John Lennon had Instant Karma.
John Wesley had Instantaneous Perfection.
In the Lennon/Ono song, we hear “Instant karma’s gonna get you…” a line that leads us to think about punishment for our bad behavior.
In the Wesley sermon, basically the exact opposite idea is in play, that some people are blessed with perfection, that they literally become perfect.
Which sounds more likely? Instant Karma or Instant Perfection?
In the previous post, we looked at how the EC Church describes John Wesley’s teaching about Christian Perfection in our Article of Faith #11, as “perfect love.” But as I mentioned, there are definitely some iffy parts. In fact, beyond the questions of whether or not it is possible, I think the ultimate question is this: Is perfect love what Jesus and Paul even meant? Or were they referring to something else?
Well, the EC Church does not stop at giving us one statement on Christian perfection. There’s a lot more. In fact, the church gives Christian Perfection its own section in our Book of Order which is called our Discipline. No other doctrine gets its own section. You’d think the Trinity or Salvation or the Church might get their own section, right? The reason Christian Perfection gets its own section is that historically-speaking it was a massive focus for our church, as it was for many others in the Wesleyan tradition. Perfection was considered to be of utmost importance. Frankly, when you think about the goal of becoming like Jesus, you can understand why attaining perfect love could be seen as a great goal. If a growing number of people were able to live in a state of perfect love, imagine the societal impact! But is perfection, or perfect love, what Jesus and Paul really meant?
So in our EC Discipline, Chapter 2 is titled, “Christian Perfection” It is a short chapter, but still, it is the only doctrine that gets its own chapter. In this chapter, the EC Church attempts to make a case for the legitimacy and necessity of Christian Perfection.
First of all, there is a paragraph titled, “Taught in the Word of God.” There the church lists Genesis 17:1: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. Then it refers to Matthew 5:48, which I mentioned in a previous post. Next the church quotes Paul in Ephesians 4:11-13, where he says, “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. Finally, it mentions Colossians 1:28, which we are talking about in this week’s blog series.
This chapter of the EC Discipline is important, grounding the teaching of Christian perfection in God’s word. In other words, there is a biblical case to be made. But is it correct in its interpretation of Scripture? Before we evaluate that question, let’s observe what the church says in the remainder of the chapter on Christian Perfection.
The EC Church continues with a long quotation from John Wesley’s sermon, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” which he published in 1764, just a couple decades before the Second Great Awakening broke out. You can read Wesley’s entire sermon here, and you can read the parts the EC Church quotes here (scroll down to Part One: The Creed, then read Chapter 2: Christian Perfection). I will only summarize a few of his points, as mentioned by the EC Church, just so you know that Wesley wasn’t off his rocker in his belief that Christians could be perfected.
After grounding his argument in Scripture, he says perfection, “is not absolute. Absolute perfection belongs not to man, nor to angels, but to God alone.” Good to know, right? I’m thankful that Wesley’s view of Christian Perfection is moderated.
He also says, “Perfection does not make a man infallible; no one is infallible while he remains in the body.” Also, interesting. More circumspect than I thought, which I appreciate.
Next Wesley says, “It is ‘perfect love’ (based in 1 John 4:18 which I mentioned in the previous post). This is the essence of it; its properties or inseparable fruits are rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks (which is from 1 Thessalonians 5:16, etc.).” Here you can see why the EC Church Article of Faith #11, which we discussed in the previous post, focuses on the idea the Christian Perfection, aka Entire Sanctification, is summarized by the concept “perfect love.”
Wesley also says perfection can be improved, which is curious, as it seems like the definition of perfection is “that which cannot be improved,” so I’m not sure how he intends us to understand his point. Perhaps a Wesley scholar can respond to that! Wesley goes on to say that he believes perfection can be lost; that once attained, it is not permanent. He also believed, conversely, that perfection can be attained instantaneously, which he said he had clearly observed many times in people’s lives.
Wesley summarizes, “In one view it is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving to God of all our heart; it is one desire and design ruling all our tempers. It is the devoting of, not a part, but of all our soul, body and substance to God. In another view, it is all the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked. It is the cleansing of the heart from all filthiness, all inward as well as outward pollution. It is a renewal of the heart in the whole image of God; the full likeness of Him that created it. In yet another view it is the loving God with all the heart and our neighbor as ourselves.”
I read that, and I think, “That is all really good biblical teaching.”
I conclude that I appreciate Wesley’s balance. Whenever this has come up over the years, that’s what I say: Wesley seems to be balanced and humble about it. His heart’s desire is that Christians would pursue Jesus with passion, and that we can support.
But is perfection possible?
Check back in to the next post, and I’ll try to draw some conclusions.