On Wesley: The Sermons of a Perfectionist

When John Wesley set out to write two of his most famous and influential sermons—#40: Christian Perfection and #76: On Perfection—he was not writing in a vacuum. Indeed, theological controversies, economic hardships, political disputes and sinful living surrounded him like the plagues. What is more is that persons who claimed to be Christians played active roles in creating and sustaining much of the corruption. Wesley wondered how this could be. When reading the sermons mentioned here, then, such issues must be taken into account. It is important to understand how Wesley, as one always looking through the lens of Scripture, viewed and interpreted the world in which he lived. With the deep conviction that things could and ought to be different, he began preaching that Christians are called to exude a life of personal and social holiness—what he simply referred to as “perfection.”

While Wesley was extremely confident in this doctrine—even to the point of frequently urging people to argue against him if they dared—it does seem that even he, at times, was forced to alter his understanding of such a concept. For instance, in Christian Perfection Wesley comments that, “There is no ‘perfection of degrees’” but later, in On Perfection, he argues that in fact, there are degrees of perfection: angelic, Adamic and human. Along with such discrepancies (or rather, modifications), Wesley also seemed to undertake the art of special pleading when, in Christian Perfection, he argued that there were persons in the apostolic age that never committed sin.

Despite some of the minor tensions and extreme contentions that undergird Wesley’s discussion of perfection in these two sermons, many of his arguments are actually quite cogent. For instance, his point that there is no “necessity of sinning” laid upon Christians by God is incredibly sound. As he notes, “it can never be proved that any Christian must commit sin.” Furthermore, and against those who argue that total sanctification cannot be achieved in this life, Wesley posits the question: “Why cannot the Almighty sanctify the soul while it is in the body?…He can just as easily save you from all sin in the body as out of the body.” The great pietist also asked his dissenters to ponder the notion that, if God can give spiritual gifts to persons for the sum of their Christian life, why is it so unthinkable that He would do the same with the gift of perfection? Wesley reasoned, “Is [God] not as able to give [perfection to] us always as to give it once? As able to give it for fifty years as for one day?” Wesley also wonders if people are so averse to this teaching because deep down, they love to sin and long not to part with it? To that he remarks, “…why are you so fond of sin? What good has it ever done you?”

Widely misunderstood—partially because he was often incredibly ambiguous—Wesley’s doctrine of perfection is perhaps most clearly grasped when explained by that great scholar Albert Outler, who says: “If, for Wesley, salvation was the total restoration of the deformed image of God in us, and if its fullness was the recovery of our negative power not to sin and our positive power to love God supremely, this denotes the furthest reach of grace and its triumphs in this life that Wesley chose to call ‘Christian perfection.’” Though Wesley readily admits that few have ever achieved such status in their human life, he also urges that it is definitely possible. In fact, he even takes it a step further and in a typical Arminian demeanor, posits that, “some who once enjoyed full salvation have now totally lost it.”

For all of the difficulty that one encounters in attempting to gain a greater sense of Wesley’s theology of perfection, coming face-to-face with the truth that Christians are called live personally and socially holy lives is humbling. Though, in the end, some may choose not to seize upon this doctrine of Wesley’s, none can criticize him for seeking to fulfill the chief commandment of loving God and loving neighbor. Surely, this principle that was so desperately needed in his time and in the ages before him, is still needed today!

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