A question for my brothers and sisters who claim an ongoing connection with Wesleyan theology: Do you affirm the doctrine of Christian Perfection?
Huge numbers of Christians do not. As I understand Lutheran and Calvinism, they reject the doctrine. Everyday non-reflective American Christianity does as well. Even the early Methodist movement in John Wesley’s day resisted the doctrine.
Do we who sing the final verse of Charles’ hymn that provides the title of this post, join the critics or the hopeful teachers of this doctrine?
Do we believe that men and women can be made perfect in love?
Of course, to answer that we need to be clear about what we mean. Christian perfection does not mean we are free of ignorance or weakness, so we still might harm others or fail in our duty as a result. Neither does being perfect in love mean we feel no impulse or temptation to sin. That we will not be free of while dwelling in this house of clay, but Christ has broken the power of sin. We can overcome sin if we rely on Christ’s strength and not our own. We can love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can have the same love that Christ poured out for us pour out for others. Love can be the center of all we do and say.
At least, that is what Christian Perfection claims. And it does not claim these things merely as some higher or better way of being a Christian. It believes that we can be made perfect in love because it believes that without holiness no one will see the Lord. It answers the question “How do sinful humans become holy enough to live with God for eternity?” By the grace of God, we are made holy in heart and life.
Here has been my experience. It is easier to sin and ask for forgiveness than to grow in holiness. It is easier to say “I cannot change” than it is to put to death the things of the flesh.
So those strains of Christianity that deny Christian Perfection come up with doctrines explaining how unholy people arrive in heaven.
Are we among them?
Or do we sing our own hymns with integrity?
I apologize for this post’s brevity. True confession: I am writing it mostly so I can hold on to these two links and write another post or two later that references them. Both are about tensions in the Reformed movement known as The Gospel Coalition.
The first is a story about divisions within the movement over the doctrine of sanctification. As a Wesleyan, I think there is fodder here for consideration of where we fall on these issues.
The second is a story about the split within The Gospel Coalition that includes an interesting look back at the split within British evangelicalism in the 1960s. Back then the question was whether to stay within the mainstream Church of England or “come out” and form separate bodies. I think evangelicals within United Methodism have been engaged and will be engaged in the same sort of debate in coming years.
Like I say, there is lots of interesting stuff here. Time does not permit me to delve into it right now. Feel free to share your thoughts, though.
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.
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.
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.
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.