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Credo
15 April 2024

Imagine this conversation among a group of sincere Christian friends:

“Hey, did you know some denominations say that Christians are to be perfect?”

“Oh? You mean we are to be flawless and sinless? C’mon, is that even possible?”

“Seriously, isn’t Singapore competitive enough as it is? Do we also need to strive to get 100 points, full marks in Christianity?”

“Yeah, it sounds so terribly pressurising. And aren’t we all fallen human beings? Just what does being perfect mean anyway?”

 

John Wesley described Christian Perfection, otherwise termed Entire Sanctification, as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists.” Perfection is clearly of great significance for Wesley, and indeed, for every generation of Methodists. Yet, the noted Wesleyan scholar Albert Outler dubbed it “the most distinctive and also the most widely misunderstood of all Wesley’s doctrines.”[1]  This article aims to clarify some of these popular misconceptions and to illustrate that perfection remains a vital Wesleyan doctrine today.

A key primary source is Wesley’s own pamphlet, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. This is widely available online, including at wikisource.org, and the reader is strongly encouraged to consult it for oneself. References to the pamphlet are indicated below in brackets.

What Christian Perfection is Not

Christian Perfection does not make one infallible (s.26), nor does it grant freedom from ignorance or mistake, from physical and psychological infirmities, from weaknesses or temptations, or from involuntary transgressions of divine law (s.12, s.19). Those who experience Christian Perfection do not fully conform to God’s perfect law, continue to require Christ’s atonement, must still grow in grace, and can fall from Perfection (though those who fall can also recover) (s.25, 26). Perfection does not remove the need of “attending all the ordinances of God, or from doing good unto all” (s.15).  It is explicitly not sinless perfection, but salvation from volitional sin in this present bodily existence (s.19, 25).

What Christian Perfection Is

Admittedly, earlier explanations were less clear: in a 1731 letter to Ann Granville, Wesley spoke of sincerity, not perfection.  Wesley’s 1741 sermon Christian Perfection identifies it as “only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing.” The 1744 Methodist Conference affirmed that the perfected cannot sin, to which Wesley clarified some years later in 1760, that ‘sin’ refers only to voluntary or volitional transgressions.

At the core of Wesley’s understanding of Christian Perfection are three elements:

(a) being entirely filled with love for God and neighbour;

(b) the absence of volitional sin; and

(c) happening within this present bodily existence

To Wesley, Christian Perfection is “loving God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbour as ourselves. It is love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers,[2] words, and actions” (s.19). Such love of God “implies that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love” (s.19).  To Wesley, the filling of one’s being with perfect love will result in the removal of evil tempers and thereby of volitional transgressions.

Wesley acknowledged the difficulty of describing Christian Perfection in a single metaphor:

In one view, it is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving God all our heart; it is one desire and design ruling all our tempers. It is the devoting, not a part, but 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 circumcision 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, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves. Now, take it in which of these views you please, (for there is no material difference), and this is the whole and sole perfection. (s.27)

 

Still, it is clear that Christian Perfection is not flawlessness but maturity, a perfect love and singleness of heart toward God which properly orients one’s dispositions (s.10, 25).

Wesley viewed Perfection as attainable in this present bodily existence (s.26), but was not always consistent on its timing.  In 1757, Wesley suggested that God “does not usually put off the fulfilling of his promises,” but moderated[3] this in 1763 to “God usually gives a considerable time […] to grow in grace […] before they are either justified or sanctified; [but] sometimes he cuts short his work” (s.25). Wesley similarly noted in his Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection (1767) that Perfection is generally granted at the moment of death, although this may sometimes occur many years prior.

Christian Perfection is not a state of being, but the expression of a deep and living relationship with the living God. C.S. Lewis, while neither a Methodist nor speaking of Perfection per se, lends insight into the concept:

[V]ery quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration.  But I thought I could detect a moment—a very, very short moment—before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I loved and rightly feared was pure. (The Weight of Glory)

 

Lewis rightly perceives that amidst our human infirmities, there are fleeting moments when our hearts are in fact pure, unadulterated, single, whole.  Since Christian Perfection is not necessarily life-long, individuals therefore experience a freedom from wilful sin and a fullness of love for God and neighbour only moment-to-moment.  An accumulation of such consecutive moments might appear as a state of Perfection, but this is really an ongoing dynamic with the living God, not a rigid attained status.

Preaching Perfection Today

The doctrine of Perfection is, fundamentally, about a life wholly governed by love, singly oriented toward God and neighbour.  As Wesley wrote, “Will any dare to speak against loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves? against a renewal of heart, not only in part, but in the whole image of God?” (s.28)

Of course, in contemporary settings, one must take care in speaking of ‘sinlessness’ or ‘perfection’, given the high likelihood of misunderstanding. Perhaps a phrase such as ‘completion in love’ may be more apropos. Still, regardless of terminology, the key elements of this doctrine ought to be eagerly preached and pursued today. For Christian Perfection is something that remains actualizable, not impeccably, but nevertheless in realis.

 

[1] Albert C. Outler, ed., Sermons II, 34-70, The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, Vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1985), 98.

[2] ‘Temper’ here refers to one’s temperament, dispositions, and inclinations, not to one’s anger.

[3] While Wesley’s disclaimer that it is “the same [doctrine] which we taught from the beginning” (s.13) holds true in respect of the broad concept of Christian Perfection, his stance on several details did change with time. Wesley explicitly acknowledged some, but not all, his changes of mind.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the July 2023 issue of OnTRAC. The views in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not represent the official position of the Trinity Annual Conference or the Methodist Church of Singapore.


Rev Gilbert Lok is a minister of the Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) of The Methodist Church in Singapore, and currently pastors at Barker Road Methodist Church.