Ask A Theologian: Salvation vs. Sanctification

Written By Boston Avenue

Ask A Theologian

Advice from Boston Avenue's Theologian In Residence

Could you explain the difference between salvation and sanctification from a Methodist perspective? I grew up with the teaching that salvation was a one-time event (or two, if you turn away from God and come back) in which your soul was saved from hell; and sanctification was an everyday formation and healing of your soul.

Response:

Let’s start with John Wesley and grace—with Wesley, if you start with “love” or “grace,” you can’t be too far off. On the one hand, grace is grace—God’s self-giving, a balm to heal each and all of us from sin (brokenness) so that we might reflect the divine to each other and the whole of creation. The process as a whole, of being re-made in the image of God, is the process of salvation.

But Wesley was a keen observer of the way grace functions in human life. He wrote and preached about prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. He saw grace manifest in our lives at different times. Prevenient grace is the “grace that goes before” any action an individual takes; it is the grace that, for Wesley, was given to all humankind for all of time by the action of God in the cross of Jesus. For Wesley, prevenient grace restores to humankind the power to choose God, a power deleted by The Fall (Original Sin). Justifying grace would be associated with the moment, or the journey (Wesley’s journals show he may have hoped for a single transformative moment of assurance but such eluded him), of being set right with God, when one experiences the healing power of being forgiven for one’s own sin (brokenness; or, for Wesley, maybe “illness” is better since he wrote about sin as a “disease”). Sanctifying grace leads a justified person toward Christian perfection—meaning completeness or wholeness, in love. To be fully sanctified, is to desire and will nothing other than God, who is “pure unbounded love” (thank you, Charles Wesley). In all of this, John W. is drawing on ancient Eastern Orthodox theologians who understood the Christian life to be a journey with God as God restores the image of God within us.

Salvation is the process of being healed from sin and death. Yes, for Wesley salvation did mean one lived with God eternally in heaven and not with unrepentant sinners in hell. That was part of his preaching and teaching. But he expected that persons on the path toward salvation, toward sanctification (the fullness of salvation, either on this side of death—which was very rare—or on the other side) would show their faith in this life.

Here is what I appreciate most about Wesley’s approach. Life is meant to be a journey with God, drawing on and channeling God’s healing grace in a world diseased by sin (brokenness). The journey is not an easy or straightforward one, for the disease of sin infects, to some degree, every individual and community. The journey is not one line of progress! Grace is both bread and balm for the journey. Communities evidencing and growing in love of God, self, neighbor, and world are signs we are moving in the right destination.

Our Theologian in Residence

Gary Peluso-Verdend is the President Emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since 1993, he served at Phillips as a program director, the dean, development executive, president, and founding director of the Center for Religion in Public Life. For five years (2000-2005), he was the director of church relations at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Gary retired from Phillips in February 2023.

Gary is a retired ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (Northern Illinois Conference). He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1991. He attends Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa where he teaches adult church school classes frequently.

Gary serves on the board of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice and on working groups for the Braver Angels Alliance in OK and Compassionate Tulsa.

He and his wife live with their daughter in Tulsa, in the fourth (and last) house-in-need-of-updating they have owned. Gary’s three grown children and their families live in the Chicago area.

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