THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN PERFECTION.
IN 1733, when Mr. Wesley was thirty years of age, he preached at St. Mary's, Oxford, before the University, his sermon on the "Circumcision of the heart," in which he said: —
"The circumcision of the heart is that habitual disposition of soul, which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies the being cleansed from sin, from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit; and by consequence, the being endued with those virtues which were also in Christ Jesus; the being so renewed in the image of our mind, as to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect."
Thirty-two years after, in 1765, be says: —
"This sermon contained all that I now teach concerning salvation from all sin, and loving God with an undivided heart" — Sermons, vol. i. p. 147.
"I believe it to be an inward thing, namely, the life of God in the soul of man; a participation of the Divine nature; the mind that was in Christ; or, the renewal of our heart, after the Image of Him that created us." —Journal, Sept, 1739.
"What is, then, the perfection of which man is capable, while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command: 'My son, give me thy heart.' It is the 'loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.' This is the sum of Christian perfection: it is comprised in that one word; love. The first branch of it is the love of God: and as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;' Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. 'On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets;' these contain the whole of Christian perfection." — Sermons, vol. ii. p. 168.
His sermon on "Christian Perfection" was written in 1741. Mr. Wesley says: —
"I think it was the latter end of the year 1740, that I had a conversation with Dr. Gibson, then Bishop of London, at Whitehall. He asked me what I meant by perfection. I told him without any disguise or reserve. When I ceased speaking, he said: 'Mr. Wesley, if this be all you mean, publish it to all the world.' I answered, 'My lord, I will'; and accordingly wrote and published the sermon on 'Christian Perfection.'"
Letter to the Bishop of London: —
"What, it may be asked, do you mean by 'one that is perfect,' or, 'one that is as his Master?' We mean one in whom is, 'the mind which was in Christ,' and who so 'walketh as He 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 there is no occasion of stumbling,' and who, accordingly, 'doth 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 will I cleanse you. I will also save you from all your uncleanness.' We understand, hereby, one whom God hath sanctified throughout, even 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 I live not, but Christ liveth in me.' He 'is holy, as God who called him is holy,' both in life 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 neighbor' (every man) 'as himself;' yea, 'as Christ loved 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, long suffering. 'And his life agreeth thereto, full of 'the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labor 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 is to be 'a perfect man,' to be 'sanctified throughout, created anew in Jesus Christ;' 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 unto 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 marvelous light.' Oh, that both we, and all who seek the Lord Jesus in sincerity, may thus 'be made perfect in one!'" — Works, vol. v. p.342.
"By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, — deliverance from hell or going to heaven — but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the Divine nature; the renewal of our soul after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers, and by consequence, all holiness of conversation." — Written in 1744, Works, vol. v. p. 35.
Tyerman says in his "Life of Wesley,'' that at the first conference, in 1744, Christian perfection was defined: —
"A renewal in the image of God, In righteousness and true holiness. To be a perfect Christian is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, implying the destruction of all inward sin; and faith is the condition and instrument by which such a state of grace is obtained." —Tyerman, vol. i. p.444.
To Dr. Dodd, in 1756: —
"When I began to make the Scriptures my study (about seven and twenty years ago), I began to see that Christians are called to love God with all their heart, and to serve Him with all their strength, which is precisely what I apprehend to be meant by the Scriptural term 'perfection.' After weighing this for some years, I openly declared my sentiments before the University, in the sermon on 'The circumcision of the heart.' About six years after, in consequence of an advice I received from Bishop Gibson, 'Tell all the world what you mean by perfection,' I published my coolest and latest thoughts in the sermon on that subject. I therein build on no authority, ancient or modern, but the Scripture." — Methodist Magazine, 1779, p.434.
To Miss Hain, in 1758: —
"The doctrine of perfection, you say, has perplexed you much, since some of our preachers have placed it in so dreadful a light; one of them affirming, 'A believer, till perfect, is under the curse of God, and in a state of damnation.' Another, 'If you die before you have attained it, you will surely perish.'
"By perfection, I mean perfect love, or the loving God with all our heart so as to rejoice evermore, to pray without ceasing, and in everything to give thanks. I am convinced every believer may attain this; yet I do not say he is in a state of damnation under the curse of God, till he does attain. No; he is in a state of grace, and in favor with God, as long as he believes. Neither would I say, 'If you die without it, you will perish;' but rather, 'Till you are saved from unholy tempers, you are not ripe for glory. There will, therefore, more promises be fulfilled in your soul before God takes you to himself.'
"'But none can attain perfection unless they first believe it attainable.' Neither do I affirm this. I knew a Calvinist in London, who never believed it attainable, till the moment she did attain it; and then lay declaring it aloud for many days, till her spirit returned to God. — Works, vol. vi. p. 7~2.
To Miss Furly, in 1762: —
"Certainly sanctification (in the proper sense) is 'an instantaneous deliverance from all sin'; and includes 'an instantaneous power then given always to cleave to God.' Yet this sanctification (at least in the lower degrees) does not include a power never to think a useless thought, nor ever speak a useless word. I myself believe that such a perfection is inconsistent with living in a corruptible body: for this makes it impossible 'always to think right.' While we breathe we shall more or less, mistake. If, therefore, Christian perfection implies this we must not expect it till after death.
"I want you to be all love. This is the perfection I believe and teach. And this perfection is consistent with a thousand nervous disorders, which that high-strained perfection is not. Indeed, my judgment is, that (in this case particularly) to overdo is to undo and that to set perfection too high (so high as no man that we ever heard or read of attained) is the most effectual (because unsuspected) way of driving it out of the world." —Works, vol. vi. p.715.
To Mrs. Maitland: —
"As to the word perfection, it is Scriptural; therefore, neither you nor I can in conscience object to it, unless we would send the Holy Ghost to school, and teach Him to speak who made the tongue.
"By Christian perfection, I mean (as I have said again and again) the so loving God and our neighbor as to 'rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in every thing give thanks.' He that experiences this is Scripturally perfect. And if you do not, yet you may experience it; you surely will, if you follow hard after it, for the Scripture cannot be broken.
"What then does their arguing reprove, who object against Christian perfection? Absolute or infallible perfection I never contended for. Sinless perfection I do not contend for, seeing it is not Scriptural. A perfection, such as enables a person to fulfill the whole law, and so needs not the merits of Christ, — I acknowledge no such perfection; I do now, and always did, protest against it.
"'But is there no sin in those who are perfect in love?' I believe not; but be that as it may, they feel none, — no temper contrary to pure love, — while they rejoice, pray, and give thanks continually. And whether sin is suspended, or extinguished, I will not dispute; it is enough that they feel nothing but love. This, you allow, we should daily press after. And this is all I contend for." — Works, vol. vi. p.752.
To Miss H., in 1758: —
"Were you to ask, 'What if I should die this moment?' I should answer, 'I believe you would he saved; because I am persuaded, none that has faith can die before he is made ripe for glory.' This is the doctrine which I continually teach, which has nothing to do with justification by works. Nor can it discourage any who have faith, neither weaken their peace, nor damp their joy in the Lord. True believers are not distressed hereby, either in life or in death; unless in some rare instance, wherein the temptation of the devil is joined with a melancholy temper.
"Upon the whole, I observe your great argument turns all along on a mistake of the doctrine. Whatever warm expressions may drop from young men, we do not teach that any believer is under condemnation. So that all the inferences drawn from this supposition fall to the ground at once. — Works, vol. vi. p.733.
Soon after the Bell and Maxwell fanaticism of 1762-3, which somewhat changed Charles Wesley's views on the subject for a time, Mr. Wesley wrote to him the following: —
"1. By perfection, I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and Man, ruling all the tempers, words, and actions, the whole heart, and the whole life.
"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 an impossibility. And I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it. Do we agree or differ here? If we differ, wherein?
"2. As to manner, I believe this perfection is always wrought in the soul by faith, by a simple act of faith; consequently in an instant But I believe a gradual work both preceding and following that instant. Do we agree or differ here?
"3. As to the time, I believe this instant generally is the instant of death, the moment before the soul leaves the body. But I believe it may be ten, twenty, or forty years before death. Do we agree or differ here?
"I believe it is usually many years after justification, but that it may be within five years, or five months after it. I know no conclusive argument to the contrary. Do you?
"If it must be many years after justification, I would be glad to know how many. And how many days, or months, or even years, can you allow to be between perfection and death? How far from justification must it be? and how near to death?" — Jackson's Life of Charles Wesley, vol. ii. p.210.
"But what is the perfection here spoken of? It is not only a deliverance from doubts and fears, but from sin; from all inward, as well as outward sin; from evil desires, and evil tempers, as well as from evil words and works. Yea, and it is not only a negative blessing, a deliverance from all evil dispositions, implied in that expression, 'I will circumcise thy heart'; but a positive one likewise; even the planting all good dispositions in their place; clearly implied in that expression, 'To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.'" — Sermons, vol. ii. p.410.
"'The pure in heart,' are those whose hearts God hath purified even as He is pure'; who are purified through faith in the blood of Jesus, from every unholy affection; who, being cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfect holiness in the (loving) fear of God.' They are, through the power of His grace, purified from pride, by the deepest poverty of spirit; from anger, from every unkind or turbulent passion, by meekness and gentleness; from every desire but to please and enjoy God, to know and love Him more and more, by that hunger and thirst after righteousness, which now engrosses their whole soul; so that now they love the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and mind, and strength." — Sermons, vol. i. p. 199.
To the Countess of Huntington in 1763: —
"The loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and the loving all men as Christ loved us, is, and ever was, for these thirty' years, the sum of what I deliver, as pure religion and undefiled." — Life of Countess of Huntingdon, vol. i. p.329.
To the Rev. Mr. Venn, in 1765: —
"What I want is, holiness of heart and life. They who have this are my brother, sister, and mother.
"'But you hold perfection.' True; that is, loving God with all our heart, and serving him with all our strength. I teach nothing more, nothing less, than this. And whatever infirmity, defect, anomia, is consistent with this, any man may teach, and I shall not contradict him. — Works, vol. vii. p.304.
"But what is it you are angry at? What is it you object to? Let us understand the question before we dispute about it.
"By Christian perfection, I mean, 1. Loving God with all our heart. Do you object to this? I mean, 2. A heart and life all devoted to God. Do you desire less? I mean, 3. Regaining the whole image of God. What objection to this? I mean, 4. Having all the mind that was in Christ. Is this going too far? I mean, 5. Walking uniformly as Christ walked. And this surely no Christian will object to. If any one means anything more, or anything else, by perfection, I have no concern with it." — Journal, June, 1769.
To Mr. S., in 1770: —
"I had once the opportunity of speaking a few minutes to you on the head of Christian perfection; and I believe you had not much objection to anything which was then spoken. When I spoke nearly to the same effect to one of the late bishops of London, Bishop Gibson, he said earnestly, 'Why Mr. Wesley, if this is what you mean by perfection, who can be against it?' I believe verily, there would need no more than a single hour, spent in free and open conversation, to convince you that none can rationally or Scripturally say anything against the perfection I have preached for thirty years." — Works, vol. vi. p. 747.
To Mr. W. Churchey, in 1771: —
"Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God." — Works, vol. vii. p.82.
"Christian perfection does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance, or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus, everyone that is holy, is in the Scripture sense, perfect. Yet we may observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any man has attained, or how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need 'to grow in grace;' and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour. — Sermons, vol. i. p 358.
"Well, but what more than this can be implied in entire sanctification? It does not imply any new kind of holiness: let no man imagine this. From the moment we are justified till we give up our spirits to God, love is the fulfilling of the law, of the whole evangelical law, which took place of the Adamic law when the first promise of 'the seed of the woman' was made. Love is the sum of Christian sanctification; it is the one kind of holiness which is found only in various degrees, in the believers who are distinguished by St John into 'little children, young men, and fathers.' The difference between one and the other properly lies in the degree of love. And herein there is as great a difference in the spiritual, as in the natural sense, between fathers, young men and babes." — Sermons, vol. ii. p.221.
"And all this, with abundantly more than this, is contained in that single expression, 'the loving God with all our heart, and serving Him with all our strength.' Nor did I ever say or mean any more by perfection, than thus loving and serving God. But I dare not say less than this; for it might be attended with worse consequences than you seem to be aware of. If there be a mistake, it is far more dangerous on the one side than on the other. If I set the mark too high, I drive men into needless fears; if you set it too low, you drive them into hell fire." — Works, vol. vi. p.535.
"Thus you experience, that He whose name is called JESUS, does not bear that name in vain; that He does, in fact, 'save His people from their sins;' the root, as well as the branches. And this salvation from sin, from all sin, is another description of perfection, though indeed it expresses only the least, the lowest branch of it, only the negative part of the great salvation." — Sermons, vol. ii. p.170.
"'But surely we cannot be saved from sin, while we dwell in a sinful body.' A sinful body? I pray observe, how deeply ambiguous; how equivocal, this expression is! But, there is no authority for it in Scripture: the word, sinful body, is never found there. And as it is totally unscriptural, so it is palpably absurd. For no body, or matter of any kind, can be sinful; spirits alone are capable of sin. Pray in what part of the body should sin lodge? It cannot lodge in the skin, nor in the muscles, or nerves, or veins, or arteries; it cannot be in the bones any more than in the hair or nails. Only the soul can be the seat of sin." — Sermons, vol. ii. p. 172.
It will be noticed in these expositions and statements of Mr. Wesley, given during forty years of his ministry, that he used the terms "perfection," "Christian perfection," "sanctification," "entire sanctification," ''perfect love," and "holiness," interchangeably, and as synonymous; implying the same gracious state of deliverance from all sin, and love to God with all the heart.