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.


4 thoughts on “Can we ‘be perfect’?

  1. Brother John, “On Perfection” is in fact a part of our official doctrine of the UMC as our official doctrine is made up of “Wesley’s Sermons” and this includes all 150 sermons. This was changed at the 1988 General Conference. So, you are on target my friend to recommend and commend that we live out one of our distinctive doctrines in Wesley’s Ordo Salutis: Preventing, Convicting, Convincing, Justifying, Regenerating, Sanctifying, and Perfecting Grace. May we each seek to have the “Love of God shed abroad in our hearts”. your servant in Christ, Charles

    1. My impression always was that even with the 1988 changes, there was a difference between the “standard” sermons, which serve as doctrinal standards, and his other sermons, which are illuminating but not of the same status.

  2. Wesley is probably right that “perfection” is possible in this life, but with the Apostle Paul (in another context) we must defer claims to having attained it until it is revealed.

  3. When Jesus said “sin no more” < Are we given instruction impossible to accomplish?
    When we read the "do not's" in the gospels are the goals unrealistic and impossible to keep?
    Did Jesus mislead when he said his yoke was easy and his burden is light.

    I think John Wesley's notes on John 5 :20-40 apply here.
    Wesley writes about "A proof of the most intimate unity."and he writes "the Father showeth and doth, and the Son seeth and doth."
    To do as God instructs.
    Is that not the ultimate portrayal of faith, honor and loyalty to God? Is that the true test of a heart made right? Is that the call?

    In Wesley's writing we are reminded of those that exercised short lived faith, Wesley writes some" were not saved. Most, if not all of them, died in their sins" How could Wesley be so bold and write with such confidence? I think the answer to that question is found in Wesley's practice of searching the scriptures- "A plain command to all men. In them ye are assured ye have eternal life- Ye know they show you the way to eternal life…."

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