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The Wesleyan Holiness Tradition

Our Institutional Heritage

The Weslyan Holiness Tradition
Azusa Pacific University is a community of individuals representing diverse Christian backgrounds, yet at its core is an identity built on the Wesleyan Holiness tradition.

We invite you to learn more about this rich tradition and how it shapes who we are as a university community—dedicated to engaging all people with compassion, grace, and humility as we reflect the love of Jesus Christ.

The River of God

Imagine a great river system—always moving, changing, and bringing life. This is the river of God into which many streams flow, feeding and being fed by the river, causing God’s work in the world to be diverse and full.

There is no facet of human life that remains unchanged by the life-giving river. When the people of God immerse themselves in its flow, they become the reflection of God throughout the world. As a result, lives are restored, systems are redeemed, and all of creation is made new.

Each Is Unique

Many streams comprise the river of God, all contributing movement, breadth, and depth to the larger river—the Church. Each stream brings uniqueness and diversity to the river system, representing a variety of traditions and stories coming together in unity to make up the whole.

Wesleyan Holiness Stream

Among the interwoven network of streams that form God’s river system is the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, in which Azusa Pacific University was formed and continues to thrive. It is a faith tradition rich with history, deep thinking, and powerful manifestations of God’s work in bringing relevant change to people and culture. We trace our heritage from the early church to the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist movements. More recently, our Wesleyan theology found expression in an emphasis on righteous living and social engagement in the Holiness movement.

The denominations in the Holiness movement were founded by people in love with Jesus and full of the passion of God’s Holy Spirit. They launched initiatives that made a difference in the cultural issues of their day. Catherine and William Booth’s heart for righteousness overflowed to reach the streets of London; B.T. Roberts, Orange Scott, and others were driven to engage the political and cultural issues of slavery and discrimination, while raising the standard of personal holiness; George Fox, Phineas Bresee, D.S. Warner, Phoebe Palmer, Aimee Semple McPherson and others were consumed by the need for inner piety and full salvation through Jesus.

The ongoing influence of this stream continues to be lived out today at Azusa Pacific University as we reach outward into our community and the world, following the model of Christ so that, by glorifying Him, God’s river will bring life.

Azusa Pacific University is significantly formed by the framework of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition.

The framework of the Wesleyan stream leans into the mission of bringing the hope of God’s salvation into the real circumstances of life.

Unity of the church is more important than unanimity or uniformity; as a result, integration, wholeness, curiosity, mission, justice, and hospitality flavor everything we do. These features find their way into our thinking and inform our practice.

Our Wesleyan theological roots provide both anchor to the historic church as well as nimble practicality. This is driven by a passion to bring the Kingdom into culture and make a difference now. The Good News is more than a future hope of being removed from a decaying world—it is the hope of the Kingdom in the present as well as the future to come. Salvation is more than the idea of eternity in heaven—it is the restoration of God’s image in people and a new creation, with Christ as the singular means to salvation. This hopeful emphasis is both intensely personal and social in nature. It balances a commitment to right thinking and right living, individually and collectively.

The Wesleyan framework is characterized by grace that compensates for our human inadequacies. It urges people toward wholeness in Christ, actively pursuing the restoration of God’s holy image that was imprinted when we were created. And so, holiness is the antidote to the selfishness that led to our separation and brokenness.


Our Holiness heritage is a Spirit-filled manifestation of the Wesleyan theological framework.

It emphasizes both personal transformation and social engagement. We are not set apart in isolation. The hope of God’s wholeness can restore each human heart, as well as influence the systems and structures of culture. Heart restoration compels us to confront collective and individual injustice, and to engage in the struggles of culture with compassion and advocacy.

At times, Holiness has been misunderstood to mean prescribed behaviors that ultimately resulted in legalism. In reality, holiness describes God’s very nature. It calls all people to fully surrender to God’s influence. The result is that God’s holy nature will be reflected in our lives, and God’s priority will become ours, reconciling and restoring people and systems.

This has led to historic activism in advocating for justice in the world. As cultural issues change, Holiness compels people to the forefront of championing the justice and love of God in practical ways. We get involved in the functions and issues of our day to reflect Christ and represent God’s holistic mission of restoring creation.

Each stream of the Church has characteristics that distinguish it from other streams. Understanding these qualities allows us to apply the richness of our heritage in everyday situations.

The Wesleyan Holiness tradition anchors on three characteristics—centered, relational, and descriptive—which shape the faith heritage of Azusa Pacific University.

Centered More Than Bounded

We secure ourselves to the anchored center of our Christian orthodoxy and heritage. In doing so, we focus less on defining restrictions or boundaries, which can take the form of theological, political, or social positions. Our centered approach inspires us to reach out to people and draw them toward God’s merciful love for all of His image bearers. As people respond to Jesus and cross the line of faith, we witness transformation in their obedience to the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture. Passionate attraction to the centered holiness of God overpowers fear of violating the boundaries of the edge.

Relational More Than Propositional

We relate differently to a person than we do to a proposition or doctrine. In the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, we tend to see people more as image bearers than as representing a doctrinal, social, or political position. We find ways to relate to others even if they think differently about important matters. This does not threaten the solid anchor of our central relationship with Jesus Christ and God’s Word, but it may influence how we express the principles that describe us.

Descriptive More Than Prescriptive

The descriptive characteristic in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition can be traced back to John Wesley’s journal, where he captured how he experienced God in God’s time and way, and how it formed his understanding of God. Rather than focusing on prescribed courses of behavior or expectations to be achieved, when we anchor ourselves to a centered relationship with Christ and God’s Word, the experiences that confront us become possibilities to witness God at work. It allows us to see how God is working through us, and through others. This is a lifelong journey of discovery, transformation, and becoming whole. There may be uncertainty along the way, but we trust in the assurances that the principles of God and the purposes of God’s word will not fail.

These characteristics represent a tilt, not an extreme standpoint. Embracing the Kingdom in the heritage of the Wesleyan Holiness stream naturally includes elements of both ends of the spectrum, but the tilt is more to one than the other. The balance remains in flux as we respond to change and culture, and it contributes to life-giving conversations. We may not endorse or define specific positions, but we engage with peaceful confidence because we remain deeply anchored and rooted as Christ-centered individuals in love with God.

The Church is called by Jesus Christ to bring the Kingdom of heaven to earth. Throughout history, different faith traditions have explored and manifested in myriad ways this living gift of God.

The Wesleyan Holiness tradition values this expression of the Church with its many differences; we see the Church as one house of God with many rooms, representing the diverse experiences, priorities, and emphases of God with people.

Within the Wesleyan Holiness stream, five themes deepen our identity and engagement as we contribute to the larger river of God in the world.

Centrality of Christ

We are more centered than bounded in our expression of Christian faith, underscoring the importance of the central reference of our orthodoxy—Jesus Christ. Christ in his divinity represents the embodiment of personal holiness, and he is our example of the social holiness to which we aspire. He is the head of the Church and the means of being reconciled to God in salvation. We share these and countless other truths about Christ with many other streams of the Church.

Primacy of Scripture

John Wesley was a man of one book. We affirm this commitment to the primacy of Scripture as a core emphasis of our Christian identity. We accept that God’s truth is found in sources beyond Scripture, including reason, tradition, and experience, but all truth is held in submission to the Scriptures. We examine the Scriptures through the lens of where, to whom, and when they were written. We apply principles faithfully in harmony with the Holy Spirit, who inspires both the Scriptures and its readers.

Unity of the Church

We recognize many differences within the universal Church, the means by which God establishes the Kingdom on earth. Embracing the diversity of church traditions compels us to engage one another with kindness and grace, as well as love and justice—including those with whom we may have sharp differences.

Grace in Relationships

As recipients of God’s grace, we in turn strive to offer grace in every circumstance, motivated by a commitment to restoring God’s image in all people. Grace is a gift that woos our soul to God, even before we choose to follow Jesus. It provides the context for receiving salvation and then living it out daily in becoming holy as God is holy. But this grace is not offered by God without cost. Christ makes the fullness of grace attainable, so that each of us has the possibility not to sin.

Transformation of Life

We believe God’s holy nature is available to us, providing hopeful possibility for a person to move beyond sin into righteousness, and for communities to reflect the image of God. This hope of transformation moves us to engage with the passion of making a positive difference in the present.

The streams contributing to the river of God are formed by unique evidences and stories of God with us. Each stream is different, not better. Azusa Pacific University traces its spiritual and theological identity to a robust lineage of influences, including the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. These influences shape our mission, and create a dynamic heritage that we continue to embrace today. It allows us to remain confident in our call as we engage relevant cultural issues while remaining anchored in Scripture and our Christian faith.

Recent social and political issues demand a coherent, meaningful Christian response that can best be shaped from the richness of our heritage. The following characteristics describe the evidence of this heritage and how it is expressed in our lives and our institution:

These are not prescriptive standards to which Christians aspire—they are descriptions resulting from the commitment to self-surrender so that God’s holy nature will be reflected in greater measure. They are not bounded doctrinal propositions, but evidences of a growing relationship with God through Jesus. One characteristic is not more important than another; only focusing on one or a few results in the loss of breadth and depth of God’s holy influence. Working in union, these demonstrate how a daily surrender may find expression in selfless reflection of God, who increasingly transforms us from within.

Transformed Character

Life on Film: Henry

We are called to surrender a selfish will in favor of God’s. As Christ surrendered, so we follow suit, allowing the righteous character of God to be manifested in us. We become holy as He is holy. God is wholly other and His otherness creates differences that distinguish a surrendered person from the surrounding worldly culture—being in this world, yet not of it. However, if this is the only descriptor we emphasize, we may fall prey to becoming sectarian, so set apart from the world that we become irrelevant. In its extreme, sectarianism will lead to legalism as it becomes a source of pride.

Theological basis: Otherness of God

Scriptural reference: Romans 12

Isolated focus results in: Sectarian legalism

Responsible Engagement

Life on Film: Juli

Engagement is endemic to God and His work, and it counterbalances the tendency to be segregated, sectarian, or set apart from the world. Engagement, however, is not simply in reaction to another’s plea. God did not wait for humanity to ask for help, but took responsibility to initiate engagement as He saw our fallen condition. Those striving to reflect God’s holiness are called to take responsibility for the hurt and brokenness of others. They initiate engagement in compassion and advocacy, reaching out in culturally meaningful ways. However, if engagement is disconnected from transformed character, it may become merely social action, like any secular social organization that seeks civil good.

Theological basis: Incarnation

Scriptural reference: Mark 10:21

Isolated focus results in: Social activism

Healthy Relationships

Life on Film: Gabriel

Even the Church struggles with unhealthy relationships resulting in splits, tension, intractability, gossip, and other forms of relational damage. Healthy relationships stem from mutual submission. This is most evident in the Trinity, where selflessness gives way to the other: the Father submits to the Son, the Son submits to the Spirit, the Son submits to the Father, and so forth. People who walk in God’s holiness are characterized by this disposition of mutuality, which yields healthy, whole relationships. However, if seeking health in relationships is the only focus, the tendency will be toward relativism in negotiating consensus among various people.

Theological basis: Mutuality

Scriptural reference: Ephesians 5:21

Isolated focus results in: Relativism

Wise Decisions

Faculty Profile: Deshonna Collier-Goubill, PhD

We often hear people say they are waiting to know God’s will before making a choice. In fact, God may be waiting for that person to make a decision based upon Christian character and thoughtful communion with the Spirit. God gives us the ability to choose, and the holy life is a daily exercise of choices that honor God and turn our souls toward Him. Such decisions are informed by and reflect God’s nature through the Holy Spirit; they are imbued with the hopeful grace that grants the option not to sin. However, an overdependence on free will may result in rationalized faith that can justify selfish desires.

Theological basis: Free will

Scriptural reference: Joshua 24:15

Isolated focus results in: Rationalization

Integrated Life

Life on Film: Paul

In pursuing a greater measure of God in us, we discover the fullness of our humanity. The path of integrating the dimensions of our being is a journey toward wholeness. Being created in God’s image, we see people with the hope and capacity for wholeness under the present constraints of our fallen nature. Jesus’ own command to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength guides us in an integrated life that results in completeness and fulfillment in our devotion to reflecting God’s holiness. In isolation, though, this pursuit can lead to misguided desire for self-actualization as a human endeavor toward a human end.

Theological basis: Completeness of God

Scriptural reference: Mark 12:30

Isolated focus results in: Priority on self-actualization

Purposeful Hearts

Life on Film: Tiffany

God’s love is not tied to our performance. Though we failed, missed the mark, and fell short, He was motivated by love to engage us through prophets, priests, kings, the law, and finally through His Son and His Holy Spirit. This same motivating love drives the hearts and actions of people pursuing God’s holy nature. They reach out in love regardless of performance or behavior, extending grace that offers the hope of a relationship with Christ. However, if love is the sole focus of the Christian walk, it often results in the loose generalization of universalism.

Theological basis: Love of God

Scriptural reference: I John 4:7

Isolated focus results in: Universalism

Servant Leadership

Life on Film: Matt

Jesus Christ was the ultimate servant leader. Throughout his life, he exhibited a variety of leadership styles, yet one inner nature. By emptying himself of his rights and humbling himself to the will of His Father, Jesus voluntarily became a servant. He allowed the nature and priority of His Father to shape and form His own, from which he engaged in ministry to people. Likewise, those on the path of becoming Christ-like live out the priorities of their master in acts of reconciliation. Without the other evidences of the holy life, however, focusing on this alone may mean simply pursuing a style of leadership.

Theological basis: Mind of Christ

Scriptural reference: Philippians 2:5-8

Isolated focus results in: Style of leadership

Meaningful Work

Life on Film: Kim

Being “called” does not relate only to ministry or spiritual vocations. Everyone has a vocation—the call of their creator to live into their unique abilities, passions, and fit. Those who walk daily with God discover that their work is a fulfillment of His invitation to thrive. They grow to understand this work is a result of God’s call, and therefore has value; they apply themselves to the work they were uniquely designed for with vigor. It becomes an expression of their obedience and devotion to the Caller. However, only focusing on work can result in confusing it as the primary expression and fulfillment of our faith. Personal character and spiritual mission will be lost in favor of simply doing well at the office.

Theological basis: Call of God-vocation

Scriptural reference: Exodus 3:7-10

Isolated focus results in: Work is our faith

Curious Thinking

Azusa Pacific University Life on Film: Margarita

All truth is God’s truth, and all of creation bears witness to God’s nature; therefore, the pursuit of truth and understanding allows greater discovery in knowing God. People pursuing holiness have a growing appetite to know God, which drives their curiosity to search, to discover, and to think. They begin to see all things as evidence of God. As curiosity increases, our humility grows in realizing our own deficiency in pursuing a holy God. However, too much emphasis on thinking as the sign of God’s holiness may enable a worldview that allows for any and all paths of rational thinking to end up at the heart of God. This pluralism undermines the singularity of Jesus in our journey.

Theological basis: Mystery of God

Scriptural reference: Job 38:1-7

Isolated focus results in: Pluralism