After spending time with Moravians in a 1735-1736 trip to the American colonies, John Wesley began to embrace the Arminian doctrines that were dominant in the 18th-century Church of England. He would teach and elaborate upon Arminian theology mostly through sermons and letters, but he also wrote a few pamphlets. Inspired by William Law’s Christian Perfection and Jeremy Taylor’s Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying, Wesley began to develop his version of Christian perfection, a doctrine that he developed into the book I’ll interact with here, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
In sum, Wesley taught that the Christian may attain a state of holiness in which he or she is in an instant able to exhibit a total love for God and others wrought by the Holy Spirit. This is more promising than the picture painted of Wesley’s perfectionism, but is still worthy of thoughtful critique.
Christian Perfection: Myths and Realities
It’s important to begin by dismissing the notion that Wesley believed in the pure sinlessness of the believer in the way it sounds at the surface. This is a critique given by non-Wesleyans who haven’t spent time reading him. (Imagine that.)
In reality, we will see that he is much more nuanced than that, it just takes some reading and thinking to understand his point. I’ll try and explain it as plainly as I can here.
Wesley defines Christian perfection most clearly in A Plain Account as “that love of God and our neighbor, which implies deliverance from all sin” (51). This total love for God and others exemplifies “entire sanctification.” God expects our all and does not wish to share his children with Satan or any other. Indeed, this sums up the first two of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me” and Jesus names the two greatest commandments as loving God and others.
Thus according to Wesley, to be a Christian in the sense that God ultimately requires, one must be wholly devoted to him to the extent of perfect love. This is not man’s doing alone; the believer is carried on by the Holy Spirit from justification to a progression toward entire sanctification.
He further states that “every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil” and then asks, “Can any serious person doubt of this, or find a medium between serving God and serving the devil?” (4). He charges Christians to “be filled with so entire a love to him that you may love nothing but for his sake” (9).
He is also quick to point out that Jesus commands believers to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” and that he teaches his disciples to pray that the Father would deliver believers from evil (44-45). To Wesley, Jesus cannot be lying when he tells his disciples to be perfect. Surely if he commands this, perfection is attainable.
He then describes perfected Christians as equivalent with the New Testament’s usage of the word “mature,” using his own term, “grown.” He explains that “grown Christians … are in such a sense perfectly, as secondly, to be freed from all evil thoughts and evil tempers” (24). Paul is cited twice as the example of a mature or grown Christian. He quotes Galatians 2:20 in which Paul says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Wesley’s commentary is thus: “[these words] manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin” (24). Later, he cites Philippians 3:15 in which Paul says, “Let those of us who are mature think this way” and explains that he is describing living men who are perfect.
Here’s the kicker: he makes note that there are ways that even a perfected Christian is, in a sense, not perfect. For example, “They are not free from ignorance, no nor from mistake … They are not free from infirmities, such as weaknesses or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination” and includes that “one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behavior” (21-22). He mentions that one might have a false view “arising from prejudice of education” and, again, a “thousand such instances” that would not be considered sinful. He concludes, “We cannot avoid sometimes thinking wrong, till this corruptible shall have put on incorruption … Yet, where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin” (53).
Wesley then posits that even these mistakes “cannot bear the rigor of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood” (53). Additionally, he argues that even the perfected Christian still needs Christ’s heavenly mediation because “the best of men still need Christ in his priestly office, to atone for their omissions, their shortcomings (as some not improperly speak), their mistakes in judgment and practice, and their defects of various kinds. For these are all deviations from the perfect law, and consequently need an atonement” (53). He expands even further suggesting that an involuntary sin is “improperly” called sin by others but even so, atonement is needed.
It is also noteworthy that Wesley believes that God would withhold perfection from believers in his own sovereign choice. He states, “God’s usual method is one thing, but his sovereign pleasure is another. He has wise reasons both for hastening and retarding his work” (72). So, Jesus commands his disciples to be perfect, but God does not necessarily want this to happen in every instance.
Wesley also states that people can attain perfection and subsequently fall back into sin. He concludes that “we do not find any general state described in Scripture, from which a man cannot draw back into sin” (92) and admits that “we are surrounded by instances of those who lately experienced all that I mean by perfection” and yet have lost it (98). The ordo salutis of Christian perfection is instant justification, gradual sanctification, instant entire sanctification (perfection), instant loss of entire sanctification, and perhaps a repeat of the final three or all four.
Finally, Wesley stresses that “all our Preachers should make a point of preaching perfection to believers constantly, strongly, and explicitly; and all believers should mind this one thing, and continually agonize for it” (119). Christian perfection, in Wesley’s mind, is the central component to the holy life that God wants from his people. As such, preachers should teach it without ceasing and believers should pursue it as normative.
It is clear from the beginning that Wesley’s intense concern for personal holiness and devotion to God is the genesis of his doctrine of Christian perfection. His trip across the Atlantic with the Moravians left an impact on him from which he would never recover. Many have said that Wesley himself did not believe that he was saved until he met the Moravians. Through this experience, he became a bastion of personal holiness, one of the most effective evangelists in history, and an example to those around him and those looking back on him in history.
To me, the doctrine of Christian perfection has inherent troubles biblically (as I’ll note in the next section). However, Wesley presents his case well and his flow of thought is rather logical. From the core foundation that God’s throne will not be divided to his idea that Christians cannot both walk in darkness and light simultaneously, one can read this book and understand where he’s going. It is also quite impressive that he was able to pack such theological punch and argumentation into just over a hundred pages.
One might argue that no New Testament writer ever appeared to be perfect, and that no one has never met a perfect person. He would counter this by saying, “If two of the apostles once committed sin, then all other Christians, in all ages, do and must commit sin as long as they live? … No necessity of sin was laid upon them; the grace of God was surely sufficient for them” (23). He is absolutely correct. One should not merely accept the reality of sin, look at the failures of such godly men as the apostles, and strive toward holiness in an uninspired manner.
Additionally, the Christian should not feel as though he is required to sin. Paul is clear in Romans 6:6-7 that we have been crucified with Christ and are therefore free from the enslavement to sin. First Corinthians 10:13 states that God will provide a way out for anyone who is suffering temptation. As Wesley rightly notes, this is a work wrought by the Holy Spirit for which Christians are accountable.
Naturally, one would not debate Wesley on the fact that God commands our undivided devotion, but this certainly does not necessitate the ability to obtain post-Fall perfection, even in the particular sense that he espouses. In fact, Paul seems to struggle with this. He says that believers are justified through the death and resurrection of Christ; they are forgiven and redeemed by God because the post-Fall reality is that all sin in Adam (Rom. 5:12). He proclaims that because of our new lives in Christ, “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Wesley would say yes and amen! But then Paul himself makes a startling confession just a chapter later: “For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing” (Rom. 7:19).
In light of this, Wesley is left with a conundrum: is Paul a divided man and thus not a true Christian? After all, Paul claims to be a believer united with Christ and Wesley claims him to be perfect, yet he appears to be clearly divided between God and sin at least in action. Wesley also mentions Paul’s speaking of mature Christians in Philippians 3, equating them with perfect sinlessness. But in the immediate context of Philippians 3, Paul lists his great worldly accomplishments as worthless, speaks of the great salvation of Christ, and expresses his desire to be resurrected like Christ.
Why does Paul seek resurrection? He believes that he will not be perfect until he is resurrected! He says, “Not that I have already attained this [resurrection] or am already perfect…” (Phil. 3:12). For the sake of argument, even if Paul is separating the later resurrection from the potential to be perfect in this life, he does not remotely sound like a man perfected in his sanctification. Rather, throughout his writings, he offers readers the image of one who is desperately groaning for more and more Christlikeness. Surely, then, one can be a mature Christian such as Paul and be far from sinless. Thus, Paul can label himself a mature Christian, with Christ living in him, without being entirely sanctified in anyway Wesley might describe.
But Wesley would then argue that only voluntary sins are counted against a person. But Paul and the testimony of Scripture doesn’t seem satisfied with any sort of sinful action, whether voluntary or otherwise. One would also be hard pressed to find an instance in the Old or New Testament where deviation from the law or any command of God was acceptable, voluntary or not. In 2 Samuel 6:6-7, Uzzah tried to catch the ark from falling off its cart – with obviously pure intentions – and the Lord killed him!
Even David was a little upset about this (2 Sam. 6:8), yet the Lord had made a command and not even good intentions were acceptable. This was an action “springing from love,” as Wesley would say, and yet this deviation from God’s command was met with harsh judgment. It is quite difficult to make the case that any sort of God-disobeying mistake in need of atoning and Christ’s mediation because it “cannot bear the rigor of God’s injustice” could be associated with any sort of perfection.
It seems that Wesley creates a false dichotomy in which one can conceivably “pull an Uzzah” and be considered perfect in God’s eyes. And yet this would make God’s punishing of Uzzah reprehensible. Again, sin is pervasive and demands judgment whether or not a person sins voluntary or involuntarily, or whether one is foolish, ignorant, or educated incorrectly. Imagine an abusive slave owner in the American South claiming innocence, nay perfection, in God’s eyes because he “didn’t know any better” and was educated in a way that justified violent ownership over another human being. This would not be acceptable. Scripture portrays sin as any action, deed, or thought that falls short of God’s perfect character, and this includes seemingly innocent transgressions like Uzzah’s or the unwitting man who abuses others because he has been taught as much by a tolerant culture.
Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification stands unsteadily on his nebulous definition of sin. He would likely not want to admit this in such terms, but by crafting separate categories of willful sin and “mistakes,” he ignored a broader definition given in the New Testament. Paul teaches that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23); Jesus upped the ante, so to speak, in the Beatitudes when he equated anger with murder and lust with adultery. Wesley’s doctrine allows for consequent mishaps or empty-headedness within his definition of perfection because he surely could not deny that sin had been not eradicated in even the best of people.
Even so, Wesley clearly had a concern for holiness that fed into everything that he did. While I would not teach this particular doctrine to anyone, at least not in this form, I believe that people of all theological systems have much to learn from Wesley’s teachings on holiness. His holy attitude toward God is infectious and inspiring, and he is one of my favorite theologians to read. But the onus is on Wesley and the rest of us to understand how to teach holiness truthfully and effectively.
 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007).