John Wesley: Christian Perfection
This article is the second in a series of two articles in which I explain John Wesley’s doctrine of salvation using two of his works: “The Scripture Way of Salvation” (cited as SW); and “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” (cited as PA). Both of these writings are contained in The Essential Works of John Wesley, pictured to the right.
In the first article I explained salvation according to John Wesley in its broadest sense, and its link with faith. I also described Wesley’s narrower sense of salvation and its two components, justification and sanctification. In this second article I will explore John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection.
John Wesley: Complete Sanctification
In his account of sanctification, John Wesley also addresses how it occurs—whether it is gradual or instantaneous, and whether it is ever complete. He acknowledges that for most people it is a gradual process that is only completed near death. Indeed, neither Paul nor the people he wrote to were completely sanctified at the time of his earlier epistles. However, he observes that these examples do not imply that complete sanctification cannot occur instantaneously and significantly prior to death (PA 387). In fact, he asserts that there is evidence of instant and complete sanctification well before death (SW 53). Therefore, he concludes that it is reasonable to expect such an event at any moment: “expect it now (SW 53)!”
He uses the word ‘perfection’ to refer to this instant and complete sanctification (PA 382-383, 393), and distinguishes it from normal sanctification which applies to all who have been justified (PA 388). John Wesley sometimes refers to perfection as salvation itself (PA 382), suggesting that it is the culmination of salvation this side of heaven. As with all parts of salvation, Wesley maintains that perfection is the result of God’s grace (PA 367, 374, 386)—he refers to it as “the second gift (PA 393)”—and that it is received only by faith (PA 382-3, 393; SW 53). However, he also notes that we are to seek perfection with diligent obedience, and cannot keep it without the same (PA 402-3). Progress toward perfection is hindered by “coldness, negligence, and unbelief (PA 408).”
Christian Perfection as Sinlessness
To be perfected is to be without sin (PA 384). The essence of perfection is love (SW 46, 52; PA 401, 442). The soul of the perfected Christian is so filled with love for God that there is no room for evil: “But if the love of God fill all the heart, there can be no sin therein (PA 390).” In this perfected state the Christian is truly obedient to the command to love God with all heart, mind, and soul (PA 387). The “inseparable fruits,” of such perfect love are rejoicing, unceasing prayer, and constant thanksgiving (PA 442). In the perfected soul there are no evil thoughts. There is no wandering in prayer, no fear, no doubt, and temptations do not take hold (PA 379). In all things, the perfected Christian conforms to the virtuous pattern of Christ (PA 367).
John Wesley qualifies his doctrine of Christian perfection in several ways. First, he asserts that perfected Christians are not all they will be in heaven (PA 379). They are still subject to physical infirmity, temptation, errors of ignorance, and mistakes in doctrine not essential for salvation (PA 383). As such, perfected Christians still need the atoning blood of Christ: mistakes do not measure up to “the rigour of God’s justice (PA 395).” However, he maintains that such mistakes are not sins since a perfected Christian does them with a motive of love (PA 395, 396).
In his later writings John Wesley seems less averse to describing these mistakes as sins, suggesting something of a tension in his thinking (PA 417-418): are they or are they not sins? Wesley also notes that perfection does not imply the end of good works, obedience, or growth—perfected Christians must continue to grow in love (PA 402, 417, 430). Moreover, perfection may be lost (PA 422, 426, 442). He also implies that a justified Christian could lose salvation. He states that if someone who mistakenly believes they have been perfected is treated harshly, “it may destroy their souls (PA 404).”
John Wesley: Arguments for Christian Perfection
John Wesley argues for his doctrine of perfection primarily from scripture, using Matt. 5.48 (“Be perfect, therefore…”) as something of a theme verse (PA 367, 444). His first move is to deny that scripture teaches that Christians will inevitably sin. He exegetically refutes counter-examples from James and 1 John (PA 375-376). He also rejects as counter-examples the OT saints who sinned: these saints lived in the “Jewish dispensation,” before the Holy Spirit had been given, and before Christ’s great salvation (PA 375). Therefore they cannot be models for Christian sanctification. Moreover, even if it is granted that the Apostles sinned, this does not imply that all Christians “do and must commit sin as long as they live (375).”
His second move is to argue that scripture clearly teaches perfection (PA 369). From Jesus’ teaching about trees and fruit John Wesley argues that no evil thoughts can proceed from the heart that has been renewed (377). From Galatians he argues that the old body of evil is dead and that Christ now lives in the Christian. Since Christ is perfectly pure in heart, so Christians are to be perfectly pure (377). He also uses 1 John to argue that Christians do not commit sin, and that the blood of Jesus cleanses from all unrighteousness, here and now (PA 374-5, 378). Moreover, he points to John and his disciples as examples of perfected Christians: “as he [Christ] is, so are we in this world (1 John 4.17) (PA 390-1).”
Finally, John Wesley also makes a somewhat Pelagian move in arguing for perfection. He notes that God has commanded us to love him with all our being, and then questions whether God would command more than he has promised (PA 408). According to Wesley we must be able to fulfill this command, and so perfection is implied. However, this doesn’t necessarily follow from scripture. There are cases in scripture, such as the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9.12), where people are unable to fulfill God’s command by God’s own intention.
In John Wesley’s broadest sense, salvation is the total redeeming work of God in a human life. In Wesley’s narrower sense, salvation is made up of two parts: justification and sanctification. Justification is the pardon of sin, while sanctification is the process of becoming holy that begins at the moment of justification. Perfection is a moment in the process of sanctification whereby a Christian is made sinless: perfect love for God drives all sin from the soul. All aspects of salvation, in both its broad and narrow senses, are the result of faith.