Is perfection an essential Wesleyan emphasis?

I know all the elders have to say yes. They get asked if they are going on to perfection at ordination, but I’m trying to determine how central ‘perfection’ is to being a Wesleyan.

Rather I want to know how important is it to affirm that perfection is generally attainable in this life?

First, to clarify, what Wesley meant by perfection was not a general state. He wrote that perfection did not mean a person would be free of sickness or bodily weakness. Perfection did not prevent people from being ignorant or making mistakes about things that one encounters in every day life. Most importantly, perfection did not exempt a person from temptation. So, for instance, the fact that person such as Mother Teresa struggled with doubt and temptation does not remove her from the candidates of perfected Christians.

Wesley wrote that perfection means

one in whom is ‘the mind which was in Christ,’ and who so ‘walketh as Christ also walked;’ a man ‘that hath clean hands and a pure heart,’ or that is ‘cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit;’ one in whom is ‘no occasion of stumbling,’ and who, accordingly, ‘does not commit sin.’ To declare this a little more particularly: We understand by that scriptural expression, ‘a perfect man,’ one in whom God hath fulfilled his faithful word, ‘From all your filthiness and from all your idols I will cleanse you: I will also save you from all your uncleannesses.’ We understand hereby, one whom God lath ‘sanctified throughout in body, soul, and spirit;’ one who ‘walketh in the light as He is in the light, in whom is no darkness at all; the blood of Jesus Christ his Son having cleansed him from all sin.’

For Wesley, the command in the Sermon on the Mount to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48), and other commands to be Christ-like, could only make sense if the command implied an ability or the grace to allow us to obey. Therefore, perfection must be possible. Entire sanctification could be the goal of every Christian.

When pressed, Wesley said that if no evidence could be found of any that had attained perfection, then he would have to give up preaching it.

If I were convinced that none in England had attained what has been so clearly and strongly preached by such a number of Preachers, in so many places, and for so long a time, I should be clearly convinced that we had all mistaken the meaning of those scriptures; and therefore, for the time to come, I too must teach that ‘sin will remain till death.

As he preached perfection to the end of his days, clearly he was never convinced it was an error.

My question, though, is not whether we can locate a few individuals who with some confidence we might agree exhibit entire sanctification, but whether this is a goal for which we expect a great number or most Christians to approach?

My experience tells me that few reach it. Those who show some qualities of complete Christian love in one area of their life, may lack it in another. Some may show great zeal for some neighbors but have venom for others. Some may appear to be full of love, but then stumble suddenly and dramatically.

Eugene Peterson – who is decidedly not a Wesleyan – goes so far as to decry perfectionism as anti-Christian.

Perfectionism: a most ruinous deviation from the way, a detour from the way of Jesus. It is unlikely that it will plunge us headlong into damnation, but it certainly makes us most undesirable company with others on the pilgrim way. Perfectionism is a perversion of the Christian way.

We Methodists do not have to answer to Peterson, but I do wonder whether we see enough fruit of the preaching of perfection to hold to Wesley’s interpretation of scripture on this point. He admitted himself that if the preaching of the doctrine did not produce fruit, he would be forced to reconsider whether his reading of the Bible was right.

Of course, our first handicap in answering this question is the absence of much preaching of this doctrine today. Do one in 50 or one in 100 United Methodist pulpits announce the doctrine of perfection once a year? Do the Sunday schools?

I do know this. I have seen and known Christians who seem much further along toward perfection than I am. I have seen those who grow in grace. So, set out as a goal of the Christian life, perfection appears to be a good thing. It draws the Christian toward deeper harmony between Lord and life. Seeking the mind that is in Christ seems to be a prod that moves some Christians, and so it seems that it would be foolish to remove it - whatever Rev. Peterson thinks of it.

My provisional answer to my own question is this: Perfection is essential to Wesleyan understanding of the life of our faith, but we must be very careful with this term.

Too often, Christians justify criticisms such as Peterson’s by boasting of their own progress toward sanctification and drawing distinctions that do not exist between themselves and other Christians. This is folly and surely a sign of incomplete sanctification.

Perfection is not something we attain, but something we receive. We grow toward it only as we are watered by grace and fed by God’s love. But like all growing things, we long to grow rather than to wither and die.

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2 thoughts on “Is perfection an essential Wesleyan emphasis?

  1. I wouldn’t think that Peterson and Wesley are talking about the same thing, so that might not be an apple to apples comparison. It might be better to read Wesley’s understanding of perfection in light of the Greek Orthodox understanding of theosis. This is what Randy Maddox does.

    Interestingly, this point of Wesley’s doctrine is even less talked about over here. I haven’t heard the question asked of ministers ‘are you going on to perfection?’ in the British Methodist system. At least, I wasn’t asked it (but, then again, I did half the process in the US and the other half here).

    • Its been to long since I’ve read Responsible Grace, so I do not recall Maddox’s discussion.

      I could have quoted a better piece of Peterson perhaps. He may not have Wesley in mind, but he is clearly taking aim at holiness and pietistic impulses that result in claims of sanctification.

      Of course, I think Wesley is clearly very cautious about anyone being over confident in their claims or over broad about what it means to reach perfection.

      Interesting point about the Anglo-American divide. I do not think it gets talked about a lot over here either, but it is there in the ordination service.

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