What is 'Entire Sanctification'?
Historically, one of the distinguishing marks of The Wesleyan Church has been its emphasis on the doctrine of sanctification and, in particular, its belief that believers may be 'entirely sanctified' during their earthly lives. What is meant by the phrase and whether it is actually possible have been points of contention.
Simply put, sanctification is the transition from sin to love. When we become Christians, the Holy Spirit begins to make us holy too. This process of purification continues throughout our lifetimes, but Wesleyans have traditionally taught that there is a crisis moment at some point after our initial conversions when we are perfected in love and empowered for service. God's 1st major work of grace entirely justified us, but this 2nd major work of grace entirely sanctifies us.
Many have found this teaching confusing. During the process of ordination, I had to meet annually with the District Board of Ministerial Development. This board lovingly asked questions of candidates to make sure they were fit to be ordained ministers and that the Wesleyan Church was the right fit for them.
I distinctly remember being asked by Rev. Paul Markell if I was Entirely Sanctified. My reply was honest... I didn't really know what that meant. He re-phrased by asking something like this: "Are you totally surrendered, so far as you know, to Jesus Christ? Are you fully consecrated to God?" To that I could say yes.
I was saved at 8 years old in Verna Branch's Sunday School class. I remember the moment even though I don't remember the date. But at 17, during Family Camp at Houghton, I came to a much deeper understanding of what it means to be a Christian and completely surrendered my life to Christ. Some might argue that Verna's class was the moment I was completely justified and Family Camp was the moment I was entirely sanctified.
But to be honest, I myself am still not completely comfortable with the term. I really believe I was saved in Sunday School... and I really believe something very spiritually significant happened to me at Family Camp... but I'm not sure that '2nd Work of Grace' or 'Perfect Love' or 'Entire Sanctification' are the best terms for exactly what happened.
Grace, while sometimes received in bursts, comes continually. I can become more and more perfect in my loving intentions, but would be uncomfortable describing myself as having perfect love. I am entirely consecrated to God (as far as I know), but it is God who sanctifies. I'll let God decide if I'm entirely sanctified, but I can definitely assure you God is not entirely done working on me!
My preference is to speak of the ongoing process of sanctification. During that process there will undoubtedly be critical moments where spiritual victories are won. One of those moments might even be SO significant that we consider it in a category all its own. But even after that moment, growth must continue for the rest of my life. The doctrine of Entire Sanctification must never take on the aura of arrival at a destination if such thinking causes us to plateau. There's always room to grow!