Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Plain Account of my Perception of Perfection

“I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words and actions; being thoroughly convinced that there was no medium; but that every part of my life must be a sacrifice to God” –John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection

Alright, it’s been a few months, but I’m finally ready to dive back into the world of blogging. Brace yourself world…

So, many of you are aware of my interest in John Wesley and early Wesleyan theology. From the majority of my discussions with people about Wesley’s theology, there seem to be two aspects of Wesley’s theology that stir debate. The first is the doctrine of prevenient grace, which flies in the face of most Reformed soteriology. However, the other aspect of Wesley’s theology that stirs debate from both Wesleyans and non-Wesleyans is Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification.

To begin, many people view this doctrine as insidious, a charge I disagree with. This doctrine is pulled out of passages such as Matthew 5:48, which says “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. That being said, the doctrine of Christian perfection has many problems. First off, as Wesley himself noted, it would require a high level of naivety to say that people are capable of living without mistakes or temptations. Thus, Wesley was forced to differentiate between “sin properly so-called” (intentional sins) and “sin improperly so-called” (mistakes or sins of ignorance). This is the weakest part of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection. He knew he had to make concessions to the residual effects of original sin, but he still tried to do honor to what he saw as a scriptural command. This led Wesley to postulate that the perfection that is attainable is perfected love, rather than perfected action. Wesley also noted that even people who seemed to have achieved perfection often fell back into sin. This led Wesley to write that perfection was attainable, but not necessarily permanent. Most crucially, at the outset of his ministry Wesley viewed perfection as necessary for salvation, but he quickly changed his views and wrote that it was a goal worth pursuing, but not necessary for salvation. The final weakness is the propensity of entire sanctification to turn into legalism. It’s not hard to find examples of Wesleyan people who struggle when they fail to reach a point of “perfected love”. In fact, John Wesley himself dealt with this very issue. These issues led many early Methodists (including John’s brother Charles) to either ignore the doctrine, or modify it, a situation that has persisted to this day. On my read, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most Wesley scholars agree that Entire Sanctification is the weak link in Wesley’s theology, and it certainly is the aspect of his doctrine most affected by the enlightenment era in which Wesley lived and ministered. Simply put, Wesley’s doctrine of perfection should never be the cornerstone of vibrant Wesleyan theology.

Nevertheless, Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection manages to address an important call that is discernible throughout Scripture -the need for piety. Even those who disagree with Wesley’s interpretation must come to grips with the unadulterated command to “be holy” found throughout the Bible. Wesley was clearly no proponent of cheap grace, and his call to pursue personal holiness continues to ring true. To this day, the modern emphasis upon praxis fits well into Wesley’s resolve to never be a “half-Christian”. In my opinion, it would benefit those who strive to follow in Wesley’s footsteps to take into consideration the distinct theology of Charles Wesley, who affirmed the call to holiness, yet retained the object of hope as being the final deliverance, rather than an instantaneous deliverance in this lifetime. This move would allow Wesleyans to hold out the command to strive for holiness as a gift of grace, while at the same time avoiding some of the convoluted definitions of sin that John Wesley utilized in order to merge the possibility of an earthly perfection that matched his experience of the lingering effects of original sin.

In conclusion, I feel that the best thing for Wesleyans to do in regards to entire sanctification is to focus upon the journey, rather than the destination. In fact, Wesley himself stated that the key factor in this doctrine was taking on the mind of Christ daily, and looking forward to the absolute perfection that is attainable only in Heaven. Quite frankly, I believe that Wesley’s rejection of “cheap grace”, and his emphasis upon the genuine fruits of the Spirit is eminently relevant to this day. Simply put, I believe that Wesleyan’s must choose to emphasize piety, rather than perfection.


1 comment:

Collie Sr said...

It's time for more blogs!! Come on! We're burning daylight!