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.

The command is also a promise

We may yet farther observe, that every command in holy writ is only a covered promise.

So John Wesley wrote in his fifth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, which expounds upon the second half of this week’s lectionary reading from the gospel. (Another sermon of Wesley’s concerns itself with the first half of our lectionary gospel.)

The idea that God will give power to do what he commands us to do is fundamental to a Wesleyan reading of the Sermon on the Mount. It is fundamental, really, to his reading of the entire Bible. When God commands us to do a thing, Wesley taught, the Holy Spirit enables us to do it — if not right away then as we grow in grace.

No command of Scripture should be read as an impossible higher work of holiness that is beyond the grasp of “ordinary” Christians.

Some Christians read the Sermon on the Mount as a hammer meant to shatter the pride of men and women. They read it as setting out such an impossibly high standard that it drives us to our knees in despair, for no one could hope to actually follow such teaching.

This is not the Wesleyan reading.

God not only commands us to be holy but also gives us the means to do so.

Of course, this is also an extremely controversial reading. Even in Wesley’s own ministry it was often not received well. He wrote — in what I only interpret as despair — to his brother over the resistance of Methodists and outsiders to the doctrine of Christian perfection, which is the outgrowth of his confidence in the promises of God.

The experience of many Christians refuted rather than confirmed Wesley’s biblical interpretation on this point. The idea that we could actually live in true freedom from sin was always contested and remains so today.

For myself, I have great sympathy for those who resist Wesley’s reading because I often want to resist it as well. But when I look more closely at my resistance, it is nearly always born of a desire to disobey Christ. My resistance to the idea that I can live a life in which sin does not control me is strongest exactly where there are sins tempting me toward disobedience. It is those moments when I start arguing with God.

“Sure, I know this is wrong, but I have all these really good reasons for doing it. In fact, it will be better for people I love and people who depend on me if I do this. Really, the greater good is being served here, and isn’t that what Jesus wants?”

I don’t think Wesley was a utilitarian. And as far as I can tell, neither was Jesus. But I sure am happy to pretend to be one when it serves my sinful inclinations.

Has your soul been pierced? #LukeActs2014

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35, NIV)

Is this the best or worst Mother’s Day card ever? Probably both.

A sword will pierce your soul, Mary. And surely he was speaking truth.

How about you and me? Has your soul been pierced because of Jesus? Have you felt that pain that divides you against yourself? Mary the mother could not bear to see her son tortured and crucified. And yet, had she spared him that agony, we all would have been lost.

I am not in the position of Mary, but part of me desires and longs for what cannot abide with Jesus. At the same time, part of me cries out for Jesus. I cannot have one without cleaving the other from my soul. Jesus cannot do his work in me without cutting away the parts of me that oppose his work. My soul does not understand this. It only feels a part of itself being ripped away, and it fights to hold on.

This is the biggest challenge I find in discerning the nature of my own heart. The sin that resides in me does not walk around in a little Hitler costume making it easy for me to celebrate its death. Even those parts of me that I know are from the darkness feel close to me. Like my flat feet, they are flawed and even painful at times, but they are part of me. Do I dare imagine the sword?

This is why I need brothers and sisters helping me to see what I cannot see. This is why I need the means of grace such as Scripture, prayer, and fasting. This is why I need an old geezer like Simeon, who hung on all those years to tell Mary those wonderful and painful words.

Can we read Zechariah like Wesley? #LukeActs2014

He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. (Luke 1:71b-75, CEB)

When I read this passage this morning as part of Bishop Ken Carter’s invitation to spend a year reading Luke-Acts, I found myself reading it as I imagined John Wesley would read it. He would, I thought, read these  gifts of God as personal and spiritual rather than political. The enemies that we are given power over would not be Amorites or Romans, but sin and Satan.

My hunch was confirmed when I read how Wesley would have us read the clause “we could serve him without fear”:

Here is the substance of the great promise. That we shall be always holy, always happy: that being delivered from Satan and sin, from every uneasy and unholy temper, we shall joyfully love and serve God, in every thought, word, and work.

I can imagine two objections to this reading of Zechariah’s prophecy.

First, I can hear the Texas twang of Stanley Hauerwas decrying the individualism and pietism of this reading. Hauerwas is far from the only person to decry such readings, but his is the voice I hear best in these moments because I’ve read a handful of his books and listened to him preach and lecture on YouTube. The substance of the critique, as I understand it, is that readings such as Wesley’s make the gospel personal and individual, which obscures the plainly social and political intentions of the Bible. Pietism such as Wesley’s is a surrender to Constantine, who would have the state deal with the social, political, and economic aspects of life, and/or liberalism, which would relegate all discussion of “values” to a private realm of no consequence or concern to the public life of the social order.

Second, I imagine Eugene Peterson — among others again — decrying the perfectionism implied in this reading. The suggestion that we can be always holy and always happy, Peterson would counsel us in his grandfatherly way, is a path to delusion, failure, and spiritual elitism. Peterson’s book The Jesus Way has a particularly sharp critique of Christian perfection in his chapter about David.

These two criticisms go to the heart of what John Wesley preached and defended during his entire ministry.

He believed the spread of scriptural holiness was the saving of individual souls and the sanctification of individual sinners. The fruit of this work had social impacts, as Wesley was often quick to point out, but he believed you changed a town or a kingdom by changing the hearts of sinners one-by-one. The church was not a politics set against the world’s politics — as Hauerwas might phrase it — but a transforming power within the world.

Wesley also defended himself from charges that he made Christianity impossible for ordinary people to attain. He was called an enthusiast for teaching that rank-and-file Christians should expect to have the mind that was in Christ and to be perfect as God is perfect. For most of his ministry, he argued that every Christian should receive the commands of Scripture as covered promises. What Jesus Christ commands us to do, he gives us the grace to do, if we will receive that grace.

In the later years of his ministry, Wesley did write at times of a higher and lower order of Christianity, and yet he never stopped preaching perfection, and even his lower-order of Christianity in a sermon such as “The More Excellent Way” far exceeds the everyday faith of most Christians. And so, the charge still sticks. Wesley describes as basic Christianity what is beyond the desire of most Christians.

He argues that we should seek to be always happy and always holy. We demure that desiring such things is arrogance or elitism or beyond the power of God to accomplish.

The heart of the matter

The issue for me lurking in these few lines of scripture is an old one. It gets to the very heart of our life together. As I have crudely sketched above, even a few fairly simple lines can lead us to a wide ranging theological conversation. And the verses themselves do not settle the dispute for us. To read scripture with John Wesley is quite a different event than reading it with Eugene Peterson or Stanley Hauerwas or whoever you’d like to add to the list.

Who we are as a people depends a great deal on with whom we can sit down and read scripture without getting into a shouting match or a fist-fight.

As a United Methodist pastor, I am instructed and charged to read in ways that honor the readings that Wesley brought to the text. At the very least, I am required to allow his readings to be counted as important to who I am as a Christian and how I read scripture. If I cannot do that — if I would rule out Wesley’s readings as vapid individualism or dangerous spiritual elitism — then I wonder what would possess me to preach in a church named after his movement or sing from a hymnal that starts with “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

Waiting for the experience

From John Wesley’s journal April 2, 1764:

I explained at large the nature of Christian Perfection. Many who had doubted of it before were fully satisfied. It remains only to experience what we believe.

Here is the experience that we have wrestled against its will into a four-fold “method” that treats experience as a source of theological ideas. As this short entry demonstrates, experience is not the source of doctrine for Wesley, but the confirmation or expression of it.

And, indeed, experience did not settle the argument for Wesley. In the sermon linked to above — which may or may not have been what he spoke of to those people referenced in his journal entry — Wesley wrote briefly about the place of experience, reason, and Scripture in the development of his theological ideas about Christian perfection:

If any doubt of this privilege of the sons of God, the question is not to be decided by abstract reasonings, which may be drawn out into an endless length, and leave the point just as it was before. Neither is it to be determined by the experience of this or that particular person. Many may suppose they do not commit sin, when they do; but this proves nothing either way. To the law and to the testimony we appeal. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” [Rom. 3:4] By his Word will we abide, and that alone. Hereby we ought to be judged. (emphasis added)

Experience is what we wait for and hope for after we have believed the Word of God. Neither it nor reason, however, tell us what we should await.

We may not have any desire to follow Wesley’s method and argument, but we do him a disservice if we claim by his name something he did not himself practice.