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.

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.

What is the uttermost?

Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25, KJV)

I use the King James version of this verse because it is the source of what is sometimes called the fourth “all” of Methodism: “All can be saved to the uttermost.” In later translations, we find translators struggling with the meaning of that word that the KJV translates as “uttermost.” I am intrigued by this but am well aware of my ignorance of Greek, so am wary of drawing any conclusions.

I know many of my readers are much more knowledgeable in Greek than I am, so I thought I would share my questions and see if you could help me out.

First, “uttermost” is from the Greek παντελές, which occurs in only two places, here and Luke 13:11, where it refers to the woman who had been crippled by a spirit and bent over for 18 years and could not straighten up. The word, transliterated as pantelos, refers to the degree to which she could not straighten up. The word includes the root word “telos,” which is frequently translated as “complete” or “perfect” in contemporary bibles. So, I hear in this the notion of being made all complete or all perfect, and some translations of Hebrews 7:25 do translate the word as “completely,” saying Jesus can save us completely (or perfectly?).

But other contemporary translations render the word as “for all time.” They suggest the meaning is not that we can be saved perfectly, but that our salvation cannot be dislodged or removed.

As you can imagine, the various readings of this word feed debates about eternal security of salvation and the possibility of backsliding. Charles Spurgeon and John MacArthur cite this verse in support of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, for instance.

Here is how Spurgeon puts it:

Then, my friends, if Christ is able to save a Christian to the uttermost, do you suppose he will ever let a Christian perish? Wherever I go, I hope always to bear my hearty protest against the most accursed doctrine of a saint’s falling away and perishing. There are some ministers who preach that a man may be a child of God (now, angels! do not hear what I am about to say, listen to me, ye who are down below in hell, for it may suit you) that a man may be a child of God to-day, and a child of the devil to-morrow; that God may acquit a man, and yet condemn him—save him by grace, and then let him perish—suffer a man to be taken out of Christ’s hands, though he has said such a thing shall never take place. How will you explain this? It certainly is no lack of power. You must accuse him of a want of love, and will you dare to do that? He is full of love; and since he has also the power, he will never suffer one of his people to perish. It is true, and ever shall be true, that he will save them to the very uttermost.

This leaves no room for doubt. Arminian and Wesleyan doctrine is accursed. From my experience “once saved, always saved” is warmly embraced by many who attend United Methodist churches. So the question of what it means to be saved to the uttermost is not merely a word game.

In his Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley writes that being saved to the uttermost means saved “From all the guilt, power, root, and consequence of sin.” Although he has no sermon that takes Hebrews 7:25 as its text, Wesley does make reference to Hebrews 7:25 in his sermon “The Repentance of Believers,” where he writes of being saved to the uttermost as being not merely about justification, but about entire sanctification:

And this also is to be understood in a peculiar sense, different from that wherein we believed in order to justification. Believe the glad tidings of great salvation, which God hath prepared for all people. Believe that he who is “the brightness of his Father’s glory, the express image of his person,” is “able to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God through him.” He is able to save you from all the sin that still remains in your heart. He is able to save you from all the sin that cleaves to all your words and actions. He is able to save you from sins of omission, and to supply whatever is wanting in you. It is true, this is impossible with man; but with God-Man all things are possible. For what can be too hard for him who hath “all power in heaven and in earth?”

So the Calvinists see in this verse evidence to support the doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” and Wesley reads it as confirmation of the doctrine of Christian perfection.

I’m curious how other people encounter this text. What does it mean to be saved “to the uttermost”?

The hope of perfection

From Richard Heitzenrater’s Wesley and the People Called Methodists:

Wesley was convinced that his position on justification and sanctification was crucial to the goal of spreading scriptural holiness. His preaching and organization had taken on quite a different shape from those of Whitefield over the years, in no small part because evangelism itself takes on a different form when holiness is the goal. … The possibility of perfection in love through grace was the distinctive and defining message in Wesley’s revival, and the very organization of the movement itself, as a network of disciplined small groups, was designed to nurture that hope of perfection in the lives of the Methodists. The fact that many Calvinists and Evangelicals, within and without the Church, could not agree with this doctrine did not deter Wesley from his single-minded vision of reforming the land.

 

I heard a preacher on the radio yesterday repeating that common line: No one is perfect. We never will be perfect. But we can be authentic.

Henri Nouwen writes something similar at the end of his book The Wounded Healer.

It is a commonplace idea.

And it is one that the entire Wesleyan project was set against.

No, I cannot achieve perfection through my own efforts. Not even with the help of God will I overcome the weakness of the flesh that gives rise to errors and mistakes. But, by the grace of God, Wesley preached, I can be perfected in love.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

To speak Wesleyan is to understand that the words “perfect,” “holiness,” and “sanctification” all describe the same thing. Scholars may well point out shades of difference, but they are mere shadows. The central thrust of Wesley’s ministry was to spread holiness — that is perfect Christian love — across the land.

Open air preaching, itinerant preachers, societies, classes, bands, hymnals, pamphlets, conferences, and all the other apparatus of Methodism came into being to accomplish this mission.

Of course, not everyone shared Wesley’s zeal. He spent a great deal of energy trying to prod, goad, and pummel Methodists into being Methodists. They settled in.

But to claim the Wesleyan mantle and to name him on our theological geneology should require of us an awareness of the very thing that made Wesley Wesley. We believe men, women, and children can be made perfect in love by the grace of God. We expect it. We preach and teach it. We live it.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

‘Finish then, Thy new creation’

From John Wesley’s journal Sept. 15, 1762:

The more I converse with the believers in Cornwall, the more I am convinced that they have sustained great loss for want of hearing the doctrine of Christian Perfection clearly and strongly enforced. I see, wherever this is not done, the believers grow dead and cold. Nor can this be prevented, but by keeping up in them an hourly expectation of being perfected in love. I say an hourly expectation; for to expect it at death, or some time hence, is much the same as not expecting it at all.

The doctrine of perfection or entire sanctification or universal holiness remains among the most controversial and most easily laid aside of Wesley’s habitual teachings. He himself debated with his brother in letters about whether the doctrine should be set aside, but so far as I can tell, he never did so.

The quote above comes after a remarkable section of Wesley’s journal in which he reports throughout 1762 about a revival among the Methodist societies after a long spell of spiritual dryness. In this section, the issue of sanctification is a common one. In a long letter from one of Wesley’s helpers, this typical story is recounted:

The case of Mr. Timmins is no less remarkable. He had been a notorious sinner. He was deeply wounded two months since. Ten days ago, on a Friday, God spake peace to his soul. The Sunday following, after a violent struggle, he sunk down as dead. He was cold as clay. After about ten minutes he came to himself, and cried, ‘A new heart, a new heart!’ He said he felt himself in an instant entirely emptied of sin, and filled with God.

This story lays out the Methodist program of grace. Continue reading