Finish, then, thy new creation

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?

What one choice lies at the core of Methodism?

In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley traces his own thinking about holiness and spiritual life over the course of his ministry.

He writes that in 1725 he became convinced that our lives are lived in the light of a single choice. From moment to moment we either live as a sacrifice to God or we live as a sacrifice to the devil. There is no third option or middle ground or gray zone.

As I recall, Wesley elsewhere does acknowledge the existence of matters of indifference. God does not care, for instance, if you prefer grape or strawberry jelly on your toast.

But, in the end, Wesley insists, our lives are either turned toward God or away from God. He does not recognize the vast space we carve out under the name “my time.” For Wesley, time dedicated to our own inclinations is time given over to the devil.

Yes, there is a strongly pessimistic view of human nature at the very core of Wesleyan theology. John Wesley was no romantic.

When I ponder this, I sense in my self a resistance. I have lived my whole life in a culture that tells me to trust myself and lifts up as the authentic life not one lived as a sacrifice to God but one lived in harmony with my own inner impulses. The very first step, the first conviction, of Wesley’s theology is at odds with the animating spirit of the culture in which I have lived my whole life.

And so, I find myself forced to decide whether I share Wesley’s conviction. Is my life at this very moment being lived either in darkness or in light, with no room for any option between these two? Is doing my own thing the devil’s invitation?

The biblical place my mind goes to here is Revelation and the great judgment. I notice that there is only one choice: lake of fire or life.

I also recall one of my favorite verses, 1 John 5: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

It feels like an impossible standard. I despair over being able to reach it and understand why Wesley’s contemporaries accused him of making the standard of true Christianity to high for people to attain.

The great purity of intention and action held out as necessary seems unreachable because it is. Wesley would teach over and over that we can only have the kind of holiness he sought by the grace of God, which we must seek and expect.

And so I find myself with my Bible in my hand wanting the chance to talk with Rev. Wesley of 1725. Show me how this conviction came to take hold of your heart do firmly. I want to see whether my heart beats in a similar manner.

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.