John Wesley on Christian Perfection



I recently read John Wesley: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. As a Seventh-day Adventist the doctrine of Christian perfection (not to be confused with the heresy of sinless perfectionism) is one that is near and dear to my heart. Ellen White spoke much on Christian perfection and, knowing that she was a Methodist, it was pretty cool to read about the doctrine of perfection from the man she learned it from - John Wesley. Not only did this experience help me appreciate the doctrine more but it also helped me gain a greater understanding and appreciation for Ellen Whites approach to perfection. Below are some of my favorite quotes from Wesley's book. I am sharing most them as answers to 3 basic questions: Did Wesley believe in perfection, how did he define it, and were did he stand regarding the concept of absolute, or sinless, perfectionism.




Did John Wesley believe in Christian perfection?
"Yes, we do believe that He will in this world so 'cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of His Holy Spirit, the we shall perfectly love Him, and worthily magnify His holy name."
"Why should devout men be afraid of devoting all their soul, body, and substance to God? Why should those who love Christ count it a damnable error to think we may have all the mind that was in Him? We allow, we contend, that we are justified freely though the righteousness and the blood of Christ. And why are you so hot against us, because we expect likewise to be sanctified wholly through His spirit?"
"[T]his we do confess... we do expect to love God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves."
How did Wesley define perfection? 
"[R]ejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks... this is all that I mean by perfection..."
"By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbour, ruling our tempers, words, and actions."
[Perfection] is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving to God all our hearts: it is one desire and design ruling all our tempers. It is the devoting, not a part, but all our soil, body, and substance to God... 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... it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves."
Did Wesley believe in absolute perfection? 
"Absolute perfection belongs not to man, nor to angels, but to God alone."
"Sinless perfection is a phrase I never use."
"Is [perfection] sinless? It is not worth while to contend for a term. It is 'salvation from sin.'"
"[Perfection] is perfect love. This is the essence of it..."
"I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it." 
My thoughts:

While Ellen White was a firm believer in the doctrine of Christian perfection, she parts ways with Wesley in two senses. The first is that Wesley maintained that we could know in this life if we had attained perfection. Ellen White never suggests that we can reach a point in our lives where we can know we are perfect. In fact she consistently taught otherwise as can be seen in the following statement:
So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained. Sanctification is the result of lifelong obedience {AA 560.3}.
The second point of departure is in clarity. Wesley seems to almost beat around the bush when it comes to the concept of sinless perfection. He never explicitly taught it, but as can be seen above, he never explicitly denied it. This is made most evident in his final quote "I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it." Ellen White did not beat around the bush when it came to sinless perfection. She denied it consistently throughout her ministry as in the following quote:
We cannot say, “I am sinless,” till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body [the second coming]. {ST March 23, 1888, par. 13}.

Some other cool Wesley quotes:
"As a very little dust will disorder a clock, and the least sand will obscure our sight, so the least grain of sin which is upon the heart will hinder its right motion towards God." 
"[T]he devil fills whatever God does not fill."
"Indeed it has been my opinion for many years, that one great cause why men make so little improvement in the divine life is their own coldness, negligence, and unbelief."
"In the greatest temptations, a single look to Christ and the barely pronouncing His name, suffices to overcome the wicked one..." 

Note: I read this book in a Kindle so there were no page numbers. If there is a specific quote you would like to trace feel free to message me and ask for the location number if you'd like. 


Further Reading:

Never Good Enough: The Close of Probation and Sinless Perfectionism
John Wesley on Christian Perfection John Wesley on Christian Perfection Reviewed by Pastor Marcos on December 19, 2013 Rating: 5

6 comments

  1. "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
    1 John 1:8-9.
    -
    Sorted.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amen Frank. The book of 1 John is one of the best to understand biblical perfection. John speaks of perfection a lot in this book but never sinless perfectionism. There is a difference between the two. Great point!

      Delete
  2. Interesting post. Thanks.
    One thing that I've been struggling with is reconciling a quote from EW like the above- We cannot say, “I am sinless,” till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body [the second coming]. {ST March 23, 1888, par. 13} with this one from GC "Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator" The Great Controversy, p. 425. That's obviously sinless perfection, right? How would it ever be possible to stand before God without Jesus' righteousness applied to us?
    Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.
    Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey there Brothers G! Thanks for your question :D The statement you are reffing to says, "Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort they must be conquerors in the battle with evil."

      Some people misconstrue this statement to be referring to absolute sinless perfectionism. Its as if, unless we reach this state of sinlessness we will, at last, be rejected by God. This conclusion must, nevertheless, be rejected for two major reasons.

      1) It contradicts the gospel of Jesus Christ
      2) It contradicts the very writings of EGW herself

      Thus, a different interpretation must exist. One that harmonizes this statement with both the Bible and the full picture of EGWs soteriology. A closer more thoughtful reading of the passage does just that.

      1) First of all Ellen White is referring to something that happens after the close of probation, not before. This means that standing without a mediator takes place when the judgment is over and no one else can be saved or lost. The irrevocable decision has been made. Thus, to be worrying about whether you are good enough after probation has closed is a waste of time because, er..., probation has closed. AT this point you have either been declared righteous or wanting and nothing can change that decision. Thus you are, at this point in human history, either eternally lost or eternally saved.

      2) This then raises the question, how can we be sure to be declared righteous? The answer is simple for the perfection which we have before God is no different in this instance as it has been all throughout history. Notice that Ellen says we must stand before God with spotless robes and purified characters. However, how is it that we attain these? Ellen answers the question when she adds, "by the blood of sprinkling". It is through Jesus blood that we stand spotless and purified before God. Not our works or performance.

      3) The statement is simply saying that before Jesus comes we need to have our minds made up. Will we trust in him alone? Or like the Hebrews Paul wrote to in the NT, will we - in the midst of persecution - turn our backs on Jesus? Once the judgment is over no more changes will be made to the verdict. We are either covered by his blood or not. So now is the time to come sincerely before God and surrender our lives in full trust of his saving grace.

      Delete
    2. The late Adventist theologian Edward Heppenstal put it best when he wrote, "To live without a Mediator does not mean to live without the righteousness of Christ, or without the Holy Spirit, or the saving grace of our Lord. Since all cases are decided for weal or for woe, the work of our divine Advocate is concluded. No further charges by Satan can be brought against the saints, for Christ has answered them all. The cases of the saints have all been called to the bar of heaven. Christ has successfully pleaded our cause and secured a judgment in our favor. Nothing can now reverse that verdict. There is nothing more to say. Excepting Satan and his host, there is perfect agreement throughout the universe as to Christ's verdict in favor of the saints. All questions have been answered regarding the future of the saints. No member of the Godhead needs to make any further defense on their behalf. All that remains is for Christ to return and for the saints to live and reign with Christ a thousand years (Rev 20:4-6). Because of their unchangeable irrevocable standing before God, there is no further need for Christ to intercede with God for their salvation or for their redemption. The saints have been declared the legal heirs to the new earth. Their standing from henceforth is one of final justification and vindication before the bar of God and before a sinless universe. The fact that they have chosen without qualification, the righteousness of Christ, leaves only the actual conferring of that sinless nature and entrance into their eternal inheritance at the second coming of Christ, when this mortal shall put on immortality and this corruption shall have put on incorruption (1 Cor 15:52-54).

      "As we have clearer views of Christ's spotless and infinite purity, we shall feel as did Daniel, when he beheld the glory of the Lord, and said, "My comeliness was turned in me into corruption." We cannot say "I am sinless," till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body. But if we constantly seek to follow Jesus, the blessed hope is ours of standing before the throne of God spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, complete in Christ, robed in His righteousness and perfection." (Signs of the Times, March 23, 1888)[1]

      Delete
    3. In his article, "Without a Mediator" Mike Manea explains a further implication of this statement when he writes:

      "Although it is always dangerous to resist God’s call, the average individual usually has repeated opportunities to come to Christ. However, there have been times throughout history when those opportunities were cut short: the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of Jerusalem, etc. Whether young or old, those events brought probation to a close early for the people involved.

      The second coming of Christ will have a similar impact, not just on a city or nation, but on the planet as a whole. People will no longer have the same opportunities to come to Christ that they would have had if history continued. Adventists call this event, the close of probation, and we believe God has placed us on this earth to prepare humanity for this solemn event. We believe Christ will come when every individual has had sufficient warning that probation is closing and their opportunities are running out.

      Thus, the warning that we will soon be living without a mediator means several things:

      1) It means that the people who have not yet accepted Christ are running out of time to make a decision.

      2) It means that people who have accepted Christ but then went back to the world, are running out of time to return.

      3) It means that Christians who have been holding on to willful/known sin, are running out of time to give it up.

      What the statement does not mean however is that there will ever be a time when we will no longer need Christ. Nor does it mean that we will need to reach a state of complete sinlessness after which we will no longer be covered by Jesus’ blood. Salvation has always been and will always be by grace through faith. Even after the close of probation, we will be safe only because we are covered by the blood of Jesus."[2]

      So in conclusion, the above statement cannot possibly mean that each person must reach a certain performance level which - if failed - will doom the person to condemnation. Such a belief is in direct contradiction to the gospel and the writings of EGW herself. What the statement does mean is that we are to trust in Jesus and not turn back. In truth, this statement is simply a natural outflow of Classical Arminianism which rejects the concept of once saved always saved. For a more thorough exploration of Ellen Whites foundation in Classical Arminianism I recommend you read "Facing Lifes Record: An Analysis of the Great Controversies 'Scariest' Chapter"[3]

      Hope this helps!

      PS. Since this is such a relevant question I will post this discussion as a blog post.

      [1]https://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/sites/default/files/pdf/perfection%20Heppenstall.pdf

      [2]http://mikemanea.com/conversations/without-a-mediator/

      [3] http://www.pomopastor.com/2013/08/facing-lifes-record-analysis-of-great.html

      Delete

Please feel free to share your thoughts! Just remember to keep your comments friendly and relevant. Comments that are not risk being incinerated in cyber space. Happy typing! :D