For a long time, holiness was a negative term for me because I always saw it as restrictive, difficult, and ineffective to the goals I had for my spiritual life. I wanted joy and I wanted love. Actually, I didn’t really want love that much….but I did want joy. I didn’t see any connection between joy and holiness. In fact, those who I viewed as living ‘a holy life’ seemed fairly unhappy.
What I’ve discovered in Wesley is how I had holiness all wrong. I thought it was about what I did, Wesley says it is something that God gives as a gift. I thought it was something that came gradually, Wesley says it is something that comes instantly and also gradually. I thought it was something that was restrictive and negative, Wesley says it is the only thing that can bring joy and love. He writes:
And at the same time that we are justified, yea, in that very moment, sanctification begins. In that instant we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit: there is a real as well as a relative change. We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”; producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God; expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honour, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will, and every other evil temper; in a word, changing the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.”
From the time of our being born again, the gradual work of sanctification takes place. We are enabled “by the Spirit” to “mortify the deeds of the body,” of our evil nature; and as we are more and more dead to sin, we are more and more alive to God. We so on from grace to grace, while we are careful to “abstain from all appearance of evil,” and are “zealous of good works,” as we have opportunity, doing good to all men; while we walk in all His ordinances blameless, therein worshipping Him in spirit and in truth; while we take up our cross, and deny ourselves every pleasure that does not lead us to God.
Faith is the condition, and the only condition, of sanctification, exactly as it is of justification.
But does God work this great work in the soul gradually or instantaneously?” Perhaps it may be gradually wrought in some; I mean in this sense, —they do not advert to the particular moment wherein sin ceases to be. But it us infinitely desirable, were it the will of God, that it should be done instantaneously; that the Lord should destroy sin “by the breath of His mouth,” in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. And so He generally does; a plain fact, of which there is evidence enough to satisfy any unprejudiced person.
As I started reading Wesley, after 15 years of not reading him, it was amazing how consistent he was on these matters. I’m still reading through his sermons, but I keep finding references to the new birth and sanctification, which is something that I had not stressed much in my ministry or my life to my detriment.
Holiness is a gift from God. We don’t work it up ourselves by the way we dress, talk or drink (or not drink). It comes when one is receptive to it. It comes when one is yearning for it. It comes when one has tried everything in their power and continue to be dominated by sin and in faith cry out to God. It is at that point of faith, according to Wesley, that both justification and regeneration come and give a "new birth" (John 3:3). It is at this point that there is a real change in a person’s life, a transformation and the the sin that once dominated is no longer dominating. That is the time when an individual is not only forgiven from their sins, but also empowered to overcome their sins.
One final section from Wesley:
Wherefore, to what end, is it necessary that we should be born again? It is very easily discerned, that this is necessary, First, in order to holiness. For what is holiness according to the oracles of God? Not a bare external religion, a round of outward duties, how many soever they be, and how exactly soever performed. No: Gospel holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus; it consists of all heavenly affections and tempers mingled together in one. It implies such a continual, thankful love to Him who hath not withheld from us his Son, his only son, as makes it natural, and in a manner necessary to us, to love every child of man; as fills us “with bowels of mercies, kindness, gentleness, long-suffering:” It is such a love of God as teaches us to be blameless in all manner of conversation; as enables us to present our souls and bodies, all we are and all we have, all our thoughts, words, and actions, a continual sacrifice to God, acceptable through Christ Jesus. Now, this holiness can have no existence till we are renewed in the image of our mind. It cannot commence in the soul till that change be wrought; till, by the power of the Highest overshadowing us, we are “brought from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God;” that is, till we are born again; which, therefore, is absolutely necessary in order to holiness.
2. But “without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” shall see the face of God in glory. Of consequence, the new birth is absolutely necessary in order to eternal salvation. Men may indeed flatter themselves (so desperately wicked and so deceitful is the heart of man!) that they may live in their sins till they come to the last gasp, and yet afterwards live with God; and thousands do really believe, that they have found a broad way which leadeth not to destruction. “What danger,” say they, “can a woman be in that is so harmless and so virtuous? What fear is there that so honest a man, one of so strict morality, should miss of heaven; especially if, over and above all this, they constantly attend on church and sacrament?” One of these will ask with all assurance, “What! Shall not I do as well as my neighbours?” Yes as well as your unholy neighbours; as well as your neighbours that die in their sins! For you will all drop into the pit together, into the nethermost hell! You will all lie together in the lake of fire; “the lake of fire burning with brimstone.” Then, at length, you will see (but God grant you may see it before!) the necessity of holiness in order to glory; and, consequently, of the new birth, since none can be holy, except he be born again.
Wesley believed that God was able to deliver people from their sins. He also believed it was "absolutely necessary" for salvation.