Empowered to be Perfect

I am taking The Theology of John Wesley this week and thought that I would share this paper that I wrote on Christian perfection.  It was supposed to be a more personal reflection on it as well as an analysis of it, so here you go: enjoy.

                Our culture is fascinated with perfection.  We were captivated by the New England Patriots pursuit of perfection.  We thought their run was an incredible feat, and we found out just how hard perfection actually is to obtain.  Just the other night a baseball pitcher had a perfect game for 7 innings, but he could not finish it off, proving again just how hard perfection is to attain.  Some will do almost anything to have the “perfect” body.  One of the most frequent words that we see paired up with perfection is impossible.   One of our most repeated phrases is “Nobody’s perfect.”  All these add up to why there was such an adverse reaction to Wesley’s idea of Christian Perfection.  We just cannot get it around that somebody can be perfect especially in this life, especially as it relates to God, and even though Wesley made it clear what he meant by Christian perfection, it is obvious that many then (and now) are anchored on the word perfection that they cannot grasp the incredible doctrine that it contains.

            Christian perfection is first a doctrine of sanctification, the holiness that we can have from the continual grace of God after we have been justified.  However it is further than just a common doctrine of sanctification, but a doctrine of complete sanctification that we will not just be better than we used to be, but that we can truly represent that, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,* who loved me and gave himself for me.”[1]  It is fulfilling Jesus’ command in Matthew, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[2]  (Maybe we are just used to ignoring Jesus’ radical commands.)  Because of these and other scriptures, John Wesley formulated one of his and United Methodism defining doctrines: Christian Perfection.

            Wesley had to continually defend what he meant by Christian perfection.  This is a doctrine that he held continually throughout his ministry beginning in part with his sermon “Circumcision of the Heart” in 1722, and was first fully articulated in “The Character of a Methodist,” which he published in 1742 and a doctrine he continued to preach with little change throughout his lifetime culminating with the publishing of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection in 1777.  He often began his arguments by defining what Christian perfection is not.  “We willingly allow and continually declare, there is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood.”[3]  It can be clearly understood that we will still be humans.  We will not find the fountain of youth and be perfectly healthy.  We will not have Wikipedia memorized and know all the information in the world.  We will not even be able to make all the correct decisions, nor will we be free from the temptations of this world.

            So if we are not perfect in those ways, what is meant by the idea of Christian perfection?  “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.”[4]  Christian perfection is “to be ‘sanctified throughout;’ even ‘to have a heart so all-flaming with the love of God.”[5]  It is the permeation of God into the very essence making one holy from the inside out, so that the pure love of God is the only motive by which one thinks and acts from.  One is an undivided person with a single heart, mind, soul, and strength focused on loving God.

 Perfect love is, of course, only done through the grace of God and one’s response to grace.  One is continually conformed more and more into the image of God, as one was initially created for.  Christian perfection is “a far deeper work that God wishes to accomplish in the soul, even the cleansing of the soul from the very being of sin.  In justification, one is free from the guilt, the power, and now finally in sanctification the being of sin.  As Collins says, “That is freedom from the very being of sin, even the carnal nature or original sin, the third liberty of the gospel, is… makes up an important part of what is entailed in entire sanctification.”[6]  For Wesley this is both a process and an instantaneous work of the Spirit, with what he called a “second birth.”  The process aspect of it is understood as growth in grace and in fact one of the criteria for seeing if somebody has reached Christian perfection by Wesley is “If we had clear evidence of his exemplary behavior for some time before this supposed change.”[7] 

There are a few other important notes on the doctrine Christian perfection.  One critical aspect of Christian perfection was that this proved that that “was yet another way of celebrating the sovereignty of grace.”[8]  God’s grace has great power, the power to overcome our sinful nature.  Additionally, Christian perfection, Wesley notes, is normally not reached in someone’s life until they are close to death.  In his work, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he gives the testimony of Jane Cooper and her experience of Christian perfection toward the end of the life including her last moments that included, “For fifteen hours before she died, she was in strong convulsions: her sufferings were extreme.  On said, ‘You are made perfect through sufferings.’  She said, ‘more and more so.”[9]  Wesley also left often the possibility that one could fall from Christian perfection just like one could lose their own salvation, as one continually has free will.

Christian perfection is a risky doctrine because of our rational nature.  We are familiar with our own “bent to sinning,” and we question if anyone can really overcome that nature.  However, if we are to take the Bible seriously, then we must leave open the possibility of Christian perfection, and not just leave open the possibility but make that our goal.  In fact as I slowly approach ordination in the United Methodist Church, here are two of the questions that I must answer correctly to, “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in this life.”[10]  The correct answer is, obviously, yes.  That is a bold statement, and not normally a requirement of most jobs that you enter into, but yet not just for us entering the ministry, but for all those who follow Jesus, if we allow room for the Holy Spirit to infiltrate our entire being, then we must believe that the Spirit cannot just transform parts of us, but all of us.

I have not decided how I am going to approach Christian perfection from the pulpit, but I do know that I will.  It is too imperative of a doctrine to hope that somebody finds it while sifting through the, more than likely, out of date church library.  It is too crucial to let this be something that we just move quickly through in confirmation, hoping that 6th grade boys are not paying attention, so we do not have to answer their question.  It is too integral to let the fear of a church patriarch be stronger than the fear of God.  Christian perfection is one of the great jewels of United Methodism because it reminds that baptism is not the goal of the Christian life, but holiness is, and in fact even when we reach Christian perfection it is not a static perfection but “Those whose hearts have been made pure by the blood of Christ must continue to grow in knowledge, grace, and gifts.”[11]  Our Christian journey and the flowing of God’s love from his heart to ours will never cease. 

[1] Galatians 2:20.  All Scripture NRSV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Matthew 5:48.

[3] John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1966), 35.

[4] Wesley, 51.

[5] Wesley, 37.

[6] Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley:  Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 301.

[7] Wesley, 57.

[8] Albert Outler, John Wesley, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1964), 253.

[9] Wesley, 78.

[10] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church: 2004, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2004), 235.

[11] Wesley, 300.


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Filed under Thoughts on Life with God, United Methodism

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