John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 4: Christian Perfection

John Wesley’s most distinctive theological theme was his emphasis on Christian perfection.  His ideas were controversial, and volumes upon volumes of books have been published to try to explain, defend, or dismiss Wesley’s position.

In a brief post like this I can’t really get into the details of the debates, but I can put forward my own interpretation of what I think Wesley was trying to say about holiness, and how it ought to shape a theology of the mission of God.

First, we need to make some clarifications about the word “perfection.”  In our culture we assume that perfection implies the complete absence of flaws of any kind.  Since we know that nobody is perfect (in this sense), it seems ridiculous to say speak of Christian perfection.

Wesley did not use the term “perfection” in a way that implied “flawlessness.”  In other words, he did not believe anyone could reach a state of sinless perfection in this life.  He did not teach that we should strive for absolute perfection, but for Christian perfection, a perfection which is fitting for a redeemed but flawed and frail human creature.  This kind of perfection is not static, but dynamic, personal, relational, and made possible by divine grace alone.  It is  a relative perfection, a perfecting perfection which always admits greater degrees.

Wesley was at his best when he defined Christian perfection as “perfect love”:

But what is perfection?  The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.  It is love ‘rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks’ (Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.9).

In other words, Wesley believed it was really possible for Christians to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbours as ourselves.   What this meant in a practical sense was that he believed we could be so filled with the love of God that we would not knowingly sin.  Even someone whose life was characterized by Christian perfection would continue to sin, and would continue to need the atoning blood of Christ at every moment.  But, Wesley believed, a Christian could be so overwhelmed by God’s love that their intentions would always be for the good.

These ideas are still controversial, and much more could be said.   I’ve said a bit more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.

An idea which was so central for Wesley and which continues to be a central aspect of Wesleyan theology today must have missional implications.  I would like to highlight three.

The first connects with my last post about the therapeutic nature of salvation.  Salvation is not simply about gaining a ticket to heaven, but about the healing of the sickness which has corrupted us.  Part of the church’s role in God’s mission is to be a community which cultivates the healing grace of God – that is, a community which moves its members towards Christian perfection.  Even if we disagree with Wesley on the degree to which this is possible in this life, we can still affirm that the Christian life ought to head in the direction of perfection.  Or perhaps it would be less of a stumbling block to say that the Christian life should head in the direction of maturity, or a kind of completeness that is fitting for sinners saved by grace.

Secondly, the church ought therefore, to demonstrate the salvation of God, not only in word, but in the manner of its life together.  The church is called to grow up into the fullness of Christ, personally and corporately.  Wesley was particularly fond of the Gospel of John and the epistles of John, and took quite seriously Jesus words in John 13:35 – “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”  The character of the church’s life together is part of our witness to the world.  Again, we think of Jesus’ great high priestly prayer in John 17 – “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”  Our unity, our love for one another, is intricately connected to God’s mission.  He established the church to be a living demonstration – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God – so that the world might know him.  Sadly, Christians often do a very poor job of this.

Again, this theme highlights the fact that the Church’s community life, including its various edifying and sanctifying practices, are themselves part of God’s mission.  Community life and mission should not be played off against one another.

Salvationists should read this

Australian Adam Couchman has just posted a review of one of Samuel Logan Brengle’s classic books, Helps to Holiness.   I think there is a real need for online reviews of old classics, so I’m glad to see Adam taking a look at this one by Brengle.

It’s a great review, acknowledging Brengle’s significant contribution, but also noting some of the shortfalls of his holiness theology – notably his approach to sin as a substance, his underestimation of the gracious and active pursuit of humanity by God, and the elevated role that experience plays in his theological method.

In spite of these shortcomings, Adam’s conclusion is that

Christians should read this book. Salvationists should read this book. But we should read it how Brengle intended it to be read; as a pastoral and devotional aid. Whilst Brengle had some training in academic theology he didn’t write academic theology. He wrote practical theology. It’s not perfect, but it is helpful.

This kind of critical appreciation for Brengle is sorely needed.  I find people either dismiss him, or put him on a pedastal.   I hope others will follow Adam’s lead on this.

Go here to read the review.

Holiness is not a state

Many of the problems with Wesleyan/Holiness understandings of sanctification come from the drive to define a “low water mark” of holiness, by which I mean, a line in the sand – a threshold which we can identify as the indication that someone has experienced holiness or been made holy.  This whole idea is built upon the presupposition that “holiness” is a state, a status, or a place where one can somehow arrive.   Some of the “second blessing” holiness teachers (such as Samuel Logan Brengle) explicitly define holiness as a “state,” and then go about the process of trying to identify the ways that one can arrive at this state, by God’s help.

If we look back further, John Wesley’s famous “redefinition” of “sin properly so-called” as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God” was part of his attempt to define the “low water mark” of Christian perfection.  Wesley would never say that anyone could reach a point in their Christian life where they did not constantly need the atoning blood of Christ.  While, in certain contexts, he used the above “redefinition”, he also believed in total depravity, which means that he believed that, as one journeys deeper into holiness of heart and life, one continues to find that sin “cleaves to all our words, and actions.” (The Repentance of Believers, §I.11)  Indeed, Wesley says of the children of God,

They are daily sensible of sin remaining in their heart, — pride, self-will, unbelief; and of sin cleaving to all they speak and do, even their best actions and holiest duties. [On Sin in Believers, §III.7, emphasis mine]

This is classic protestant teaching on total depravity, though I think later Wesleyans have, at least on a popular level, not always followed Wesley in maintaining this point.  The point is that even our “holiest” actions as Christians remain tainted by sin, possibly in ways we are not conscious of and don’t even understand.  However, Wesley felt that one could reach  a point of not voluntarily sinning, by becoming so overwhelmed by the perfect love of God that the intentions of one’s heart is made pure.   This was his “low water mark” of Christian perfection, though he never claimed it for himself.

It seems to me that this “low water mark” issue could be avoided if we simply made clear that holines is not a state.  There is no line in the sand of the Christian life which marks off “the holy” from the rest of us.  Holiness is a relative characteristic which all believers possess, to a greater or lesser degree.  From the moment of conversion we are being transformed, made responsive to the grace of God in our lives, and conformed to Christ’s likeness.   That is why Paul can address the Corinthians as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be holy.”

From a Wesleyan perspective, we can still maintain that it is not right for us to put a priori limits on the sanctifying grace of God.  That is, we cannot, in advance, say that any aspect of our lives will surely remain corrupted by sin.  What we can say, however, is that, as a relative characteristic, our transformation will always remain relative. Only God is absolutely holy.

Perhaps part of the problem is that later Wesleyans conflated Wesley’s category of “Christian perfection” with “holiness.”  While Wesley seems to fall into this “low water mark” trap I’m speaking of in relation to his discussions of Christian perfection, he nevertheless recognizes the fact that “holiness” is a relative characteristic shared by all believers.

Every babe in Christ is holy, and yet not altogether so. He is saved from sin; yet not entirely: It remains, though it does not reign. [On Sin in Believers, §IV.3]

Therefore, the answer to the question, “are you holy?” will always be “Yes” and “No.”  There ought always to be ways in which our lives reflect the holiness of God; and yet there will always be ways in which they do not.