Reflections on a Wesleyan view of sin

“I didn’t Mean to do it” [MORE]


JohnLDrury said...

Thanks for this clear explanation of the Wesleyan habit of distinquishing between intentional and non-intentional sin.

As you noted, the greatest danger of the distinction may be when we use it on ourselves: "Yet it is risky business—especially when I am pleading my own case and I am serving as my own judge and jury." I would suggest that this kind of distinction works best in the context of Wesley's class and band meetings where mutual accountability was practiced. There the distinction is a guide for communal discernment. Outside of that context, it is likely if not inevitable to be used for self-justification. Whether we should restart the class meetings or dump the distinction is another question; but the two seem to go together to me.

The other more basic question is the basis upon which we can justify the distinction. The current legal parrallel makes it relevant (which is one kind of warrant). We could also point to the intentional/unintentional sin distinction operative in Leviticus. Also, we may ask whether something like this distinction is necessary for understanding the sinlessness of Jesus (though that would require some careful thinking). Whatever we do, Wesleyans are obligated to not only explain the meaning of their claims, but also justify the truth of their claims.

ViaMediaHaze said...

As noted by John, Wesley used accoutnability as part of living a life of holiness. Could it be that the holiness the we talk about is based on my own personal "spiritual life" when the concept of holiness in Wesley and seemingly from Scripture itself is that to live a holy life and, some would say, to be a Christian at all is to practice them in the context of the body of believers. It makes you wonder why the only real church growth happening in our churches today are in those churches who have small groups settings and accoutability.
So I ask the question. Is me striving to be perfect like he (Jesus) is perfect up to just me? Or is there an expectation from Scripture that it is up to me in the context of a larger body??

Jon Earls said...

God's Law is written on our hearts, so ignorance is no excuse for deliberately breaking God's Law.

I feel that "non-intentional sin" covers areas such as if I told you I was going to meet you at noon today, but unintentionally forgot the appointment. Did I lie to you when I told you I was going to meet with you? No not intentionally. Was this a "sin strictly so called" as Wesley termed it? Probably. In the Baptist view of sin, this would be a "deviation from absolute perfect" so they would consider it sin and we would be held accountable for it. In the Wesleyan understanding it would be a "mistake" that we should endeavor to make right, but we don't "lose our salvation" for it.

The sanctified response would be to immediately make it right. The sanctified heart will do its best to quickly make "mistakes" right. They won't excuse "sins" by calling them "mistakes" and just continue on in with a reckless attitude towards the way the live.

By the way, I believe that if I make a "mistake" in forgetting a meeting with you, and then later God reveals this to me, if I fail to make it right, then it would become sin to me.

Is this as clear as mud?

Left Coast Drury said...

I like the parallels you draw with ideas of criminal intent in human legal systems. Some argue that the historic development of the law is itself a source of general revelation of the nature and character of God. I agree.

In the U.S. there are generally three categories of criminal intent for criminal liability, specific intent, general intent, and strict liability.

Specific intent is what it sounds like. Guilt requires a showing that the wrong was done with the requisite wrongful intention.

General intent allows for a more objective measure of intent. A criminal may continue to deny any specific intent (w/out lying) but the required criminal intent may be imputed by the reckless or malicious nature of action. (i.e. A criminal starts shooting randomly into a crowded bus not intending to hit anyone--malicious intent will be imputed and he/she will be guilty of murder.) A criminal may rebut an imputed criminal intent by showing that he/she was insane at the time.

Your example of speeding is in the final category known as strict liability offenses. Guilt comes by the wrongdoing regardless of intent. Generally these are minor crimes. However, they can get pretty serious, such as if your sleepy youth pastor fools around with a 17 year old member of the youth group and is caught--in addition to getting fired and scuttling his marriage, he'll likely be registering as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He might protest that he never intended to do such a thing--it just happened--or that she told him she had already turned 18--but the punishment still applies.

As humans, we seek to simplify things to make them easier to understand and predict. This is often a source of frustration with what appears to some as an overly complex legal system here in the U.S.--not so easy to understand in all its particulars and often difficult to predict.

I wonder, though, if our legal system isn't more reflective of God's true standard of justice and that our sin debate is a human desire to simplify and predict. Since Scripture contains more than one "definition" of sin, it is reasonable to think that God applies more than one standard of sinful intent.

The Baptist/Calvinist brand makes every "missing the mark" a strict liability sin and capital offense. Abusive Wesleyans--like your speeding Wesleyan--want some spiritual police officer to prove that he had the requisite specific intent to commit sin and don't sweat the unintentional, capital or no.

Interestingly enough, capital punishment, if allowed at all, is generally reserved for first degree murder, a specific intent crime. As a good Wesleyan under the Grace of God, I feel pretty confident, I can now avoid capital punishment. But, if my target is a holy life, I am going to miss the mark by a pretty wide margin by only worrying about the capital offenses. Intuitively there seems to be capital sins and non-capital sins; specific intent sins and strict liability sins.

The previous comment suggesting that I may miss an appointment, fail to say I am sorry, seems to imply this might jeopardize my soul. If that is the gist of the argument, I don't think that can be right. Even if an action like that does become sin to me, the punishment will more likely be a broken relationship or a lost job, not eternal damnation. It seems inconsistent that a person who is "sanctified" has an easier time committing willful sin than a pagan.

Keith Drury said...

Thanks Scott--we DO need a lawyer around here! I'm thinking more on t= his---I'll wait for more comments before I weigh in... kd

Gary Huber said...

This is almost identical to the Catholic distinction between venial and mortal sin.
In that system, the distinction involves your knowledge, your freedom, and the seriousness of the matter (the last one can be a bit tricky).

Keith Drury said...

Gary--you are correct... in fact if you are interested you might read "Augustine's Conception of sin"

JustinJNierer said...

When I was a college student I had the privelage of spending some time in a "southern" Wesleyan district's family camp. During one of the services an elderly gentleman stood up and said the following, "I have not sinned since 1963." Of course, all eyes were than on me, being the only one in the tabernacle that was laughing.
As Wesleyan's we sin. But also as Wesleyans we believe we are empowered to conquer our sin nature, meaning..when tempted, we have the power to not give in, and hence, sin.
Wesley used his "known transgression" definition because it is absurd to think we are going to be held responsible for sins, we didnt even know we committed. Of course, I am not sure how a person does something and doesn't know they did it.

Eric Roemer said...

Is it time to abandon this two-tiered approach to holiness?... I have tried to think of a way to present a logical approach to holiness that does not choose to view sin in this way. At least with my mind... I can't think of anything other than the belief that absolute instantaneous eradication is possible, which personally doesn't seem to be a viable solution to the argument.

The Wesleyan view (or views) are hard to explain, and I have heard from more people than I wish I have that maybe we should move on and leave this position behind us. But if we do this, we leave behind a massive part of our unique identity. A part which I think is worth keeping, not because it is unique, but because it is true. If can offer only forgiveness for man's inevitable failure, but not progressive improvement on man's immediate state... I don't think we offer much. Not to mention how little we then expect from those who choose to join us.

If we believe and teach that is it possible to not sin for years and months at a time, a true believer will strive to live without sin for years and months at a time. But if we say that you will sin everyday in word thought and deed, then you will because there is no way you can't, we are subject to our beliefs. It seems to be the logical progression to the Wesleyan argument that if one can indeed not willfully sin for prolonged periods of time, than unintentional sin will also decrease in frequency, due to both the one’s personal drive and to the Holy Spirit’s freedom to rule in that one’s life given by such a commitment to obedience.

I absolutely don’t think it is now or will ever be the time to abandon such a view. Maybe there are better ways of explaining it, but most should at least try to use the old ways until we figure out what the new ones are. It is hard to explain and make sense of, but usually hard things are worth doing. I think too many pulpits have gone far too long avoiding the challenge of a little hard work on this subject. That’s what I think… but who am I?

John Mark said...

I certainly welcome the new Drury, who seems to be as insightful and articulate as the rest of the clan, and seemingly politically conservative as well.
As a 56 year old product of the American Holiness Movement/COTN I think many of my generation believed that one sin meant you had lost your relationship with God. I don't know if we were explicity taught that, my experience may be very atypical, but many times in my life I gave up on God, really, over unintentional "sins" even as "trivial" as being irritated at someone. Sure, I've had lot's of more serious failures than that. And I don't want to ignore the seriousness of being unChristlike in interpersonal relationships. But if I could have been helped to have a more realistic view of sanctification and human nature-and I still struggle here-it might have kept me out of serious sin a few times, by keeping me from backsliding.
I'm reading a book by a Catholic devotional writer who challenges his readers to give up "venial" sins, and I find myself torn between a sense of guilt and hope where some of my major weaknesses are concerned.
I agree with the idea that we should demand much from our people, but I think a number of Reformed churches, such as the John Piper/Josh Harris brand do that, without our hope of eradication. I don't know what they teach about holiness, I think they are big Jonathan Edwards fans...
We must never give up wrestling with this kind of thing, for this is where the rubber meets the road. Does my life as a professed believer bless the church and really point others to Christ, or am I a stumbling block? Can I really have day to day victory?
One theme that was picked up by several comments was the idea of accountability. I was in a class with William Greathouse who said, "We have taken Wesley's theology out of the social context it was given in," referring to the small group structure that formed the basis of Methodism. I think that those kind of small groups are very difficult to initiate and maintian, but can be invaluable, and have been in my own experience.
I have rambled on enough......

Pete Vecchi said...

Is God like Barney Fife? Does He keep watching us for ways we will mess up so He can give us a ticket? Barney Fife was shown in an episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" once where he was disappointed because the vehicle parked NEAR the fire hydrant was just far enough from the hydrant to be legally parked.

I believe that intend MUST have a major place in our understanding of sin, or else we can get to the point of daily reciting every little infraction we've made.

There are possibilities for abuse on both ends of the spectrum. The Wesleyan tendency to abuse, as Keith stated in the article is, "That's just how I am." With the version of sin that says it is anything that does not measure up to God's 100% perfect standard, the tendency for abuse will be "Oh well, it doesn't matter what I do, because God will forgive me once I confess it."

I believe God's judgments are based greatly on the intent of the heart. If our desire is to please Him in all that we do, then I see no problem with the concept of "two-tiered" sin.

luke middleton said...

"certainly a Christian should at least believe in the possibility of living a life where he or she does not rebel against Christ willfully and with premeditation"

Couldn't agree more. But that promise isn't for earth. It's heaven. We have been justified and we are being sanctified. And one day, we'll be glorified.

"Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7)

The desires of the flesh are in all of us, even Paul, and they war directly against the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-18).

One thinks of Adam & Eve and wonders how far they could've pushed a defense of their own intentions. "Look God, it's not like we said 'Forget You' and gave You the finger. We just thought it would be alright to eat the apple. We see that that was wrong now. We screwed up, but we weren't being jerks about it." To which all of us would reply: "But God told you not to."

We often hold a false sense of rationality about our compromising of God's commands. Were Adam and Eve loving God above all other things all their heart, mind, soul, and strength? Were they trusting in His wisdom and not their own? Were they believing their joy and satisfaction were in following God's commands, or did they make Him out to be a liar by acting as though goodness was being withheld from them in the form of a tree? They sinned.

It's also worth wondering if Jesus ever "sinned" while not meaning to.

Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts, Dr. Drury. It may be helpful to the reader to include some Scripture in your post that helps us examine what the Word defines sin as. Wesleyan vs. Baptist is always interesting, but ultimately, our jobs are to hold Wesleyan, Baptist, and any other doctrine up against the standard of Scripture.

luke middleton said...

As we talk about our hearts, it's also worth adding what God said about it through Jeremiah:

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer. 17)

Let us not forget how easily we can convince ourselves that our motives are nothing but to fully love, honor, and treasure Christ while dying to self every day.

Larry said...

I like the old timey way of describing holiness: perfect love.

Let's quit talking about sin, examining it, defining it, parsing it ... and talk instead about living a life wholly devoted to God.

I don't think of my marriage as a relationship in which "there is no willful infidelity." I think of it as a relationship in which there is perfect love, acceptance, and joy.

Isn't that what holiness should be?

Pete Vecchi said...

EXCELLENT point and illustration, Larry!

luke middleton said...

"Let's quit talking about sin, examining it, defining it, parsing it ... and talk instead about living a life wholly devoted to God."

Are those two things mutually exclusive? Don't they go together?

I'm assuming there's some form of assumed qualifier in your statement. Obviously, the doctrine of sin is vital in understanding God's holiness and Jesus' death and the miracle of salvation and justification and sanctification. Isn't discerning sin in one's life part of repentance and sanctification? Seems like we can't really stop talking about it.

Twinsfan1 said...

I just shook my head at the story about the guy ranting about "speeding" vs. "exceeding the speed limit" or whatever he said.

The semantic gymnastics involved have no bearing on the fact that he was actually breaking the law. And I can only guess that he was actually aware of the speed limit but was negligent in looking at his speedometer.

I hope that the officer didn't ask what the man did for a living. The answer would probably have been, "I work for a denomination committed to spreading biblical holiness, meaning that the joy of Jesus prompts us to loving obedience to the commands of Scripture (except those that command us to be obedient to the government even when it's not convenient...). Let me tell you about Jesus!"

Sorry, but his reaction to being pulled over was a terrible witness.

I had struggled for years with the Wesleyan definition of sin - in terms of it being an intentional act against a known law of God. I'm pretty okay with it now, because I know that God is working in me through His Spirit to say "no" more often.

Justinjnierer says:

Wesley used his "known transgression" definition because it is absurd to think we are going to be held responsible for sins, we didnt even know we committed. Of course, I am not sure how a person does something and doesn't know they did it.

This was one of the problems I had with the Wesleyan definition of sin. The Old Testament makes it clear that there would be time when individuals and nations would sin and not know it, yet were guilty, nonetheless. The Law then stated that "when they became aware of it," they had to made the appropriate sacrifice. Sorry, I can't find the specific references.

For now, I confess what I know, trusting Christ to cover it, and asking for help to see what I don't catch.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Keith,I don't think you'll remember but in N.T. class that I had in undergraduate under you, you asked for poems that we'd written. I had just written a poem in response to Dante's Inferno, because it so "moved me" (esp. the part of Lucifer with tears running down his eyes...it was such a profound illustration of a creature not meeting his potential.)
All of this talk of sin reminded me of the poem...I don't remember the first part...something to the effect of:
Hypocrites are burdened people , Burdened by Pride, Power, and Position.(here I forget)
So weary are they forever chasing their image and not quite sure of the last image they left. So weary are they forever chasing their image and for being loved for who they are not....

It reminds me of the man who looks into the mirror only to forget what type of man he is...as was stated above, we must look at our speedometer (our own weaknesses, i.e. strenghs out of control)and remember that we perform from acceptance and not FOR acceptance, Right? I just refuse to "try" if I think I'm performing FOR acceptance, for I will always fall short in something (perfectly speaking). And I really appreciate the comment of what would have been said by the speedster if asked what he did for a living...That does gall me...although I know I am capable.

The real question is why do we want to be "free from sin"? Is it for "pride, postion, or power" in front of others that we seek our "image"? Does it matter if the crime was unintentional, as far as the "other" person? Are we so obessessed with our standing before God that we end up being like the Pharisees and straining out the gnat while swallowing the camel? And yet, wasn't it for sinners that Christ died? And that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us? Shouldn't we accept who we are as sinners, and then seek to "perfect" ourselves in the midst of a group of believers who have proved their love for us by their commitment, deeds and overall attitude towards us? I find it NO problem to recieve from those who I truly believe love me, but if there is a question of motive, or there are other ulterior motives, it is harder to recieve...But, "sin" nonetheless, may be true...and I must seek to hear it....It is just if we get too internal in analyzing ouselves that we cease to function heathlily....and many have had obsessive parents, "friends" or personalities that don't lead to holiness, but neurosis!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

crlikPeople usually think more completely and clearly if they "sleep on it". I am no exception. It seems the issue is what is our relationship to the "Law" as believers? The "Law" holds us accountable before God and others when it comes to boundary issues. This protects the individual and "group" identity. The fulfillment of the Law is love of God and neighbor, because love never seeks to take advantage of another (which is the fulfillment of the Law). Someone above gave the example of their relationship to their wife. I am struggling to accept the personal aspect of our relationship to God. I can't understand or accept the way I have understood it in the past..."Law and order" are established, and defended by the "Law". It is only when we seek to circumvent the Law that we are cupable (there was allowance in the Scriptures for unintenional sin). But, then, do we take into account a person's "baggage" in our "judging of the situation" (this would mean a relationship would have to be established with the person to "know" fully, but how fully do we really know someone else)? And how much leeway do we allow those who are different in their intentions? It seems that historically and Biblically that flagrant disregard for the "Law", even in "doing good" was condemned. The sacrifices that people "do" to compensate for breaking the "Law" is not what God wants. He wants a broken and contrite spirit and a responsible heart toward self and others. An awareness of our "weaknesses and strengths" is necessary to help us in our responsiblity towards others. For we must not disregard those responsibilities, but we cannot take on the other's responsibilities either. Otherwise, someone else always pays for sin besides the one who is culpable!
The "Law" is an objective standard and it protects our "rights" in this Land and human rights internationally. I think God has made us free individuals, who He has designed to be completed within context of community (family, friendships, church, and nation). Each "community" plays a part in forming a person's identity. But, when the completion of convictions has transpired, the individual must choose for Himself before God where he "fits". The individual's "place" is not determined by the community (irregardless of how they "did it in the Bible").

Just yesterday I heard on the news that a person from the "World Bank" had been guilty of neopotism, in giving his girlfriend a high paying job in the State Department. Here he is holding up a standard of Banking laws based on justice and equalablility to other nations and he breaks those very standards. That should never happen in the Church. But, we know it does.

Keith Drury said...

THANKS for your interesting and helpful input on this subject. I personally embrace the Wesleyan (and Augustinian) view of sin. Yet I see the danger here too. I had missed the notion of Wesley's use of community (Class Meetings) to clarify this. As I recall his four questions for class meetings went something like this: (My paraphrase)

1. What sin have you committed since we last met?

2. What temptations have you faced?

3. How were you delivered from those temptations?

4. What have you said, thought or done of which you are not certain it is sin or not--share it and we will help you decide.

I suppose in a weekly class meeting a group of ten people would be a safer place to use the Wesleyan definition than using it on myself all alone in devos?

tim4christ said...

I have been in the Church of the Nazarene for a little over 3 years, and I didn't realize that Wesley taught we could live a sinless life. I am still not clear on Wesley's interpretation on what sin is according to his theology. There is intentional and non-intentional. Could someone go over that one again, and tell me which ones we are able to not do?


Keith Drury said...


John Wesley taught that it was possible for a Christian to live without purposely disobeying God--that is "freedom from willful sin."