Christian Perfection was one of the defining elements of John Wesley’s theology and also one of the most controversial. Beginning a sermon entitled Christian Perfection Wesley acknowledges how people respond to the idea of being perfected in this life.
There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches perfection (as the phrase is,) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.
I also have sense of hesitation or resistance when I hear Wesley saying that I can be made perfect in this life. I can understand why those listening to Wesley might have had an adverse reaction to this part of his theology.
Yet, as I read through the various writings on Christian Perfection, I discover that what I have in mind may not be what Wesley had in mind. Wesley says that Christian perfection is not an absolute perfection. It doesn’t mean that someone has ‘arrived’ and is at a place where they will not grow, or are not in the need of God’s grace. In fact, Wesley says that even though one is cleansed from all inner and outer sin, there is the possibility for someone in the state of Christian Perfection to sin.
That seems contradictory until you read the following:
Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus every one that is perfect is holy, and every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect. Yet we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any man hath attained, or in how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need to “grow in grace,” [2 Pet. 3:18] and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour. [see Phil. 1:9] (From Christian Perfection)
“But we may carry this thought farther yet. A mistake in judgment may possibly occasion a mistake in practice. For instance: Mr. De Renty’s mistake touching the nature of mortification, arising from prejudice of education, occasioned that practical mistake, his wearing an iron girdle. And a thousand such instances there may be, even in those who are in the highest state of grace. Yet, Where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood. (From Questions and Answers on Christian Perfection)
Even though one is in a state of Christian Perfection, that does not mean that they have absolute perfect understandings, judgment, etc. Even in this state there will be mistakes in judgment and understanding which can lead to a mistake (or sin) in practice. Wesley says that these mistakes, however, all flow from a pure love.
If Christian Perfection is not some type of absolute perfect existence then what is it? Wesley says it is holiness. He says that those who are holy are perfect and those who are perfect are holy. In his Qs and As on Christian Perfection he says that it is “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.”
Pure love is how Wesley describes Christian Perfect and holiness. A love that isn’t marred by sinful intentions, thoughts, motivations, etc. It is a love whose focus is on God and God’s will. A love that is given as a gift by Grace. It isn’t something that we can manufacture or earn. It results when God cleanses us from all inward and outer sin and puts in its place holy tempers and dispositions. In On the Discoveries of Faith Wesley address this:
It is not only a deliverance from doubts and fears, but from sin; from all inward as well as outward sin; from evil desires and evil tempers, as well as from evil words and works. Yea, and it is not only a negative blessing, a deliverance from all evil dispositions implied in that expression, “I will circumcise thy heart;” but a positive one likewise; even the planting all good dispositions in their place; clearly implied in that other expression, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.”
I, for one, find this idea of a pure love desirable. After all, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with your whole being and the second (which flows from the first) was to love your neighbor as yourself. I believe this is to be the goal of the Christian life. I think that is what Wesley was saying to.
My concern is not only the fear that Christian Perfection is no longer taught or addressed (I for one have not done it and I have not heard others preach or teach it either!), but that we no longer even desire this gift of grace. We are too busy with other things, or, we are happy with our Christian experience just the way it is. We don’t have a desire for pure love. We preach God’s grace, but then we limit it and, at times, make it a license for sinful living and lack of love. Yet, God waits patiently yearning to give this gift of perfect love to all who desire it.
While we can’t earn this gift, Wesley said there are some things we can practice as we wait for it. Again, from Questions and Answers he writes this:
“Q. How are we to wait for this change?
“A. Not in careless indifference, or indolent inactivity; but in vigorous, universal obedience, in a zealous keeping of all the commandments, in watchfulness and painfulness, in denying ourselves, and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer and fasting and a close attendance on all the ordinances of God. And if any man dream of attaining it any other way, (yea, or of keeping it when it is attained, when he has received it even in the largest measure,) he deceive his own soul. It is true, we receive it by simple faith: But God does not, will not, give that faith, unless we seek it with all diligence, in the way which he hath ordained.
He goes on to say the reason why so few have received this gift is because of a lack of prayer:
“This consideration may satisfy those who inquire, why so few have received the blessing. Inquire, how many are seeking it in this way; and you have a sufficient answer.
“Prayer especially is wanting. Who continues instant therein? Who wrestles with God for this very thing? So,’ye have not, because ye ask not; or because ye ask amiss,’ namely, that you may be renewed before you die. Before you die! Will that content you? Nay, but ask that it may be done now; to-day, while it is called to-day. Do not call this ‘setting God a time.’ Certainly, to-day is his time as well as to- morrow. Make haste, man, make haste!
Not only is prayer missing, but so is our desire. Wesley seems to be saying that without desire, the gift will not come. After all, why would God give something we don’t even want? Is this pure love something we long for? Is it something we constantly ask God for? Is it something we wrestle with God about? Or are we content…perhaps too content? What has happened to our perfect desire?