The Methodist movement began with its goal as spreading Scriptural holiness across the land. John and Charles Wesley taught this in the form of Christian Perfection–a process of growing into the likeness of Christ. Wesley understood the term perfection as something that was ongoing, not completed, therefore his understanding was that Christian Perfection was an ongoing growth in perfecting a Christian.
When Methodism moved to America, after several years the Wesleyan understanding of perfection was lost. The process of perfecting a Christian became replaced with Entire Sanctification, a state in which the Christian had been perfected and completely (entirely) sanctified. Because this was no longer a process, people began to look for the outward signs that one was perfected–a life full of the Holy Spirit that would naturally prevent one from engaging in sinful actions. The emphasis shifted from the process of growing into the likeness of Christ and became focused on not wearing jewelry, costly clothes, not dancing, not drinking, not smoking, not going to movies, not (fill in the blank).
For the obvious reasons of both making it sound like a person who was entirely sanctified was completely perfect in every way, and the focus on a negative explanation of the faith–do not do this, do not do that–the doctrine of Entire Sanctification has all but disappeared. The original emphasis by the Wesleys on the process of perfecting a Christian is all but lost as well. Yet this does not negate the fact that it is Scriptural. Look at what Paul writes here in Philippians:
12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15 So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.
Perhaps a better way of explaining this doctrine is to use the same language Paul uses here of being Spiritually Mature. This is essentially what Wesley meant when speaking of the process of being perfected. He was speaking of becoming a mature Christian, one who is growing into the full nature of Christ.
Ironically, because Entire Sanctification and Christian Perfection have fallen out of favor, we have tended to replace this Christian Maturity with conversion as the goal of Christianity. When we do this, the focus becomes preaching and teaching for a decision to follow Christ. When that happens, we end up making a serious mistake. Jesus said that it was the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the world of sin and it was our job to make disciples. By making conversion the goal of the faith, we take the Holy Spirit’s job on ourselves and leave our job to the Holy Spirit. I believe this is why we have an anemic Church in America today and why the criticism of being hypocrites can be spot on with us.
The goal of the Christian faith, of our relationship with Christ, is to become mature. It is to grow into the full stature of Christ. And notice what Paul says in verse 15–if anyone disagrees with this assessment of growing into mature Christians, not that their other opinion is also valid, but that God will reveal to that person that s/he is wrong and point that person towards the truth of the matter. Our goal is not the proverbial get out of hell free card. That actually makes a mockery of the biblical vision of the faith. Our goal is Christian Maturity, growing in God’s grace so that we can come to the full stature of Christ in us and experience the fullness of God’s power and presence in our lives.