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Holiness Texts: Matthew 5:48

This series of posts highlights the primary Scripture texts cited by John Wesley and his earliest followers in defense and explanation of the doctrine of Christian Perfection. These are posted (as always) for information and possible discussion. It is not assumed that because Wesley or his followers said a certain thing, everyone else is somehow obligated to agree. The Scriptures are quoted below from the New American Standard Version of the Bible. They are followed by comments from Wesley himself, as well as some of his early followers: John Fletcher, Adam Clarke and Joseph Benson.

An introduction to this series is here:
The Holiness Texts of John Wesley. Links to the other posts in this series may be found on the Wesleyan Theology Page or on the Bible Studies page, listed as “The Holiness Texts of John Wesley.”

"Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Matthew 5:48, NASB.

John Wesley comments:

"V. 48.
Therefore ye shall be perfect; as your Father who is in heaven is perfect — So the original runs, referring to all that holiness which is described in the foregoing verses, which our Lord in the beginning of the chapter recommends as happiness, and in the close of it as perfection.

"And how wise and gracious is this, to sum up, and, as it were, seal all his commandments with a promise! Even the proper promise of the Gospel! That he will put those laws in our minds, and write them in our hearts! He well knew how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, this is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of him to whom all things are possible."

Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament.

"They wanted, they sought, occasion against me; and here they found what they sought. “This is Mr. Wesley’s doctrine! He preaches perfection!” He does; yet this is not his doctrine any more than it is yours, or any one’s else, that is a Minister of Christ. For it is His doctrine, peculiarly, emphatically His; it is the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Those are his words, not mine: σεσθε ον μες τέλειοι ς πατρ μν οράνιος τέλειός στιν, — “Ye shall therefore be perfect, as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” And who says, ye shall not; or, at least, not till your soul is separated from the body? It is the doctrine of St. Paul, the doctrine of St. James, of St. Peter, and St. John; and no otherwise Mr. Wesley’s, than as it is the doctrine of everyone who preaches the pure and the whole gospel. I tell you, as plain as I can speak, where and when I found this. I found it in the oracles of God, in the Old and New Testament; when I read them with no other view or desire but to save my own soul. But whose soever this doctrine is, I pray you, what harm is there in it? Look at it again; survey it on every side, and that with the closest attention. In one view, it is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving God all our heart; it is one desire and design ruling all our tempers. It is the devoting, not a part, but all our soul, body, and substance to God. In another view, it is all the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked. It is the circumcision of the heart from all filthiness, all inward as well as outward pollution. It is a renewal of the heart in the whole image of God, the full likeness of Him that created it. In yet another, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. 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.

"Now let this perfection appear in its native form, and who can speak one word against it? Will any dare to speak against loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves? against a renewal of heart, not only in part, but in the whole image of God? Who is he that will open his mouth against being cleansed from all pollution both of flesh and spirit; or against having all the mind that was in Christ, and walking in all things as Christ walked? What man, who calls himself a Christian, has the hardiness to object to the devoting, not a part, but all our soul, body, and substance to God? What serious man would oppose the giving God all our heart, and the having one design ruling all our tempers? I say, again, let this perfection appear in its own shape, and who will fight against it?"

A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

"Whether [your enemies] repent or no, yea, though they appear farther and farther from it, yet show them this instance of kindness [love your enemies and pray for them]: 'That ye may be the children,' that ye may approve yourselves the genuine children, 'of your Father which is in heaven;' who shows his goodness by giving such blessings as they are capable of, even to his stubbornst enemies; 'who maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.' 'For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the Publicans the same?' (Matthew 5:46;) — who pretend to no religion; whom ye yourselves acknowledge to be without God in the world. 'And if ye salute,' show kindness in word or deed to, 'your brethren,” your friends or kinsfolk, 'only; what do ye more than others?' — than those who have no religion at all? 'Do not even the Publicans so?' (Matthew 5:47.) Nay, but follow ye a better pattern than them. In patience, in long-suffering, in mercy, in beneficence of every kind, to all, even to your bitterest persecutors; 'be ye,' Christians, 'perfect,' in kind, though not in degree, 'even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' (Matthew 5:48.)"

Sermon #23 "Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount: Discourse 3".

John Fletcher remarks:

"... the word perfection: it occurs, with all its derivatives, as frequently as most words in the Scriptures, and not seldom in the very same sense in which we take it. Nevertheless, we do not lay an undue stress upon the expression; and if we thought that our condescension would answer any good end, we would entirely give up that harmless and significant word. But, if it is expedient to retain the unscriptural word trinity, because it is a kind of watchword by which we frequently discover the secret opposers of the mysterious distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the Divine unity, how much more proper is it not to renounce the Scriptural word perfection, by which the dispirited spies, who bring an evil report upon the good land of holiness, are often detected? Add to this that the following declaration of our Lord does not permit us to renounce either the word or the thing: — “Whosoever shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father.” Now the words of my motto, “Be ye perfect,” &c, being Christ’s own words, we dare no more be ashamed of them, than we dare desire him to be ashamed of us in the great day. Thus much for the word perfection.

"Again: we give the name of 'Christian perfection' to that maturity of grace and holiness which established adult believers attain to under the Christian dispensation: and thus we distinguish that maturity of grace, both from the ripeness of grace, which belongs to the dispensation of the Jews below us; and from the ripeness of glory, which belongs to departed saints above us. Hence it appears, that by 'Christian perfection' we mean nothing but the cluster and maturity of the graces which compose the Christian character in the Church militant."

— The Last Check to Antinomianism: A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory, Section 1.

"From the beatitudes our Lord passes to precepts descriptive of Christian perfection reduced to practice. 'If thy brother hath aught against thee, go thy way, and be reconciled to him. Agree quickly with thine adversary. Resist not evil. Turn thy left cheek to him that smites thee on the right. Give alms so as not to let thy left hand know what thy right hand does. Fast evangelically. Lay not up treasures upon earth. Take no [anxious] thoughts what ye shall eat. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you, that ye may be the children of your Father, who is in heaven; for he maketh the sun to shine on the just and on the unjust. Be ye perfect as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.' What attentive reader does not see that none of these branches of a Christian’s practical profession can grow in the article of death; and that to suppose they can flourish in heaven, is to suppose that Christ says, 'Be thus and thus perfect, when it will be impossible for you to be thus and thus perfect? Love your enemies, when all will be your friends: do good to them that hate you, when all will flame with love toward you? Turn your cheek to the smiters, when the cold hand of death will disable you to move a finger; or when God shall have fixed 'a great gulf' between the smiters and you?”

— The Last Check to Antinomianism: A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory, Section 12.

John Fletcher remarks on the usage of the term "perfect" in the letters of Paul, and its precedent in the teaching of Jesus:

“ST. PAUL’S name appears upon [the Calvinist] Mr. Hill’s list of witnesses against Christian perfection; but it is without the apostle’s consent: for Peter and James did not plead more strenuously for the glorious liberty of God’s children, than St. Paul. Nay, he professed to have attained it, and addressed fathers in Christ as persons that were partakers of it together with himself. 'We speak wisdom,' says he, 'among them that are perfect,' 1 Corinthians 2:6. 'Let us, as many as be perfect, be thus minded,' Philippians 3:15.

"Nor did St. Paul fancy that Christian perfection was to be confined to the apostolic order: for he wanted all believers to be like him in this respect. Hence it is, that he exhorted the Corinthians “to perfect holiness in the fear of God, 2 Corinthians 7:1; to be perfect, 2 Corinthians 13:11; to be perfectly joined together in the same mind,” 1 Corinthians 1:10; and showed them the perfect, or “more excellent way,” 1 Corinthians 13. He told the Ephesians, that “God gave pastors for the perfecting of the saints, till all come in the unity of the faith, — unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ,” Ephesians 4:12, 13. He “taught every man, &c, that he might present every man perfect in Christ Jesus,” Colossians 1:28. He wanted the Colossians fully to “put on charity, which is the bond of perfection, that they might stand perfect and complete in all the will of God,” Colossians 3:14; 4:12. He would have “the man of God to be perfect, thoroughly furnished to every good work,” 2 Timothy 3:27. He exhorted his converts, “whether they did eat, drink, or do any thing else, to do all to the glory of God, and in the name of the Lord Jesus; rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in every thing giving thanks;” that is, he exhorted them to walk according to the of Christian perfection. He blamed the Hebrews for being still such “as have need of milk, and not of strong meat;” observing that “strong meat, στιν τελείων, belongeth to them that are perfect, even to them who by reason of use, [or experience,] have their [spiritual] senses exercised to discern both good and evil,” Hebrews 5:12, &c. He begins the next chapter by exhorting them to “go on to perfection;” intimating that if they do not, they may insensibly fall away, “put the Son of God to open shame, and not be renewed again to repentance.” And he concludes the whole epistle by a pathetic wish that “the God of peace would make them perfect in every good work to do his will.” Hence it appears that it would not be less unreasonable to set St. Paul upon “crucifying Christ afresh,” than to make him attack Christ’s well-known doctrine, “Be ye [morally] perfect, [according to your narrow capacity and bounded power,] even as your heavenly Father is [morally] perfect” [in his infinite nature, and boundless Godhead,] Matthew 5:48."

— The Last Check to Antinomianism: A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory, Section 6.

Adam Clarke comments:

"Verse 48.
Be ye therefore perfect — as your Father] God himself is the grand law, sole giver, and only pattern of the perfection which he recommends to his children. The words are very emphatic, σεσθε ον μες τέλειοι, Ye shall be therefore perfect — ye shall be filled with the spirit of that God whose name is Mercy, and whose nature is love. God has many imitators of his power, independence, justice, &c., but few of his love, condescension, and kindness. He calls himself LOVE, to teach us that in this consists that perfection, the attainment of which he has made both our duty and privilege: for these words of our Lord include both a command and a promise.

"'Can we be fully saved from sin in this world?' is an important question, to which this text gives a satisfactory answer: 'Ye shall be perfect, as your Father, who is in heaven, is perfect.' — As in his infinite nature there is no sin, nothing but goodness and love, so in your finite nature there shall dwell no sin, for the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus shall make you free from the law of sin and death, Rom. 8:2. God shall live in, fill, and rule your hearts; and, in what He fills and influences, neither Satan nor sin can have any part. If men, slighting their own mercies, cry out, This is impossible! — whom does this arguing reprove — God, who, on this ground, has given a command, the fulfilment of which is impossible. 'But who can bring a clean out of an unclean thing?' God Almighty — and, however inveterate the disease of sin may be, the grace of the Lord Jesus can fully cure it; and who will say, that he who laid down his life for our souls will not use his power completely to effect that salvation which he has died to procure. 'But where is the person thus saved?' Wherever he is found who loves God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and his neighbour as himself; and, for the honour of Christianity and its AUTHOR, may we not hope there are many such in the Church of God, not known indeed by any profession of this kind which they make, but by a surer testimony, that of uniformly holy tempers, piety to God, and beneficence to man?"

— Clarke's Commentary.


Joseph Benson comments:

Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father, &c. — Imitate especially the divine goodness, as it is promiscuous, and extends to the evil as well as the good. This seems to be chiefly what is here intended; the love to friends, brethren, and countrymen implying only a very imperfect imitation of God; we are to labour after a more complete resemblance to him, in loving enemies. Our Lord, therefore, afterward expressed himself in a parallel discourse on the same subject in a rather different manner, saying, Be ye merciful, as your Father also is merciful, Luke 6:36. But, it is probable, he used a greater latitude of expression here, to remind us of our obligations to imitate the blessed God in all his moral perfections. The exhortation undoubtedly refers to all that holiness which is described in the foregoing verses, which our Lord, in the beginning of the chapter, recommends as happiness, and in the close of it as perfection. And it must be observed, that the words in the original, σεσθε ον μες τέλειοι, express a promise, rather than a precept: Ye shall therefore be perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. And how wise and gracious is this, to sum up, and, as it were, to seal all his commandments with a promise! even the proper promise of the gospel, that he will put those laws in our minds and write them in our hearts! He well knew how ready our unbelief would be to suggest, This is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of Him to whom all things are possible."

— Benson's Commentary.

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