John Wesley’s most distinctive theological theme was his emphasis on Christian perfection. His ideas were controversial, and volumes upon volumes of books have been published to try to explain, defend, or dismiss Wesley’s position.
In a brief post like this I can’t really get into the details of the debates, but I can put forward my own interpretation of what I think Wesley was trying to say about holiness, and how it ought to shape a theology of the mission of God.
First, we need to make some clarifications about the word “perfection.” In our culture we assume that perfection implies the complete absence of flaws of any kind. Since we know that nobody is perfect (in this sense), it seems ridiculous to say speak of Christian perfection.
Wesley did not use the term “perfection” in a way that implied “flawlessness.” In other words, he did not believe anyone could reach a state of sinless perfection in this life. He did not teach that we should strive for absolute perfection, but for Christian perfection, a perfection which is fitting for a redeemed but flawed and frail human creature. This kind of perfection is not static, but dynamic, personal, relational, and made possible by divine grace alone. It is a relative perfection, a perfecting perfection which always admits greater degrees.
Wesley was at his best when he defined Christian perfection as “perfect love”:
But what is perfection? The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love ‘rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks’ (Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.9).
In other words, Wesley believed it was really possible for Christians to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbours as ourselves. What this meant in a practical sense was that he believed we could be so filled with the love of God that we would not knowingly sin. Even someone whose life was characterized by Christian perfection would continue to sin, and would continue to need the atoning blood of Christ at every moment. But, Wesley believed, a Christian could be so overwhelmed by God’s love that their intentions would always be for the good.
These ideas are still controversial, and much more could be said. I’ve said a bit more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.
An idea which was so central for Wesley and which continues to be a central aspect of Wesleyan theology today must have missional implications. I would like to highlight three.
The first connects with my last post about the therapeutic nature of salvation. Salvation is not simply about gaining a ticket to heaven, but about the healing of the sickness which has corrupted us. Part of the church’s role in God’s mission is to be a community which cultivates the healing grace of God – that is, a community which moves its members towards Christian perfection. Even if we disagree with Wesley on the degree to which this is possible in this life, we can still affirm that the Christian life ought to head in the direction of perfection. Or perhaps it would be less of a stumbling block to say that the Christian life should head in the direction of maturity, or a kind of completeness that is fitting for sinners saved by grace.
Secondly, the church ought therefore, to demonstrate the salvation of God, not only in word, but in the manner of its life together. The church is called to grow up into the fullness of Christ, personally and corporately. Wesley was particularly fond of the Gospel of John and the epistles of John, and took quite seriously Jesus words in John 13:35 – “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” The character of the church’s life together is part of our witness to the world. Again, we think of Jesus’ great high priestly prayer in John 17 – “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Our unity, our love for one another, is intricately connected to God’s mission. He established the church to be a living demonstration – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God – so that the world might know him. Sadly, Christians often do a very poor job of this.
Again, this theme highlights the fact that the Church’s community life, including its various edifying and sanctifying practices, are themselves part of God’s mission. Community life and mission should not be played off against one another.