HOW FAR DID MR. WESLEY CHANGE HIS VIEWS ON CHRISTIAN PERFECTION.
THAT Mr. Wesley's mind underwent some changes on this subject, and that there are a few seeming contradictions in his writings at different periods of his life, may be admitted, though they have been much and improperly magnified by some writers. His written views on the subject are scattered through his journals, sermons, letters, articles, and controversies, during a period of sixty-six years; and it is unreasonable to suppose, that during so long a time, no seeming contradictions should be found.
That he changed his views in any of the essential items of its nature and properties, he repeatedly denies in the most positive terms. The changes in his mind, so far as his writings show, are the following: —
1. For a little period in early life he held that one entirely sanctified could not fall. He soon saw his mistake, and renounced it. He says: —
"I do not include an impossibility of falling from it, either in part or in whole. Therefore I retract several expressions in our hymns, which partly express, partly imply, such impossibility. . . . Formerly, we thought one saved from sin could not fall, now we know the contrary." — Works, vol. vi. p. 219.
In writing to his brother Charles in 1767, he says: —
"Can one who has attained it fall? Formerly I thought not; but you (with Thomas Walsh and John Jones) convinced me of my mistake." — Vol. vi. p. 669.
2. In 1741, he published a volume of hymns, in the preface of which he says:
"They (those entirely sanctified) are freed from self-will, desiring nothing but the holy and perfect will of God; not supplies in want, not ease in pain, nor life, or death, or any creature . . . . The unction of the Holy One teacheth them every hour what they shall do, and what they shall speak, nor therefore have they any need to reason concerning it. They are in one sense freed from temptations . . . . At all times their souls are even and calm, their hearts are steadfast and unmovable." — Works, vol. vi. p. 492.
Mr. Wesley corrected these by footnotes soon after the book was published, saying, " This is too strong. -. . This is far too strong . . . . Frequently this is the case . . . . Sometimes they have no need." He says at that time (1741), he gave "the strongest account he ever gave of Christian perfection; indeed, too strong in more than one particular, as is observed in the notes annexed."
These are the only cases in which we find, in all his writings, of his changing his views on this subject. Some have claimed that before the great revival of sanctification in 1760-2, he taught a gradual sanctification by growth and works. Mr. Wesley, in 1741, twenty years before that great work, says: —
"Can anything be more clear: —
- That here, also, is as full and high a salvation as we have ever spoken of?
- That this is spoken of as receivable by mere faith, and as hindered only by unbelief?
- That this faith, and consequently the salvation which it brings, is spoken of as given in an instant?
- That it is supposed that instant may be now! that we need not stay another moment? that 'now,' the very 'now is the accepted time, now is the day of' this full 'salvation,' and,
- Lastly, that if any speak otherwise, he is the person that brings new doctrines among us." - Works, vol. vi. p. 494.
In a letter to Bell and Owen, in 1762, he says: —
"You have over and over denied instantaneous sanctification to me; but I have known and taught it (and so has my brother, as our writings show) above these twenty years." — Journal, Oct. 1762.
This states that he and his brother Charles taught instantaneous sanctification from 1742. There are two or three instances in Mr. Wesley's writings where it has been claimed he teaches sanctification by growth. The extracts are the following: —
"When we are born again, then our sanctification, our inward and outward holiness, begins; and thenceforward we are gradually to 'grow up into Him our living Head.' This expression of the apostle admirably illustrates the difference between one and the other, and further points out the exact analogy there is between natural and spiritual things. A child is born of a woman in a moment, or at least in a very short time. Afterwards, he gradually and slowly grows, till he attains to the stature of a man. In like manner, a child is born of God in a short time, if not in a moment. But it is by slow degrees that he afterwards grows up to the measure of the full stature of Christ. The same relation, therefore, which there is between our natural birth and our growth, there is also between our birth and our sanctification." — Sermons, vol. i. p. 406.
In his sermon on "God's Vineyard," he says: —
"And as in the natural birth a man is born at once, and then grows larger, and stronger by degrees, so in the spiritual birth, a man is born at once, and then gradually increases in spiritual stature and strength. The new birth, therefore, is the first point in sanctification, which may increase more and more unto the perfect day." — Sermons, vol. ii. p. 390.
To Miss Cook, 1785: —
"And how soon may you be made a partaker of sanctification! And not only by a slow and insensible growth in grace, but by the power of the Highest overshadowing you, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, so as utterly to abolish sin, and to renew you in His whole image! If you are simple of heart, if you are willing to receive the heavenly gift as a little child, without reasoning, why may you not receive it now? He is nigh that sanctifieth; He is with you; He is knocking at the door of your heart!" — Works, vol. vii. p. 199.
There is an apparent discrepancy between these statements and the whole trend of his teachings on this subject, and if he had said no more upon this subject than these brief extracts contain, it might, with some plausibility, be claimed that he taught a gradual sanctification; but all must see that in hundreds of instances he taught a different doctrine, and that while he taught growth, culture, and development, both before and after entire sanctification, he at the same time held that entire sanctification was by faith and not by works, that it was instantaneous and not by growth, and a supernatural and Divine work. (See Section viii.)
It will be noted by the careful reader of Mr. Wesley, that up to 1759, his views respecting the manner of seeking entire sanctification were not as clear and definite as during the last thirty years of his life. (See Tyerman, vol. i. p. 498.)
Mr. Wesley repeatedly denies any radical change in his views, although he admits a few overstatements and less distinctness during a part of his early ministry. It may be safely averred, that while he gives us no case of gradual sanctification by growth, he does positively teach instantaneous sanctification by faith, and gives us several thousand such instances. He also asserts that he never knew a case of gradual entire sanctification. (See Sermons, vol. ii. p.223.)
In 1777, in the last revision of his "Plain Account of Christian Perfection," he says, respecting his sermon on "The Circumcision of the Heart," which was preached in 1733, before the University at Oxford: —
"This sermon was composed the first of all my writings which have been published. This was the view of religion I then had, which even then I scrupled not to term perfection. This is the view I have of it now, without any material addition or diminution." — Works, vol. vi. p. 485.
In 1739, he wrote his first tract expressly on the subject, and says respecting it: —
"Is it not easy to see that this is the very same doctrine which I believe and teach at this day (1777), not adding one point, either to that inward or outward holiness which I maintained eight and thirty years ago? And it is the same which, by the grace of God, I have continued to teach from that time till now, as will appear to every impartial person from the extracts subjoined below." — Works, vol. vi. p. 488.
In his last revision of "The Plain Account," in 1777, after quoting from his sermon on "Christian Perfection," which was written in 1741, and a volume of hymns at the same time, he says: —
"There is nothing which we have since advanced upon the subject, either in verse or prose, which is not either directly or indirectly contained in this preface; so that whether our present doctrine be right or wrong, it is, however, the same which we taught from the beginning." — Works, vol. vi. p. 493.
In 1742, he published a volume of hymns, many of which treated expressly on this subject, and in regard to them, he says: —
"This is the doctrine which we preached from the beginning, and which we preach at this day. Indeed, by viewing it in every point of light, and comparing it again and again with the Word of God on the one hand, and the experience of the children of God on the other, we saw further into the nature and properties of Christian perfection. But still there is no contrariety at all between our first and our last sentiments . . . . And we have the same conception of it now, without either addition or diminution." — Works, vol. vi. p. 495.
After quoting extracts from the conferences of 1744, 1745, 1746, and 1747, he says: —
"From these extracts it undeniably appears, not only what was mine and my brother's judgment, but what was the judgment of all the preachers in connection with us in the years 1744, 1745, 1746, and 1747. Nor do I remember that, in any one of these conferences, we had one dissenting voice." — Works, vol. vi. p. 499.
After quoting extracts from his writings in 1752, he says: —
"I have been the more large in these extracts, because hence it appears beyond all possibility of exception, that to this day both my brother and I maintain: —
- That Christian perfection is that loving God and our neighbors which implies deliverance from sin.
- That it is received merely by faith.
- That it is given instantaneously in a moment.
- That we are to expect it, not at death, but every moment; that now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation." - Works, vol. vi. p. 500.
After giving a general survey of it on every side, in 1777, he says: —
"Now take it in which of these views you please (for there is no material difference), and this is the whole and sole perfection, as a train of writings prove to a demonstration which I have believed and taught for these forty years, from the year 1725 to the year 1765." — Works, vol. vi. p. 530.
In 1778, when Mr. Wesley was seventy-five years of age, he says in his journal:
"I know not that I can write a better (sermon) on the circumcision of the heart, than I did five and forty years ago . . . . Forty years ago, I knew and preached every Christian doctrine which I preach now." — Journal, Sept., 1778.