Sanctity and justice

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Since 2009 the United Nations has designated 20 February as World Day of Social Justice. The purpose of this observance is to “commemorate and urge all efforts to combat unemployment, social exclusion, and poverty”.1

For many years now, the idea of social justice has pervaded public discourse and fired up public imagination, even though what is meant by that ideologically-laden term can vary considerably.

Christians should also be profoundly concerned about issues of justice because they worship and serve the just God (Deuteronomy 32:4). However, the Christian understanding of justice and what motivates and energises the quest for it can be radically different from secular accounts.

Arguably, one of the most profound, if neglected, treatments of the Christian understanding of justice in the 18th century is that of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. For Wesley, it is inconceivable for biblical Christianity to be unconcerned about or indifferent to the issue of justice.

In his sermon On Living Without God, Wesley states, quite categorically, that: “Indeed nothing can be more sure than that true Christianity cannot exist without both the inward experience and outward practice of justice, mercy and truth”. 2

Wesley provides a fuller explanation of why this is the case in another sermon entitled Of Former Times:

By religion I mean the love of God and man, filling the heart and governing the life. The sure effect of this is the uniform practice of justice, mercy, and truth. This is the very essence of it, the height and depth of religion, detached from this or that opinion, and from all particular modes of worship.3

It should be clear from the above passage that, for Wesley, there is a profound relationship between the life of faith and the practice of justice. Wesley insists that justice, mercy and truth can only flow from genuine love of God and our fellow human beings.

To put this slightly differently, Wesley makes a profound connection between holiness and the works of justice and mercy. This is because Wesley sees the most intimate relationship between holiness and love, even to the extent of understanding the two as synonymous.

In his treatise on original sin, Wesley writes: “What is holiness? Is it not, essentially love? The love of God and all mankind?” It is this love, he adds, that produces “bowels of mercies, humbleness of mind, meekness, gentleness, long-suffering”.4

To this list, we can surely add justice, which Wesley understands simply as treating a person as a human being and in accordance with what they have done. For Wesley, then, justice and mercy are the outward manifestations of holy love.

Wesley’s understanding of the relationship between the sanctified life and the practice of justice is complex.

On the one hand, he insists that justice, mercy and truth flow out of, or are manifestations of the sanctified life—as we have seen. Thus, in his sermon on patience, Wesley could say baldly that “[l]ove is the sum of Christian sanctification”.5

In addition, sanctification has also to do with the restoration of what Wesley calls the moral image of God by the Spirit. Wesley explains:

While thou seekest God in all things thou shalt find him in all, the fountain of all holiness, continually filling thee with his own likeness, with justice, mercy, and truth.6

On the other hand, Wesley also teaches that the works of piety, justice and mercy are necessary to sanctification. By God’s design, their practice is the means by which Christians “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

What this all means is that for Wesley, holiness does not only have to do with our relationship with God (“loving God”). Holiness has a social dimension in that it also has to do with how the believer relates to others (“loving one’s neighbour”).

That is why the notion of “social holiness” is often used to characterise Wesley’s vision, although he used this expression only once—in the Preface of the 1739 edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems, where he wrote: “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”7

In that same Preface, Wesley explicates the relationship between sanctity (“holy love”) and the practice of justice and mercy (“good works”), which nicely summarises our reflections in this brief article:

Faith working by love is the strength and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. This commandment we have from Christ, that he who love God, love his brother also; and that we manifest our love by doing good unto all men, especially to them that are of the household of faith. And, in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren not in words only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be zealous of good works. He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire of spending and being spent for them. My Father, will he say, worketh hitherto, and I work and, at all possible opportunities, he is, like his Master, going about doing good.8

1 United Nations International Observances,

2 ‘On Living Without God’, Sermon 130, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition), Volume 4. Sermons IV: 115-151 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 174.

3 ‘Of Former Times’, Sermon 102, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition), Volume 3. Sermons III: 71-114 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986), 448.

4 John Wesley, ‘The Doctrine of Original Sin: According to Scripture, Reason and Experience’, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition), Volume 12. Doctrinal and Controversial Treatises I (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012), 277.

5 ‘On Patience’, Sermon 83. The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition), Volume 3. Sermons III: 71-114 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986), 175.

6 ‘Sermon on the Mount VIII’, Sermon 28, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition), Volume I. Sermons I: 1-33 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1984), 614.

7 Preface of the 1739 edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial edition), Volume 12. Doctrinal and Controversial Treatises II (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013), 39.

8 Ibid.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.