following the advice of his spiritual mentor, Fr. Johann von Staupitz, and dealing with his over-scrupulosity in a spiritually mature way. So instead of realizing the proper role of good works in the process of salvation – that we do what we can, with God’s help, and leave the rest to Him – he claimed that doing good works must have no part in the process of salvation, that it must be “faith alone.” This was his extreme over-reaction to his perception that the Roman Church was inordinately emphasizing good works at the expense of one’s personal faith in Jesus in the process of salvation.

        So I would hazard to suggest that there’s a certain connection, or at least a certain similarity, between Luther’s blaming the system, which led him to try to fix it with an extreme over-reaction, and, for example, the BLM movement’s blaming the system – with their charge of “systemic racism” – and their extreme over-reaction, espousing what in reality is reverse racism, with all whites being indiscriminately accused of racism, and with their view that, in essence, it would seem, only black lives matter!

        • David C. Ford
          David C. Ford says:

          P.S. I would certainly include Critical Race Theory (CRT), which apparently is rapidly being inserted into the curricula of public schools across the country, even elementary schools. How far this is from Martin Luther King’s dream that one day everyone in America would be accepted simply as fellow human beings, and would not be judged by the color of their skin.

          • Sarah Lancaster
            Sarah Lancaster says:

            Thanks for elaborating more on your position. I share some further thoughts myself below.

            While it is surely good to find contentment in God regardless of our condition, it is also true that some conditions need to be changed. I acknowledge that I am probably not the best person to represent concern about systemic oppression, but I have worked to understand theologically what is being called for. This is what I have learned from those who express it well.

            A system is not just circumstances (like living in a time of drought or with disease). Rather it is the way life together is ordered, and oppressive systems are ordered toward something other than God’s will. Oppressive systems are kept running not just by leaders but also by all the people who participate in them. People can and should take responsibility for many things, but the oppressive system also sets limits for some that are not set for others. The system is so entrenched in our lives that it seems just “the way things are.” It is easy for the patterns and order to be taken for granted and go unquestioned, so that is why paying attention to dismantling them becomes important. To call a system sinful or “demonic” is not to attribute will or blame to the system apart from people. Rather it is a judgment that the system does not enact the will of God in the world. Of course, we will never in this world achieve perfect conformity to God’s will, but dismantling the system is important so that something new and closer to the will of God may be put in its place.

            When John Wesley encountered Methodists who claimed to be sinless, his response was that whatever violates the perfect Law of God is sinful, so even our mistakes have the taint of sin. This would be especially true if the effects of our mistakes bring about harm to another. Because we are never free from mistakes in this life, we are never fully sinless, even if we avoid all behaviors that are typically called sin. I wonder whether something like this reasoning could be applied to systemic oppression. We share in its sinfulness through our participation even if we do not in the proper sense “sin” (voluntarily transgress the Law of God).

            In my academic and ecclesial work, this matter is of pressing importance. I continue to think about the best way to reflect theologically on the ways people are harmed by social policies and structures, and I appreciate your engagement to make me think further.

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