Romans 12:1–2 is one of the most well-known texts of Scripture. Its familiarity stems, I believe, from its perceived theological importance. This text is commonly viewed as having great import for the Christian’s spiritual life, and thus it is one of the passages most often memorized by children in Sunday School and teenagers in the youth group.
Our text is seen by many as being foundational to the doctrine of sanctification because it calls for the believer’s dedication or consecration. It has been argued that progressive sanctification cannot commence in the believer’s life until he has experienced a crisis act of dedication or consecration. For instance Ryrie says, “There is perhaps no more important matter in relation to the spiritual life than dedication.”2 “Before any lasting progress can be made on the road of spiritual living, the believer must be a dedicated person…. It is the basic foundation for sanctification.”3 Stanford concurs, “God asks us to present our bodies as living sacrifices to Him (Rom 12:1). Until we have done this, there is nothing else we can do.”4 Thiessen agrees, “Where the initial surrender has not been adhered to, there is need first of a definite presentation of the life to God before practical holiness is possible (Rom 6:13; 12:1f.).”5
This teaching of a crisis act of dedication has become gospel when it comes to the doctrine of sanctification in many churches and Christian schools. In just one sermon, pastors and evangelists are able to cure what is wrong with many Christians and most every teenager, by simply persuading them to come forward and dedicate their lives to Christ and thus begin the life of victory over sin, making Christ Lord of their lives.
I will argue in this essay that while Romans 12:1–2 is a significant text for the doctrine of sanctification, it has often been misused and its true emphasis has frequently been misunderstood. First, I will give a historical overview of the interpretation of our text, showing how it came to occupy such a prominent place in many presentations of sanctification. Then I will move on to an exegesis of the passage in an attempt to set forth its true significance.
History of Interpretation
If we examine the writings of the church fathers, the Reformers, and of Christians before the 19th century, we find our text receives no special attention as it relates to the doctrine of sanctification. How then did it come to its present place of importance? Romans 12:1–2 gained its position of theological significance primarily because of the teaching and writing of a 19th century Methodist layperson named Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874). She developed what is called her “altar theology,” which was built upon the idea of dedication in texts like Romans 12:1–2.6
In 1835 Phoebe Palmer and her sister began what became known as the Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness. These meetings started with a group of Methodist ladies who were seeking the experience of entire sanctification as had been taught by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703–1791). Wesley came up with the novel idea of a second transforming work of grace, distinct from and ordinarily subsequent to the new birth or justification. This new and distinctive doctrine of sanctification was given different names, including Christian perfection, perfect love, entire sanctification, full salvation, and the second blessing.7 Wesley said this work happens instantly by a simple act of faith.8 This crisis of entire sanctification eliminates all sinful desires from the heart, destroys inbred moral depravity, and delivers from outward transgressions of the law. Positively, entire sanctification effects complete purity of intentions, tempers, and actions, stimulates perfect love of God and neighbor, and restores the moral image of God in the soul.9 Wesley believed this sanctified Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin. Admittedly, however, by sin Wesley only included voluntary transgressions of known law, not involuntary transgressions, which he refused to call sin.10
Wesley himself never settled on a particular method of receiving entire sanctification, the second blessing. It was his followers who ultimately developed a definitive methodology, one based on a single crisis experience. Though Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification was modified to some extent by his immediate followers, chiefly John Fletcher (1729–1785) and Adam Clarke (1762–1832), it was Phoebe Palmer’s refinements that most influenced Methodist views on sanctification in the mid-19th century and ultimately became the basis of the Holiness Movement.11 Her theology was adopted by Holiness denominations such as the Wesleyan Methodists, the Free Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), the Pilgrim Holiness Church, as well as the Salvation Army and the Keswick Movement in England.”12
Phoebe Palmer’s struggle to obtain entire sanctification was long and difficult.13 Her own difficulty was what undoubtedly led her to devise a simple prescription for obtaining this second work of grace. She called this “the shorter way” to holiness and ultimately decided that this was “the only way” to obtain the blessing.14 This “shorter way” became known as her “altar theology” and involved a threefold process: entire consecration, faith, and testimony. Consecration and faith are necessary to obtain the blessing and testimony is necessary to retain it.15
Palmer developed her “altar theology” by means of some clever exegesis—if one can call it exegesis. She began with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:19 that the altar sanctifies the gift (“You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering?”).16 Then Palmer observed that Exodus 29:37 says that whatever touches the altar is holy (“For seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it; then the altar shall be most holy, and whatever touches the altar shall be holy.”).17 Since the altar sanctifies the gift, whatever touches the altar is holy. And, according to Hebrews 13:10, for NT believers Christ is their altar (“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.”).18 Therefore, if one places himself on the altar, that person will be holy. And the prescription for accomplishing this is found in Romans 12:1 (“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God….”).19 One places oneself on the altar by a once-for-all consecration involving a complete surrender to God, especially one’s will.20 “Thus entire consecration guarantees entire sanctification.”21
Phoebe Palmer’s “altar theology” also influenced those who were not brought up in Methodist circles. Individuals like William E. Boardman (1810–1886) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911) embraced much of Palmer’s theology and spread it outside of Methodist circles in what became known as the Higher Life Movement. Boardman, a Presbyterian minister, became a frequent attender at Palmer’s “Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness” and in 1858 wrote his influential The Higher Christian Life.22 Mrs. Smith along with her husband, Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–1899), also spread the Phoebe Palmer’s Holiness theology. Mrs. Smith is chiefly known for her widely read volume promoting Holiness theology, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1875).23 Higher Life teachers moved away from the Wesleyan view that sin is eradicated from the believer in the second blessing, preferring to speak of the believer’s dominion or victory over sin that results in deliverance from all conscious sinning.24
(Next: Keswick, a.k.a., the Victorious Life Movement.)
1 Dr. Combs is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI.
2 Charles C. Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), p. 75.
3 Ibid., p. 186.
4 Miles J. Stanford, The Complete Green Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), p. 38.
5 Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. Vernon D. Doerksen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 286.
6 Phoebe Palmer, The Way of Holiness with Notes by the Way (reprint of 50th American ed.; Salem, OH: Schmul Publishing, 2003), p. 43; Charles E. White, The Beauty of Holiness: Phoebe Palmer as Theologian, Revivalist, Feminist, and Humanitarian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), p. 140.
7 Wesley’s viewpoint is set forth in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection. The first edition was published in 1766 and the 4th and final edition in 1777. See The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols., 3rd ed. (reprint of 1872 ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 11:366–446.
8 Ibid., 11:446.
9 Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1977), p. 391.
10 Works of John Wesley, 11:396.
11 Dictionary of Christianity in America, s.v. “Palmer, Phoebe Worral,” by C. E. White, p. 861; Charles E. Jones, Perfectionist Persuasion; The Holiness Movement and American Methodism, 1867–1936 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1974), p. 5.
12 Dictionary of Christianity in America, s.v. “Palmer, Phoebe Worral,” p. 861; Melvin E. Dieter, “The Wesleyan View,” in Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 39.
13 Harold E. Raser, Phoebe Palmer: Her Life and Thought (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1987), pp. 34–47.
14 Palmer, Way of Holiness, pp. 14, 44; White, Beauty of Holiness, p. 130.
15 Kevin T. Lowery, “A Fork in the Wesleyan Road: Phoebe Palmer and the Appropriation of Christian Perfection,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 36 (Fall 2001): 193.
16 Way of Holiness, p. 43. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 edition.
17 Way of Holiness, p. 43.
20 White, Beauty of Holiness, p. 136.
21 Ibid., p. 140.
22 Dictionary of Christianity in America, s.v. “Boardman, William Edwin,” by W. S. Gunter, p. 170.
23 Dictionary of Christianity in America, s.v. “Smith, Hannah Whitall,” by R. A. Tucker, p. 1096.
24 B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958), p. 238. This is a condensed edition of vol 2. of Warfield’s Studies in Perfectionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931).
Bill Combs serves as Academic Dean as well as Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1983. He earned his BA at Tennessee Temple University, and his MDiv and ThM degrees at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a ThD from Grace Theological Seminary. Dr. Combs has also served in pastoral ministry. He and his wife Pansy are members of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.