He breaks the power of canceled sin
He sets the prisoner free
His blood can make the foulest clean
His blood availed for me.
This verse from Charles Wesley’s O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing is a grace-filled and hope-filled message that, unfortunately, is ignored or misunderstood in much of the church today. Charles, John’s younger brother, was a prolific hymn writer (he wrote over 6000 hymns), a clergyman with the Church of England along with John, and co-founder of the Methodist movement. He was very theologically astute and an amazing poet. This hymn, one of his most famous, has been included in every Methodist hymnal or songbook since it was written in the 1700’s. In fact, it is usually the first hymn in those books, it is so encapsulating of the Methodist understanding of the Christian experience.
This verse, however, can be a stumbling block to some. In fact, when my wife attended a non-Methodist church in college, it was such a stumbling block that they changed the lyrics to “He breaks the power of reigning sin.” Why the change? Because not all branches of the church believe as the Wesleys’ and the Methodists do that God can save us from sin in this life completely. This was a concept that got the Wesley brothers in trouble with church authorities and has been misunderstood by many since.
Methodists, following Wesley’s example, believe that Christ can so transform believers’ hearts that they truly do love God with everything they are and love neighbors as themselves. We believe in what has been termed Entire Sanctification or Christian Perfection. We believe that if Christ called us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if we are promised to be made holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:13-25), and if we are supposed to be “set free from sin” (Romans 6:18), then God can make good on all these promises and enable us to fulfill these commands.
We believe that sin does not reign in us, but has been cancelled. Not only has sin been cancelled in our lives, but that God can even “break the power” of that cancelled sin.
Does this mean that we believe we can be holy in and of ourselves? No, not at all. We are only holy as God makes us holy, as we respond to His grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Does this mean that we believe Christians can achieve a state of sinless perfection? No, again. We know by experience that humans are flawed and limited, but we do believe that we can be perfected in our intentions. This is because we believe that God wants us to have a perfect love for Him and others. When we do everything motivated out of love, that is the goal of the Christian life.
And we believe that this can happen in this life. Our perfection of intention, our perfection in love, is not relegated to the future when Christ comes back and there is a new heaven and earth. It can be experienced here and now by those who are so transformed by the Holy Spirit. As Charles Wesley wrote further in O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:
With Me, your Chief, ye then shall know
Shall feel your sins forgiven
Anticipate your heaven below
And own that love is heaven.