In a sermon preached from Philippians 1:27-28 titled “Apostolic Preacher,” Adam Clarke explained Christian holiness:
“The whole design of God was to restore man to his image, and raise him from the ruins of his fall; in a word, to make him perfect; to blot out all his sins, purify his soul, and fill him with all holiness, so that no unholy temper, evil desire, or impure affection or passion shall either lodge or have any being within him.
This and this only is true religion, or Christian perfection, and a less salvation than this would be dishonourable to the sacrifice of Christ and the operation of the Holy Ghost…Call it by what name we please, it must imply the pardon of all transgression and the removal of the whole body of sin and death…This, then, is what I plead for, pray for, and heartily recommend to all true believers, under the name of Christian perfection.”
Preaching on Eph. 3:14-21, Clarke interpreted the phrase “filled with all the fulness of God” as descriptive of the experience of full salvation. “It is…to have the heart emptied of, and cleansed from, all sin and defilement, and filled with humility, meekness, gentleness, goodness…and love to God and man.”
Clarke knew that some were opposed to the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification because “they think no man can be fully saved from sin in this life…They hold out death as the complete deliverer from all corruption and the final destroyer of sin as if it were revealed in every page of the Bible! Whereas there is not one passage in the sacred volume that says any such thing! Were this true, then death, far from being the last enemy, would be the last and best friend, and the greatest of all deliverers…It is the blood of Jesus alone that cleanseth from all unrighteousness.”
Another familiar argument against Christian perfection was the assertion that indwelling sin humbles believers and keeps them penitent. Clarke replied:
“Pride is of the essence of sin…and the root whence all moral obliquity flows. How then can pride humble us? The heart from which it [pride] is cast out has the humility, meekness and gentleness of Christ implanted in its stead.”
To the further argument that a Christian is surely humbled by the sense of indwelling sin, Clarke replied:
“I grant that they who see and feel and deplore their indwelling sin, are humbled. But is it the sin that humbles? No. It is the grace of God that shows and condemns the sin that humbles us…We are never humbled under a sense of indwelling sin till the Spirit of God drags it to the light and shows us not only its horrid deformity, but its hostility to God; and He manifests it that He may take it away.”
Replying to the objection that this teaching produced self-righteousness in its professors, Clarke testified:
“No person that acts so has ever received this grace. He is either a hypocrite or a self-deceiver. Those who have received it…love God with all their heart, they love even their enemies…In the splendour of God’s holiness they feel themselves absorbed… It has been no small mercy to me that in the course of my religious life, I have met with many persons who professed that the blood of Christ had saved them from all sin, and whose profession was maintained by an immaculate life, but I never knew one of them that was not of the spirit above described. They were men of the strongest faith, the purest love, the holiest affections, the most obedient lives and the most useful in society.”
Adam Clarke wrote and preached and exegeted the doctrine of entire sanctification with all his command of scripture, linguistic expertise, and wide theological reading, but there is one characteristic of his presentation that deserves more attention. He not only believed it as a scriptural doctrine and that it was theologically sound–he enforced it and explained it and defended it with all the passion of an evangelist. Whenever he touched the subject, he had as his dominant concern not only that Christians would believe it and be persuaded of its veracity, but that they might personally claim the experience, enter into it, live it, enjoy it, and testify to it.
“If men would but spend as much time in fervently calling upon God (i.e. to fully sanctify them) as they spend in decrying this doctrine, what a glorious state of the church should we soon witness…This moment we may be emptied of sin, filled with holiness and become truly happy…The perfection of the gospel system is not that it makes allowance for sin, but that it makes an atonement for it; not that it tolerates sin, but that it destroys it…Let all those who retain the apostolic doctrine…press every believer to go on to perfection, and expect to be saved, while here below, into the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Jesus.
Art thou weary of that carnal mind which is enmity to God? Canst thou be happy whilst thou art unholy? Arise, then…it is the birthright of every child of God to be cleansed from all sin, to keep himself unspotted from the world, and so to live as never more to offend his Maker. All things are possible to him that believeth, because all things are possible to the infinitely meritorious blood and energetic Spirit of the Lord Jesus.”
It is surely not out of place to note that the doctrine that Adam Clarke advocated so fervently found rich expression in his own life. Henry Moore, close confidant of both John Wesley and Adam Clarke, said of the latter:
“Our connection, I believe, never knew a more blameless life than that of Dr. Clarke.”
In view of Clarke’s clear and enthusiastic exposition of Christian perfection, it is not a little surprising that the most serious criticism of his teaching has come from the “holiness movement.”
Clarke emphasized almost exclusively the instantaneous phase of sanctification and quite neglected the growth phase. “In no part of the scriptures are we directed to seek holiness gradatim. We are to come to God as well for an instantaneous and complete purification from all sin as for an instantaneous pardon.”
Excerpted from Adam Clarke: Holiness Saint and Scholar by Herbert McGonigle