Stripped image of John Wesley

Stripped image of John Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Please catch up on my previous posts in this series. I am in the middle of explaining my journey into the Word of Faith Movement, and my journey out of it. Both have been painful experiences.

There are many befouled tributaries which feed the polluted streams of the Word of Faith River. One of the subtler  influences on myself has been Watchman Nee. Don’t get me wrong, there is much of his writing that bears the stamp of Biblical Christianity. By the same token, there is much that bears the stamp of outright mysticism on the one hand, and a lack of clarity on the other.

One of the streams of influence on Nee was the Deeper Life movement, or the Keswick movement, as it is now known. I will spend some time discussing the foundations of this movement, and its influence on Rev. Nee, and thus on myself.

No theological movement happens in a vacuum, or a completely sterile condition. You have to look backwards, towards the earlier movements and revivals to appreciate the Keswick movement.

Wesleyan Perfectionism

Wesleyan perfectionism has influenced 2 centuries of revivalism and theology. It is not my point here to explain the subtleties of Wesleyan theology, but to point out its influence on later theological streams.

John Wesley (1703–91) introduced a theological perspective on Christian Sanctification he named “Christian Perfection”. By narrowly defining sin as “a voluntary transgression of a known law”, he was able to commit the fallacy of equivocation and redefine the doctrine of Original Sin. He limits sin to only intentional sinful acts. 

I need to be honest up front and declare my hostility towards Wesley’s view of sanctification. I believe John Wesley was probably one of the greatest Evangelists in the last 300 years, but his theology of Sanctification should be viewed with caution. I believe his brother Charles had a more thorough theology (which he amply demonstrates in his hymns), than his brother John. If that angers you, I apologize for making you angry, but not for the statement.

By his narrowly defined view of “sin”, Wesley could ignore the involuntary transgressions even saved men commit, and still use the term “sinless perfection”. I will deal with this noxious little ditty in another post, but suffice it to say that this redefinition of sin very much reminds me of the Roman Catholic definition of Mortal and Venial sins.  I am well aware of Wesley’s subtle use of the term “perfection”, but he still lowered the bar on calling sin what it is- sin. Pelagians, semi-Pelagians, and Arminians all elevate the freewill of man to near Divine status, and downplay man’s enslavement to sin. At least that’s this former Wesleyan’s view, for what it’s worth. Classical Wesleyans are more moderate about Christian perfection than later Wesleyans.

I’m sorry, but the very moment you bring Christians, and perfection into contact in this life, it’s likely to spontaneously combust.

Theology of Avoiding the Ditches

I have learned to steer my rickety little Clampett mobile down the theological road carefully. I am a theologian of “avoiding the ditches”. I have a steering wheel with way too much play in it, and I have been guilty of plowing a few ditches in my life. So , pardon my rabbit trails.

Antinomianism is the belief that man has no need of the Law of God after regeneration. “We have Grace…Woo hoo, let’s live it up”! Another ditch is legalism. “Let’s build an electrified fence with flame-throwers and machine guns, no smoking and no drinking signs, and absolutely no dancing”. Neither of these approaches work. I have found that only the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, knowing the solas of the Reformation, and the understanding the three uses of the Law, will keep us out of these ditches.

I will not solve the argument between Wesleyans and the Reformers. It’s been going on since Augustine and Pelagius, and I don’t

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on the concept of just war (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

have the time. I once was a Wesleyan, but now I’m found a Reformed believer. You’ll have to accept that and love me and read on, or not.

My point is that Wesley’s views on sanctification, and in turn, justification, bears significantly on the rise of the Holiness Movement, and consequently, the Keswick movement. Distinctions can be made between Sanctification and Justification, but not separation. 

This redefinition by Wesley led to a huge chasm between Justification and Sanctification. It led to a second work of grace, that he called Christian Perfection, Salvation from all willful sin, entire sanctification, perfect love, holiness, purity of intention, full salvation, second blessing, second rest, etc. You will see these terms used throughout the Holiness Movement, the Keswick Movement, the Pentecostal Movement, and on and on, ad nauseam.

I don’t deny the need for personal holiness. Good works are a necessary result of Justification. For goodness’ sake, the Puritans were deeply concerned with personal piety. Nor do I necessarily deny secondary Christian experiences. Every Christian has had one or several of those “egad!” moments, some more than one. I am not denying personal crisis experiences. It’s just when folks start making certain experiences normative for everyone that I get snarky. I have seen firsthand what happens when one group of Christians look down on others because they didn’t speak in tongues, or lift their hands when they worship, or sit quietly in their pew. I have also the other side, which deny even that such a thing as healing is possible, or that being affected emotionally in a service is wrong, or even that to pray expectantly for anything is presumptuous. Same road, different ditches.

All that the separation of Justification and Sanctification does is create two groups of Christians – those who are “in the know”, and have this second blessing, and those who are not “in the know”, and are a second class Christian. You see this attitude everywhere in Holiness, Keswick, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Charismatic writings. My brush may be broad, but I dare you to tell me I’m messing up the paint job. 

Wesley and the Crisis Event

I believe that John Wesley held a subdued form of this theological elitism. His disciples, however, took it and ran…”Katie bar the door”. It was Asa Mahan and Phoebe Palmer who took Wesley’s money and ran…and run they did. Mahan’s connection to

English: Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) ...

English: Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) Português: O teólogo estadunidense Charles Finney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wesley and Adrian College made him influential. Add to that Palmer’s “Tuesday Meetings”, and Charles Finney with his “New Measures”, and you have a perfect storm. It was Mahan who introduced the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, by a book of that very name.

The emphasis on a crisis event, further promulgated by John William Felcher, became the focal point of later Wesleyan theology, unlike Wesley’s own process-crisis-process theology. The blending of Wesleyan perfectionism, through Adam Clarke (Ever heard of the Adam Clarke’s Commentary?), and American revivalism promoted by Finney, led to the Holiness movement.

In my next post in this series, I will introduce the other major influence on Watchman Nee, and in turn, myself: Hannah Whitall Smith, and the Holiness movement.

I hope these posts are being helpful. If nothing else, they will give my kids an explanation for their dad’s strange love/hate relationship with “Spirit-filled” churches.

If you would like deeper reading on what we’ve covered here, I’d suggest the following:

The Keswick Movement In Precept And Practice, by A.T. Pierson


Asa Mahan and the Development of American Holiness Theology, by Donald W. Dayton

The Heresy of Perfectionism, by R.C. Sproul

Systematic Theology, By Charles G. Finney

Various Christian Traditions Views on Perfection, Perfectionism by R. L. Shelton

Until next time, simul iustus et peccator.

May the Shwartz be with you,

Eric “Yogurt” Adams


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