Sanctification and Original Sin
Reinhold Niebuhr once stated that original sin “is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”1 By this he meant that we only need to look at human history to believe in the reality of original sin. This doctrine goes all the way back to the garden of Eden where we encounter our first parents—Adam and Eve. In Romans 3:23, Paul made clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul described sin as “missing the mark.” According to Paul, this is the state of all of humanity. The fact that humanity falls short of the glory of God means that it has failed to live in the image and likeness of God.2 As such, sanctification or holiness refers to God’s restoration of our souls so that we may accurately reflect the divine image.
An understanding of sin should be based on a proper understanding of humanity. In the Hebrew understanding, when God created the adam (humankind) it was “flesh” (basar).3 It is basar that is animated by the spirit (ruach) of God. In Genesis chapter 3, disobedience is the cause of the human “condition of weakness and mortality.”4 This is not to say that flesh is evil—it is still part of God’s good creation, but it has been marred by sin. In the New Testament, the word “flesh” translates to the Greek word sarx. Even though the flesh is not evil, one is not to live “according to the flesh” (kata sarka) or have “the mind of the flesh” (phronema sarkos). Having flesh is not sinful: it is living for the flesh, being motivated by merely human goals and values; in short, it is a self-centred mindset that is sinful.5
John Wesley spoke of this self-centeredness when he wrote, “And thus man was created looking directly to God, as his last end; but, falling into sin, he fell off from God, and turned into himself.”6 The solution to this self-centeredness is “a new affection: love excluding sin.”7
Even after we have been saved and sanctified, the effect of original sin and fallenness still remains. Wesley was aware that imperfections and infirmities would still remain within the Christian life even after salvation, but that the willful transgression of a known law of God can and should be avoided by one who has experienced God’s love. This distinction helps us as Wesleyans to affirm “that sin is not inevitable, necessary, or perpetual in the Christian life.”8 We will always remain as fallen creatures with disordered physiological drives. Furthermore, we are still shaped by our upbringing and family and cultural contexts, of which even the most Christian homes and cultures still have their dysfunctions.9 But for the Christian, the grace of God through the power of the Spirit purifies the intentions of our hearts so as to avoid willfully transgressing God’s law.
The removal of inbred sin is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. For Wesley, the infilling of love was the end of sanctification.10 As such, Wesley’s perspective has love as its focus and not sin.11 The love Wesley spoke of was love of God and love of neighbor—from new birth, love increases in the believer’s life until he or she reaches maturity.12 Wesley was aware that “love excludes sin” and such a heart certainly leaves no space for sin. In this sense, holiness “has a positive content.”13
Wesley never regarded sin as having the final word. God offers victory over sin with full salvation.14 Wesley stated “It is properly a conviction, wrought by the Holy Ghost, of the sin which still remains in our heart, of the phronema sarkos, the carnal mind, which ‘does still remain’…although it does no longer reign…the tendency of our heart to self-will, to Atheism, or idolatry; and, above all, to unbelief.”15 In trying to understand sanctification within hearts influenced by original sin, we should resist the temptation to “make this the basis for a doctrine of Christian sanctification.”16 Doing so would be tantamount to trying “to understand light in terms of darkness”—it is sin which must be understood in terms of holiness and not the other way around.17 However, since we are cleansed from sin, the connection between sanctification and original sin ought to be considered seriously. Sin itself is indeed “the greatest threat to holiness.”18
The doctrine of grace is crucial to a Wesleyan understanding of original sin.
Wesley was aware that growth in grace results in deeper awareness of the reality of what he called “inbred sin.” Wesley wrote:
"The conviction we feel of inbred sin is deeper and deeper every day. The more we grow in grace, the more do we see the desperate wickedness of our heart. The more we advance in the knowledge and the love of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ…the more do we discern of our alienation from God, of the enmity that is carnal mind, and the necessity of our being entirely renewed in righteousness and true holiness."19
We ought not to think of sanctification and justification as happening one after the other. For Wesley, “the beginning of sanctification is at the new birth, the moment of regeneration, which is simultaneous with justification.”20 It must be clear, however, that while sanctification has begun, it is not complete at this stage. Holiness for Wesley entailed “being cleansed from sin, ‘from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit’ (2 Corinthians 7:1).”21
It is clear that a Wesleyan theology cannot properly articulate an understanding of sanctification without relating it to the doctrine of original sin. It is because humanity is sinful by nature that it needs to be sanctified through and through. The restoration of humanity in the image of God is the goal of Christianity.
Gift Mtukwa is chair of department and lecturer in biblical studies at Africa Nazarene University in Nairobi, Kenya.
1. Reinhold Neibuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. I (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 228-231.
2. H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith & Holiness (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1988), 276.
3. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 452.
4. T. A. Noble, Holy Trinity, Holy People: The Historic Doctrine of Christian Perfecting (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013), 117.
5. Ibid., 118.
6. Dunning, Grace, Faith, and Holiness, 277.
7. Noble, Holy Trinity, Holy People, 124.
8. Diane Leclerc, “How Do We Define Sin?," in Essential Beliefs: A Wesleyan Primer, ed. Mark A. Maddix and Diane Leclerc (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2016), 76.
9. Noble, Holy Trinity, 125.
10. Ibid., 86.
11. Herbert McGonigle, Scriptural Holiness: The Wesleyan Distinctive (England: Flame Trust, 1995), 20.
12. Noble, Holy Trinity, 87.
13. Leclerc, “How Do We Define Sin?,” 78-79.
14. Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 83.
15. John Wesley, "The Scripture Way of Salvation" (Sermon 43), The Works of John Wesley, ed. Richard Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005) 2:165.
16. Noble, Holy Trinity, 114.
17. Ibid., 116.
18. Leclerc, “How Do We Define Sin?,” 75.
19. Wesley, “Sermon on the Mount” (Sermon 21), Works, 1:428f.
20. Noble, Holy Trinity, 80.
21. Wesley, “The Circumcision of the Heart” (Sermon 17), Works, 1:402.
Holiness Today, January/February 2021
Please note: This article was originally published in 2021. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.