It’s one of the most controversial and least understood doctrines among Methodists and Wesleyans. It’s split denominations and been a source of all manner of confusion, and yet it may the single most important and unique idea we Methodists have ever conceived. I’m speaking of course of John Wesley’s belief in Christian Perfection.
Every year at Annual Conference when the new elders are ordained, they’re asked a series of questions including this one:
“Are you going on to perfection?”
This one question recalls a time when the idea of Christian perfection was the defining characteristic of Methodism, when it propelled us to do so many amazing things. But what does it really mean?
I’ll let Mr. Wesley speak for himself on this one:
“In one view, it is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving God all our heart; it is one desire and design ruling all our tempers. It is the devoting, not a part, but all our soul, body, and substance to God. In another view, it is all the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked. It is the circumcision of the heart from all filthiness, all inward as well as outward pollution. It is a renewal of the heart in the whole image of God, the full likeness of Him that created it. In yet another, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves.” (John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection).
This is about as concise as Wesley gets in defining perfection. It’s nothing more or less than perfect love of God and neighbor. Living a life of constant good intent and desire for righteousness. The word “perfection” might suggest more to some, but Wesley gives some pretty clear limits. The Perfected Christian is not:
- Free of sins of ignorance, or free from causing unintentional harm
- Free from the consequences of sin which include frailty, weariness, ignorance, and fear
- Free from temptation or the possibility of sinning
- Most importantly, it does not mean one no longer needs to follow spiritual ordinances of prayer, scripture, sacrament, and acts of piety and mercy
Wesley doesn’t come to this doctrine lightly. He also cites multiple scripture references to defend it (Philippians 3:15; Matthew 5:48; Ephesians 4:13; Romans 6:6-14, 8:3; John 8:11; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 John 3:8-9, 4:17, 5:18; 1 Peter 1:13; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 8:10, 10:14). He also made it very clear that this form of entire sanctification was not simply a result of one’s conversion, but only total obedience to the Holy Spirit. Wesley also generally wrote and preached on perfection as an ultimate goal for every Christian, but never presumed everyone would obtain it in this life. Even in his final hours, Wesley didn’t claim to have reached it. But he believed with his dying breathe that every Christian’s life should spent in the active pursuit of it. There is little doubt in my mind that Mr. Wesley did just that until his dying day.
“Are you going on to perfection?”
It’s a strange phrase. We don’t say, “Are you close to perfection?” How close a person is at the time to perfection is irrelevant to their call to ministry. It doesn’t matter where God finds us, only where God leads us. We focus only on the direction in which we are facing whether we’re within reach or thousands of miles away from the goal. This is because we understand that if we’re not moving forward, we’re falling back. There’s no neutral, no standing still, and no settling for less. We might as well be asking the candidates, “Are you all in?”
There’s no part of ourselves or our day-to-day lives that aren’t meant to be sanctified. How we act, how we treat others, how manage time, spend money or other resources, etc. all have to be facing toward sanctification. We have to entrust all of these things to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even the manner in which we see the world and love one another changes. We come to truly love our neighbor as ourselves because we begin to see them as God sees each of us. That is what perfection means, to fully offer ourselves up to God as Christ offered himself over for us.
Are you all in?
Stay tuned for Part II.