By Henry “Hal” Knight III
Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, may be the most controversial of Wesley’s teachings. It was certainly one of the most misunderstood, which is why Wesley took such great pains to define it. Christian perfection, he said, is “purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God” and “the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked.” It is “loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [Epworth, 1952] 109). It is “a restoration not only to the favour, but likewise to the image of God,” our “being filled with the fullness of God” (“The End of Christ’s Coming” § III.5, in A.C. Outler, ed., Sermons II [Abingdon., 1985] 482).
Wesley was also clear as to what it is not. Christian perfection does not imply a perfection of bodily health or an infallibility of judgment. Nor does it mean we no longer violate the will of God, for involuntary transgressions remain. Those perfected remain subject to temptation, and have continued need to pray for forgiveness. It is not an absolute perfection but a perfection in love.
Teachings like this are common in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, and could be found in Wesley’s own Anglican tradition. What makes Wesley’s view distinctive is his strong Protestant convictions. We can see the effects in three areas.
First, he argued that Christian perfection is a gift of grace alone, to be received by faith. Sought by the believer, who, by grace, is open to receive it, Christian perfection comes in an instant, at God’s initiative. It is, Wesley said, “wrought in the soul by a simple act of faith, consequently in an instant.” In addition, he believed “in a gradual work both preceding and following that instant” (112). All of this is a work of grace.
Second, Wesley believed Christian perfection to be promised to everyone who believed—it is not only for a relatively small number of persons who belong to a monastic community, but for all persons in the midst of everyday life. Certainly, like monastics, believers undertake spiritual disciplines and belong to distinctive communities, but the disciplines are lived out in one’s daily life and the community involves weekly meetings in one’s neighborhood.
Third, Wesley held to Protestant notions of original sin, which meant there was nothing remaining in fallen human nature that either deserves or seeks salvation. Salvation was indeed by grace alone. This is why the Protestant reformers believed Christian perfection impossible in this life: the corruption of sin was simply too great and its influence too subtle for it to occur. Yet Wesley understood grace not only as forgiveness but transformation by the Holy Spirit. Unlike Luther or Calvin, Wesley believed the power of the Holy Spirit could take totally fallen human beings and over time completely restore in them the image of God, such that they would fully love God and their neighbor as God has loved them in Christ.
Many people today, as in Wesley’s day, find this teaching on Christian perfection hard to accept. One reason may be that we have not experienced the pattern of worship, community, daily devotion, and active service to others that marked the lives of early Methodists, and therefore lack the context in which it occurred. Another may be that we simply lack an expectant faith in the transforming power of God. But Wesley believed Christian perfection to be a promise of God to give us new life to the fullest. He also saw it as the source of deep and authentic happiness, for it restores us to the condition in which we were originally created. In any event, he argued that to seek Christian perfection would do us no harm, for as we do we continue the process of sanctification, and daily grow in the knowledge and love of God.
This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on April 01, 2004 at CatalystResources.org
Dr. Henry H. Knight III is Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology. His books include From Aldersgate to Azusa Street: Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Visions of the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2010) and A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Abingdon, 1997).