Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Christian Perfection

John Wesley taught “Christian perfection” but had to defend his doctrine against misunderstanding. Here are some excerpts from his work, “A Short Account of Christian Perfection” (

“We willingly allow, and continually declare, there is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood…

"We not only allow, but earnestly contend, that there is no perfection in this life, which implies any dispensation from attending all the ordinances of God, or from doing good unto all men while we have time, though 'especially unto the household of faith.' …

"We secondly believe, that there is no such perfection in this life, as implies an entire deliverance, either from ignorance, or mistake, in things not essential to salvation, or from manifold temptations, or from numberless infirmities, wherewith the corruptible body more or less presses down the soul. …

"But whom then do you mean by 'one that is perfect?' We mean one in whom is 'the mind which was in Christ,' and who so 'walketh as Christ also walked;' a man 'that hath clean hands and a pure heart,' or that is 'cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit;' one in whom is 'no occasion of stumbling,' and who, accordingly, 'does not commit sin.' To declare this a little more particularly: We understand by that scriptural expression, 'a perfect man,' one in whom God hath fulfilled his faithful word, 'From all your filthiness and from all your idols I will cleanse you: I will also save you from all your uncleannesses.' We understand hereby, one whom God lath 'sanctified throughout in body, soul, and spirit;' one who 'walketh in the light as He is in the light, in whom is no darkness at all; the blood of Jesus Christ his Son having cleansed him from all sin.' …

"This man can now testify to all mankind, 'I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.' He is 'holy as God who called' him 'is holy,' both in heart and 'in all manner of conversation.' He 'loveth the Lord his God with all his heart,' and serveth him 'with all his strength.' He 'loveth his neighbour,' every man, 'as himself;' yea, 'as Christ loveth us;' them, in particular, that 'despitefully use him and persecute him, because they know not the Son, neither the Father.' Indeed his soul is all love, filled with 'bowels of mercies, kindness, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering.' And his life agreeth thereto, full of 'the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love.' 'And whatsoever' he 'doeth either in word or deed,' he 'doeth it all in the name,' in the love and power, 'of the Lord Jesus.' In a word, he doeth 'the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven.' …

"This it is to be a perfect man, to be 'sanctified throughout;' even 'to have a heart so all-flaming with the love of God,' (to use Archbishop Usher's words,) 'as continually to offer up every thought, word, and work, as a spiritual sacrifice, acceptable to God through Christ.' In every thought of our hearts, in every word of our tongues, in every work of our hands, to 'show forth his praise, who hath called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.' O that both we, and all who seek the Lord Jesus in sincerity, may thus 'be made perfect in one!' ….

“It is to have 'the mind which was in Christ,' and to 'walk as He walked;' to have all the mind that was in Him, and always to walk as he walked: In other words, to be inwardly and outwardly devoted to God; all devoted in heart and life. And we have the same conception of it now, without either… "

What a lovely doctrine, which has become far less distinctive to United Methodism than Wesley would’ve wished. Wesley's words here are worth posting on the bathroom mirror; I feel ashamed at how far I still have to go to live up to these words (although Wesley affirmed that perfection is completely a gift of God, which he never claimed for himself).

I don’t want to draw too much of a parallel between Wesleyan perfection and the Buddhist notion of attachment. But some similarities are interesting. In “attachment,” you self-referentially base your happiness upon impermanent things. You chase things to bolster your ego, you make yourself miserable by circumstances you can’t change and things you can’t have, and live at some level of self-gratification. Don’t we all? But by freeing ourselves of attachment (through the lifelong practice of the Eightfold Path), we can stop assuming that the world exists to meet our needs and expectations; we reach a level of inner peace, kindness and harmony.

Compare that to Wesley. Obviously there are differences between Christian and Buddhist doctrine, practice and goals. But in Wesley, too, we radically experience the de-centralization of our egos in the experience of Christian perfection. We’re no longer motivated by striving after selfish opportunities. We gain greater freedom from temptation because our desires conform to God's desires rather than our own. We no longer feel ill-will toward other people or use them for our own purposes; rather, we feel harmoniously and kindly toward them. Our actions and words are motivated by love of God and neighbor and, as much as we can, toward God’s will.

Wesley’s doctrine creates a cognitive dissonance, frankly because the term “perfection” is misleading. The theological debate about the nature of the gift--whether it is a “second blessing,” etc.--has perhaps distracted from Wesley’s hope that everyone seek this gift. Studying Buddhism, though, alerted me that Wesley’s doctrine isn’t so strange. What could be more lovely than the search for an inner peace, a healing of our motivations, and a harmony with others? Wesley’s doctrine is deeply rooted in the finished work of Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives, which in turn empower us to seek deeper gifts of kindness and purity.

A few weeks ago (my entry for July 31, 2009), I wrote some thoughts about St. Francis’ ideas about inner peace and happiness. He thought a believer could feel all the more happy and peaceful the more we give ourselves wholly to God’s protection. Connecting those ideas to Wesley, I think Wesley could provide us with a similar spiritual path, less extreme than St. Francis (who wanted to live completely defenseless), but still rooted in a desire to wholly follow God’s will.

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