Our peculiar doctrine

From John Wesley’s journal of February 1789:

Friday, 6, being the Quarterly Day for meeting the Local Preachers, between twenty and thirty of them met at West-Street, and opened their hearts to each other. Taking the opportunity of having them all together, at the watch-night, I strongly insisted on St. Paul’s advice to Timothy, “Keep that which is committed to thy trust;” particularly the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which God has peculiarly entrusted to the Methodists.

That doctrine, expounded upon in detail in Wesley’s great sermon “Christian Perfection,” teaches that while humans prior to the Second Coming will never be free from ignorance, mistakes, weakness of the flesh, or temptation, the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts does give Christians power to resist all sin — in thought and deed. By an act of grace God will sanctify in this life those whom he has justified.

Wesley preached this for nearly his entire post-Aldersgate ministry. And he was resisted all along the way by those within and outside Methodism who objected on scriptural or experiential grounds. After his death, this doctrine would give rise to splits as groups that held firm to Christian Perfection — or as Wesley also called it in his sermon, holiness — broke off from the moderating masses of Methodists.

We United Methodists still hold to this doctrine formally. It is still committed to our trust. But it is a relic that we keep in the attic.

I wonder what it would be like if in the upcoming Annual Conference season every bishop in United Methodism followed Wesley’s example in 1789 and pressed on the gathered preachers to affirm, embrace, and proclaim again this peculiar doctrine and all it entails.

‘To be all love’

In a 1762 letter to a Methodist he called Miss Furly, John Wesley sought to counter some false teaching about the nature of perfection.

[S]anctification … does not include a power never to think an useless thought, nor ever speak an useless word. I myself believe that such a perfection is inconsistent with living in a corruptible body: For this makes it impossible “always to think right.” While we breathe, we shall, more or less, mistake.

In reading Wesley, it is remarkable how much time and energy he had to spend explaining this point. The word “perfection” was a constant thorn in the side of his theology because he had to constantly explain what it did not mean and clarify what it meant.

I want you to be all love. This is the perfection I believe and teach. And this perfection is consistent with a thousand nervous disorders, which that high-strained perfection is not. Indeed, my judgment is, that (in this case particularly) to overdo, is to undo; and that to set perfection too high, (so high as no man that we ever heard or read of attained,) is the most effectual (because unsuspected) way of driving it out of the world.

I like that phrase “to be all love” as a summary of his doctrine of perfection. But we must make sure to remember that it is love directed both to God and our neighbors. When we are all love, we love God. And we love God by keeping his commands.

With that caveat, though, I think “to be all love” is as good a description of perfection in Wesley’s theology as any I have read from his or other pens. It reminds us of the totality of love. It reminds us of the centrality of love. I prevents us from fixating on things that are not love. It reminds us that Christianity is a matter of the heart.

No holiness, no glory

From John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I”:

I not only allow, but vehemently contend, that none shall enter into glory who is not holy on earth, as well as in heart, as “in all manner of conversation.” I cry aloud, “Let all that have believed, be careful to maintain good works;” and “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from all iniquity.” I exhort even those who are conscious they do not believe: “Cease to do evil, learn to do well: The kingdom of heaven is at hand;” therefore, “repent, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”

Wesley offered these words as defense against the charge that his preaching of justification by faith alone undermined good works. I think most people who read my blog probably hear his words with a degree of resistance to the first line. We are not comfortable — for the most part — with the assertion that those who are not entirely holy will not enter into glory. It smacks of the most hated thing among us — exclusion.

And so, it is important for Methodists of all stripes to come to terms with Wesley on this point. We like to trot him out to reinforce our messages about love and works of mercy. But we tend to keep him in the basement when he talks about holiness.

Talking about being a Methodist or quoting John Wesley without understanding the central importance of holiness — complete and total holiness — to his theology is a bit like saying you are playing the game of baseball but removing home plate from the field. You can describe a lot of the action that goes on, but the point of the whole enterprise has been removed.

And this is why some of us are so vexed by what appears to be a cavalier attitude about questions regarding the meaning of holiness. People offer proposals to rewrite our understanding of Christian morality but reject all questions about what those proposals mean for closely related questions of Christian holiness. If we believe with Wesley that holiness of heart and life is essential to salvation, then we have to understand what holiness is and does and looks like.

At least, some of us feel that to be true.

‘Finish, then, thy new creation’

Talbot Davis asks whether conversion or childhood has more of a shaping effect of who we are as Christians.

[I]n more than a few of those “new creation” situations, I’ve watched with despair as people fall back into unhealthy patterns of ungodly living.

The same folks who emerge triumphantly from baptismal waters later descend painfully into cycles of addiction and abuse.

The same people who pray for salvation in my office end up paying a bail bondsman to free them from a DUI arrest.

And people who come forward in a rush of commitment sometimes fall away in a haze of apathy.

The thread that connects those instances I cite?  Childhood.  People develop patterns of behavior as adults that — knowingly and unknowingly — serve as coping mechanisms for traumas they endured as children.  

Davis’ post reminds me of all the ink and energy John Wesley spent getting people to watch over each other in love and to watch over themselves, being constantly aware that the sin that no longer reigns in them still remains in them.

The old Wesleyan-Methodist wisdom was that we could slide back into old patterns and ways if we did not continue going on to perfection. To read a sermon such as “On Zeal” is to see Wesley’s concern for creating new habits in us to counter the bad old ones that Davis sees.

Justification — as Davis’ experience confirms — is the start of something not the end. It is a birth — a new creation. We have much growing to do and there is much danger if we abandon the new creation to the not-so-tender mercies of the sin that is jealous for its old place in our hearts and lives.

This is why Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn the plea “finish, then, thy new creation.” Being new and being finished are not the same thing.

‘Control your own body’

Paul in 1 Thessalonians calls on the church to live in a manner that will please God.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7, NIV)

This is not by any means a unique passage in the New Testament.

So, how do we interpret Paul’s words here? What does it mean to control our bodies in holy and honorable ways?

Can we ‘be perfect’?

John Stott in his book Evangelical Truth repeats a common critique of the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection.

[M]ost evangelicals, interpreting “perfectionist” texts in their context, are convinced that neither the eradication of evil nor the possibility of sinless perfection promised in the New Testament is for this life. Rather, we are on a journey, pilgrims heading for the celestial city.

Those of who preach following the Revised Common Lectionary will come squarely into this discussion next week when we read in worship the words “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Wesley’s attempts to meet the objections to perfection are numerous. His sermon “On Perfection” is not one of the doctrinal standards of United Methodism, but it is a good overview of Wesley’s engagement with the critiques of the doctrine. Rather than go through those replies, though, I want to quote Wesley’s summary of the positive content of the doctrine:

What is then the perfection of which man is capable while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command, “My son, give me thy heart.” It is the “loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.” This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:” Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:” These contain the whole of Christian perfection.*

One crucial difference between Wesley and Stott is that Wesley taught that this perfection is possible in this life. Indeed, he said we should expect it and seek it. Wesley interpreted Jesus’ commands to be perfect and Paul’s exhortation to put on the mind that was in Christ as applying to this life and made possible by the grace of God.

No discussion of this topic is complete without noting that Wesley had a terribly hard time persuading even Methodists to embrace this doctrine. We recoil at the thought that we might actually attain this perfection. I suspect this is for many reasons. First, it feels like a breach of humility. Second, it feels beyond our reach. Of course, it is beyond our reach. That is the whole point. But our pride is stubborn. We cannot imagine that God would desire more for us than we are capable of doing by our own power and virtue.

The best-selling book by Stephen Covey told millions of readers to begin with the end in mind. By putting our focus on the final thing, everything prior to that is recast in light of the end. The doctrine of perfection is not just a cherry on the top of the sundae. It is the point by which all the rest of our doctrine is tested. As a United Methodist preacher, I am challenged by the lectionary — and men such as John Stott who I admire — to come to terms with this distinctive doctrine of United Methodism. What does it mean? Will I preach it? How will I do so?


*This is one reason why I do not like the Common English Bible’s translation of Matthew 5:48. “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” In the CEB, the first of the two great commandments drops from sight.